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Inexhaustability: drink it up

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In "Snow," Louis MacNeice wrote of "the drunkenness of things being various," but I also enjoy a drunkenness of things being synonymous.  Take, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard's experience of a painting of clouds by John Constable, recounted in his memoir, My Struggle:

[S]uddenly he is in tears, arrested by "an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1822," and unable to explain his reaction.  What is he feeling?  "The feeling of inexhaustibility.  The feeling of beauty.  The feeling of presence."  He has always been unsettled by paintings, but he has never found it easy to describe his experience of them -- "because of what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire.  I can't explain it any better than that.  A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility."

This passage from James Woods' The New Yorker review of My Struggle stayed with me because I did not understand Knausgaard's use of "inexhaustibility."  An avid devotee of visual art myself, I did not identify with the quality that Knausgaard found so salient. 

Poussin_Rinaldo_Armida_small.jpgAnd then, as chance provided, I read Louis MacNeice's poem, "Poussin," and I understood.  In "Poussin," MacNeice describes the experience of gazing upon "that Poussin" in which "the clouds are like golden tea" and "cupids' blue feathers beat musically."  The motion in the painting he characterizes as "still as when one walks and the moon / Walks parallel but relations remain the same":

And thus we never reach the dregs of the cup,
Though we drink it up and drink it up and drink it up
Yes, exactly: the experience is inexhaustible.  Return always and be nourished again.  Our only counterbalance to mortality: drink it up while we can.

Image of John Constable's "Cloud Study: evening," from the National Gallery of Australia; image of Nicolas Poussin's "Rinaldo and Armida" from WikiPaintings.

The books ain't helping

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Dan_Chiasson.jpgI attended law school during tumultuous years when affirmative action was being phased out, and my legal education is indelibly fused with a serious dose of American race-based identity politics.  I accepted the paradigm and my place within it because I believed (and continue to believe that) doing so is morally necessary; the unfairnesses of the alternatives are intolerable. 

Since law school, however, I've lived overseas in environments where American-style race-based identity politics appear absurd.  Racial classifications in China, India and Kenya - where I've spent most of my time since 2004 - exist, of course.  Broadly speaking, such classifications are enormously crude, relatively overt and highly-tolerated by the societies.  Jargon and academic methodologies haven't yet throttled these inequalities: they are facts of life.  If one chooses to engage them, one does so concretely, not conceptually. 

As a result of my experience, I stubbed my reading flow on the following passage in Dan Chiasson's otherwise fine New York Review of Books review of Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' book, The Anthology of Rap:

Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.
I'm guessing that, thirteen years ago, when I was in the fishbowl of American race relations, these sentences would have seemed moderate and sensible.  My view now is a bit different. 

What strikes me first is the lack of proportion.  American race relations certainly has its tragic dimensions, most saliently its violence and its capacity for depriving large swathes of humanity of the fundaments of life - including recognition of their humanity.  But whites trying and failing to understand blacks isn't high on the list of "tragic" elements in the American race relations saga.

Next is the lack of precision.  Chiasson begins talking about whites trying to understand blacks, but then recharacterizes the issue as "nobody knows what it is like to change races."  In this shift, problems abound.

First, people do know what changing races feels like: people pass (for instance, Anatole Broyard).

But the larger issue is that achieving understanding across the racial divide and "chang[ing] races" aren't equivalent.  "Chang[ing] races" is not the point: being another race is. 

The question is not one of whether whites can understand blacks, but whether anyone can understand being a different race than the one into which he or she has been born.  In assigning whites an empathetic task without a reciprocal role for blacks, Chiasson assumes a typical, American identity-politics "moral white person" responsibility that manages nonetheless to dehumanize blacks by exempting them from the empathetic tasks inherent in the social contract. 

The obvious situation in which this variety of one-way empathy works is in the animal rights context: we're supposed to feel compassion for the rat in the cancer drug trial, but the rat has no burden of empathy for the cancer patient whose life is saved by the drug.  I'll admit that I have doubts as to whether this paradigm is appropriate for animals; I have no doubt that non-reciprocal empathetic relations are not suitable for humans.  

Once Chiasson's issue is framed in terms of anyone's capacity to understand the racial experience of anyone else, the issue isn't tragic, but universal.  (I doubt that Chiasson would have written, for example, that blacks trying and failing to understand whites is tragic.) 

