“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Best Literature in Translation 2011

In many ways, I thought this was a slightly odd year for literature in translation; I read an enormous number of books that I really, really liked, but only a few that I felt were truly classic books that I would return to again and again in the future. Moreover, several "big name" foreign authors released books that, in my opinion, were simply not very good (so I will warn you in advance that you won't see Murakami, Peter Nadas, Cesar Aira or Enrique Villa-Matas anywhere on this list). I have also cheated a bit: two books on it were actually published in 2010 and 2009, but I only got around to reading them this year, and another two books are either re-issues or re-translations. As ever, I refuse to rank the books below, because they are all great, and every single one of them is worth reading. Lastly, those of you who read sites like Three Percent, ReadThisNext and Conversational Reading may notice quite a few familiar titles; there's nothing magical or coincidental about this, since those are places I tend to turn for recommendations on books. And if you don't read those sites, you should! Without further ado, here were some of my favourites from the last year...

Jenny Erpenbeck  Visitation
Yes, this came out in 2010, but I only got to it in January of 2011. This phenomenal "novel"--much like Jennifer Egan's vastly overrated A Visit from the Goon Squad--is really a series of interconnected short stories about the history of a single piece of land in Germany during the 20th Century. Despite its seemingly weighty subject matter, its gorgeous prose is consistently inventive, and its rounded psychological portraits will appeal to readers of more "conventional" books as well. With this book, Erpenbeck has already become one of my favourite contemporary European writers. Highly recommended.

Goncalo Tavares  Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique
This novel--to my mind--fits in with a larger return to naturalism that appears to be burgeoning at the moment, but what separates Tavares's work is its dark sense of humour and absurdist tendencies. The protagonist, a power hungry, immoral doctor not-so-subtly named Lenz Buchmann is portrayed in a manner that walks a thin line between melodrama and pastiche--and it works brilliantly. This is a phenomenal and satisfying portrait of a despicable character, and one of the most interesting books I've read in 2011. I can't wait for the publication of Tavares's Joseph Walser's Machine in 2012. Oh, and Tavares's earlier novel Jerusalem is also brilliant, if not quite as successful as this one.

Sergio Chejfec – My Two Worlds
This short little novella--Chejfec's first to be translated into English--simply recounts an author walking through a park, but this simple plot presents the basis for a text of exceptional complexity. Although outwardly resembling Peter Handke's Afternoon of a Writer, My Two Worlds is a complicated work that slyly alludes to a variety of stories by Borges and presents--in fictionalized form--Chejfec's own meditations on the relationship between the world, memory and fiction. This book is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in World Literature.

Peter Sloterdijk  Terror from the Air
There are many reasons for disqualifying this book from consideration for this list: 1) it was published in 2009, and 2) it is a work of theory rather than fiction. Sloterdijk, however, is not only one of Europe's most important contemporary philosophers, but also a philosopher with a truly literary style in the tradition of Nietzsche. Terror from the Air argues for a radical new understanding of modernity in relation to three factors: terrorism, product design and increasing awareness of the fact that humans are situated in atmospheric environments. From this simple starting point, he is able to offer a radically new understanding of the 20th Century. Although the massive tome Bubbles, which is part one of his Spheres trilogy, was published this year, Terror from the Air (which is actually the first section of Spheres III: Foam) is the best introduction to this essential thinker.

Magdalena Tulli  In Red
"Whosoever has been everywhere and seen everything should last of all pay a visit to Stitchings." So begins Magdalena Tulli's enchanting novella about the ill-fated Polish town of Stichings. Although Tulli uses a technique that might be described as "magical realism," this brief narrative is full of inventive linguistic and formal surprises and a wickedly bleak sense of humour. This is a beautiful book that is also printed in a characteristically lovely edition by Archipelago Press.

Georges Perec  The Art and Craft of Asking Your Boss for a Raise
This weird little book by Perec--which had previously been considered untranslatable--uses a compositional style that is entirely based on an algorithm given to Perec by a computer scientist, resulting in a form completely unlike that of any other novel you've ever read. By turns hysterically funny, frustrating and inventive, David Bellos's wonderful translation brings this strange-but-essential book to life in English.

Bohumil Hrabal  Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age
Though previously available in English, NYRB Books has re-released this classic of 20th Century Czech Literature, which is easily the funniest piece of prose I read this year next to the ultimate section of Evan Dara's The Easy Chain. This one-sentence novel is the monologue of an old man that is full of one-liners and twisted humour that results from the structural semantic ambiguity created by intentionally misplaced modifiers. If you don't know what that means, read it and see for yourself.

Eduoard Leve  Suicide
Ten days after handing his publisher the manuscript of his final novel, Suicide, Eduoard Leve took his own life. This fact haunts this fictional work about the suicide of a young man, which intentionally both encourages and discourages identification with the real-life figure of Leve. This mesmerising short novel is written in a stark prose that only increases its emotional impact, and, except for a formal shift at the end that doesn't quite work, was one of the most affecting novels I read all year.

Claire Lispector – The Hour of the Star
Although long available in English, New Directions has published a new translation of The Hour of the Star, which further highlights Lispector's deeply idiosyncratic prose. Indeed, The Hour of the Star is such a strange book that I am still not completely sure what to make of it--and I have not been so completely unsettled and intrigued by a prose style since reading Robert Walser's The Robber (which is no small compliment). This is a novel I hope to return to soon, and, given that New Directions is publishing at least four more Lispector novels in new translations next year, it's a given that her work will begin to receive greater recognition.

