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Recommending Henry

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A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)

Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      


(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

Real combat

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David Grossman's To the End of the Land might be a great book, but it's a mess.  It has tics, like its characters.  (And this is a book in which a boy rhymes incessantly for months, and then graduates into OCD hand-washing/lip-puffing/face-contorting, etc.).
 
Grossman's protagonist, Ora, is a little too emotional, and a little too unintelligent, to hold the book together.  It flies apart with her tantrums, her sudden impulses to cook, to flee, to write, to argue.
 
Like Ora, the story occillates.  The book begins powerfully, with evocative scenes in an isolation ward in a hospital during the 1967 war.  Fast-forwarding to 2000, the book continues strongly, with a devastating sub-plot involving Ora's Arab driver, Sami.  But - too soon - Sami disappears.  Ilan, Ora's husband, and Adam, her oldest son, have disappeared before we meet Ora in 2000, and her younger son, Ofer, vanishes into a military campaign shortly before Sami takes off.  All this fleeing leaves Ora alone with Avram, a man of severe incapacities, on a hike along the Israel Trail, from northen Israel back down to Jerusalem.  The narrative for the next four hundred pages or so must rise and fall with Ora, and she isn't up to the burden.
 
Grossman tries to help her out.  At one point, feral dogs menace Ora and Avram, with the upshot that Ora attracts - and functionally adopts - a dog who follows their meanderings for the remainder of the book.  At another point, Ora and Avram meet an elderly pediatrician, hiking alone, wearing two wedding rings and asking intimate questions.  The doctor finds a notebook Ora dropped, and Ora later retrieves it from him while he naps.  In my favorite of these tangents, Ora and Avram are picked up by a jester of sorts, a holy fool named Akiva, whose job is as a "gladdener of the dejected."  
 
But none of these narrative life-savers thrown by the author gets Ora to swim.  She swirls along with the currents and the breezes, and by the end of the book the narrative seems to expire from exhaustion.  The desperately important sub-plot with Sami is left hanging; the fate of Ofer in the military campaign limps to an ambiguous closure; the rupture in Ora's relations with her husband, Ilan, and her son, Adam, raises its head, but barely receives a pat. 
 
Instead, we get Ora's final tantrum, which occurs after she's invaded Avram's privacy by checking his voicemails without his knowledge and intercepted a sensitive message from his girlfriend in which she seems obliquely to be confessing to an abortion.  Ora - though the aggressor and the violator in this scenario - is hurt and acting out, and in the context of everything else with which she and Avram have been dealing over the course of the book (horrorific torture, war crimes, divorce, abandoment, helplessness to protect one's children), Ora's behavior rings a sour and petty note on which to conclude the book.  But the ending feels like Grossman simply couldn't go on: Ora wore him down.  He had to close the book on her. 
 
And yet the book has the ambition, the empathy and the sheer compulsion - the sense that it ripped itself from its author's guts and loins - that makes it great: "great" in the sense that the great Roberto Bolaño defines great books in his great and monumental novel 2666:

What a sad paradox . . . . Now even bookish [readers] are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
(p. 227.)
 
Bolaño has distilled the issue perfectly.  In To the End of the Land, Grossman struggles mightily against what terrifies us all, literally amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.  And he has produced an imperfect, torrential work that blazes into the unknown.  
 
For Grossman, for Bolaño, and most of all for ourselves, we mustn't fear to take it on.

(Image of David Grossman from The Guardian)

Who loves armed missionaries?

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Nothing in the reviews has made me want to read Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey: My Political Life.  Michiko Kakutani's observation that A Journey "sheds little light" on Blair's core motivations - especially as they relate to involving Britain in America's war in Iraq - finds echoes in other reviews.  Like everyone I know, I'm busy enough that I don't want to spend time on un-illuminating books.

I can't help wondering, though, whether Blair's shallowness is a function of his own reading material.  Kakutani quotes Blair as saying that, by an April 2002 meeting with George W. Bush, Blair

had resolved in [his] own mind that removing Saddam would do the world, and most particularly the Iraqi people, a service.
At the time I read that remark, I was also reading Hilary Mantel's, A Place of Greater Safety, and I felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition.  An ambitious account of the French Revolution from the time before its inception through the deaths of Georges Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins, A Place of Greater Safety details the political conflict preceding France's declaration of war on Austria in 1792.  The pro-war faction was named the Brissotins (for their spokesperson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot); the anti-war side was a sub-set of the Jacobins called the Montagnards, who included Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. 

Here's Hilary Mantel's version of a conversation between Danton and Robespierre regarding the Brissotin war plans:

"They talk," [Danton] said, "of a crusade to bring liberty to Europe.  Of how it's our duty to spread the gospel of fraternity."
"Spread the gospel?  Well, ask yourself - who loves armed missionaries?"
"Who indeed?"
"They speak as if they had the interests of the people at heart, but the end of it will be military dictatorship."
(p. 398.)

Hilary Mantel isn't responsible for the armed forces of the UK, but maybe she should be.  She, at least, has been reading (and writing) her history. 

