Three years ago The Guardian ran some excerpts from an upcoming edition of Susan Sontag's journals, and despite being at that time little more to me tThree years ago The Guardian ran some excerpts from an upcoming edition of Susan Sontag's journals, and despite being at that time little more to me than a massive literary reputation, I was dazzled by her penetrating, often brutal self-dissection of her own personality and intellect. I even dared think I recognized a sensibility shockingly similar to my own. Fast-forward through several years and the journals, a compilation of her earliest, are here, and yes, my suspicions have been borne out. Not that I'd at all equate our intellectual abilities, but I recognize (and in a sense, sympathize over) the slavish desire of creating and shaping an entire identity out of intellectual engagement and a systematic and largely self-imposed exposure to art and the humanities, a desire always at war with the cravings for intense personal experiences.
The "reborn" of the title hints at one of the main underlying themes of these journals: the self-creation Sontag undertakes from being the precocious teenager who graduated high school at 15 and had studied at both Berkeley and University of Chicago before she was 20, to the woman on the brink of superstardom as a public intellectual by her early 20's. These journals document a stunning amount of stuff and happenings--exploring and embracing her lesbianism, a whirlwind marriage and motherhood, divorce, escape to European bohemia, and, of course, the steady evolution of her intellectual abilities and persona. Inevitably, this leads to some uneveness in tone and content, with drastic oscillations between cool academic analysis and rather hysterically-pitched recounting of personal drama (she seems to have modeled her romantic yearnings on the European art films she adored or, as she records a friend of hers commenting, on the characters of Nightwood). But frankly, that's how my, and probably all our journals of those years read too, no?
And so that long wait for the next volume to be released...
"My reading is a hoarding, accumulating, storing up for the future, filling the hole of the present. Sex and eating are entirely different motions--pleasure for themselves, for the present--not serving the past + the future. I ask nothing, not even memory, of them."
Here is where I discovered my model, my ideal: I too aspire to be able to discuss and analyze so deftly literature, cinema, music, theater, philosophyHere is where I discovered my model, my ideal: I too aspire to be able to discuss and analyze so deftly literature, cinema, music, theater, philosophy, theory and society, and their countless and inevitable intersections. The celebrated "Notes on Camp" and the title essay are the standouts, but everything--even the comparatively weak theater reviews--are worth reading.
"My idea of a writer: someone who is interested in 'everything.'"
Wow. Just... wow. Kind of weird—my reaction is not declare Another Country a new favorite, I just didn't love it in that way. And yet, and yet, it penWow. Just... wow. Kind of weird—my reaction is not declare Another Country a new favorite, I just didn't love it in that way. And yet, and yet, it penetrated deeply, perhaps more deeply than some books I do consider my favorite...
Perhaps this has to do with how perplexing Baldwin is as an author—it takes a while, almost too much effort to get into the story, and then suddenly, unexpectedly you're in an ever-tightening vice, not sure how the hell Baldwin got you there before you even managed to notice. He certainly has a way with words, beautiful, almost aggressively lyrical without ever being showy; but what his words do have is weight, an almost unbearable density that in some passages seem to weigh so heavily upon the skin, as if their sole purpose is to rip to shreds any layers of resistance, pick apart any and every last defense...
Really, I suppose that's as good a description as any of what Baldwin does to his characters; he flays them alive so their intangible insides—their hopes, fears, secrets, contradictions, prejudices, dreams—are splayed unceremoniously upon dirty Greenwich Village sidewalks and greasy tables in the smoky corners of dive bars for each other to see, to gawk at, to pick ruthlessly at, to take up and wield like weapons to destroy each other, to bind each other closer than ever before...
And to take it one step further—the title kind of demands as much—the same could be said about Baldwin's general examination of America: mercilessly yet lovingly (the oh-so-thin line separating love from hate is a reoccurring preoccupation throughout the book) ripping the American psyche apart. Granted, his focus on a very particular group, mid-to-late 50's Greenwich Village, certainly one of the most socially progressive enclaves in society at that time. But that's almost what makes Baldwin's exposé so very painful—he's unearthing and then brutally exposing the most hidden prejudices of the particular kind (regarding race, gender, class, sexuality) that liberals and artistic types like to think they've managed to exorcise and escape from. Baldwin's indictment of white liberal guilt can be particularly agonizing...
Kind of hopeless (the constant refrain at our first bookclub discussion: "it's amazing how so little has changed..."), but oh, so very necessary. Anybody who claims we live in a post-racial, post-anything era here in America needs to be promptly slapped upside the head with this book.
"Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world's experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness; and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so rare."...more
Considering how long it took me to finish such a relatively slim book it should be readily apparent that I found something lacking in this. It was oneConsidering how long it took me to finish such a relatively slim book it should be readily apparent that I found something lacking in this. It was one of those books that I enjoyed to a certain extent while actually in the process of reading, but for some reason I never was able to figure out I never felt compelled to pick it back up once I put it down (which is always an unfortunate situation). And to be honest, I could tell almost immediately this just wasn't my thing, so I feel kind of bad for assigning a rating as I was well aware I wasn't going to like it, but decided to troop on until the end regardless.
I've read many descriptions of this books as a kind of an American Existentialist novel par excellence, and that's probably a big part of the problem. I've just never been able to muster up much enthusiasm Existentialist/Absurdist/whatever-minded literature in general, be it Camus or Kafka or Beckett or the Russians, etc (de Beauvoir's fiction might be a possible exception—I enjoyed a great deal both novels of hers that I've read).