Honourable Mentions: Patrik Ourednik's The Opportune Moment, 1855, Jean Echenoz's Lightning, Ludvik Vakulic's The Guinea Pigs, Gert Jonke's The Distant Sound, Rene Belletto's Coda, Antonio Lobo Antunes's The Land at the End of the World

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Intentional Fallacy and Edouard Leve's Suicide

According to the most precious intellectual resource of our time--by which, of course, I mean Wikipedia--the intentional fallacy is a term that "in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a 'fallacy', a critic suggests that the author's intention is not important." The principle was a tenet of the academic movement known as the New Criticism--a method of literary criticism that emphasised the literary/rhetorical aspects of a text and argued for textual interpretations based on the internal linguistic evidence within a text, rather than by relying on historical, biographical or theoretical methods of analysis. Later on, the intentional fallacy was the one of the chief pieces of evidence used to convict the New Criticism of ahistoricism (or of prefering synchrony over diachrony, if you prefer the Marxist/Hegelian way of saying the same thing), a charge still levied against the New Critics today.

That being said, the academy's attacks on the New Criticism have largely been a case of protesting too much; the fact is that virtually every high school and undergraduate literature seminar is run along practices and methodologies espoused by the New Criticism--specifically that rational human beings can uncover the "meaning" within a text through close reading. And by extension, the intentional fallacy is a pretty sound general concept: sure, we can probably agree that Melville meant to include a whale in the novel Moby Dick, but would we agree that he intended it to be a fable about the impossibility of humans mastering nature (which is, incidentally, the most boring interpretation of Moby Dick I can think of)? And even if Melville had intended the latter, would it limit other readings of Moby Dick, or make them less "correct"?

The problem of intentionality is further compounded by the fact that writers are notorious liars (how strange for a group of people whose career involves making things up!), and even their own speeches, notes, and diaries, as a result, are often treated more like the statements of an analysand than gospel truth. The fact of the matter is that, once a book has been published, the author can no longer claim authority over its meaning (indeed, book reviews are predicated on this notion).

But Eduoard Leve's novel Suicide presents a serious problem for the notion of the intentional fallacy. In the novel, the narrator recounts a series of interactions with a friend (addressed throughout as "you"), who, as we learn in the opening pages, has committed suicide. Ten days after delivering this manuscript to the publisher, however, Leve took his own life. It is impossible, or so it seems to me, not to read the novel in light of this fact.

The translator's thoughtful essay at the end of the book emphasises that Leve's own suicide and the fictional suicide within the book are different in many ways, but, in point of fact, Suicide is a book that plays with these very concepts of identity. The narrator claims that he was never really close with "you" while "you" were alive, but the level of detail about "your" internal psychological states radically undermines this claim. Like in Bergman's great film, Persona, Leve's characters--the narrator's "I" and his friend's "you"--slowly merge into a singular entity over the course of the novel. Unsurprisingly, this gesture is emphasised by the fact that "you" has a variety of difficulties in accepting his own subjectivity.

On a formal level, Suicide is written in appropriately spare prose, but flows in a stream-of-conscious type of narrative that would appeal to fans of Bernhard (although without Bernhard's trademark irony). My only qualm, ironically, concerns the book's final gesture, which requires a stark formal shift into verse, that doesn't quite work, although it is possible that the verse does not translate into English as well as the prose. All in all, Suicide is a phenomenal little novel well worth a read, and a brilliant introduction to Leve (this is his first novel translated into English). As a result, I am now very much anticipating the publication of his book Autoportrait, due to be published by the always-brilliant Dalkey Archive next year.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Neo-Naturalism and Jean Echenoz's Lightning

In a review of Tom McCarthy's C from last year, I noted that McCarthy's novel--despite its much-vaunted use of ideas from second-wave cybernetics and Systems Theory--was really an updated version of naturalism that shares more in common with Thomas Hardy than the formal innovations of Modernism. The main innovation in C is that, instead of making its protagonist a Christ-like innocent as in Jude the Obscure, the main character, Serge, is a flat, affectless figure typical of "postmodern" texts. In the year since making this argument, however, I've noted that McCarthy is just one among a larger "movement," including such authors as Michel Houellebecq, Goncarlo Tavares and Jean Echenoz, producing work that could broadly be described as a form of neo-naturalism.

Echenoz's Lightning--like C--focuses on issues surroudning the development of technological modernity as a series of complex networked systems, and its central figure Gregor (a thinly disguised portrait of Nikola Tesla) is  a deeply neurotic man who also possesses an exceptional genius for inventing new technologies linked to electricity. Ultimately, though, Lightning is a far more successful book than C for two reasons: 1) its relative brevity means that its strident antihumanism doesn't feel repetitive, and 2) the narration itself has an arch tone that gives the text a much-needed layer of irony.

At the same time, though, the book is not without its flaws. The first 50 pages, in particular, read more like a summary of events than a narrative, and, as such, will seem largely superfluous to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Tesla's life. Later in the book, however, Echenoz begins to offer a more unique perspective on the events of Tesla's life, and Lightning ultimately develops into a stirring and wonderfully odd little book.

