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Butcher's Crossing, the Movie

I haven't read Butcher's Crossing yet, but I know of a number of lit-bloggers who have and who have had strongly positive reactions to it, so I thought I'd pass along this post from my friend Brendon (whose really excellent blog you should be reading anyway):
Apparently this news is nearly two months old, but I just discovered that Sam Mendes has decided to ruin another great underappreciated American novel. This time he’s set his sights on John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing.
[...] I really resent that he’s assumed the title of Grand Prognosticator of the American Condition [...] Mendes’s film [adaptation of Revolutionary Road] traffics in themes of ‘American Life’ but reads like it’s made by a man who has very little insight into or regard for America and Americans. It’s not as tacky as American Beauty, but it seems unwilling to engage with the psychology of its subjects, and that is what worries me so much about this upcoming adaptation.
The link that Brendon provides also notes that the screenwriter will be the guy who added a wholly superfluous Charlize Theron to adapted Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Reviews on the Run

January has been a productive month for me—so much so that I'm way behind in terms of blogging what I've been reading and watching. Here's an effort to catch up.

Asterios Polyp, by Dave Mazzuchelli: My only complaint about this incredible graphic novel is that it is laid out too simply (click on the image at left to enlarge); I suppose I prefer the formal clutter of Chris Ware. This is certainly not to say that Asterios is a simple work, just that the pages and panels encourage speed and movement, and not detailed contemplation, like a poem without enjambment. The facility of the page's appearance isn't deceiving, however; it's certainly intentional, as the spareness of (most of) the panels is itself a part of the story, representing the Bauhaus-like functionalism of Asterios's mind. The natural speed of the book, however, should be an encouragement to multiple re-reads, as the art may be swift but certainly not shallow.

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov: This book falls under the category of "difficult to write about because I enjoyed it so much." A story completely in tune with its narrator, somehow avoiding momentum or momentousness with a combination of luck (both good and bad) and diffidence. A perfect "minor" work.

The Red Letter Plays, by Suzan-Lori Parks: I found these plays much more satisfying than either of her more famous works, Venus or Topdog/UnderdogIn the Blood and Fucking A, which reimagine Hester Prynne from two ingenious angles, have a depth to them that I found missing from Parks's other work, which can be glibly symbolic; these two plays deliver an intellectual resonance that is so much richer than their clever intertextual premises. Fucking A in particular, which is about as Brechtian as any American play has been or maybe can be, is truly a masterpiece.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick: I would rather write this book up in a full post, but I'm afraid I'll have to shortchange it a bit, but perhaps that is for the best. The numerous ideas at play seem to me to work together more impressionistically than systematically; that is, I feel as if it would be better to discuss the novel in the context of another book than it would be to write about it on its own. That's certainly not intended as an insult: I think it works very well as a novel (although the ending seems quite muddled to me), and I like it about 40x more than Blade Runner, which may be my least favorite film ever, but I would like to write about Androids perhaps later, in the context of another book with similar themes.

Glee: For a show that has featured a number of quite recent hits, Glee is strangely atemporal—there is very little topical humor or efforts to periodize itself as "now," and the "issues" dealt with by the characters are perennial ones—even things like teenage pregnancy and coming out to your parents have more of an archetypal, impersonal quality that exceeds even other high-school-set shows (Gossip Girl, for instance). It's as if the show could have been set any time between 1985, when The Breakfast Clubcame out, and now, or really even five years from now. The humor does owe its tone and style to this post-Arrested Development moment—Sue Sylvester in particular could easily have been a Bluth aunt or cousin, and seriously, Will Schuester and Michael Bluth can be the same character at times—but Glee seems disconnected from our present in a really vivid way, perhaps because it channels all the emotional energy into the performances of the songs. Maybe I'm just describing the natural state of musicals, but I find that Glee's suspension of reality absolutely lovely. 

Up in the Air: Actually a pretty good film—Clooney's character is tough to feel anything for, but Farmiga and Kendrick are tremendous. It's too bad that Hollywood thinks so little of women that they'd never give them a film of their own—the scene where they kind of square off about what and how to look for a husband is exceptional. The script overall is pretty good; it's heavy-handed and more than a little predictable, but I didn't mind all that much—most business-people seem to me extremely fond of blunt metaphors and predictable messages, and it's tough to be subtle about people who think that way. I almost hoped that the film might end with a PowerPoint slide of take-away points, but I guess that might have been too meta-.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy-Casares: "A recluse can make machines or invest his visions with reality only imperfectly, by writing about them or depicting them to others who are more fortunate than he." For Borges (and, now that I've read him, for Bioy-Casares), writing always seems to be an almost unfortunate necessity, a form of communication that is more of a resort than a choice, less a medium than a technology. Which is not to say that either man is a bad writer, but that there is a desire, like the recluse in this quote, to invest their vision more directly than with the written word, and a resistance to the acknowledgment that there may not exist a perfect (in the sense of complete, whole, entire) order beyond words—there are no machines which are perfect enough to render words superfluous. I have mixed feelings about this attitude—it can be a little frustrating in the recursions it generates, but it can also be quite profound in its utopian aspirations. At any rate, I don't think I was as captivated by The Invention of Morel as others have been (it's a little too much like L'année dernière à Marienbad for my taste, although of course it came out first), and, like Bonsai, it's too short for me to feel like I should count it for my Latin American project; I'll probably read Ricardo Piglia's Money to Burn for my Argentinean entry.

Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra

The first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust. He didn't usually lie about reading, but that second night, when they both knew they were starting something, and that that something, however long it lasted, was going to be important, that night Julio made his voice resonant and feigned intimacy, and said that, yes, he had read Proust, at the age of seventeen, one summer, in Quintero. At that time no one spent their summers in Quintero anymore, not even Julio's parents, who had met on the beach at El Durazno, who went to Quintero, a pretty beach town now invaded by slum dwellers, where Julio, at seventeen, got his hands on his grandparents' house and locked himself up to read In Search of Lost Time. It was a lie, of course: he had gone to Quintero that summer, and he had read a lot, but he had read Jack Kerouac, Heinrich Böll, Vladimir Nabokov, Truman Capote, and Enrique Lihn, but not Marcel Proust.

That same night Emilia lied to Julio for the first time, and the lie was, also, that she had read Marcel Proust. At first she only went so far as to agree: I also read Proust. But after that there was a long period of silence, which was not so much an uncomfortable silence as an expectant one, such that Emilia had to complete the story: It was last year, recently, it took me five months, I was so busy, you know how it is, with the courseload at the university. But I undertook to read the seven volumes and the truth is that those were the most important months of my life as a reader.

She used that phrase: my life as a reader, she said that those had been, without a doubt, the most important months of her life as a reader.
There is a sense in which Emilia's claim is true: the five fabricated months she spent reading Proust are, at least at this moment, the most important months of her life as a reader. There is not, as we may prefer to think, as strong a division between what we have read and what we only pretend to have read (or plan to read) in the constitution of our "lives as readers." This phrase, "my life as a reader," expresses as much an aspiration as accomplishment, for our "lives as readers" are perhaps the most determinedly narrativized aspect of our lives generally, and a narrative at least implies, even if it doesn't explore, a future. And narratives generally take in past possibilities that were not fulfilled, not just the paths we did end up taking.

I think it is largely this strength—the strength of the possibilities derived from the narrative of "my life as a reader"—that underwrites the Bolaño myth or the mini-surge of interest in Latin American literature over the past five years or so (of which the English translation of Bonsai is certainly a product). Bolaño's characters, like Julio and Emilia, have vivid "lives as readers," and even if this takes them into imaginary life experiences, there is a robustness to these lives that exceeds the possibilities for making a narrative out of a non-reading life: there is a sense that the books one has yet to read solidify the openness and even the very existence of the future, and there is a sense that the past is not closed off to modification. One can at the very least make a narrative out of how one wishes one had read a book, and that wish embeds itself in one's past and alters it, gives it a more pleasant weight or timbre. On a macro-level, this is the achievement of Nazi Literature in the Americas: the past and the future are mutable, given that we can always find new books to read from either, and when we can't, we can invent them.  

You can read about the plot and reception of Bonsai in either of these two excellent reviews (from The Quarterly Conversation and from The Nation), but I'd like to pick up one point from the latter. The Nation review argues that Zambra is "in no way Bolano's heir," and this is correct, but I am not sure that Zambra's relative disregard for Bolaño and for the tradition which Bolaño placed himself in does not in some way carve out a negative space in which Bonsai nestles nicely. Politics is completely absent in Bonsai, as it cannot be in Bolaño, but in its treatment of the "life as a reader" theme, it offers a strong statement on the utopian thinking that I am arguing is the basis of that theme. Julio and Emilia's imaginary lives as readers turn out to be very thin nails from which to hang the weight of a durable romance, and this failure—and the particular tones and effects that come from it—is much thicker a rejection of reading-as-utopia than the light, placid irony of the passage above.

At any rate, on these and other themes of Literature-and-Life, Zambra's explorations strikes with all the irons at their hottest; it's no wonder it's became a sort of succès de scandale in Chile and elsewhere. And very deservedly so: it is a fantastic little book (just 83 pages—barely enough time to start feeling uncomfortable sitting in a coffee shop), but because of its (physical) size, I feel bad counting it as my book for Chile in the challenge I set for myself. I think I will also be reading How I Became a Nun, by César Aira (and perhaps Zambra's other novel, which has yet to be translated); altogether, they perhaps cover the length of one short novel. But I highly recommend everyone seeking Bonsai out; it was certainly one of the most enjoyable hour-plus reads in my life as a reader.

Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts

In the introduction to This Pen for Hire, John Leonard addresses the problem of praising books written by friends. Mostly, he doesn't see what the big deal is: "If you don't like the way his mind works, why is he your friend?" That's pretty much how I feel, but in this case, even more so: I really like the way Adam's mind works.

