Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reading Resolutions for 2010

Looking ahead to the new year, I think it's worth drafting an agenda—specific books that I want to (or just really should) read, gaps that I want to address, and a larger project to guide the year's reading.

Last year, I set as my purpose focusing on women authors and authors of color. Or, in my more combative terms, no white American men. The only breaks in this agenda were D. A. Powell's Chronic and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, both of which I had compelling reasons for which to create exceptions (Powell was giving a reading in my city, and the whole Infinite Summer thing happened). Otherwise, I think I made some headway on addressing the gaps in my reading which provided the impetus for this program: I read a fair number of classics that I had skipped over before for whatever reason (Beloved, The Left Hand of Darkness, A Passage to India, A Bend in the River, Midnight's Children, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, The Color Purple, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The House on Mango Street, The Trial, The Woman Warrior, Giovanni's Room, Passing, The Awakening, Austerlitz, Blindness, Persuasion, The Golden Notebook, Three Lives) and gave myself some depth by reading some authors that aren't quite so household names (but should be): Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Gayl Jones, Alejo Carpentier, Tayeb Salih, Djuna Barnes, Sam Selvon, Nadine Gordimer, Tillie Olsen, Stanislaw Lem, César Aira, and others.

This year, I want to prioritize diversity along genre and national lines. Last July, I read Samuel Delany's Babel-17 and found it alright, but nothing extraordinary, and nothing that would pull me into a broader exploration of science fiction. I asked you all for some suggestions about what authors and books to read to draw me in so, and I will try to use that list more this year. In the crime genre, I'm looking forward to an introduction via George Pelecanos and Richard Price. I feel that one genre I have neglected writing about on the blog is experimental short fiction, and as such, I'm hoping both to fill in that gap and also to get in some practice on close reading, which I've also rather strangely neglected of late. Expect a spy thriller or two as well, and maybe some mysteries or detective novels.

I'm also hoping to write about drama more this year. It's something I haven't given much attention to on this blog, and I'd like to try to develop some effective habits of writing about it—probably just as literature, though, and not as performance. Unfortunately, I cannot simply command performances of the playwrights I'm interested in. I will, however, try to see a few plays (New Haven has a wonderful theater scene) and give that a try as well.

I am also strongly committed this year to tackling some of the global heavyweights I've missed: Mahfouz, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Danticat, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Paz, Kobo Abe, Munif, Grass. I'd also like to use the New Directions back catalog to discover some writers that I am familiar with only by name.

In a project with a little more definition, I would like to read at least one novel from each Latin American country this year. I've already done some preliminary research on possible authors, and I think one of the interesting aspects of this project will be the process of finding an author from each country; while México, Argentina, Brasil, Chile, and Cuba each have a wealth of authors to choose from, Ecuador, Honduras, Bolivia, and Panamá are much thinner. If there is some real difficulty for one, I may end up reading a novel in the original Spanish, but this would take much longer and, well, there's a fair number of countries to cover.

Particularly in light of some of the debates about the "Bolaño myth" and the future of Latin American literature, I'm hoping that such a project will give me a better understanding of the context for criticisms of the spottiness of U.S. readings of the continent. Obviously, one novel per country is a small (and ultimately unrepresentative) selection, but I do imagine that I'll at the very least be better informed about a few authors and the ways they imagine their environment. And, hopefully, this project can serve as a way of organizing discussion of Latin American literature, nation by nation. I'm looking forward to your thoughts and suggestions.

I hope you all have a wonderful year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

25(+) Favorite Films of the 00s

Here, as promised, is my decade list, although it's been contracted to 25 (plus assorted Honorable Mentions).