But for all it's merits, my only objection to Lightining is that, for all its ingenuity, it's ultimately the second-best version of Tesla's life presented in recent years, since the best is undoubtedly this:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: In Red by Magdalena Tulli

"In Red, the new novella from Magdalena Tulli, tells the story of the ill-fated town of Stitchings. From the very first sentence, though, Tulli makes it clear that this will not be a story that ends happily: ‘Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings.’ Tulli is regarded as one of Poland’s most important writers and it is easy to see why: her unusual prose is charged with irony and ambiguity that leads in a variety of unexpected directions, and it is the strength of her unusual narrative voice that ultimately knits together the disparate material in this wonderfully strange book."
Read more over at Readings website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Life Kills and Moron-Proof Books

Below is a video of my (very brief!) launch speech for Miles Vertigan's excellent debut novel Life Kills. (Synopsis: Unpopular books, a Peter Sloterdijk-inspired reading of the novel, AusLit's love affair with boring realism, moron-proof books).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tibor Fischer on Parallel Stories

Over the weekend, Tibor Fischer published what could certainly be called a scathing review of Nadas's Parallel Stories. Although I have major concerns about the review, we are agreed on the unnecessarily repetitive scatology of the book:

"Every time a new male character appears you fear he's going to be wanking or investigating his foreskin in a line or two (and he will be). The only relief from cocks is the occasional intervention of some labia or a clitoris. Doubtless, Nádas has some artful justification for this, but it's like having your face jammed in someone's crotch – it gets exasperating very quickly, and there's still 900 pages to go."

Fischer is right about this, but, at heart, this review is an attack on an intellectualized continental aesthetics and an assertion of pretty typical Anglophone aesthetics--that books should appeal to everyone, serve as an entertainment, and not, God forbid, challenge a reader in any way:

"And the Germans, it seems to me, have encouraged the Teutonic notion that anything entertaining or exciting must be lightweight or pulp. Serious writing has to be … serious, and hard work. If you're not straining, it ain't literature. László Krasznahorkai and Peter Nádas seem to be particular exponents of this attitude."

This is the same sort of "common sense" aesthetics that English reviewers used to assail Coleridge back when he incorporated Kant's philosophy in his literary criticism. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now. I don't recall any reviews of Atonement complaining that McEwan's book wasn't a 900-page experimental novel, but it appears that every experimental novel is expected to justify its existence, as if the mere publication of such a work is an insult to the mythical figure of the "average reader." It's about time that reviewers who should know better stop pretending that wilful philistinism is some kind of enlightened or democratic position. Sadly, in most popular literary criticism, this soft form of anti-intellectualism appears to be the dominant paradigm.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exclusion Clauses

Over at Kill Your Darlings, Emily Bitto has an excellent piece on the disappearance of long sentences from contemporary literature, touching on two issues I've written on before: 1) the formal conservatism of contemporary Australian--and, by extension, Anglophone--prose (see here, for example), and 2) the relationship between minimalism as an aesthetic doctrine and creative writing programs (and for my thoughts on CW programs, see here and here).

As someone who has tended towards the long sentence in my own fiction, I agree that there is a bias against the long sentence; I've lost count of how many literary editors I've encountered believe that good editing entails turning every long sentence into a series of shorter ones. I'll also just note two other points that weren't mentioned in the piece, which I think add to Bitto's argument:

1) The long sentence is actually the preferred vessel for English Lit. over its long history. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British and U.S. writers consistently use sentences with multiple dependent clauses and the like. In fact, it is the preference for a journalistic, "economical" prose--as promoted by Hemingway, E.B. White, and, later on, William Zinsser (although their ideas can be useful!)--that is actually the exception. The long sentence, historically speaking, has been the rule.

2) Having taught and studied creative writing in the U.S. and Australia, I don't think that minimalism is "officially" promoted as the writing style. Rather, there's a subtle pressure, or a predisposition towards minimalism. Just as most English Literature departments will have a de facto preference for Continental Theory over Analytic Philosophy (a preference I share), few CW programs actually foist minimalism on students as a requirement. Aside from one absolutely horrendous CW instructor, all of my teachers were very supportive of my own work with long sentences.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Review: The Opportune Moment, 1855

I've got a review of Patrick Ourednik's The Opportune Moment, 1855 up over at the website of Readings Books and Music. Here's the opening:

"Czech author Patrick Ourednik’s newly translated novella, The Opportune Moment, 1855, tells the story of a group of expatriate Europeans attempting to start an anarchist commune, called the Fraternitas Free Settlement, in Brazil. But from the very outset, the reader knows that the settlement is doomed; the novel opens with a letter, dated March 1902, written by the leader of this anarchist collective – a man affectionately referred to by his followers as ‘Older Brother’. While the letter is meant to serve as a sort ofapologia pro sua vita, Older Brother’s self-important and grandiloquent expression of his lofty ideals spills over into comic pastiche, and his laments about the failure of the commune emphasise his own unwillingness to take any responsibility for its collapse. While he bemoans various problems with his plan’s execution – particularly his poor choice of volunteers for the first wave of settlers – he refuses to admit any error and stands by his principles." Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Trust the Writer

Joseph McElroy (author of Night Soul and Other Stories) has written a short piece on why he refuses to answer questions about where he gets his ideas from; it's a wonderful antidote to most writers's thoughts on this topic, and not only does he (correctly, in my opinion) argue that authors don't understand were there work comes from, but also offers a fairly interesting conception of what a good story should do:

"What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen, but mainly: What can happen? A story about a boomerang thrower in Paris, or a story about a father and his infant son in his crib in the dark making sounds that the father begins to make sense of during three successive desert nights. What can happen? Sometimes I’ll read just the beginning of a story to an audience and ask where it could go from there. But the writer is mainly invisible, and the story stands on its own between the reader and the writer and would have to be about both if we could only know, but stands on its own and belongs to the reader and in the great differences among the stories in my book Night Soul might even sometimes suggest to you the reader how to read it."