If Blair had been doing the same, perhaps he wouldn't have supported the American folly in Iraq; or perhaps he would have: but either way he'd be much less likely to justify it as "a service."  Indeed, he'd likely have seen "a service" in describing how he learned from experience that no one loves armed missionaries.

But that service is as sadly lacking as the one Blair claimed to be providing the Iraqi people.
 
(Image of Jacques-Pierre Brissot from Wikipedia; image of Tony Blair from BBC)

The line from literacy-enabled logic to immortality

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For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another.  The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word and René Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences.  The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire. 

One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing.  Ong explains:

[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.)  In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:

[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.  Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. . . . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside, not from within.
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(p. 54-55.)  Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy.  Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:

I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to learn them.  But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned, I completely changed my opinion.  For I was assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance. 
(p. 29.)  In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks.  Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter.  The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there.  Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).

Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures.  According to Ong,

[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game?  Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules.  The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
(p. 52.)

Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic.  He was also critical of it:

[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.)  Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology.  Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients.  Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but

to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.)  But I went in a different direction.

My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track.  These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.

In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes,
Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the heads.  The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal the man.  The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over the body (and the viscera it encases).

I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks.  The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC).  The Romans were literate.

And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality.  Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:

[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.
(p. 46.)  The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult. 

The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever.  No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.

Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice.  (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.) 
The immortals were

immune to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy years passed before he was thrown a rope.  Nor was he much interested in his own fate.  His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water, and a scrap of meat.  But let no one imagine that we were mere ascetics.  There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.)  Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness.  We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be.  And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.

Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":

In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths.
(p. 5.)  Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":

The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
(p. 81.)

Immortality is for the books. 

(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia; image of René Descartes from The Telegraph)

The holy role of the unread novelist

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Roberto_Bolaño&Nun.jpg"Utterly futile" is not a bad description of all (my) attempts to blog about Roberto Bolaño's 2666.  A blog post is simply too flimsy a format for any proper address of Bolaño's monumental achievement.  Bolaño's 2666 requires depth and thoughtfulness from the attendant critical commentary, and a blog post (virtually by design) scrupulously avoids either.  The snarky quip is indigenous to the blog post; the piquant insight is almost always lost and alone in a blog post, having arrived in such foreign territory only after a wrong turn routed it from The New York Review of Books or like journal.

By which preamble I mean to introduce a follow-on thought to my last post about Bolaño's 2666.  In that post, I pondered - ineptly - Bolaño's choice to present a writer-character, Benno von Archimboldi, without providing any examples of Archimboldi's work.  I speculated that the writer-without-an-oeuvre might be a symbol of mortality, a subversion of the writer's (Romantic) aspiration of immorality through his or her works.

Because a blog post is not a format conducive to exhaustive consideration of alternatives, I did not mention in my prior post another hypothesis that, on reflection, strikes me as more probable than my initial conjecture.  Instead, I am now devoting this blog post to my alternate theory: that Bolaño left the reader without examples of Archimboldi's writing because Archimboldi's importance lies in his existence, not in his novels.

As Baroness Von Zumpe, Archimboldi's publisher, admits:

she had never bothered to read any of [Archimboldi's novels], because she hardly ever read "difficult" or "dark" novels like the ones he wrote. . . . When Archimboldi wanted to know why she kept publishing him if she didn't read him, which was really a rhetorical question since he the answer, the baroness replied (a) because she knew he was good, (b) because Bubis [her deceased husband] told her to, (c) because few publishers actually read the books they published.
(p. 863.)  

In the world of 2666, the priority is to bring the good book into existence.  What happens thereafter - whether the book becomes a bestseller or tops out at only 500 copies sold - is irrelevant.  The novelist writing and publishing is good for the world, even if the novelist is unread.  

This perspective strikes me as quasi-religious, echoing traditions of contemplative nuns who withdraw from the world and pray for particular causes.  As Mother Carmela of Child Jesus, a Thai convent, says, "Through prayer we are responsible for society and the world."  Believers may never see or interact with these nuns, but may nonetheless find solace in the knowledge of the cloistered nuns' prayers.

In the same way, Bolaño suggests that by writing and publishing, Archimboldi (and novelists generally) is (are) responsible for society and the world.  The importance of Archimboldi is that he exists, writing and publishing and thereby taking responsibility for the good of humankind.  

Like contemplative nuns, Archimboldi has withdrawn from the world - he's a "vanished" writer - and his writing (again like the prayers of the nuns) is invisible to us.  Yet Bolaño wants us, the readers, to find solace in the fact of Archimboldi's efforts, just as Catholics find succor in the fact of the contemplative nuns' prayers.  The writing itself, like the text of the nuns' prayers, is besides the point.

That's my stab at the wayward thoughtful insight.  Now for the snarky
quip: nuns take a vow of poverty; unless Bolaño advocates that novelists do the same (and Bolaño is an author who switched from poetry to novels in order to make money), the novelist can't afford to go unread.

(Images from The Daily Mail and National Museums Liverpool)
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