Walker certainly broaches up a number of provocative and interesting ideas throughout the books, though I was more drawn to the passages critiquing social structures than those more questioning existence itself, and it does rally right at the end—I was very affected by (and I could painfully, oddly relate to) the closing showdown between Binx and imperious Aunt Em.
And frankly, while I understand that the title refers to the central character's habit of dispassionately observing life as if it was being projected in front of him, I was a bit let down that a film called The Moviegoer had so precious little to do with actual moviegoing. I'll admit that I was expecting arcane in-jokes for classic film lovers a la Myra Breckinridge/Myron, but aside from an early, tour-de-force cameo appearance by William Holden and a few clever and revealing comparisons between characters and semi-obscure film stars, it was definitely a bust on that account.
So yeah, when it comes down to it it seems that the odds were stacked against this one from the start, and unfortunately things just never panned out. So it goes. ...more
“There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.” -from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
The reader of Ficciones must have a “There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.” -from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
The reader of Ficciones must have a love for literary and historical esoterica and minutiae to get some type of pleasure out of most of these stories–if they can even be called "stories," that is. And how one feels on this issue makes all the difference in how the quote cited above is regarded: not interested in reading a fairly lengthy description about say, a typological error in the footnotes in a second edition of a book by an obscure 13th century Dutch alchemist and it comes off as a truism; delight in such archaic trivia and it is instead a tongue-in-cheek quip perfectly at home in the funhouse of reflexive literary mirrors Borges cheerfully constructs throughout Ficciones.
I definitely fall in the latter camp–intellectually, few things gets me going more than an enigmatic reference, a stray footnote, or something of the like–and so I found a great deal to enjoy in the seventeen stories collected here. Not that every word is enthralling; indeed, long stretches can be quite dull. But what kept me intrigued from the first page to the last is the question Borges implies with his title: what exactly does constitute fiction? The term “fiction,” of course, is opposed to the facticity of “non-fiction,” and conjures up associations of narrative, of plots, of stories. And there definitely stories in Ficciones that adhere to such expectations, but they are definitely in the minority. Borges, however, employs the term “fiction” literally, and seems most interested in exploring what “fiction” can actually entail, particularly in regards to form. Because Borges uses a variety of forms traditionally associated with non-narrative modes of writing: history, testimony, the literary or scholarly review, etc. And as he proceeds to demonstrate, why can’t these forms be used to create stories just like any other? And really, isn’t everything we do here on this site–this very review, in fact–create little fictions?
The amazing “The Garden of Forking Paths,” undoubtedly and justifiably the most famous story in Ficciones, incorporates both of these dynamics, combining a quick-moving plot with his more literary obsessions, but a story like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which details Borges’s "research" (how many words with what seemed stable meanings be called into question here?) into a mysterious entry in an old encyclopedia is a wonderful example of how a “fictional story” can take on unexpected forms, and be quite exciting in their own right. In this inaugural story, as in the aforementioned “Pierre Menard,” as well as “Three Versions of Judas,” “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain,” and several other stories, literary analysis is revealed to be stories in and of themselves. As I alluded to earlier, it’s not that every single sentence of Ficciones makes for enthralling reading, but I found the literary terrain and textual frontiers Borges constantly forces himself into and start exploring to be endlessly fascinating, if not actually astonishing in a very tangible, active sense....more
The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed;The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed; she also has that rare talent of being able to make you think you're reading something lightweight, even disposable and then at the last minute flooring you by unleashing an unexpected torrent of significance and resonance.
But as lovely and thoroughly enjoyable as these essays were, I will always be grateful for a disclosure Didion makes in the collection's short preface:
"I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic."
I read these several sentences at a particularly dark moment early on in my thesis writing process where I also found myself suddenly unable to string together a simple sentence, despite the fact I was writing on topic I have been thinking about for years and years and am ready to share my thoughts on. I was ready to write: and suddenly couldn't.
Needless to say I wrote this out on a index card and stuck it above the wall on my desk, and now it serves as kind of a talisman, the reminder I often need of the sheer hard work of writing and that even the very best--even those who give the impression of such effortlessness and ease of articulation--must valiantly struggle sometimes too.
The next day I started writing again. And while there is much to appreciate about this book, I will always treasure it for that....more
While at first glance Song of the Loon seems to be little more than an overripe sexual picaresque, very quickly the physical journey that structures tWhile at first glance Song of the Loon seems to be little more than an overripe sexual picaresque, very quickly the physical journey that structures the narrative begins taking on deep psychospiritual resonances as each handsome and hunky man the main character encounters helps him understand and embrace some part of his physical attraction to other men. The intentionally grandiose tone and mythic aspirations can seem rather overwrought and more than a bit silly when read today; perhaps even more difficult to tolerate is the representation of Native American culture and individuals, which is the stuff of "noble savage" archetypes. But by situating itself in a world beyond any recognizable historical reality, it opens up a space of fantasy and electrifying possibility superseding the bounds of what in a historical sense would have been considered socially acceptable or approbatory in regards to depictions of male/male sexuality. It makes complete sense that Amory's book became such a touchstone for an entire generations of gay men. To be quite honest, I kind of regret that my own generation hasn't really been capable of retaining a space for this type of thing within our own (tenuously maintained) queer culture.