Read more here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Struggling through Peter Nadas's Parallel Stories

Peter Nadas's 1138-page novel Parallel Stores was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux at the end of October, and it's being touted, by its publishers at least, as a Proustian "masterwork" of world literature, much in the way that Roberto Bolano's 2666 (not coincidentally also published by FSG) was back in 2008. The novel took Nadas seventeen years to write, and was another four in translation, so it has been germinating for a long time. The book has also begun to receive some glowing reviews (see here, here and here). Before talking a little more about why I think there's good reason to be skeptical of these claims, I want to note two things: 1) there are some absolutely brilliant moments in the book (the opening forty pages, in particular, are excellent), and 2) I actually have only read about 400 pages of it. I realize that point #2 should disqualify me from making any comment at all, but I think there are very specific local issues with the book, and I haven't yet seen these noted in detail, although Scott Esposito's post at Conversational Reading does deal with many of the other problems (and this post is also meant to serve as an explanation of why I am unlikely to finish the book).

Parallel Stories does many things well: its ability to shift between perspectives and characters, often across decades, in a single sentence is impressive and effective, even if it isn't particularly inventive or new (these kinds of shifts, to my mind, are pretty much the stock gesture of what we conceive of as literary Modernism, as evidenced in Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, Woolf, etc., etc.). Moreover, Nadas does a good job of creating a consistently tense atmosphere, and his psychological evocation of characters, particularly the young Dohring and Gyongyver, are also wonderfully evoked, if also heavily indebted to the Modernist psychological novel [Added later: yes, I just said that an "evocation" is "wonderfully evoked," proving that this editor needs an editor]. But the problems with the book are legion and, to my mind, fairly obvious.

Despite all of the brilliant bits in the book, there's basically just no excuse for passages like this: "To this day, he urinated like a little boy. He did not pull back his wrinkly, unusually long, funnel-shaped and pointy foreskin from his bulb, and when he finished he barely shook his member, letting some of the fluid be smeared on his fingers. He'd dig in with his fingers between his thighs under the testicles, where he always found for himself some worthy odor. Only rarely did he risk invading the cheeks of his buttocks to touch the crimped edge of his contracted anus. Perhaps to rub it just a little bit, to reach into it, as an experiment. But it did happen on occasion. The various odors nicely mingled on his fingers where he preserved them for the rest of the day. He saved them for the night, when he would have unhindered access to his body, though he had to be on his guard in the bluish light of the dormitory, listen for and follow with open eyes every little stirring [...]When he couldn't tuck his weenie between his thighs, or couldn't touch it, not even through his pants, because in the boarding school everybody was watching everybody else all the time, he consoled himself with these odors. And this remained the same later too, with his cock, though its odor had become more penetrating."

One's ability to enjoy Parallel Stories is predicated on whether or not you find this kind of writing revelatory, especially since such passages appear on virtually every other page.

Look, I'm not trying to be a prude here--I like Swift's scatological poems, and Joyce's Ulysses and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which both have passages that deal with similar, uh, material--but the frequent passages like the above seem indicative of a kind of facile Freudianism (one that's unfair to Freud), which permeates Parallel Stories. One review of the novel, which annoyingly praises Parallel Stories for its "almost Facebook-like approach" also claims that what is remarkable about the book is how it makes "you painfully more aware of your physical body." Although I suspect this was Nadas's intent, I don't think it justifies the ceaseless repetition of passages like the above, and, moreover, the fact is that Nadas's focus on the body, with a few exceptions, is almost always scatological; in this sense, the book actually ignores most of the body in order to focus on a specific set of bodily processes.

I generally like long and "difficult" books, but there's a danger in calling every long and difficult book brilliant simply because of its length and difficulty. Parallel Stories is not a disaster on the level of Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul, but neither is it a book on par with The Recognitions or 2666. Like many other long books that display brilliance, but aren't complete successes--and I'm thinking of books like William Gass's The Tunnel and Joshua Cohen's Witz, which both veer between the enlightened and the simply tedious--there's no point in attempting to ignore Parallel Stories' significant flaws. And, to me, viewing such work uncritically also gives ammunition to those anti-intellectual readers who believe only pretentious snobs enjoy reading "difficult" books...

Anyway, I am still hoping to finish Parallel Stories, but given my experience thus far, it's probably something I will return to now and then over the course of the next year, rather than feeling compelled to read all of it at once.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity Gets Republished!

I heard some great news today: Sergio De La Pava's brilliant novel A Naked Singularity, which was originally self-published, has apparently been picked up by the University of Chicago Press for re-publication next year. As I've argued in the past, this is a brilliant novel by an incredible novelist, and it is wonderful to see De La Pava starting to get the recognition that he deserves. Read my review of the book here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Interview with Sergio De La Pava

Sergio De La Pava has just given an interview over at the consistently brilliant 21C Magazine, and, for those who are monolingual, it is even in English, this time. In my opinion, De La Pava is one of the most interesting novelists working in English, and the interview/article is a good introduction to his brilliant long novel, A Naked Singularity. Read the interview here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Recognition

“Given that the thymos that has been conditioned by civilization is the psychological location of what Hegel depicted as a striving for recognition, it becomes clear why the lack of recognition by relevant others excites rage. If one demands recognition from a specific opponent, one stages a moral test. If the other who is addressed rejects this test, she needs to deal with the rage of the challenger, who feels disrespected. Rage occurs first when the recognition from the other is denied (which leads to extroverted rage). However, rage also flourishes if I deny recognition to myself in light of my value ideas (so that I have reason to be angry with myself). According to Stoic philosophy, which situated the struggle for recognition fully inside the human psyche, the wise person is supposed to be satisfied with self-respect, first, because the individual in no way has control of the judgment of the other and, second, because she who is knowledgeable will strive to keep herself free from all that does not depend on herself.
Usually the thymotic impulse is connected to the wish to find one's self-worth resonating in the other. This desire could easily be an instruction manual for teaching oneself to become unhappy, one with a universal success rate if it were not for those dispersed cases of successful mutual recognition. Lacan probably said what is necessary concerning the profound idea that there is a grounding mirroring process, even though his models, probably unjustly, situate early infantile conditions at the center of investigation. In reality, life in front of the mirror is more of a children's disease. But among adults the striving for reflection in the recognition of others often means the attempt to take possession of a will-o'-the-wisp—in philosophical jargon: to instantiate oneself in what is insubstantial."
                                                          --Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time