25. Something New (Hamri, 2006)
24. An Education (Scherfig, 2009)
23. Duplicity (Gilroy, 2009)
22. Fast Food Nation (Linklater, 2006)
21. Nobody Knows (Kore-eda, 2004)
20. Miami Vice (Mann, 2006)
19. Mysterious Skin (Araki, 2004)
18. Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)
17. A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 2005)
16. A Serious Man (Coens, 2009)
15. Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006)
14. Far from Heaven (Haynes, 2002)
13. Head-On (Akin, 2004)
12. The Three Burials of Melquíades Estrada (Jones, 2005)
11. Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh, 2008)
10. Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr, 2000)
9. In the Mood for Love (WKW, 2000)

8. My Summer of Love (Pawlikowski, 2004)
7. The Gleaners and I (Varda, 2000)
6. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul, 2006)
5. Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)
4. The New World (Malick, 2005)
3. Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006)
2. I'm Not There (Haynes, 2007)
1. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)

Honorable Mentions (in all cases, best means "other than those above"):
Best Science Fiction Film: Sunshine (Boyle, 2007)
Best Film about Literature: Reprise (Trier, 2006)
Best Adaptation of Shakespeare: Hamlet (Almereyda, 2000), She's the Man (Fickman, 2006) (tie)
Best neo-Neo-Realist film: Le fils (The Son) (Dardennes, 2002) [A good deal better, in my mind, than L'enfant]
Best neo-Noir: Brick (Johnson, 2005)
Best film about adolescence/innocence: The Girl Next Door (Greenfield, 2004)
Best use of Emanuel Levinas in a film: Notre Musique (Godard, 2004)
Best film that inadvertently launched a career in public service: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Leiner, 2004) [You think Obama hired Kal Penn because anyone liked The Namesake?]
Best Animated Film: Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)

Best use of a Renoir film as inspiration: Gosford Park (Altman, 2001)
Best Dumb Action Film: Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007)
Best Sports Film: Offside (Panahi, 2006)

General Hon. Mentions: Vera Drake (Leigh, 2004), 25th Hour (Lee, 2002), Rachel Getting Married (Demme, 2008), Dirty Pretty Things (Frears, 2002)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007)

Like so many films that revived old franchises this decade, this one poses as a sort of restart, asserting above all that the history of its previous incarnations has to be overcome to make the film make sense to current tastes. I can't remember if it's actually in the film or was in a review, but the basic premise is something like "John McClane: Analog. World: Digital. Sparks Fly." (Okay, the actual line is "You're a Timex watch in a digital age." Mine's better.) McClane's skill set, his persona—all are threatened by the new world order—but not necessarily the one you're thinking of. Even for an action film, Live Free or Die Hard's political imagination is stunted, like a libertarian's (the film's title is an extremely apposite one). The first Die Hard didn't require much in the way of geopolitical awareness either (just a lucre-driven Hans Gruber), but in Live Free or Die Hard, it's just taken for granted not only that America is the world, but that even its government exists largely to get confused and toyed with by unstoppable criminal masterminds.

The film's engagement with politics may be blunt and uninspired, but it is almost metafictional in its overt engagements with the action film genre (and I mean that as a compliment). There is a competitiveness in the film, a desire to top not so much the first three Die Hard films as to best other action-film spectaculars of the past three or four years (particularly Transformers). The picture above depicts the film's most naked (and successful) effort to produce a special effect that exists as nothing but oneupmanship. In the film, the maneuver John McClane makes to produce this car-helicopter collision is not entirely gratuitous (the helicopter is a threat), but it is also enormously clear that McClane thinks of propelling a car into it before anything else, like running away. It's exactly what will make him—and us—go "wow!" and so he does it. This is why one goes to see films like this.

But what fascinates me about Live Free or Die Hard is that the comparisons it begs are not to the Jason Bourne films or the Daniel Craig Bond films—which might be the natural comparisons (ostensibly "real" action heroes with no superpowers, no supervillains, not terribly reliant on gadgets, heavy emphasis on toughness)—but rather to what became the decade's go-to trope of the superhero genre—the fear of obsolescence, of a public genuinely uninterested in heroics. Hancock, The Incredibles, Watchmen (obviously, in comic form, the origin of this trope), The Dark Knight. McClane isn't really in danger of being pushed into involuntary retirement or protested against by the benighted citizenry, but there is more than token resistance on the part of everyone involved to the idea that heroics are still viable, and McClane himself has a sort of heavy-handed line about heroes no longer being appreciated.