The problem isn't even particularly American, but one that has arisen between peoples interacting for eons.  Power and wealth imbalances between the groups are better indicators of the extent of eventual understanding that any member of either group will achieve (or not) than are classifications of "white" and "black."  Only unusual people (and never the group as a whole) will deviate from the pattern set by his or her group's demographic profile.

Which brings me to my final observation about the quoted passage: its disconnect from actual interactions between white and black people.  Indeed, Chiasson's next sentence is: "Growing up in Vermont, I met a total of one black person." 

An empathetic attempt grounded in the concrete, rather than the conceptual - and Chiasson goes on to discuss looking up "afro" in the dictionary - seems likely to have yielded a different insight, perhaps this one:  Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the reality that too many American whites and blacks are willing to settle for superficial relations defined by commercialism, vulgarity and distanced hyper-conceptualization.     

This abstract compartmentalization of race matters doesn't defend us or protect us from whatever we fear from engaging the issues concretely.  To the contrary, such extreme conceptualization only corrupts our thinking.  Inevitably it implicates books in our dirty work: in this blog post alone, an anthology, a book review and a dictionary have been caught aiding and abetting. 

American race relations may be the only topic as to which I would advocate: Read less.  Engage more.  Don't settle.
(Image of Dan Chiasson from Wellesley College website) 

If only "only connect" . . .

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EM_Forster_1938.jpgIn his Express review Wendy Moffat's biography, EM Forster: A New Life, Duncan Fallowell wrote that "the great and beautiful theme of all [Forster's] work [was] 'the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.'"

Certainly Forster's theme is no secret.  Indeed, his formulation of it in Howard's End is endlessly quoted:

Only connect! . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Although "Only connect" obviously resonates with many people, I prefer Forster's statement of the principal in concrete terms.  Here he is, explaining in A Passage to India, how "only connect" works in action, without any of the abstract "beast" and "monk" references:

There needs must be this evil of brains in India, but woe to him through whom they are increased!  The feeling grew that Mr. Fielding was a disruptive force, and rightly, for ideas are fatal to caste, and he used ideas by that most potent method - interchange.  Neither a missionary nor a student, he was happiest in the give-and-take of a private conversation.  The world, he believed, is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of good will plus culture and intelligence - a creed ill-suited to Chandrapore, but [Fielding] had come out too late to lose it.
Forster's description of cross-cultural connection through conversational interchange is something I recognize from experience.  But the more important reason for preferring "good will plus culture and intelligence" to "only connect" is that, in A Passage to India, Forster illustrates something else I know from experience: the limits of his doctrine.

"Only connect" just isn't enough.  Abstractly stated, it's easy to romanticize; contextualized in A Passage to India, it's exposed as wishful thinking.

A brief summary of the plot of A Passage to India is here useful: Fielding and Aziz manage to become friends despite the British raj.  When Adela Quested accuses Aziz of making criminal sexual advances, Fielding maintains Aziz's innocence.  Fielding resigns from the British club in protest of the colonial community's racist presumption of Aziz's guilt.  Adela receives vulgar support from racist colonials, against which her intrinsic decency recoils.  On the witness stand in court, Adela dramatically retracts her accusation.  In the aftermath of the trial, Fielding houses Adela at the school where he teaches, and he urges Aziz not to sue Adela for libel.  Aziz accuses Fielding of helping his [Aziz's] enemy, and years later refuses to see Fielding when he returns to India with his new wife.  Upon learning that Fielding's wife is not Adela Quested, but in fact Stella Moore, the daughter of an elderly woman who Aziz loved and honored, Aziz relents in his anger, but the rupture in their friendship is permanent. 

In the book's last scene, Fielding and Aziz meet, "aware that they could meet no more."  Aziz asserts, "if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then . . . and then . . . you and I shall be friends."  Fielding questions this perspective: "Why can't we be friends now? . . . It's what I want.  It's what you want."  But Forster makes clear that everything in the environs - the horses, "the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion . . . they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'"     

As even the plot outline clarifies, the connection between Aziz and Fielding does not make manifest "human love at its height."  It reveals that individual human connections devoid of social support are fragile, fleeting and unstable.  The flip-side is shown by Adela Quested, who is propped up by people she loathes: social support devoid of human connections are equally fragile, fleeting and unstable.  Both - as demonstrated by the ostracization of both Fielding and Adela -  lead to loneliness and isolation.