Friday, August 5, 2011

Book Review: The Land at the End of the World

The Land at the End of the World
By Antonio Lobo Antunnes
W. W. Norton

The Land at the End of the World is a new translation of the second novel by António Lobo Antunes, generally regarded as Portugal’s most important living novelist. Published in his native country as Os Cus de Judas in 1979, this is a key book in Antunes’s oeuvre, for the simple reason that it describes his own autobiographical experience as a medic during Portugal’s war with Angola in the early 1970s; the evocations of the unimaginable brutality that Antunes witnessed in that conflict help explain the notorious pessimism and darkness of his later works, such as Acts of the Damned (1985). Read More over at Readings' Website...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sergio De La Pava Interview

I missed this a few weeks ago, but Sergio De La Pava has given his first-ever interview--which is great news, except for the fact that the article's in Spanish. That being said, even those with limited Spanish (like me) should be able to muddle through--or you can always just use Google's translate function, which will give you 90% of the sense (though not the tone). My favourite bit: when De La Pava (whose novels are self-published) is asked about the publishing industry, he replies by saying (roughly): "I don't understand--are you telling me that there are companies who will pay writers to publish their books? (ha ha)."

(N.B. I found out about this through the excellent blog, Conversational Reading, which, really, is a site worth visiting on a daily basis...)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lost Classics: The Recognitions

The Recognitions
By William Gaddis

I’ll note this from the outset: not only is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) my favourite novel of all time, but also it is, in my opinion, the best U.S. novel written after 1950. Although the works of Gaddis, who died in 1998, have belatedly started to get some of the, uh, recognition they deserve, his books are still too infrequently read by the larger public. And to be fair, there are some legitimate reasons for this: The Recognitions is 956-pages long. Much of the writing in it is what would be considered difficult (inspiring Jonathan Franzen’s essay ‘Mr. Difficult’ about Gaddis), and it’s the kind of book wherein the punch-lines to jokes are quite literally withheld for hundreds of pages. It is also perhaps the funniest, most inventive and most beautiful book I have ever read.
            The novel does, however, have a plot; The Recognitions is the story of an extremely talented young artist, Wyatt Gwyon, who, after receiving a terrible review of his first painting exhibition (for the reason that he refused to pay the critic to write a good review), becomes a professional art forger, counterfeiting the works of the old Flemish masters for a shadowy international ring of criminal art dealers. While the book includes an enormous and encyclopaedic set of references to other topics, including the history of Christianity and pagan religions, alchemy, the Faust myth, and huge array of other characters and subplots, it is first and foremost a satire of the Greenwich Village art world in the 40s and 50s. The book contains long party scenes full of young ‘hip’ artists who are basically unbearable people, and its riotous skewering of bourgeois bohemians is, if anything, more relevant today than it ever has been.
            At the same time, it is also full of beautiful passages of moving writing, such as this short line about a young married couple venturing off on a cruise-ship for the first time: ‘Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided against all the inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.’
            When Gaddis published the book in 1955 at the age of 33, he had high hopes that it would establish his reputation as a writer, and, as he later stated: ‘I almost think that if I'd gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn't have been terribly surprised.’ But the tepid response meant that Gaddis returned to work in advertising and corporate speechwriting, and his book dwelled in obscurity for more than twenty years. In the interim, his reputation was buoyed by a book entitled, Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green, which sought to demonstrate that almost all of the 55 contemporary reviews of The Recognitions demonstrated obvious errors (and that most reviewers hadn’t even finished reading the book!). Gaddis later won the National Book Award in 1976 for his second novel, JR, and enjoyed some small fame and recognition.
            But in many ways, this history is fitting for a book that is very much about artists who don’t get recognised and the final lines of the novel, which describe the fate of the work of a composer who dies in the collapse of a building, are often taken as fitting description of Gaddis’s own reception: ‘most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.’
            To put it simply, if you haven’t read The Recognitions, then you’re simply missing the best that 20th Century literature has to offer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Personae