This conflict goes deeper, however, than superficial thematics—the film itself plays out a constant tension between wanting to make the computer hacking stuff actually seem threatening, the wave of the future, etc., and not completely making McClane seem obsolete through making the computer stuff compelling. The film's effects are a question aimed at the audience—aren't you sick of CGI? or is that what you really want, more hypertrophied toys and dancing pixels? But then again, the film admits, computers are pretty cool. Did you see that helicopter blow up? We can't do that without computers.

It is a productive tension—in this film at least, and it pays off, surprisingly, in political terms, turning what could have been an extremely reactionary film into a sort of qualified rejection of nostalgia. Yes, Live Free or Die Hard is a libertarian fantasy and an analog finger in the digital eye, but the film's basic conservatism isn't ultimately resentful, much less revanchist, as so much of the conservative movement is today. McClane is not aggrieved by the prospect of his obsolescence, he doesn't play the "I'm just taking my country back" tea-bagger tune. He's just happy that heroics are still called for once in awhile; he's just delighted he's got another shot at blowing up helicopters with cars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Links for the Holidays

I promise there will be real content on this blog again soon, but I just got done writing my papers for the term, and so this will have to suffice for now.
  • John Self is one of the absolute paragons of lit-blogging, in my mind. Here's his year-in-reading list, containing a few books I already had on my to-read pile for next year, and adding a few more.
  • Manohla Dargis's NYT article on the glass ceiling for aspiring women directors has been linked to in many places, as has her follow-up interview with Jezebel, but if you haven't run into them, definitely read the Jezebel interview, as I find she articulates certain things more clearly there, like why she's bothered that one flop from a woman director (Kathryn Bigelow's K19: Widowmaker) can sink her chances of helming another film for a few years, while a male director like Michael Mann (whom I and she love, but who has delivered a string of modestly underperforming films) seems to have no trouble finding the funding for another lavishly unorthodox action film.
  • Dan Green revisits Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, which, as you may recall, claimed a large chunk of my reading life early this year (1, 2, 3, 4). Green is at least as enthusiastic about the book's achievement as I am, although I think it's fair to say that we see very different reasons to celebrate it.
  • Mark Athitakis talks about the "hard trick" of pulling off a comic novel that has, in FSG editor Lorin Stein's words, "great or serious" intent. Stein's argument—that stand-up comedians have ruined the game by debasing the project of mixing humor and social criticism—comes in the context of introducing Sam Lipsyte's new novel The Ask, which The Quarterly Conversation praised sky-high. Athitakis questions Stein's cultural history, and goes on to point out some of the many examples of comic novels with serious cultural-critical intent. Athitakis argues that the genre has not so much died out as it has always been tough to fulfill. I agree, and I'm excited to read Lipsyte's new novel, as I loved Home Land, his last.
  • Richard Crary has been on a great blogging spree of late, and I particularly liked this post on the foolishness of claiming to "understand" a writer (or even just a book) and this one on "modernization and its discontents." Best of all, though, is one from the beginning of this month on 'modernism against modernity.' I may try to get some thoughts together in response, although I'll need to do a little more research.
  • Shelley Ettinger makes a great multi-post argument for the importance of Joyce Carol Oates (1, 2, 3). I've only read Black Water, and I get the sense that I will have a similar reaction to many of her novels: not entirely on board aesthetically, but absolutely fascinated by the ideas. I should be reading another one soon—suggestions would be welcome.
  • Scott McLemee's review of two new biographies of Ayn Rand displays his usual brilliance; he places her in a position many would never think to look for her: in world literature, meaning not so much that she belongs to a global pantheon of wonderful writers but that she is the product of what Marx and Engels predicted would arise—a literature enabled by and disseminated by the global adventures of capitalism. Also, fans of Bolaño, check out McLemee's interview with Marcela Valdes, whose essay introduces the accurately named The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
  • A long but extraordinary interview with David Simon in Vice Magazine. (Also, I may have linked this before or seen it linked, but this is an hilarious interview with Harold Bloom, also from Vice.)
  • A "passion for nuance" sounds rather like an oxymoron, but David Bordwell's appreciation of the late Robin Wood make him sound like a wonderful film critic. Bordwell states that F. R. Leavis was an influence, although the following makes me wonder how much that could have been possible in anything but style: "For nearly four decades Wood recorded his efforts to grasp the concrete social implications behind the films he loved and those, increasingly from Hollywood, he found evasive and duplicitous. In all, complacent acceptance of the status quo was the enemy of the seriousness he prized." In fact, that sounds rather diametrically opposite Leavis.
  • An intriguing post about the genre of Avatar. I'm really undecided about going to see the film; I'm not terribly interested in the film itself, but I'm kind of fascinated by how much conversation it has evoked.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