Last year, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a very sharp editorial sort of article on the resistance of the British literary establishment to considering science fiction as having anything remotely to do with the kind of books that receive awards. Digging up a sort of fan letter from Virginia Woolf to Olaf Stapledon, Robinson produces an intriguing alternative history where Woolf did not kill herself and her books gradually grew more and more oriented toward outright science fiction (as, he argues, she was already quite close with Orlando and some of her later work). Robinson implies quite convincingly that contemporary British science fiction has picked up Woolf's discontinued development, and this leaves him wondering how and why recognition from bodies like the Booker jury is not only withheld but not even considered as plausible. They lack Woolf's openmindedness: "there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels." The article was written before Wolf Hall won, but Robinson suggests in advance what should have won: Yellow Blue Tibia.

He's right. Yellow Blue Tibia is a fantastic novel, and, appropriately for the Booker, a fantastic British novel. That may be a very strange claim, as it is set entirely in Russia and the Ukraine (although I think Roberts implies that the protagonist has some English roots). But the Britishness it creates or embodies is the cosmopolitan variety of H. G. Wells (an explicit intertextual relationship) and of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Ian Fleming. (I think there's an implicit intertextual relationship with Greene as well, though I may be pulling it out of thin air—there's a scene that wonderfully recalls my favorite section of The Third Man). It may be that, as an American, I can't help but fetishize Britishness a bit, but I'm not sure that's such a sin—Brits do it too, after all. Which isn't to say that Adam does, but Konstantin Skvorecky is, among other qualities, immensely enjoyable as a very British protagonist.

What I find most pleasurable, though, about Yellow Blue Tibia is the gracefulness of its directness: on numerous occasions, a point is made in very plain language which distills the themes of the novel—why science fiction writers write SF, how belief functions in a modern society, what role utopias might still play in our political imagination, and what the consequences may be (and have been) of utopian thinking. Somehow the novel threads the needle of being pointed without ever threatening to become pedantic—and without relying on metafictional games to get that point across.

Actually that doesn't quite cut it—I'm creating a dichotomy between naturalness and artificiality that Yellow Blue Tibia effectively dissolves. In a passage like the following paragraph, you know the author is making a point, you know that this point is important to understanding the book—and (not "and yet") it appears gracefully, unforced, and true to the moment. Here, five Soviet SF writers have been gathered by Stalin to craft a giant but coherent narrative of alien invasion which will serve the purpose of unifying the Communist nations (after the inevitable fall of the American capitalist empire). They've been congenially discussing the devastation necessary to create this unity, and have decided on wiping out most of the Ukraine:
How could we plan such monstrosity so very casually? This is not an easy question to answer, although in light of what came later it is, of course, an important one. Conceivably it is that we did not believe, even in the midst of our work, that it would come to anything—that we felt removed from the possible consequences of our planning. But I suspect a more malign motivation. Writers, you see, daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in this respect. A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée, but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not produce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?
Since I'm reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? right now, this last question becomes particularly interesting for me, but even apart from the really excellent ideas in this passage, I just would like to note how programmatic this paragraph is—programmatic and great. It's a straightforward statement of an important theme in the book, and it's a really powerful piece of writing. And in a literary climate where it is often de rigeur to refract programmatic authorial statements through a veil of irony, this is really awesome. Just look at the phrase "of course" in the second sentence—I can't remember the last recently published novel I read where something like "of course" actually meant "of course."

I'm not trying to make Adam out to be some Knight of Earnestness, nor to suggest that he has something against irony—very much the contrary in both cases. Irony is itself an extremely important theme, almost all of the best dialogue is richly ironic, and his use of a playful (fake) Wikipedia entry as a sort of epilogue is really genius. It is more that, to borrow a theme from the novel, ideas in fiction are radioactive—they radiate out from and irradiate the rest of the book—and most writers, it seems, don't really understand radioactivity. The most common response seems to have been to find ways to contain it, to insulate themselves from contamination (irony as a sort of lead lining—sorry, couldn't help myself)—and ignore the fact that there are margins of exposure and margins of safety, and that balancing them is the only way to tap into a huge source of power and force. I think Adam plays with those margins better than many other writers—of late, the book I've read that probably compares the best with Yellow Blue Tibia along these lines is one that he and I  discussed quite enthusiastically. 

There are also many other disparate sources of enjoyment in the novel. YBT contains some of the most lively metaphors I've read in some time (e.g., "The unspoken answer to his question rubbed a silence into the conversation like salt in a cut." "His moustache lay languid, like a black odalisque, across his plump upper lip.") It's extremely well-paced, and honestly touching. A couple of the characters border on the cartoonish, but then again, some excellent laughs come from that cartoonishness as well. I'm very glad the book has gotten the attention it has; I hope it gets more.

The Afternoon of a Writer, by Peter Handke

A famous one-liner goes something like, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who dichotomize everything, and those who don't." I've long thought that a funnier version would be: "There is one kind of person in the world: someone who dichotomizes everything."

I find the term "experimental," when applied to art, frustratingly loose—a frustration which probably indicates a lack of appreciation for the free nature of experimentalism on my part. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be employed in one of two ways: either as an accolade with pretensions to objectivity (meaning something like "successfully weird and weirdly successful") or as a way to praise with faint damnation (meaning something like "intermittently successful but mostly full of fail"). Perhaps I have the wrong idea of what people generally mean when they use the term, but I do think that the notions of success and failure are central to the meaning of the term, as they are even in these dilettantic modes of praise and condemnation. Indeed, it seems that it is along the lines of these notions that experimental art makes good on the implied analogy to scientific experimentation. As with a scientific experiment, an aesthetic experiment fails if it does not generate useful and comprehensible results, and if it fails in this manner, it is most likely because the original hypothesis was never stated clearly or was never tested properly. Success, on the other hand, is not dependent in either case on the results being pleasing or even desired, merely that they are capable of being understood and used.