By Sergio De La Pava

Last year I reviewed Sergio De La Pava’s brilliant, 689-page, self-published novel A Naked Singularity, a wonderful book that blends the crime thriller with the ‘postmodern’ literary novel (eg. Pynchon, Wallace). This month, however, De La Pava has released his second book, Personae, which is much slimmer at around two hundred pages, and is also a genre-jumping work that proves A Naked Singularity was no fluke.
            Personae begins in the mode of a crime novel. We are told that the book comprises the police report of one Helen Tame, who we quickly learn is no ordinary detective. As a former world-class concert pianist, who has a nigh-supernatural ability to turn virtually invisible (a feat she accomplishes due to a mastery of arcane physical properties of light and acoustics), Tame only works unusual cases that have not been solved through normal means.
            In this instance, Tame is called to a crime scene involving the suspicious death of a very old man, and she comes into possession of a series of unusual manuscripts that appear to have been authored by the deceased. But while this set-up is wonderful and Tame is a fabulous character who could easily occupy a novel of many hundred pages, Personae unexpectedly swerves in another direction. We leave Tame’s narrative, and are suddenly given the contents of the manuscripts, which wander across various forms and genres, including a series of notes and errata (including an extended critique of the English-translation of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) a modernist-style short story (‘The Ocean’) whose attention to detail is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, an absurdist two-act play (‘Personae’) that recalls Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and a novella (‘Energeias’) that alternates between two different storylines, as well as a variety of pieces of newspaper articles, essays and the like.
            If this sounds a bit unusual, it is. But Personae’s charm lies precisely in this unceasing variation, which is very much intentional. The book makes continual references to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which clearly provides the form for the relentless innovation of this novel, which also contains a recurring leitmotif: Personae is very much an elegiac novel, which focuses on the notions of grief and death (which, in retrospect, is no surprise for those who have read De La Pava’s brilliant essay, ‘A Day’s Sail’, on Virginia Woolf, boxing and death over at Triple Canopy).
            The variations are all entertaining, although they might throw some readers who were expecting Personae to repeat the pulse-raising narrative of A Naked Singularity. In particular, I suspect that two sections of the book (the two-act play and a later moment that recounts what appears to be a conversation between a man and the devil) will frustrate readers who are allergic to characters discussing lofty philosophical issues (although De La Pava specifically ironises such a reaction at one point in the text). But, to be honest, that’s their loss: the pleasure of Personae lies precisely in the joy of tracking both the similarities and the disjunctures between each iteration of the novel (and it also demonstrates the virtuosity of De La Pava’s writing), and while it’s inevitable that some sections may work better than others, at its best Personae is as good as any contemporary writing coming out of the U.S.
Moreover, the book slowly reveals itself to have a deep, emotional centre which also touches on the issue of what it means to behave ethically in the world. The way in which De La Pava handles this slow transformation is absolutely masterful, as we being to realise that the book we are reading is actually very different from the book we thought we were reading (and I can’t say any more for fear of ruining the surprises), and it ends with a moment of beauty that recalls the final aria of Bach’s composition.
            Personae is another excellent book by De La Pava that demonstrates once again that he is one of the most dynamic and important younger novelists coming out of the U.S. But while Personae reveals this talent, it is also essential to note that, in many ways, it is an (intentionally) difficult book, and perhaps even more challenging than A Naked Singularity (despite being less than a third of its length). Indeed, I wish that more novelists had even half of the ambition and talent that De La Pava does.
For readers interested in an unusual and unforgettable experience, Personae presents a rewarding challenge and is already one of the most intriguing and brilliant novels I’ve read all year. This is a beautifully written work that I’ll keep thinking about for some time to come, and as soon as I finished the book, I immediately wanted to read it again—and I can’t think of any higher praise than that.

Read an excerpt from the book and buy Personae here.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Easy Chain

The Easy Chain
By Evan Dara
Aurora Publishing, 2008

With recent publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King, there’s been a lot written about Wallace’s legacy, and he’s usually portrayed as both a literary genius and a ‘strikingly original’ voice (to use the language of book review-ese). While I’d agree that Wallace was a phenomenal writer, I’m less convinced of his uniqueness, given the presence of many living U.S. authors who have written similarly experimental novels of exceptional merit that have remained lesser known for the simple reason that their work often just hasn’t gotten the same kind of press. Chief among this group of excellent but underrated U.S. writers is Evan Dara, whose first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was published in 1996, the same year as Infinite Jest.
            To be fair there are legitimate reasons why Dara hasn’t become a household name. Number one on this list would be Dara’s own strictly enforced anonymity: Evan Dara is, in fact, a pseudonym, and no-one knows any biographical details about the writer behind Dara’s books, except for the fact that he lived in Paris at some point. Moreover, after the release of The Lost Scrapbook, nothing more was heard from Dara for twelve years, until his second book, The Easy Chain, appeared in 2008. Further adding to the enigma of Dara is the fact that his book was published by Aurora Publishers, a company that Dara appears to have set up himself, and which only publishes his books (So far anyway. Since 2009, the Aurora website has claimed it will publish translations of two Italian novels, but they have not appeared, and I can find no information about either the authors or their translators anywhere on the internet—although to be fair, there is still information that exceeds Google’s grasp).
            The plot of The Easy Chain is (relatively) easy to describe: Lincoln Selwyn, a young Englishman who’s been raised in Belgium, arrives in Chicago and quickly climbs the social ladder to become one of the most influential people in the city, but he just as suddenly disappears, leaving no trace of his whereabouts. If that synopsis sounds straightforward, the book is anything but. Its first 200 pages detail the rise of Selwyn, but this is all related through the gossip of those who knew him and rendered in unattributed dialogue; the speakers all note Lincoln’s incredible charisma, describing him as ‘superluminous in a way. He takes you in at a shake, and at the first trespassing of fingertips you’re instantaneous old friends’. At page 207, this stream of discourse suddenly stops and is followed by 42 nearly blank pages of text (I suspect it’s this gesture that would’ve sent most publishers running for the hills).
            The gap in the text replicates Lincoln’s disappearance; since he has gone the gossip about him also ceases, but it also reflects a larger formal strategy in the book. The Easy Chain makes several references to the notion of ‘negative space’—a concept from visual art that refers to the space around and between the subject of a drawing or painting. The novel reflects this technique—giving us not the ‘story’ of Lincoln but a series of details around it from which the narrative itself can be inferred. Indeed, we as readers never really get to know Lincoln, who, despite being the protagonist of the book, has all of the substance of a rumour even after 500 pages. That Dara is able to achieve this effect and still make the book compelling is a testament to his incredible skill.
            The rest of the book offers a set of intriguing and unexpected detours, from a seemingly factual essay on the corporate control of public water in Chicago to what appears to be the undertaking of a terrorist attack on a significant local landmark, as well as 60-odd pages of repetitive text that’s formatted like lines of poetry. But these twists and turns all pale in comparison to the final part of the book, which offers the monologue of a man being interrogated under (apparently) violent circumstances: this section is a mind-bending display of sheer linguistic virtuousity and also comprises some of the funniest writing I have ever read (if in a dark and twisted way). While this is a book whose narrative is intentionally never resolved (much like Infinite Jest), the last section does introduce a character—the daughter of the interrogated man—who suffers from autism and whose disconnection from the world serves as a foil to Lincoln’s uncanny ability to form an instantaneous emotional connection with every single person he meets.
            While The Easy Chain is not an easy book by any stretch of the imagination, it’s also a book whose strange detours are not arbitrary, but rather part and parcel of a carefully planned and executed formal principle. This is also true of Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, which spends hundreds of pages seemingly meandering between unrelated narratives (with transitions that confusingly occur mid-sentence), before the reader realises that all of these stories are linked by one traumatic event that connects an entire community. And, moreover, for all of their formal innovation, Dara’s novels are both exceptionally funny and surprisingly warm and human; one never gets the sense that his experimentation is simply an exercise in technique for technique’s sake.
Simply put, Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain is without a doubt, my favourite book that I’ve read in 2011, and in my (not very) humble opinion, Dara is the best-kept secret in all of contemporary American literature today. His highly conceptual but beautifully written novels compare favourably to the best work of William Gaddis (who also gets a passing mention in The Pale King), and I’d argue that readers who enjoys Wallace’s work would be doing themselves a disservice not to read Dara’s work. The only caution regarding The Easy Chain I might add is this: those who haven’t read Dara before might find that it’s best to start off by reading the slightly more accessible The Lost Scrapbook first to become accustomed to his style, but anyone who reads either book will discover perhaps the most interesting author writing in English today.