15 Films of the 00s I Could Not Stand

(Unfortunately, no mustache can redeem this film.)

I tweeted this list already, but I'd like to re-do it here, with the opportunity for some slight expansion.

15. Capote (Bennett Miller, 05) Just so much worse than In Cold Blood (or Infamous, for that matter); also, Philip Seymour Hoffman was ridiculous trying to act short.
14. Munich (Spielberg, 05): besides the worst sex scene in a serious film ever, Kushner's script is confused, not ambivalent, about vengeance. No one seems convinced that they're really having an ethical crisis and not just a bad day—least of all Spielberg. Only bright spot: Mathieu Amalric.
13. Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 02) chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz was way off; would have preferred Leo and Daniel Day-Lewis getting it on—that would have been an intriguing film.
12. Oldboy (Park, 03) I never understood the excitement; all the revelations at the end were duds and the action was paced poorly, often mistaking mere brutality for energy. Come to think of it, that mistake defined most of the filmic output of the decade.
11. Half Nelson (Fleck, 06) What happens when you make a film about a cynical, directionless protagonist: you get a cynical, directionless film.

(Nice cannon placement; still a terrible film.) 

10. Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002): Why would anyone ever want Adam Sandler to date Emily Watson? She had a better boyfriend in Breaking the Waves.
9. Master & Commander: The Fart Side of the World (Weir, 03) First time I ever rooted for the French in a naval fight.
8. The Departed (Scorsese, 06) 151-min long films based on 97-min source material shouldn't win Oscars for Best Editing. Maybe for Most Editing.
7. AI: Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg, 01) Spielberg's effects and humorlessness siphoned off the humanity and the uncertainty that Kubrick might have given it.
6. Ray (Hackford, 04) Worst biopic of the decade: an extremely crowded field but this one wins hands-down. Parody would have had more pathos.
5. Waltz with Bashir (Folman, 08) You might think extreme arrogance and reflections on the fragility of life wouldn't mix. And you'd be right.
4. Pan's Labyrinth (del Toro, 06) It's sad when the director is more of a child than the girl who's carrying his film. For contrast, Spirit of Beehive.
3. Irréversible (Noé, 02) The experiment with temporality didn't redeem the noxious pointlessness of the film; without its rape-scene sensationalism, what?
2. The Lives of Others (Donnersmarck, 06) This I actually have a full-blown argument for, or rather, against.

(That look expresses how I feel about this decade's output from Clint.)

1. Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 04) I didn't like the film, but the placement is more a reflection of a decade's worth of Eastwood's vacuous middlebrow screw-turning; also I blame him, and this film, for Haggis—so consider Crash (Haggis, 05) included in this spot too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What Good Can Masterpieces Do?

In reading around for my paper on Franco Moretti, I ran across an article (sorry, subscription wall) by Jonathan Arac with the title "What Good Can Literary History Do?" It presents a number of questions about the place and purpose of literary history, but the following struck me squarely if only, I suppose, because I haven't thought much about it recently, and haven't really been missing the concept at the center of its query:
Whether literary history is conceived as a reference archive or as a narrative, there remains the question of what elements of a literary field, such as works, authors, modes, and genres, are to be archived or narrativized. What role does a notion such as masterpiece play? Scholars have elaborated rich structures of significance to motivate their research into works from the past that no present reader would otherwise willingly attend to, but without some such notion as masterpiece, how can a student aspire to read distant, difficult work? What alternative categories of importance, or value, can we propose? I do not think the old, positivistic category of “representative selections” any longer wins much assent.
(Arac, "What Good Can Literary History Do?" American Literary History 20.1 (Spring/Summer 2008): 3)

