Everything's coming back to Van Gogh today. Did you know Van Gogh once nursed a miner back from near-death for several months? I did not before today-Everything's coming back to Van Gogh today. Did you know Van Gogh once nursed a miner back from near-death for several months? I did not before today--read it in Gauguin's journals. Then this book arrived in the mail, with its various Van Goghs, its intergenerational transhistorical sprawl, its triple-Dutch form, its negations and negotiations...wow so far....more
**spoiler alert** So far I'm finding Ervin's first book to be very strong indeed. This is a quintessential example of a book review being misleading,**spoiler alert** So far I'm finding Ervin's first book to be very strong indeed. This is a quintessential example of a book review being misleading, though, specifically Robert Hanks's in The New York Times Book Review, available at ahttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/books/review/Hanks-t.html. I'm a fan of the NYTBR in general--witness the great pieces in this same issue by Dale Peck on Bernhard or Ed Park's fine survey of single sentence novels, or Justin Taylor's thorough, rigorous take on Barry Hannah; I was practically weaned on TBR, frankly. Unfortunately, Hanks misses the mark--or rather, fortunately for us, because Hanks makes it seem as though the book isn't worth reading, which it assuredly is.
Hanks's points of contention just aren't borne out in the book. Consider his claim that "gratuitous cultural references are dropped with embarrassing freedom: on the first page, Harkalyi [a composer] hobnobs with the great Hungarian composer Zoldan Kolady, 'his old friend and mentor'; later, Brutus, a former philosophy student, reads Frantz Fanon, Paul Ricoeur, Marx, and Shakespeare." So one composer is interpersonally linked with another--is this really implausible? Brutus has read three philosophers and...Shakespeare? What truth, exactly, is being stretched? What makes these gratuitous? In fact, Ervin makes it clear that Brutus has read his Shakespeare, as has the superior officer who threatens him and invokes Julius Caesar ominously as a means of intimidating him. This, in fact, is among the details that coalesce to make him a "plausible character," not merely a bearer of themes, as Hanks would have it.
What about Hanks's other digs? He calls the Brutus chapter "incongruously thrillerish." How about the fact that 60 pages into the book we're introduced to an brand-new storyline that gets our pulses pounding and sustains that level of suspense and reader engagement for its 70-odd pages, complete with the twists and turns one hopes for in a thriller? The book's ability to switch gears here is inextricable from its successes.
Hanks writes that Ervin's invocation of the concentration camp of Terezin "feels more like a clumsy attempt to persuade the reader of the author's seriousness than a genuine attempt to grapple with the horror of the Holocaust." Yes, that is, if one ignores the entire characterization of Harkalyi, the composer-protagonist of part one, whose very musical trajectory has been shaped by what happened at Terezin. In fact, what sets the story apart from previous Holocaust narratives is its grappling with the specific conditions at Terezin through the prism of Harkalyi, another "plausible character[.]"
One final point to take issue with is Hanks's assertion that Brutus's narrative "is written in a flat-footed ghetto speak that, with its swipes at 'the Man' and 'the pigs,' is more reminiscent of '70s blaxploitation movies." A simple quote or two from the chapter will serve to dispel this mischaracterization of the style. From the section: "The disembodied Voice of America also provided five minutes of English-language news at the top of every hour. It spoke of the lingering effects of a cyanide spill that had polluted the Tisza River and 'devastated the livelihoods' of fishermen and chefs of Szeged's famous fish soup; there was an update on the ongoing debate, unresolved after a decade of legal mumbo jumbo in the Hague, about a dam on the Hungary-Slovakia border; and of course there was talk of more summits and of bright prospects for eternal peace next door in the once and future Yugoslavia." Or how about, "He took exception to the army's division of labor, and, as an intellectual exercise, even flirted with Marxism now and then, but had yet to consummate the relationship." All this, mind you, is in Brutus's perspective, his free indirect speech. If this sounds like the screenplay of "Blacula" to you, well, I can't help you. Perhaps Hanks is referring to some of the dialogue, such as "Me and the boyz will be moving into her house and there's a room for you when you come home. James put all your books in boxes and they're already over there in the basement up on some wooden pallets for when it floods."? But even this--the use of the slang "boyz" does little to conjure up the cartoonish stereotypes and funky soundtracks of the Blaxploitation genre; when slang is deployed here, it is generally strategic and understated.