I have lived this saddening dynamic myself.  The vast majority of interactions that I've had over the last seven years have involved some attempt to connect across a cultural divide.  The connections so achieved don't mean what I hope, or wish, or think they mean; they're superficial; they evaporate with a hint of pressure; they continually disappoint.  Falling into the trap of blaming myself - I didn't try hard enough, I didn't have enough compassion - is easy, but the truth is hard.

What EM Forster could have said - what's accurate - is "Only connect, in a context that supports connection."  The drawback to truth, of course, is what Forster describes at the end of A Passage to India: contexts often don't support connections.  The temples, the sky, they don't want it.  And if you're in a context that doesn't support the connection you want or need, then you must remake your context, which is vastly more difficult than making a connection.

To describe Forster's "great and beautiful" theme as finding individual connection with another human being does a disservice to Forster, I think.  In his own life, he knew that what he needed was not an individual connection, but a gay-friendly social context.  And in A Passage to India, he suffused his art with that more complicated version of his theme: "Only connect, although the connection will fail, fragile, fleeting and unstable is our portion."
(Image of EM Forster from The Daily Mail)

Live weight

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Lead_stops_radiation.jpgFor about twenty-four hours, from Saturday through mid-day Sunday, I felt leaden.  Productivity on any front was futile: accomplishment was too heavy a goal.  Even sleep was a beyond me; I lay in a thick stupor, conscious, unmoving, dark.  My thoughts grouped in clumps, the manifold forgotten things in the spaces between them. 

I dragged the word "lead" around like a manacle.  The image and sense memory of a lead apron pressed on me.  I wondered at the weight, then appreciated my own summoning of it.  Lead is protection from radiation.

That I could summon the metal without the metaphor!  That I could cast a lead canopy over Japan! 

The pain of the planet's only population to know nuclear fallout on the receiving end of two atomic bombs, now facing the potential meltdown of as many as six nuclear reactors - if that pain were distilled in a cry, what answer could suffice?  My imaginative connection with that pain, my expression of helplessness, was a temporary immobilization, a 24-hour leaden-ization that melted when I became conscious that it was sympathetic: an empathetic burden made manifest.

Though I cannot imagine the depth of pain wrought by the post-earthquake nuclear situation in Japan, I can understand what's necessary to withstand it: resiliency.  Whatever the outcome of the attempts to cool down Japan's overheating reactors, Japan's population needs reservoirs of resiliency.

Realizing this, I thought of Nathaniel Rich's review of Ryu Murakami's novel, Popular Hits of the Showa Era, in which Rich writes that, "grotesque behavior is a logical response to a society [Japan's] that discourages expressions of individuality, self-reflection and personal ambition."  Clucking our tongues at such un-American strains in a foreign culture is easy, but all three of these characteristics - by fragmenting the community, by shifting the focus from the group to the individual - may reduce the overall resiliency of the population and, indeed, of its individual members.

Developing high pain thresholds and resiliency comes at a price; I'm not romantic about the social costs of conformity.  Nor am I soft-minded about the difference between solving social problems and feeling better about them.  So at the risk of doing the latter without the former, I wonder if the resiliency of Japan's population can be at all supported through collective action of a poetic nature, a broad-scale inhabited metaphor:

We will be your lead, and our own.  We will shoulder your weight with you, diffuse your pain as the radiation diffuses over us and the planet. 

Let the lead be live.

(Image of the radiation-stopping properties of lead from BBC)     

With failure like this, who needs success?

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My last post constituted a kind of footnote to my penultimate post, and now I have to confess something embarrassing about footnotes: I've never written just one.  They always seem to proliferate on me.

So here's another footnote to that penultimate post, in which I casually referred to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View as, variously, "uneven" and "at times . . . implausible."  I hadn't included any evidence supporting those judgments in the post and, though I think the judgments are warranted, I also think that, without elaboration, they're unfair.  So I elaborate.

My concerns rest on two scenes.  Both involve conversational confrontations that lead to personal transformations.  Both seem to reflect, not human behavior as lived and observed, but characters' behavior as imagined by an optimistic author determined to craft salvation for his creations, whether deserving or no.