I, for one, do not find "representative selections" a very useful term, but Arac's question allows me a moment to reflect on the degree to which I still find something like "representative selection" or "masterpiece" to be a "motivat[ing]" influence in the selection of the texts I analyze, or the degree to which I believe that it might cause "a student [to] aspire to read distant, difficult work."

My initial reaction is mostly skeptical on the first count, but my skepticism is somewhat more qualified on the second count. I don't teach yet, so I can't speak to that perspective, but as an undergraduate I remember choosing literature classes more by period than by the individual selections, although I can remember course catalog entries clearly trying to play the "masterpiece" angle in advertising for a course on Tolstoy, or on Mann, or on Ulysses. I don't know how effective these appeals were, or if they were necessary.

I would be interested in other people's experiences—both as teachers and as students. To what degree is the idea of "masterpiece" used as a motivator toward venturing into "distant, difficult work," and to what degree is it effective? And then, the other question Arac asks, "What alternative categories of importance, or value, can we propose?" And, finally, do we (pragmatically) need any?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Follow Friday

For non-Twit(terer)s, there is an Internet tradition (of which I am well aware, thank you) of encouraging your followers to follow someone else (obviously in addition to you, not in place of you). Here is an expanded (non-Twitter) version of that.

My friend Brendon Bouzard wraps up his "Year in Film" with some very eloquent analysis of The Beaches of Agnès, Up, Summer Hours, The White Ribbon, but what makes this post much, much more than an excellently curated "best of" list are his comments contrasting the surprisingly "revelatory" experience of watching the quasi-Apatovian "I Love You, Man" and the profoundly disheartening experience of watching ethically-engaged filmmakers and actors line up to support Roman Polanski:
It might say more about me than about film in 2009 that a film with such low ambitions was my most revelatory moment, but I suppose if I’ve experienced a change in how I perceive movies over the past few years, it’s that I’ve grown a general mistrust for the way that both American and international filmmakers approach valuable questions about gender, race, and sexual orientation. Given how much I love film as a medium and how much I regard the potential of film to be a transcendent means of expression – the closest experiential analog to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk – it pains me to say that the majority of what constitutes this art form I cherish fails on even the most basic level to demonstrate a respect for the personhood of its subjects, and that even many filmmakers who do have a strong enough understanding of the medium to communicate the inner lives of their characters often restrict this privilege to the characters who most resemble the average filmmaker: white, straight, male, able-bodied and of economic means. The irony is not lost on me that this very well describes I Love You, Man, but the palpable regard that film demonstrates for humanity in general was such a breath of fresh air that it’s helped to buoy me through a difficult year in film.

And by a difficult year, I suppose I should clarify that for me, the film event of the year was not the release of any picture or catching up on any old classic, but the fallout of the Roman Polanski arrest, an event that solidified for me a lot of the problems of privilege that falter even ethically-minded filmmakers (the Dardennes, Almodovar, Mike Nichols, David Lynch). To be sure, I’m cognizant that many of those in the film community who signed the Polanski petition were not fully aware of Polanski’s actions – there’s been such a calculated effort to reclassify and misrepresent Polanski’s crime to justify his freedom that I’m certain some of the petitioners weren’t exactly sure of what they signed onto. Whoopi Goldberg’s “rape-rape” gaffe speaks to this, though it does not excuse her or anyone else. When Emma Thompson, who had been pressured to sign the petition, asked to have her name removed after a conversation with a fan troubled by her involvement in a document tantamount to rape-apologism, it solidified for me one of the central ideological problems of this entire case: the Polanski petition was as much as anything about a blind inattentiveness to privilege as it relates to the financially secure and the art community, as well as more generally to the masculine, the white and the heterosexual. Which is not to excuse Thompson or anyone for having put their names on the list – and Thompson to this day is the only high-profile petitioner to ask for her name to be removed – but which is to say that in the face of real issues like this, we as a film community need to demand more of our most prominent figures. It’s not enough for filmmakers to commit themselves to messages of feminism or anti-racism or anti-homophobia or anti-war on screen. Though I don’t labor under the illusion an artist is entirely inseparable from their art, I don’t think it’s too much to ask the pillars of our community to aspire to reflecting more wholly the ideas and ideals that the best art represents.
Definitely read the whole thing.