Of course, "useful" and "comprehensible" mean different things in art than they do in science, and so the criteria for evaluating the success or failure of an artistic experiment diverge tremendously from those used by scientists, and part of that divergence is that the criteria for artistic experiments are incapable of being standardized, and perhaps not even capable of being enumerated clearly in any single or general case. But I'd like to double down on my dichotomies and offer a distinction which is intended less to usher experimental art into one of two exclusive clubs but rather to open up a space in the middle of experimental art which allows us, depending on which way we turn, to have a grounded vantage point from which to see specific details the better.

Some experimental art, it seems to me, is meant primarily for an objective evaluation of its success or failure; the questions from which it forms its hypotheses are, for example: does the medium have a limit? where is it? can I produce something at that limit? Most generally, if I do this to my medium, what will happen? Gertrude Stein may be the most famous practitioner of this form of experimental art in literature, but I think an even better example might be Stan Brakhage with, for example, his "Mothlight."

The success of this experimental film is, most simply and most importantly, its existence: the fact that Brakhage was able to do it, that he was able to push up against the limits of his medium without actually destroying the medium. That the film is (at least to me) extremely beautiful and mesmerizing is secondary, and a distant second. The success of the experiment is not dependent on my reaction, and is (a fortiori) not dependent on my reaction being of a specific type.

I do think we can talk about an experimental art that is dependent for its success on the reactions it produces being of a specific type, and that is the second form of experimental art I would like to introduce. If the more objectively evaluated experimental art could be called "demonstrative experiments"—their purpose being to show basically that something exists—then these are "communicative experiments," to be evaluated intersubjectively. (Even if the creator is the only one whose reaction is necessary, this is still intersubjective—je est un autre, etc.)

But let me be more specific about what I mean by "communicative." I don't really enjoy citing Derrida (though I do like him), but at the beginning of "Signature Event Context," he has a brilliant and fun passage playing with the word "communication," and that takes us in the direction I am intending. Derrida plays with the "non-semiotic" meaning of "communicate," which we employ when we say something like "the building has numerous communicating passages" or "communicating a tremor" (The latter phrase doesn't work so well in English, but the idea is still fairly clear, I think. "Communicating Passages" would be a great name for a blog, wouldn't it?) Derrida toys with the possibility that this physical sense of adjoinment or the dispersal of a sensation through contact precedes the linguistic sense, that the linguistic notion is in fact a metaphor we get from the physical variety. Derrida turns this quickly into a way-too-fun rabbit-hole which I won't follow him down (although Michael Bérubé has a really excellent discussion of "Signature Event Context" from way back in 2004 which explains everything really well).

At any rate, it is the idea of transmission through contact or adjoinment that I wish to borrow; communicative experiments are evaluated primarily, I think, by the strength and clarity of the communication, although by that I mean less that the ideas, sensations, intuitions or emotions which are transmitted will be necessarily unambiguous, but in the sense that they will not be subject to unintended distortions due to poor execution. Ambiguity can be clearly communicated, if that makes sense, and to do so means the experiment is successful; what I find constitutes failure is a lack of communication of anything at all, or the communication of something that is so muddled that one doesn't really care that it has been communicated. It isn't important, in other words, that one knows what to think/feel/intuit, but that one does know whether one wants to think/feel/intuit or not. Whether there is contact or not is the question, and while it can only be evaluated subjectively (for instance, I find that while I never know precisely what to make of Beckett, I found I didn't really care about making anything of Clarice Lispector's Hour of the Star when I read it last year, although I acknowledge that someone could quite plausibly feel the opposite), I do think that this is the test for this type of experiment, and whether this contact is made—whether communication happens or not—is the criterion for judging whether the experiment succeeds or fails.

In writing about his third attempt at reading Handke's Repetition, Richard describes the experience of reading Handke:
I've written how, at times, I've been unable to read Handke well; something resisted my attempts, though the prose style itself isn't obviously difficult. I suspect it has something to do with the way the narrative shifts from moment to moment, scene to scene. It also has to be admitted that I've had the unfortunate tendency to begin reading a Handke book at the exact moment I'm about to go through a period of extreme sleeplessness. While any reading is affected by being overly tired, I think the deceptive simplicity of Handke's prose is especially hard to follow, at least for this reader, when in such a state.