In the first scene, Lucy Honeychurch tells Cecil Vyse, her fiancé, that she won't marry him.  As her reason, she proffers that he's "the sort who can't know any one intimately."  She condemns him for "always protecting" her and not "let[ting] me be myself."  She calls him "conventional" because he "may understand beautiful things," but he doesn't "know how to use them."  (p. 201.)

Cecil, up until this point, has been controlling, condescending and conniving about getting his way.  He seems well-defended against any reality that shows his asshole personality.  Nor does his asshole personality seem to encompass being a good sport about rejection.  Nonetheless, wholly outside of his character, he replies:

It is true.
. . . .
True, every word.  It is a revelation.  It is - I.
. . . .
He repeated: "'The sort that can know no one intimately.'  It is true.  I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged.  I behaved like a cad to Beebe and to your brother.  You are even greater than I thought."
(p. 202.)  Then, with dignity and grace, and without much further ado, he departs.

Now I have, in my day, broken up with one or two men.  I've also taken other men to task for asshole behavior, actions which - in a more or less direct way - led to them breaking up with me.  And based on these experiences, I find Cecil's response so implausible that I'm tempted to hazard that E.M. Forster has never witnessed - or received an accurate second-hand account of - an actual break-up between a male and a female.

This scene is a contrivance.  Resulting not from organic interaction between the characters, but from authorial sentimentality for Cecil and a need to advance the plot and deepen Lucy's character development, the scene is a gentle redemption of Cecil that paves the way for Lucy's redemption two chapters on.  Unsurprisingly, Lucy's redemption is the second scene with which I take issue.

In this second engineered exchange, George Emerson's father talks Lucy into marrying George.  His technique is a bit brutal by Edwardian standards.  He "mean[s] to shock" Lucy with references to the carnal: "I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!"  And he warns Lucy that, "It isn't possible to love and to part. . . . You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you.  I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal."  (p. 237.)  He urges her, "When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love - Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made."  (p. 238.)

This entreaty frightens Lucy, but it also revolutionizes her.  Despite her commitment to travel to Greece, despite having spent her mother's money on travel arrangements, despite being revealed as untrustworthy and unreliable to her family and Mr. Beebe, despite her ordinariness, prudishness and inexperience, she will now radically alter her life's course and marry George.  Mr. Emerson's speech had "robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire."  (p. 240.)

Without getting too graphic, I'll assert that I think I know a thing or two about the holiness of direct desire, and I've never experienced it in conversation with a lover-to-be's father.  I won't go so far as to say that my experience is definitive, but I feel myself on comfortable ground calling this scene, as I did previously, a deus ex machina.  It's a wondrous machine for transporting sheltered little Lucy into the wide-open world of adult love . . . but none of us have ever traveled in such a machine because it doesn't exist.  What does exist - and what constitutes the conduit from innocence to sexual maturity that most (if not all) of us traverse - is a poorly-lit path, pitted with potholes and lined with muggers and thieves.

This reliance on artifice and contrivance, rather than the grit of reality, may be one reason why Forster is so often demoted from the top ranks of novelists:  "There's something middling about Forster," writes Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books, "he is halfway to where people want him to be."

And yet, despite my own objections to Forster's rude artifice, despite my sense that it adds "uneven" and "implausible" elements to his work, I don't think these flaws make Forster "middling."  Shakespeare, too, is uneven (Henry VIII anyone?) and implausible elements abound in his works (A Winter's Tale, hello?); still, Shakespeare is tops, and anyone who disagrees is a "three-inch fool."

Forster reached for artifice (I'm guessing) for the best reasons: he was imagining a world that didn't exist.  He was giving us a nudge to head for the horizon and, if his vision of what lay beyond didn't accord with what was actually there, it doesn't make him less of a visionary.  As Zadie Smith notes about Forster's literary criticism, he had an uncanny ability to be "right" about his contemporaries, to make judgments with which later generations agree - to see accurately in the midst of the thicket. 

Forster, I think, had the same gift of insight about human behavior.  What he seems to have lacked in A Room with a View was the ability to imagine the alternatives that humans eventually adopted, as well as the literary and narrative capacities to allow his characters to lead him where he wouldn't have otherwise have gone.  Still, a truly middling novelist is unlikely to have failed as graciously, and as entertainingly thought-provokingly, as Forster.     
(Image of E.M. Forster from BBC)

It isn't ever delicate to be reviewed

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I think Kay Ryan and her poetry are magnificent.  Uncompromising and wise, Ryan seems to wear her later-life success (Guggenheim fellowship, Poet Laureate of the United States, etc.) very easily.  Perhaps her mastery of fame derives from having her priorities in order.  Her poetry, at least, always jolts my priorities into place: "Turtle" brings me succor on my worst days, reaches me when more personal entreaties can't or won't.