The other blog I want to point you to is one that I discovered through The Quarterly Conversation: Paul Doyle's review of Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash led me to his blog at By the Firelight. I've really enjoyed going back through his archives, as he finds a ton of great stuff to talk about. His blog has "a focus on international literature and Spanish language literature in particular. My goal is not only to comment on books I read and relevant literary links I find on the net, but to use my ability to speak Spanish to find articles and books that are not available in English and try to give a flavor of what has not made it into English yet (if it ever does)."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Academic Pet Peeve #3: Renaissances

I recently read a book dealing with the "Chicago Renaissance," the period from about 1890 through 1920, when writers like Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Hamlin Garland, Edgar Lee Masters, Henry Blake Fuller, Carl Sandburg, George Ade, Jane Addams and others made Chicago into a literary boomtown.

But "boomtown" is the problem: renaissance implies—no, it doesn't imply, it means—a renewal of culture, not a first flowering. Re - naissance. There it is. What is with calling emergent movements by a term that requires that it had a direct antecedent?

The Oxford English Dictionary allows that a renaissance may be "Any revival, or period of marked improvement and new life, in art, literature, etc." but I think I already covered my antipathy toward using the OED totemically so I won't repeat myself. And anyway, the two early instances of the term in this sense are not referring to the type of case I mean—instances of wholly emergent movements rather than renewals of previous models ("1872 MORLEY Voltairism may stand for the name of the Renaissance of the eighteenth century. 1882 Athenæum 23 Dec. The most satisfactory among the signs of a theatrical renaissance."). In its "period of marked improvement" sense, the earliest usage appears to pertain to the Harlem Renaissance, and it occurs in 1925.

I suppose "Chicago Renaissance" sounds much better than "Chicago Efflorescence," and perhaps one doesn't want to offend Chicagoans by implying that there really wasn't much literary production going on until after the Great Fire. And I have to say that my peevishness may be more broadly ideological than simple etymology and semantics—I am not overly fond of the idea of shaping literary history according to these boom-and-bust models—I think it's bad historiography, too zeitgeisty for me, among other things.

So I would do away with the idea of renaissances when they refer to emergent movements, but I also don't think we have to put something in its exact place, because what might occupy that place (like "Efflorescence") would still function as a way of chalking up the movement's emergence to some mysterious subliminal collective awakening or something. I imagine something needs to go on the title page besides "Late 19th and Early 20th Century Chicago Literature," but I wish it weren't "Renaissance." Suggestions?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Witness, by Juan José Saer

The new issue of The Quarterly Conversation is starting to go up, containing my review of the Argentinean writer Juan José Saer's novel The Witness. The Witness, or El entenado, was voted the twelfth best Spanish-language novel of the past 25 years by the Colombian magazine Semana, and Saer is generally considered the most significant post-Boom Argentinean novelist. But don't let that impress you—read the review! Here's a short excerpt:
The Witness is too long to be a novella and not quite long enough to be an average novel—it wouldn’t fit in any category anyway, and length is among the least helpful ways of trying to get an analytic foothold on it. The book exists in a state of permanent estrangement; it zigs subtly away from the whole array of zags that novelists have added to their arsenal over the past century and a half or more. It is allegorical, but not enough to be an allegory; it’s metafictional, but it never lets you know that it knows how reflexive it’s become. It pricks you into smartly guessing that it is told by an unreliable narrator, but then you realize that he is not unreliable enough to disbelieve him. It is history looked at from the wrong end of a telescope, but the telescope is cloudy on both ends. It is hallucinatory, but everything is pretty much as it seems. It is constantly deconstructing all the things that need deconstruction—the self, history, morality, sexuality, civilization—but nothing falls apart enough. It is the dream of someone who never dreams.
Also, check out some of the other content: Matthew Cheney (whose work at The Mumpsimus I very much enjoy) has what promises to be a very rich essay on J. M. Coetzee's now-completed autobiographical trilogy; Scott Esposito reviews a work by Robert Walser, who sounds as if he'd appeal to many readers of this blog; and Paul Doyle reviews of Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash, a novel which I've really been wanting to read.

