Heroines is a text that flares furiously: willfully ignoring Woolf’s fretting in A Room of One's Own over female authors whose work is driven by “thHeroines is a text that flares furiously: willfully ignoring Woolf’s fretting in A Room of One's Own over female authors whose work is driven by “the red light of emotion,” Zambreno instead throws in with the red-haired speaker of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” who rises exultantly “out of the ash” to remorselessly chomp upon “men like air.” A showcase for Zambreno’s deep and wide-ranging study into the lives and experiences of a number of women of the modernist era, she also dares write herself and her experiences directly into Heroines, ingeniously undermining traditional distinctions between literary scholarship and personal memoir.
And I feel the need to stipulate right off: this is not my text. It is not mine in the sense that I am not a woman, let alone have experienced the kinds of mental illness or crippling insecurities disclosed throughout these pages. I feel it’s important to honor that reality, as scanning through the current Goodreads ratings and reviews it appears Heroines resonates much more with readers who identify as female than with the several males who have so far logged responses (with inevitable exceptions, of course) Considering how central the idea of creating a sense of community among women is central to many of Zambreno’s ideas, I respect and admire its attempt to record and actively construct a space of visibility and support.
On the other hand, this is very much my text; when she writes “I feel compelled to act as the literary executor of the dead and erased” I immediately recognized an impulse nearly identical to my own personal literary and academic project of Queer Modernisms, my blog on marginalized and forgotten queer figures of the modernist era. As someone also strangely compelled to spend so much time and effort to research and reclaim the life stories and artistic work of the historically erased (and outside of the typical orbit of academia), there were so many moments where I found myself muttering “yes, yes—that’s exactly it.” Reading Heroines in many ways felt like crossing paths with a fellow pilgrim while wandering in the wilderness—our trajectories or intended destinations aren’t the same, but the underlying motivation is.
Vivianne Eliot (married to T.S. “Tom”) and Zelda Fitzgerald (married to F. Scott) quickly emerge as the patron saints and great tragic figures of Heroines, with much space accorded to the explication of their heartbreaking life stories which eerily echo each other. A kaleidoscopic array of individuals also appear and disappear throughout the pages of Heroines, including Woolf, Plath, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Anaïs Nin, Elizabeth Hardwicke, Mary McCarthy, Anna Kavan, Laure (Colette Peignot), and countless others (though I will say this is a disappointingly white project: I was eagerly anticipating the appearance of Nina Simone as she appears on the collage on the original Semiotexte cover, but she only warrants one passing mention like a bit of trivia. But that’s still one more mention than afforded Josephine Baker, also glimpsed on the cover. This odd and unexpected myopia is my primary critique of the book—really, not even one allusion to the women of the Harlem Renaissance?).
Over the course of nearly 300 pages the fragmented paragraphs of Heroines twist and blur into many different forms as it blends familiar modes of literary analysis, autobiography, hagiography, confession, apologia, scholarship, criticism, reportage, and even the more informal, impassioned style of internet writing (the book is indeed rooted in Zambreno’s blog), a multitude of shapes that add up to something that often feels somewhat singular. If there are stretches that seem to lead to dead ends, it is always sustained by its energy and its passion. And as much as a Herculean effort of reclamation, Heroines also seems to me to function as a site of possibility, opening up spaces, paths, and avenues of expression and inquiry yet to be taken. It’s a thrilling thing to experience.
"So much of modernism is myth-making–who gets to be remembered? Whose writing is preserved and whose is not?" ...more
Over the years I've come to realize that my first encounter with "Babylon Revisited" is a crucial reason why I've developed a tendency toward preemptiOver the years I've come to realize that my first encounter with "Babylon Revisited" is a crucial reason why I've developed a tendency toward preemptive nostalgia. Even at the moments I'm most blissfully content there's a part of my mind always already mourning the fact any present happiness is destined to quickly slip into the past tense. This line in particular has emblazoned itself into my memory, and still makes me shiver: "I didn't realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone." What's to ever guarantee that more good times are ahead?