Ervin's book isn't perfect so far; I find Brutus's voice to be less credible than Harkalyi's, for instance, less fully inhabited. And while Hanks takes issue with the book's structure, all he does is make light of the ambiguity as to whether it is a novel or short stories. A more worthwhile question to ask is whether the book might have been more effective if its storylines had been intertwined, if we shifted back and forth between them, drawing out the suspense and allowing the contrapuntal nature of its themes to hang in the air longer and with greater frequency. I'm not sure of the answer to this, but it would've been an interesting critical angle to pursue, rather than simply scoffing at the structure. ...more
After reading Olsen's Head in Flames, one of the more remarkable books I've chomped down of late, I was guardedly hopeful about Calendar. One of the mAfter reading Olsen's Head in Flames, one of the more remarkable books I've chomped down of late, I was guardedly hopeful about Calendar. One of the most potent features of Flames is its concentrated fury...you feel like you're reading the pages under a magnifying glass in some canyon, midday sun. Calendar is more sprawling, more expansive by far, and takes some of HiF's more visible obsessions--with art, perception, the relation between the aesthetic and the political, the forges and forgeries of identity--and gives them breathing room, each exhalation turning into the next section's inhalation and so forth. If anyone wants to argue that "experimental" writing can't be riveting, historically-grounded, utterly accessible, and story-driven (with all the delightful surprises that that implies) while equally at home with fragmentation and cultural analysis, I'd offer this book as resounding counterevidence. It is the river flowing north, the swan that is at once black and white and also neither, something else entirely. I'll be rereading this one in parts and maybe all the way through. There is much more to glean from/say about it. ...more
I've had the uncanny experience of having read this book around when it came out and forgotten most of it, yet rereading it is sort of like being undeI've had the uncanny experience of having read this book around when it came out and forgotten most of it, yet rereading it is sort of like being under hypnosis, as it essentially embodies a great deal of what I strive for in my own aesthetic and weltanschauung and how I prepare food and live when you get down to it. In his ode to lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity, Calvino dazzles in his apparently effortless incorporation of all of these qualities, even while admitting their opposites into the fold, confessing an affection for weight, digression, and so forth. For contradiction is elemental for Calvino, an inevitable byproduct of an authentic, reflective engagement with the universe. And so he gives us his motto from "youth on," the Latin "Festina lente," hurry slowly. Hurrying slowly herein, he whets our appetites for Dante, Leopardi, Ponge, and Carlo Emilia Gadda, as well as for revisiting Calvino's own oeuvre in all of its spindly, acrobatic glory. I can only wonder--had Calvino completed the last lecture, "Consistency," and published it, whether it would have made me a slightly different person. Few books you can say that about. ...more
Proof that one can pull off a book-length prose poem and not lose narrative momentum, so long as one embraces the collage or montage form as OndaatjeProof that one can pull off a book-length prose poem and not lose narrative momentum, so long as one embraces the collage or montage form as Ondaatje does, sometimes self-consciously, sometimes not (pretty much organic either way though). Montage form seems true to actual experience. Why is it not more used? Can anyone recommend more books that work this way?...more
On page? Who reads a lit. journal in order? Jagged forays are key. The x axis of the journal, the y axis of your life, the z axis of circumstantial inOn page? Who reads a lit. journal in order? Jagged forays are key. The x axis of the journal, the y axis of your life, the z axis of circumstantial intervention. Any way you graph it, Conjunctions rocks....more