Edit (12/8): I got a nice email to say that Blographia is featured on this list of "50 Excellent, Scholarly Literary Criticism Blogs." On it, there are the usual (at least to me) suspects, but there are also a number of blogs unknown to me, which I'll have to go check out once my final papers are all in.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Javier Marías

S7VMQ6B366UPThe Spanish novelist Javier Marías visited New Haven this Wednesday, and I attended his reading/q&a. I usually find these things not terribly illuminating; the writer is usually cagey, and the questions are generally fawning and/or superficial. Or completely left-field.

Marías was not cagey; in fact, he was much more candid than I would have anticipated. He seemed completely comfortable noting autobiographical correspondences with his characters or with events in his books (e.g., the girl's suicide at the beginning of A Heart So White is part of his family's history, though the rest is not, or not factually). There were no self-inflating pretensions of "it's so reductive to read this as autobiography!" It was merely, "well, yes, I use things from my life, but I trust my readers to know where one ends and another begins." (These aren't direct quotes or even paraphrases, but rather impressions—I had a shortage of paper and didn't feel like transcribing anyway.)

And Marías was more eloquent in extemporaneously articulating his philosophy of the novel and his own perceptions of his writing than many writers are with a prepared speech. In regards to the autobiographical origin of A Heart So White, he told us that he wrote the novel essentially to find out why the girl, the young wife, who killed herself did so, and he expounded on the common origins of the words "to invent" and "to find out"—both can be translations of the Latin verb invenire. He wrote the novel to push those two actions together, to invent a context for that action which would be satisfactory (if that is the right word) to him.

He spoke a bit about the nature of time, and I wish I had been taking better notes, but one thing that I remember that he said guided his work was the idea that the present is a future past—not terribly original, perhaps, but an idea which has a grammatical cast to it that I like (if one substitutes "future perfect" for "future past," which may have been what he actually meant). He also spoke of the novel as a "way to recognition," as opposed to a "way to knowledge." I wish I could reproduce what he said, but that basic dichotomy is quite obviously a fertile one.

Finally, he offered an interesting account of how he writes. After a page is finished—I don't believe he said "perfected," but he could have, not because he was less than humble, but because that would be an appropriate verb for his writing—he will not add new material or subtract anything from it to restructure the shape of the narrative. He says he will make continuity corrections (switching a Thursday to a Tuesday), but he doesn't change what he has written if doing so might make things more convenient for the novel at a later stage; if Marías didn't think of it the first time, he has to write his way around it at the point in the narrative when it becomes necessary to do so. If it might help, for instance, that a character knew something 20 pages earlier than when Marías thought about it, all the worse for the character—and for Marías—he described this method as "suicidal!" He sticks to this principle, he says, because he wants to parallel the conditions of knowledge in real life. Not knowing something when you're twenty has actual consequences, no matter how much you might wish you had known that thing now that you're thirty.

I have other things I should have been doing, but I did start reading A Heart So White the afternoon before the talk in order to get a feel for his prose, or for his prose in translation (btw, he expressed great admiration for his frequent translator, Margaret Jull Costa). It is an incredible book, and I'm a little sorry I started it as I can't really return to finish it until I get at least one or two papers done. I feel, as the pages turn, as if I'm plunging deeper into the story—or as if I'm in a dimly lit room and slowly taking note of individual items and curiosities as my eyes adjust. It's just wonderful.