I actually first read Fitzgerald's celebrated short story during one of the most sustained stretches of happiness I've ever experienced. I was an American student studying in London, my first time away from home for an extended period of time, and I was relishing every minute of it. This story was assigned for a class on expatriate American writers I was taking, and I distinctly remember a startling sensation of imagining myself returning at some point in the future to the large, warmly sunlit sitting room I often and was at that moment reading in, and ruefully recalling how truly wonderful that exact moment was, and how was it possible I didn't manage to recognize it at the time? "Babylon Revisited" haunted the rest of my semester—in a good, productive way, I should note—and, really, ever since.
At his best Fitzgerald composed prose that sparkles like so many diamonds upon the page. But here the crystalline phrasing not only glitters—it lacerates too.
Every year or so I dutifully find myself undertaking yet another Edmund White novel, even though I’m well aware it will likely prove to be a frustratiEvery year or so I dutifully find myself undertaking yet another Edmund White novel, even though I’m well aware it will likely prove to be a frustrating experience for me. What exactly compels this constant return? Mostly because I’m compelled by the manner in which White’s distinctive form of “autofiction” revels in the minute observations that capture the particularities of lived life. His writing is structured by a principle of accumulation as he amasses vast catalogs of the little things—habits and objects and sounds and garments and slang words and bodies— that are individually experienced but in retrospect seem to become so many synecdoches standing in for entire eras. Thus when White writes that “no single song was long enough to sustain our drug-induced frenzy so the disc-jockey often went from one record to an identical cut in another copy of the same record, thereby doubling our pleasure,” he records the kind of vivid offhand details that are usually forgotten yet capture the unique texture of a particular moment in time.
White explicitly makes this an integral aspect of his autofiction. In a passage toward the end of The Farewell Symphony that deeply resonated with me, the novel’s unnamed narrator admits that “official history—elections, battles, legal reforms—didn’t interest” him, and that he “didn’t want to be a historian but rather an archaeologist of gossip.” Major historical and cultural events commence at the peripheries of the narrative, but always seem to remain just out of sight, shifting emphasis instead upon interactions between intimates and friend groups and larger social communities, carefully enumerating all the private little stories and jokes we tell and retell to each other.
And yet such sumptuousness of details can become too decadent, even overindulgent—I always reach a point, usually around the ¾ mark, when it feels like everything really should have been wrapped up already (it makes me empathize with the enervated partygoers in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, compelled to linger long after the fête has reached its end). Endless aggregation of detail, even when meticulously managed, inevitably comes at the cost of narrative momentum, and a sense of inertia and stasis sets in. Which is strange effect, considering how The Farewell Symphony is crammed with so much activity.
At the same time I appreciate how the unnamed narrator allows space for other individuals and personalities to temporarily “take over” the narrative for stretches, brandishing it for their own purposes. Like so many specters summoned via memory’s ability of conjuration, the novel often evokes something closer to a memoir of a community than an individual, and each lovingly-crafted portrait becomes a kind of (futile) attempt at keeping their eventual loss at abeyance.
The novel, in the end, fashions itself into a lamentation for an entire generation of gay men that was quickly and brutally decimated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. In the novel’s closing pages White alludes to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45—more commonly known as “The Farewell Symphony”—a piece famous for its unorthodox conclusion that entails musicians to “get up [and] leave the stage” one by one “blowing out their candles as they go.” “In the end,” he explains, “just one violinist is playing.” It turns out to be a remarkably poignant metaphor for the final third of the novel, when most of the vivid presences who had been wandering in and out of the narrative unexpectedly fall sick and pass away with a shocking, almost surreal celerity. But like Haydn, White opts for quiet exits, with the deaths of even the most significant characters announced in passing statements. Such a tactic might be accused of sidestepping the devastating gravity of the situation, but the effect ultimately effectively conveys the heavy weight of absence. And in the end it is White himself who is left alone on the stage, playing wistfully until, finally, all lapses into silence.