With such feelings, I am not an objective reader of reviews of Ryan's work.  Indeed, I am possibly a mite overprotective of her, the way fans of Jane Austen, with their "peculiar affection," won't tolerate an unkind word against her.  Disclaimers out of the way, I can now say that Helen Vendler's New York Review of Books review of Ryan's new collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, pissed me off.

Some of the offense arose from Vendler's distinctively condescending tone, insistent refusal to like Ryan's poems, and begrudging praise:

And what sort of poetry has issued from this unusual personal trajectory?
. . . .
But such [rhymes], aside from being defensible, should by their sound please or alert or warn the ear, and these, to my mind, don't always succeed in doing so.
. . . .
Over the past fifteen years, Ryan's poems, resolutely impersonal versions of the personal, have varied in quality.
. . . .
Her departure leaves only "the chap of/abandonment."  And if nothing clever, in Ryan's earlier manner, can be said about that, something better than cleverness takes its place, a "polish and balm" in the simplicity of the poet's lines.
These remarks are all of scant bearing on Ryan's new collection.  That her personal trajectory is, in Vendler's opinion, "unusual" is either obvious or irrelevant; any interesting personal trajectory is unusual, yet plenty of fine poems have emerged from dull lives (pace Wallace Stevens).  That Ryan doesn't always succeed (in her rhymes or anything else) is a readily-grasped observation about humankind and, situated in nothing sturdier than Vendler's personal taste, the comment sounds simply bitchy.  All artists' work varies over a decade and a half, but Vendler doesn't clarify that the variance is reflected in Ryan's new collection.  And the toss-off insult about Ryan's lack of cleverness is so gratuitous as to appear mean. 

But my biggest gripe pertains to Vendler's insistence on casting Ryan as an uncultivated outsider who, late in life, was embraced by the inside - a sort of Grandma Moses of poetry:

Ryan's work might be considered outside the mainstream, and she (as someone who began outside the realm of privilege) feels she ought to stand up, as a matter of principle, for "outsider art."
. . . .
Ryan occupies the uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer, growing up with no "background" that could help with the rise to mastery of language, with no money to buy select education from kindergarten on, doing an ill-paid job not offering much public recognition. . . . From a life that has not been easy, she has mined nuggets that add to American poetic wealth.
This narrative of Vendler's is sheer idiocy.  What can she possibly mean by calling Ryan's work outside the "mainstream"?  What's the "mainstream" of poetry?  Ryan's style is more accessible than that of poetry paragon, John Ashbery, and every bit as accessible as the "popular" work of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver.  And in any event, isn't the point of poetry to eviscerate a "mainstream"?

Moreover, what the hell is the "uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer"?  What else is there?  Writers, unlike lawyers (and I should know, I'm both), don't come out of cookie cutters.  Law can be taught; writing cannot.  Lawyers pass the bar and are licensed to practice; no test exists that can certify a writer's quality.  A writer can attempt to fool him or herself with MFA degrees and fellowships, with creative writing professorships and publishing contracts, but all those credentials will make you a writer as much as a regime of regular colonics will protect you from mortality.  All writers (and artists) are self-made.  Otherwise they're hacks.

As for mining a difficult life for nuggets to contribute to the wealth of American poetry, snooze.  What poet doesn't have a difficult life?  Byron was born with a club foot; Coleridge had issues with opium.  Hart Crane was an openly-gay alcoholic, at a time when the former was socially unacceptable.  Robert Lowell was a manic-depressive.  Anne Sexton: suicide.  Jack Gilbert has dementia.    

Does Helen Vendler have something to say?  What's with all the useless, irrelevant, obvious, general statements?  Is she hiding something?  Or merely without anything to contribute?

If The New York Review of Books decides to send a third rate critical capacity to assess a first rate poet, the error reflects only on it.  But Kay Ryan deserves better, although she knows better than to expect what she's owed.  As Ryan wrote in concluding her poem, "Spiderweb": "It/isn't ever/delicate/to live."

(Image of Kay Ryan from Library of Congress website)
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