You can purchase The Easy Chain from the website of Aurora Publishers: www.aurora148.com.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thomas Pynchon's Fingers

So, here's Thomas Pynchon's fingers forming (appropriately) a V in the back of this photo, which comes from an interesting story about him in the LA Times.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Inhuman

'The emancipation of the subject in art is the emancipation of art's own autonomy; if art is freed from consideration of its recipient, its sensual facade becomes increasingly a matter of indifference. The facade is transformed into a function of the content, which derives its force from what is not socially approved and prearranged. Art is spiritualized not by the ideas it affirms but through the ele­mental--the intentionless--that is able to receive the spirit in itself; the dialectic of the elemental and spirit is the truth content. Aesthetic spirituality has always been more compatible with the fauve, the savage, than with what has already been appropriated by culture. Spiritualized, the artwork becomes in itself what was pre­viously attributed to it as its cathartic effect on another spirit: the sublimation of nature. The sublime, which Kant reserved exclusively for nature, later became the historical constituent of art itself. The sublime draws the demarcation line between art and what was later called arts and crafts . Kant covertly considered art to be a servant. Art becomes human in the instant in which it terminates this service. Its humanity is incompatible with any ideology of service to humankind. It is loyal to humanity only through inhumanity toward it.'
--Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pp. 196-7.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Literary Links: A Brief History of the Future

Here’s an awesome video of what people in 1994 thought the future of tablet computing would like (via dvice). Surprisingly, it looks like . . . a tablet:
• Sergio De La Pava's second novel, Personae, is out now! It appears to be another (very, very literary) take on the crime novel, with the book comprising an extremely unusual police report. Read a sample and then buy the book!
• Over at one of my favourite literary blogs, Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito takes apart a (very) bad review of Wallace’s The Pale King, but also offers a great incidental discussion of the too-limited way in which reviewers discuss a book’s ‘emotional content’: ‘Why impoverish the idea of emotionality in literature by pigeonholing it into something like “a round character whose pain you can identify with”? To take just one example, I find Sebald to be an amazingly emotional read for the fact that he so expertly evokes the sensation of nostalgia (among others), despite having nothing resembling conventional “emotionality” in any of his books. Even if you were to admit that Wallace was cerebral to the point of ignoring character–and anyone who has read him at all knows that’s not the case–there are other ways his books could have been emotional.’
Overland on why we should read more literature in translation. Here’s one reason: it tends to be way better than the stuff that passes for literature in the Anglophone world. Oh, and you might learn something about other cultures, too.
• Penguin has introduced a new crowd-sourcing service (which is masquerading as a social-networking site). What is crowd-sourcing, you ask? Well, read Jenny Lee’s great (and appropriately critical) article on the subject.
• Who knew Samuel Beckett was a PR machine?
• Lastly, we’re starting to get some interesting data on price and sales of ebooks on the Kindle. Quick quiz: which band had the highest growth since December? Answer: books under $2.99. Ah, yes, glad to see that the agency model is ‘working’ (if by ‘working’ you mean sacrificing market share to new players in the market). I’ve just written an article on this subject that should be out later this year, so I don’t want to say too much, but we’re going to start hearing a lot more about this soon, and it’s not going to be pretty . . .