There is often a distance in the writing. And I felt strongly while reading Slow Homecoming that I was experiencing thought, as it was happening, on the page. An admittedly vague way of putting it, but it's how the experience was for me.
Richard goes on to write about the "uneasy warmth" of Handke's writing, and I guess I'd like to posit that both that effect and the sleepwalking quality are products (if they are not in fact the same product) because he plays off these two kinds of experimentation off one another so dextrously, showing a strange kind of awareness of the reader that implies a desire to communicate, but there is a sheerness to the writing as well, an impermeability which is indifferent to the kinds of intersubjective evaluation on which communicative experimentation depends. A Handke sentence (and even more so a Handke book) seems to be much more like the demonstrative experiments of Stein, fulfilled in some way by the fact that they exist, and not by any reaction that they elicit. Yet this does not happen through a real stretching of the medium's limits—the prose is not only simple, but it is also not repetitive or disjunctive as Beckett's or Stein's is. (Of course it's important to remember that I'm talking about a translation here, but I get the sense that Manheim is being very intentional and very exact about the effects that he is creating with the language he uses.) It is as difficult as Richard says it is to describe the origins of the effects, the intuitions, the affects of Handke's writing.

Here is a passage from Afternoon which I find both describes and exemplifies this peculiar effect:
He thought of leaving but remained sitting, alone with a glass of wine, from which he took a sip at intervals. He didn't want to go out in that condition with dulled senses that made him incapable of perceiving or thinking about anything. More and more people came in, but he saw only legs and torsos, not a single face. Luckily he was unobserved. The waitress had probably known his name at one time, but had long since forgotten it. For a moment the river outside sparkled—no, the sparkling was only a little spot in the water; then a flock of sparrows flew into the sky. A moment later the tiny birds sat motionless in the branches; motionless, too, were the crows in the crown of the neighboring tree and even the normally restless gulls on the railing of the bridge. Though there was not a flake in sight, snow seemed to be falling on them. And through this living picture—the barely perceptible movement of wings, the barely open beaks, the twinkle of tiny eyes—the summer landscape in which he had set the story he was writing at the time opened up to him. White flowers no larger than shirt buttons rained down from the elder bushes, the fruit pods of the walnut trees were beginning to fill out. The jet of the fountain met the cumulus cloud overhead. In a wheat field near which sheep were grazing, the ears of grain crackled in the heat; the city streets were covered with poplar fluff so light and airy that one could see through to the asphalt; and over the grass in the park there passed a droning which became a humming when the bumblebee that went with it vanished into a flower. The swimmer in the river plunged his head into the water for the first time that year and once again the air and the sun and the feel of his nostrils gave the writer a sense of temporary reprieve. Once it had been the other way around: one summer, while daydreaming a winter story, he had reached into the tall grass for a snowball, wanting to throw it playfully at the cat. (35-6)
Handke dedicates the book to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and this passage seems to cinch for me a more specific allusion to Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams," although it's been awhile since I read it, and I may be mistaken.

Upgraded to Serious, by Heather McHugh

I have not read McHugh's previous volumes (Upgraded to Serious was published last year), so I have little idea whether the following characterizations hold for her earlier work. To jump the gun a bit, this volume certainly makes me interested in figuring out if it is, although, as Mr. Brooke would say, I will probably pull up before going too far.

Upgraded to Serious is plagued or gifted by a tendency to let the puns lead the poems, and the sound often has the sense, by the nose, the buttonhole, and the balls. The intensity and ubiquity of the wordplay virtually insures that you won't like many—maybe even a majority—of the poems. Honestly, I can't imagine anyone finding all the puns clever even, much less all worthwhile.

Yet I also can't imagine any two readers rejoicing at the same moments of success, or grumbling at the same lines; McHugh's poetry, like most comedic efforts, is more an art of averages and increased subjectivity than a quest for Eliotic (T. S. this time, though) precision and perfection. I feel (although I may be wrong) that there are poems before which one cannot help but be impressed, and any dissenters must have either an agenda or a mineral deficiency; McHugh's poems aren't like that, and don't seem to wish to be. They are instead in the service of what McHugh charmingly calls "the curlicue's indulgence of itself" (from "Philosopher Orders Crispy Pork" which, as you can see from the title of the poem has a grislier undertone which makes the curlicue something more than a figure of pure whimsy or caprice).

There probably isn't a poem that will please all readers or a poem that will grate all ears. As such, reading the book is a curiously personal and impersonal experience—the poems you enjoy have a vividness that seems meant for you, and those you don't enjoy come to seem not so much like botched efforts as trails of a conversation you imperfectly overhear.

My favorite poem of the collection is the very cleverly titled "Postcocious" (both the opposite of "Precocious" and aurally similar to "Postcoital") which the publisher Copper Canyon Press has made available here. 

Another is "The River Overflows the Rift," of which I will quote (the best) part:

Before a human face
a glance could light without
alighting, gleams meander through
the untagged trees, a stream into the pattern
lend its thread. But then we cam affixing
barbs and snags, and until all of us
are done away, a million lilies will be stilled
by some arranger's hands, a billion stones
be hauled and heaped by heart, to stand
for words, where words aren't going
to be kept. The word

must move: the minute does.
Its starred expanses dazzle
humankind (wherever there's a mind
for wonderment). In time

the glimmers of the uncontained
outcourse even a lover's frozen frown,
the silver wave revives the mower. Glowers
by glow are overcome, flowers by flow.