I was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so II was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so I was finding it something of a chore to finish, even if I always found the content itself of interest. Which means, unfortunately, that Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris is a case of constantly-diminishing returns.
In my critical writing I always try my best to take the object of analysis at hand on its own terms, attempting to come to terms with what it is, rather than what I want it to be. But in this particular case I can’t seem to get away from complaining about what it seems this book could and should have been: a sparkling and witty little rumination on issues of expatriation and experiencing a particular historic moment through the people who inhabit it. Certainly, all of these elements are present in Inside a Pearl, but as it turns out the most interesting moments of the book are not the familiar (and intriguing but not-so-familiar) names on endless parade, but White’s personal observations on the complicated cultural relationship between France and America.
An author of White’s stature who is specifically acclaimed as a master of autobiographical or autobiographically-inflected fictional forms should instinctually know that “and then I met, and then I went” is an untenable narrative structure to hang nearly 250 pages upon. Even the most fascinating of lives–and White’s certainly falls under that category–can’t possibly sustain the reader’s interest when rendered in such a ponderous way. In the end Inside a Pearl is endlessly readable and from moment-to-moment often quite fascinating, but somehow it always feels like a dutiful record instead of an account that captures what it is to vitally alive.
[NOTE: In an effort to maintain control over my writing in light of some dubious policy implementations, I am no longer posting full reviews on Goodreads on topics connected to my scholarly interests. If you're interested in reading the full review, you can find it here on my blog, Queer Modernisms. My apologies for the annoying inconvenience.] ...more
As anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel universAs anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel universe—one that resembles our own in many ways, but also one that is no longer able to repress and erase what is odd or sad or grotesque, particularly in regards to the human condition. As an astute commentator much smarter than me has noted, reading Barnes is to enter a textual space "in which the normative becomes, for once in history, the excluded, the taboo, and the unmentionable."*
Barnes was a prolific artist and her written work encompasses journalism, interviews, novels, plays, poetry, criticism, and a copious amount of wittily irascible letters exchanged with just about all of the great cultural luminaries of the 20th century (unfortunately a collection has yet to emerge, so for now one can catch glimpses of them in the countless biographies and commentaries detailing the modernist era). She was also, of course, a short story writer, and this was my first encounter with her short-form fiction work. Once one is familiar with Barnes's baroque style and bleak worldview it is difficult to not immediately recognize her writing, and so on the one hand these stories easily fit in with all of the other modes she wrote in. But I also found them different in a crucial way as well, for if her novels and longer fiction feel like a meander through a shape-shifting dream world, the short stories operate in a quite different manner. For within these little slips of short stories, many no more than several pages long, she is somehow able to contract and compress entire cosmos of feeling, affect, experiences, and histories (of both a personal and cultural nature).
Not that this ever seems the case at the beginning of each story. Barnes's technique is to introduce several eccentric characters, establish a setting and then embroider these elements in a delicate meshwork of commentary and observations that are unexpected and incisive and beautiful in turn, if not all at the same time. Often they hardly seem like "stories" at all, but rather character sketches, all evocative description and not much else. But that impression is deceptive, for almost like clockwork in the closing lines something inevitably happens—a snippet of dialogue perhaps, or a turn of phrase—and suddenly everything comes together in a brief flash of insight. It's not exactly that everything seems to "fall into place," or it is like a puzzle with an "aha!" conclusion, or even that an epiphany occurs on the part of either character or reader, but everything still comes together in the very last moment, and suddenly makes some kind of sense.
But "sense" isn't even the right word, as it's something more ambiguous and indescribable than that. But whatever it is it's extremely potent: there were several times upon reaching the end of a story that I had to set the book down for a few minutes, blown away by an unexpected wave of emotion that just coursed through me. How? I likely wouldn't have been able to tell you. Why? Glancing back through the stories now, I can't exactly tell anymore. And yet somehow, fleetingly, in the moment of reading these stories they would somehow reveal an emotional coherence, and often to devastating effect. It didn't take long for me to become fully convinced that Barnes is one of the great short story writers, even if she is rarely anthologized, and I'd be surprised if she's ever included as a "how-to" example in a guide to writing a "good" short story. Because by any standards these stories shouldn't work. But somehow they do, and the results are unlike just about anything else I've ever encountered or had the great pleasure to read.