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'd Rather Be Clogging

Friday, April 22, 2011

Literature Is Not a Genre: On the Miles Franklin and Literary Merit

Most Australian bookshops have a ‘literature’ section, which has always struck me as a bit odd (most bookstores in the U.S. put all of their general trade fiction together, but have separate sections for ‘genre’ writing like SF and Crime etc.) since, while it seems to reflect the traditional high culture vs. low culture divide, all it really does is effectively ghetto-ise those works marketed as ‘literature’. Not only do I suspect this practice is bad for sales of ‘literary’ works, but also I strongly object to the notion that literature is a genre.
On a practical level, publishers do think of a literature as a genre—specifically as a genre that sells poorly—and I suspect that it is for this reason that so much trade ‘literary’ fiction is so very boring: it has been edited (and often written) in order to be accessible to the market (or, more specifically, to what publishers think the market wants—which ignores the fact that publishers are notoriously incorrect about what the market wants, given the standard claim that 80% of all titles will lose money or break even, while the remaining 20% of titles will generate all of the profit). I suspect, to appropriate—and possibly misuse—a suggestion Mark Davis makes in Gangland, that many publishers also presume the public is dumber than it really is (which is to say that certain pernicious forms of cultural elitism can result as much from cynicism as anything else), and one of the great successes of ‘genre’ writing over the last several decades has been the ability to write into a genre precisely by subverting the rules of that genre in productive ways (see, for example Rjurik Davidson’s great article on science fiction from Overland).
            But the truth of the matter is that literature as literature bears no relation to the form of the ‘literary novel’ that seems to circulate in Australia (usually a realist novel that more or less feels like a formal implementation of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). Indeed, work in any genre can be literature, including essays (Montaigne and Joan Didion), philosophy (e.g. Soren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil), speculative fiction (Neil Stephenson and Ursula K. Le Guin), crime (a genre that many trace back to Edgar Allan Poe!), or any other type of text that includes letters and words.
            I’m not making this point to the argue that the novel is ‘dead’ (it’s not dead, but it is a form that is no longer predominant in our culture, which is, as far as I can see, something that will not change anytime soon), but rather to point out the problem with prizes like the Miles Franklin (which is currently being accused of sexism after its second all-male shortlist in three years. This angle to the story has already been aptly covered by Jo Case, Alison Croggon and many others) is that they tend to presume a unitary definition of literature that is based on little more than a set of particular cultural practices. Ultimately, these kinds of awards don’t tell us anything about literature as a space of potential, and everything about how our culture (or at least our cultural gatekeepers) values literature.
            I’m not interested in criticizing either the Miles Franklin judges or nominees (in fact, I know one of the nominees and would be very pleased to see him win the award on a personal level), but, and this needs to be clear, literary awards bear no relationship whatsoever to that thing called ‘literary merit’. The dream of ‘merit’ is always a right-wing dream, since ‘merit’ is presupposed regardless of the real-world inequalities that, as any sociologist can tell you, shape our world; the future education-level and wealth of children is still most likely to equal that of their parents. Merit, if it exists, is to be found in the next world (if it exists), not in this one.
            Books are commodities, pure and simple. Ninety-nine percent of all publishers publish books because they think those books will sell, not because of their ‘literary merit’. The notion of literary merit is a marketing strategy. This doesn’t mean that books can’t mean things to people, too (I think Marx would see this as the difference between exchange value and use value), but to think that books are not part of the world and subject to the same kinds of inequalities as the rest of the world is at best naïve and at worst pernicious. It is no longer enough for institutions like the Miles Franklin—or any other institution—to offer apologetics for exclusionary practices through recourse to simple claims of literary merit (and, to be clear, I’m not claiming that all books are equal; indeed, if all books are equal, then I would have to argue that some books are more equal than others). Disputes such as the current one over the Miles Franklin’s all-male shortlist, rather, should be viewed as opportunities to re-interrogate the way these elite, cultural institutions value literature, and, more specifically, what kinds of literature it is that they value.
            Early in 2010, Jacinda Woodhead wrote an essay about the need to incorporate other kinds of voices into literary culture, which also argues that the formal qualities of such diverse writing might need to be different. I think she points to an essential intolerance of formal differences in Australian literary writing. In Kalinda Ashton’s long and interesting interview about political fiction last year, she noted that, while she had never been censored or edited due to political content, per se, writers are ‘much more likely to hear qualms about experimental forms’. My argument is that this suspicion of new or different forms in Australian literature is, in fact, a means of maintaining the status quo and keeping other kinds of difference (whether based on economic status, gender, culture, ethnicity, etc.) out of Australian literature.
            It’s interesting to note in this context that Modernism (which is often portrayed as exclusively white, bourgeois and male) was a formally experimental shift in literature that also included a very large number of first-rate female authors, such as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Hilda Doolittle, Mina Loy, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West and Djuna Barnes. I’d suggest that part of this is attributable to the fact that, in its formal invention, Modernism (to a small degree) opened a window for other forms of expression to enter into the notion of the literary, which resulted in a greater (though still insufficient) diversity of writers. Unlike for the Modernists, however, the current problem isn’t one of staid Victorian aesthetics, but rather of a market tyranny that convinces cultural gatekeepers that a work can be literary only if it is truly boring (i.e. follows established formulas).
            I do believe in the power of literature, but this is because of the open space that literature provides: the potential of language, through highly charged rhetoric, to bring newness into the world. The limitless, inexhaustible possibilities of language enacted in literature remain, quite simply, one of the greatest collective achievements of humanity (but not because it reveals ‘universal, human truths’ and, in fact, quite the opposite: literature, by being language, has the possibility to exceed the limits of the human, a possibility that we experience every time we read a book from the distant past—which is to say, when we speak with the dead). But this possibility rests on the requirement that the notion of literature should not be reified, restricted and limited according to the dictates of an elite institution, a national culture or—worst of all—market mechanisms. The exclusion of new forms of literature is everyone's loss.