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

My Ántonia is one of those interesting books that has an extremely stable narrative but is, once one starts to pull back from the basic facts of the story, immediately destabilized; it becomes quickly apparent how surreptitiously embedded the story is in gauzy layers of meaning which are (most likely) quickly forgotten once the narrative begins in earnest.

That is a long way of saying that there is an intriguing framing device that opens the novel: we have a nameless narrator (who is a writer and therefore may be Cather herself, though I think it is a mistake to assume she is, or even that the narrator is necessarily a she) who meets Jim Burden on a train somewhere in Iowa. The narrator and Jim grew up together in Nebraska (although mysteriously there seems to be no character involved later in the story about this town in Nebraska who might be this narrator) and both now live in New York. Jim and the narrator begin talking about Nebraska and their conversation turns to "a central figure, a Bohemian girl… [who] more than any other person we remembered… seemed to mean to us the whole country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood" (xii). Jim asks the narrator "why you have never written anything about Ántonia," and the two decide to each write a set of recollections about the girl. The rest of the novel is the narrator's edited version of the manuscript Jim produces.

The novel, then, is not just a fairly straightforward set of events, nor just a set of events arranged by a participant-narrator, but a set of events arranged by a participant-narrator that has been further arranged to an undiscoverable extent by an editor whose participation in the events is implied but is hidden and also undiscoverable. And if we don't assume that the editor of the story is Cather herself, then we have a further shell, another order of arrangement and editing. Similarly, the novel is not just the story of a woman, nor just a man's story of a woman, but may be either a man or a woman's arrangement of a man's story about a woman, depending on what we assume about the editor. And then of course, we could follow the same pattern with regard to region—is this a story about the West (or Midwest), or an Eastern recollection of the West/Midwest, or a Westerner/Midweserner's Eastern recollection of the West/Midwest—just how many layers of regional identity get folded over on one another it's a little difficult to tell (as will become even more clear below).

A few things here: you may have picked up over time on my interest in the Midwest and literature about it; one of my research interests in grad school is more specifically about people—particularly writers and intellectuals—who move into and (more typically) out of the Midwest, and how these patterns of movement affect their conceptions and eventual depictions of the Midwest and its inhabitants. So for obvious reasons, this framing device pretty much lit up the whole circuit board of my critical faculties. And if all the framing brouhaha lit it up, then this line blew it up: "We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate… We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said." And thus Andrew found his dissertation. (Well, maybe.)

I imagine if I dig a bit on JSTOR, I'll find that someone has explored this in detail (and this may be more of a critical slam-dunk than an illuminating discovery), but I found embedded in the text a suggestion that the novel be read as a revision of or answer to Virgil, and particularly to the Aeneid. Virgil is all over the novel: not only is the epigraph of the novel from the Georgics (and this quote, "Optima dies… prima fugit," plays a fairly pivotal role in the plot) but I think it's also pretty valid (contrary to the article I just linked to) to read the form of the novel as a contest between all the Virgilian genres—pastoral, georgic, and epic—a sort of three-way duel among the bucolic, the agronomic, and the heroic. But at the highest level, Cather is suggesting, quite clearly I think, that the basic purpose of the Aeneid—the recording (or imagining) of a founding myth for an empire—needs to be not only fulfilled for America, but to be re-gendered: the founding myth of America needs to be a story of women. Here's the line I'm thinking of:
It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish.
It might be simplest or most common to read this as an affirmation of a woman's role as a muse or inspiration to the male poet, but the novel doesn't really bear that out. Ántonia is far more crucial to Jim Burden's story than just being an occasion for a tale; although Jim identifies her with the land, she is not a mere metaphor from which to hang a man's idyllic raptures. Her identification with the land is a product of the importance she plays as a character, not of her appropriateness as a symbol. She is also far more active than Virgil's women or women in epic poetry generally—she's not the Dido to Jim's Aeneas (and neither, for that matter, is Lena Lindgard). The novel's title might bear a possessive pronoun, but the facts of the story definitively defy that gesture of possession.

Instead of being a muse herself, we see her as something much more resembling the Virgilian figure from the lines "Primus ego in patriam mecum… deducam Musas," which Cather translates as "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." Jim discusses this line with his intellectual mentor Gaston Cleric, but the interesting thing about these two characters is that they conspicuously do not fulfill this role, as one might suppose. Both leave Nebraska for Harvard, and (in the frame discussed above) Jim is narrating his story from an ostensibly permanent sojourn in New York (along with the frame's narrator). Cleric himself is identified as having his patria in New England, on the coast—his connection to Nebraska is more circumstantial than substantive. Jim, too, is at best transiently rooted in Nebraska—his birthplace is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where he lives until he is ten. Also it should be noted that Cather goes to some length to describe Ántonia's family as the most cultured in the area, and the tragedy of her father is that his passion for culture is stunted and starved in his new home.

If anyone is the first to bring the Muse into "this country" (Nebraska), it is Ántonia. If My Ántonia is a contest between the epic, the georgic, and the pastoral, then Ántonia herself is, in a sense, at once Thyrsis, Aeneas, and Virgil. Women, in short, are not occasions for poetry, but are actively involved as agents in its production, even when men are the ones writing it down; symmetrically, their role in the potential subject of that poetry—the story of the founding of a nation or empire—is not as mere midwifes or handmaidens, but as full and self-determining agents, as (or more) active and integral in that founding as the men.