"'You see,' she continued, 'some people drink poison, some take the knife, others drown. I take you."
To begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, arTo begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, are made clear by the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter, I also found it a perfect summation of my experience as a reader as well. For Larsen’s exquisite prose is subtly deceptive: delicate, and yet so incisive and sharply observed, and just like Helga’s moment-to-moment indecision never seems to add up to much in and of itself, Larsen quietly strings together glittering chains of little observations—the cut of a “scandalous” evening gown, the texture of an antique embroidered handbag, a spontaneous gesture to slight an annoying suitor—that suddenly, unexpectedly transform into expanses of heavy and oppressive chainmail that become suffocating. There’s a certain stasis to the narrative of Quicksand, and I initially found myself struggling against it until I realized that it perfectly mirrors Helga’s mindset and perception of both herself and the world around her.
The narrative is initially posed as a kind of tale of self-discovery, a process which ends up spanning two continents and a surprising number of racial, gendered, sexual, and class-centered milieus. And what at first seems like self-sufficiency and even courageousness begins to molder bit by bit around the edges, and the haunting line “but it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s” begins to resurface constantly like an inevitable refrain accompanying each turn of events.
This resigned melancholy is probably why the novel never becomes sensationalistic, hysterical, moralistic, or even overtly angry, all qualities the material would seem to to easily lend itself to. Larsen’s focus seems elsewhere, which constantly leads Helga and her narrative into unexpected spaces, in both a literal and metaphoric sense. I appreciated, for instance, the depiction of the black expatriate experience in Europe, demonstrating how the escape from American racism held its own, often hidden price in the objectification of “exotic” blackness, and I couldn’t banish from my mind the specters of Josephine Baker, Paul Robson, and others while reading about Helga’s experiences in “progressive” Copenhagen. In the end Quicksand was a protracted, mournful lament instead of the harrowing shriek against racism or sexism (or any number of other social ills for that matter) that I had initially expected it would be; instead it turned out to be something more ambiguous, more difficult to pin down and get a handle on—and in the end I found myself all the more devastated because of it.
"No. She couldn't stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back."...more
My original intentions was to confirm some esoterica regarding Djuna Barnes (Coleman was the main force behind the editing of Nightwood and convincingMy original intentions was to confirm some esoterica regarding Djuna Barnes (Coleman was the main force behind the editing of Nightwood and convincing T.S. Eliot to eventually publish it), but the sections I did read were so engaging that I plan to revisit for a more extensive read....more
The first book that I picked up after completing the last course for my English M.A. program was one that had been hovering near the top of my to-readThe first book that I picked up after completing the last course for my English M.A. program was one that had been hovering near the top of my to-read list for a long while: Isherwood’s elegant autumnal autobiography Christopher and His Kind. If I had realized how much of it is devoted to clarifying references contained within The Berlin Stories and other earlier texts–almost all of which I have not yet read–I might have held off, but it turns out prior knowledge is not at all necessary to enjoy Isherwood’s book. Rather, I was constantly drawn to the formal quality of “rewriting”–of Isherwood very consciously revisiting events that had found their way into his autobiographical writing over the years, and then later attempting to set the record “straight” about them. Wonderfully enough, being set “straight” in this situation entails being forthright about queer dimensions that had had to be necessarily encoded, deleted, or obscured. It’s a wonderful account of a great 20th century queer life, and the many figures and events that intersected it. In addition, with the careful differentiation between “Christopher” and “I” Isherwood perfectly captures the sensation I often experience when revisiting my own memories: of feeling at once both connected to and severed from them, as if they were observed but not actually experienced firsthand, and that it is only through the process of writing them down–and rewriting them again and perhaps even again–that makes them feel most “real.”