I had already written the above when I ran across an excerpt from John Crowley's blog which also recounts the event and describes Mariás's writing regimen much better than my effort did. (h/t) I wish I had known what John Crowley looked like; I've been meaning to read something by him for some time, and it would have been nice to put a face to the (illustrious) name.

Later edit (12/7): I read Benjamin Kunkel's LRB review of the third volume of Your Face Tomorrow, which he finds to be a major disappointment relative to his earlier work, although I find his argument for this declension to be both confused and unconvincing. Basically, Kunkel comes off as objecting mainly to the genre elements of Your Face Tomorrow, pining for the older, purer works. Kunkel does do a marvelous job praising and describing those older works, though—just stop reading when he switches to talking about YFT.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900

If you haven't been introduced to the work of Franco Moretti or only vaguely know about his work, read this profile by Elif Batuman, which I've always thought is one of the best things n+1 has published and which could stand proudly alongside anything that Lingua Franca put out in its day.

I don't want to analyze too much here Atlas of the European Novel (or Moretti's work in general) partly because I'm at work on a paper about him (once the paper's done, maybe I'll post some parts of it) but also in part because Moretti's needs, in a sense, to be shown before it can be critiqued. So I'd like to do just a bit of showing for now, although I think a few words of introduction are probably required.

Here's Moretti's rationale for the Atlas project: "geography is not an inert container, is not a box where cultural history 'happens', but an active force, that pervades the literary field and shapes it in depth. Making the connection between geography and literature explicit, then—mapping it: because a map is precisely that, a connection made visible—will allow us to see some significant relationships that have so far escaped us."

Puzzlingly, I think some people read a bold statement like that and simply can't get past the boldness—and this holds for both proponents and critics of Moretti—they find in its ambition an argument that has exactly this much complexity:

 (Anyone from Stanford, I hope you like the cardinal red font!)
But note the last phrase of the quote—"some significant relationships that have so far escaped us." In some of Moretti's writings (particularly about the difference between close and distant reading), there is perhaps a greater degree of revolutionary zeal, but I think we strain too hard to eliminate the middle ground between instances of boldness and claims to Copernican import. At any rate, what is being summoned is not necessarily so epic as an awakening from our dogmatic slumbers as it is an idea that there are some forest-for-the-trees relationships that are obscured by the particular angle of vision that close reading in particular and exegetical activity in general obliges the scholar to take.

And that is largely what Moretti delivers: most of the insights of the book are of very large scope and can be stated in a few words—they don't really even require their own commentary—and many cover ground that has already been conceptualized more abstractly (the mutually beneficial ideologies of the novel and the nation-state, the colonial romance's contributions to the dehumanization of native subjects). But the point is neither that Moretti's insights completely overturn established wisdom in every instance, nor that they reveal things we absolutely never knew before, but that they bring arguments about things like coloniality in fiction or the geographic imaginary of London to something like common ground—examining a map or a graph affords, I think, a different (tighter, more material, in a sense) kind of discursive focus that even a small chunk of the text (a paragraph, a couplet) does not.

But that is sort of anticipating my paper. Let me just allow Google Books to do what it does best: make available some actual pages of a book (please begin at the first full paragraph, although also please scroll back and read pp. 149-150 for a great justification of applying quantitative methods to the study of literature):

The quotes that I really want to highlight are at the bottom of page 157 ("Quantity affects form… because few foreign novels doesn't simply mean few foreign novels: it means that many great themes and techniques of the age… all of these are almost denied right of entry…") and the bottom of 160 ("Size affects formal variety—in the sense that it reduces variety.")

I think this is the perfect argument to be making about the paucity of translated novels in the United States and the lack of coverage given them by major review outlets: less is not just less of something, but is a different something. An undernourished person is not just a less healthy person, but is in an entirely different state altogether. It is not just that U.S. readers aren't treated to all of the great works of other languages and are therefore slightly deprived, but that the U.S. literature we do read is different (and less interesting) because of it.

Edit: Franco Moretti was featured last month on Wired, and someone makes the excellent point that an xkcd cartoon needs to be drawn about him, or about "Applying Quantitative Analysis to Classic Lit."