Carpentier, C. L. R. James, Buck-Morss, and Pat Robertson

First of all, there are, as I hope you've found, a number ways to contribute to the Haiti relief effort (Oxfam is just one of many); please do so if you can.

At Crooked Timber, Scott McLemee gives the history behind Pat Robertson's jaw-droppingly noxious claim of divine retribution against Haiti; citing C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins, McLemee provides the relevant background behind what Robertson took to be a 'pact with Satan'. The Haitian Revolution did have an important religious grounding, and there was a momentous religious ceremony which inaugurated the uprising. From The Black Jacobins:
Carrying torches to light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountainside overlooking Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after Voodoo incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole which, like so much spoken on such occasions, has remained. “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.” The symbol of the god of the whites was the cross which, as good Catholics, they wore around their necks.
The first comment on the post understands what drives Robertson very well: "to him it makes perfect sense that a deity a small group of revolutionaries invoked in 1791 was The Real Devil, and I think it would sound like nonsense to him to ask what the participants thought. And it makes perfect sense to him that millions today are cursed by that long-dead group. That’s how the universe works, in his mind. His Christianity involves spell-casting and faith in demonic powers . . . kind of like his stereotype of 'voodoo' (as distinct from Vodun, the actual practised religion).

Alejo Carpentier's novel The Kingdom of This World, often called the founding text of magical realism (or in Carpentier's preferred term, marvelous realism), also depicts the aforementioned events, as well as the rest of the Revolution and its aftermath. While certainly not a historical document, it is a stunning work of imagination and a visceral challenge to the kind of evil jingoism that Robertson practices. I blogged about Kingdom of This World very briefly last year, but it has certainly made a lasting impression.

Another extremely interesting (and really one-of-a-kind) work on the Haitian Revolution is Susan Buck-Morss's Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, which claimed a crucial and hitherto unexplored inspiration for Hegel's master-slave dialectic in the events of 1791. There's a good review of the book here. And you can actually download the original Critical Inquiry article Buck-Morss wrote about Hegel and Haiti here [pdf].

Middlemarch on the Kindle

I've now finished reading the novel and, although I was warned that I'd be disappointed by the ending, I wasn't really, although frankly after a certain point I had just put myself in Eliot's hands and she could have done anything to conclude her story. Now I'm interested in reading some secondary criticism: all my Victorianist readers, what are some great articles or essays about Middlemarch?

On a related but very different topic, one thing I forgot to mention in my progress report was that I was reading Middlemarch on a Kindle (and I should probably also specify, on a Kindle DX—the larger screen is wonderful). Middlemarch is, like many public domain books, free to download through the Kindle store, although people who get frustrated by inessential details might find the frequent errors in paragraphing irritating enough to shell out the few dollars for an official release. (Basically, the problem is that there are too many new lines—paragraphs break in the middle—but in almost all cases it is after a sentence, and the new lines aren't indented, so it's easy to tell where a real new paragraph begins. There are also a handful of simple typographical errors probably resulting from a visual scanning program—Balstrode for Bulstrode occurs maybe about four times. At any rate, I will continue reading free copies when I can.) Additionally, Project Gutenberg has a lovely option for downloading a Kindle-friendly file of its texts—the mobi. Some public domain books (like Jude the Obscure, strangely) are not available in a free edition in the Kindle store, so this is quite useful. 

I think a lot of people assume that reading on a Kindle is like reading on a computer screen, but I actually found it—in terms of eyestrain—infinitely better. The technology is different, for one thing—Kindles are not backlit (which is its own kind of issue when you're trying to read late in the night next to someone who wants to sleep, as I was at one point), and not having light bombarding you is tremendously easier on the eyes. Secondly, I feel like part of the eyestrain of reading on a screen is the constant multi-directional adjustments that scrolling and navigating pages calls for, especially if you scroll as you read, bringing up new lines every few seconds; on the Kindle, your eyes move like they do when reading a bound book, and the "next page" button requires no more adjustment than flipping a printed page.

Other functionalities of printed books that are important to me—writing marginalia, underlining, dog-earing, etc.—are imperfectly approximated by the Kindle, but the approximations aren't bad. You can "highlight" blocks of text, and you can write notes, both of which are viewable when reading back through the text, but which are also collected in a file called "My Clippings" which displays all these highlighted selections and notes along with the "location" of the source in the text and the time you created it. (One related note: I have yet to figure out how to, or if I can, get the current time of day to display on the Kindle.) This has its uses and its drawbacks—it's nice to have everything collected and ordered in one place to obviate incessant flippings through the pages, but it also means that if you're reading more than one thing at a time, then the "clippings" quickly get a little jumbled. I was reading some of Pope's poetry (also free, and it displays fine) earlier this month, so there are a bunch of highlighted selections from that which interrupt the chain of notes and highlights from Middlemarch. It's very easy to figure out which is which, but I can imagine that if I were reading and marking up four or five texts at once, it might grow tedious. More generally, the "My Clippings" file should really be something more like a sortable spreadsheet rather than a simple text file—capable of being ordered not only by date, but also by source; its navigability could be greatly improved. Similarly, there are unfortunately no hyperlinks to take you to the "location" in the text from which the "clipping" comes; you have to copy down the numbered location, go to the actual text, and search for that location—it works, but again it's tedious.

With the text itself, navigability is not terribly strong either; you can search the text a number of ways—by word or by location, but often I find I have more of a visual memory of the spot on a page where something I forgot to mark but now need is than I do a memory of actual words from that section (although I have to admit this is far from a perfect method—I am frequently off). In a large text, simply paging through is not an option—you can flip actual pages far more quickly than the Kindle can load them. Of course, none of these issues apply to a straight-through read, and sometimes that's probably all you want or need.

Rortybomb had a post last month asking about the usefulness of a Kindle for reading pdfs; I didn't have mine yet so I didn't respond, but I did in part get my Kindle for this functionality. For classes, I am assigned many, many articles or chapter selections which are available in pdf, and it is expensive and environmentally evil to print them all off and frustrating to bring my computer to class so I can refer to them. (I'm also a little concerned about the wear and tear all this toting causes my laptop.) Carrying a Kindle instead seems ideal, and it certainly is as far as weight, portability, and the rest goes, but there are a few drawbacks. As with reading on a computer, not all pdfs allow searching or scrolling with a cursor, so in many cases all you have is basically a picture of the text. That's not really a problem for a short document, but in anything of some size, paging through is, once again, somewhat tedious. It's tedious on a computer as well, and that's because this is more of a consequence of the file type than it is of the Kindle, but obviously a paper copy eliminates the problem. You can mark up a paper copy all you want and flipping pages is much faster. I think it's worth losing that functionality, however, to avoid the printing and environmental costs and to gain the ease of portability and storage. It's tremendously simple to plug your Kindle into your computer (through a USB) and simply move your pdfs from your hard drive to your Kindle. And again, the actual reading experience (I find) is much nicer on a Kindle screen than it is on a computer screen. And you can very easily solve the problem of marking up the document by the simple, low-tech solution of listing your annotations with pen and paper and bringing that along to class.

I am planning on using my Kindle to buy some new books as they come out this year; there are a few that I'm really looking forward to and which I would almost certainly buy in hardcover (the new André Aciman and the new David Mitchellforemost). Now, I have a cheaper option that also will help (in small measure) stanch the overflow problem of my bookshelves. I am undecided about purchasing books for my classes on the Kindle; I think I may try it next year when I'm a little more used to navigating it, but this term I will probably continue purchasing the printed versions. 

I imagine there will be better electronic readers to come out in the next couple of years, but early adoption of anything always has its own pleasures and frustrations. I think the Kindle is useful and pleasant; if this is any kind of testimonial, I never wished I was reading the 800- or 900-page Middlemarch in a printed form rather than on its screen.

Edit (1/19/10): Scott has some great additional thoughts about the Kindle and reading classic literature at Conversational Reading.

Middlemarch: A Progress Report

I am only about three-fifths through the book, but I need to gush, and to recommend Rohan Maitzen's recent article about Eliot's Felix Holtin the latest issue of Open Letters

Middlemarch is already the most perfect book I have ever read. I forget I have coffee beside me when I'm reading it—a feat no other book has yet achieved. I forget there are other books; when I finally do look up from its pages, some comparisons strike me, but only, I think, so that the disorientation of emerging sadly back into the real world is checked to some extent.

All the principal characters are incomparable. Eliot somehow manages to make each one repel identification or even much sympathy, yet also to evade complete repugnance. One doesn't necessarily like any of the characters, yet one never wishes they would go away—not even Casaubon. And unlike the characters of, say, Henry James, of whom most of the preceding could also be said, I never wish any of them would shut up—again, not even Casaubon.

Eliot is also as epigrammatic as Nietzsche or Pope, but not as sententious because her aphorisms are not the products of mere thoughts, but of moments actually inhabited by people. Of Ladislaw: "very little achievement is required in order to pity another man's shortcomings." Of Mr. Vincy: "The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action." Of Ladislaw again, "Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettanteism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of indifference." It's like the Williams command "No ideas but in things," only altered to "No sentences but in people." General truths are never merely universal.

Similarly, what could be called the surplus intellectual content of the book—the ideas about ideas that builds up so much of the work of writers like Mann and Lessing—is always grounded in quite material problems facing the characters. Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies is the ultimate expression of pedantry and stamps Casaubon as a type of character, but it is not simply that, it is also what holds together the emotional problems that he and Dorothea have as a couple with the limitations—both physical and intellectual—that become obvious and insuperable when he thinks of and interacts with Ladislaw. The fact, for instance, that his Key is intellectually crippled by his lack of German is not an inert or abstract element, is not just something to add to our knowledge of the character, but is a sort of substrate for the relationship between Casaubon and Ladislaw. And in speaking his doubts to Dorothea about Casaubon's capacity for contributing something new to scholarship, Ladislaw does not merely cause Dorothea to re-estimate her husband's omniscience, but creates an emotional distance between the wife and her husband. Casaubon becomes a different person to her, and she begins to think more about herself and what she values.

Now, back to the book.