Like a colored box of candies you shouldn't eat all at once but do, Diane Williams delights bite by bite, each comic story barely long enough for a siLike a colored box of candies you shouldn't eat all at once but do, Diane Williams delights bite by bite, each comic story barely long enough for a sip of coffee to slip down and settle. It's as if she's found stale crusts of speech and buttered them together into sugary bricoloage.
She had been lucky in love as she understood it.
I must say that our behavior is continually under review and any one error alters our prestige, but there'll be none of that lifting up mine eyes unto the hills.
We do well and we've accomplished many excellent things.
There's a specific gastronomic daintiness to her details:
She'll cook a strong-juiced vegetable, prepare a medley salad with many previously protected and selected things in it.
If her husband is delayed, she'll prepare for herself a nice shirred egg.
Non sequiturs sprout between the sentences.
The brightly scaled moon was rising, but this girl never became a well-liked businesswoman with a growing family in the community.
Every few pages someone suffers or dies or something equally frantic; animals with soulful eyes wander by the windows. These are cartoons in the spirit of, say, P. S. Mueller. Some made me laugh out loud, irritating the MacBook Air guy typing next to me.
It was a tan dog and it was a mix of the best available species and the dog was trembling.
Also: a great cover by Dan McKinley (don't skip the note on the copyright page) plus the perfect typeface for these stories – just as we expect from McSweeney's....more
I always judge a book by its cover – and fortunately this one (designed by Jennifer Carrow) is seductive, prompting me to pick it up, read the flap, tI always judge a book by its cover – and fortunately this one (designed by Jennifer Carrow) is seductive, prompting me to pick it up, read the flap, the almost excessive blurbs, and to buy it. At first I was skeptical of its sentences
I wanted him to stay, even though over the course of our conversation which moved in such fits and starts and which couldn't have lasted more than five or ten minutes, it had become difficult to imagine the desire I increasingly felt for him having any prospect of satisfaction.
but only for a few pages. Then I was hooked.
Greenwell's book is so artfully artless it reads more like a memoir than a novel, memoirs perhaps serving a need that novels once met. It reminded me first of Bruce Benderson's The Romanian, and at the end of Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea or Duncan Fallowell's One Hot Summer In St Petersburg – which is to say, it reminded me of some of my favorite books, part memoir, part travel literature, each tangled in the vagaries of friendship, yearning and loss between men. What Belongs to You will ring true for anyone who's been caught in a complicated, even sordid, affair in which so much, it seems, is sacrificed for so little. Rarely does Greenwell attempt profundity, his story seems almost transparent in its sadness, even shabbiness, so when he asks
What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting
it drops like a dark stone into the silence and the sorrow he has masterfully evoked....more
A perfect book for a rainy winter night – or not. This muddled mystery won several prizes in France when it was published in the early 80s, and PublisA perfect book for a rainy winter night – or not. This muddled mystery won several prizes in France when it was published in the early 80s, and Publishers Weekly named it as one of their 10 Best Mysteries of 2008; it was also touted on some crime fiction blog that persuaded me to order it.
I was intrigued, sometimes titillated by its necrophiliac eroticism, but any seasoned mystery reader will guess the identity of the shadowed stranger behind the crimes. I enjoyed the evocative Jean De Florette / Manon of the Spring divagations. I even enjoyed the nonsense of a man patiently pummeling his ancestral home. The problem was the denouement which I won't spoil because I can't. I finished the book with a solitary piercing question:
This book will look, I trust, realist to relativists and relativist to realists: that is how it is meant to look.
The Invention of Science isn't an easThis book will look, I trust, realist to relativists and relativist to realists: that is how it is meant to look.
The Invention of Science isn't an easy book to read. Neither is it particularly difficult, thanks to Wootten's felicitous prose. But it does require a high degree of concentration as Wootten ranges both far and deep in his exploration of how "science" got its start. His argument is intentionally provocative, precise, plainly stated and copiously supported. The writing is lively, witty, even barbed – qualities generally absent in scholarly texts. I also appreciated Wootten's approach to the footnote/endnote conundrum: references are saved for the endnotes to accommodate readers who want to hunt down sources; but comments that amplify the argument are placed at the bottom of the page, to keep the reader in the flow. In addition, he's placed a series of "longer notes" at the end of the book, where his basic arguments are outlined with brio (and more ancillary texts).
In Wootten's account, science is essentially "the triumph of experience over philosophy." All the standard characters are there – Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Newton – but also an entertaining, anarchic host of lesser-known scientists, mathematicians, theologians and philosophes, doctors and clergymen. Wootten gives the standard accounts an interesting spin, looking as much at the tools of thought as at the tools of discovery and invention (telescopes, prisms, air pumps). He investigates the history and meaning of words such as discovery, invention, facts, experiments, laws, hypotheses, and even more ordinary and apparently obvious terms such as progress and common sense. Another excellent review on this page found this procedure a problem. I didn't. I was fascinated – although, as I said at the start, one needs a strong cup of coffee and plenty of quiet concentration to make it through a few of these chapters.
This is a book that fully lives up to its title. I read it after reading Noam Chomsky's recent lectures – as a kind of luxuriant, deeply satisfying postscript – but that was just to amuse myself....more
What books are currently on your night stand? … a little book someone gave me, probably in vain, called “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” by Carlo Rovelli. [Henry] James’s sentences are more or less transparent to me these days — most of them — but I’m bewildered by the mysteries in here: energy quanta, which are localized at points in space, which move without dividing. I sense their beauty, but they’re closed to me, my mind is the wrong shape, and I can’t take them in.
As it happened, the same book was waiting on my bedstand, and Hadley prompted me to read it.
Rovelli’s “lessons” are written, he says, for people who know little or nothing about modern science. I’m strictly an amateur on the subject but I’ve been reading about it for decades, although convinced that my weak grasp of higher mathematics means I’ll always be an outsider. Maybe I have a basic mental map of the territory. I’m skeptical that readers lacking even this will learn much from Rovelli. At its charming best, his book merely serves as a pointer to the topics it mentions.
As I came to it directly from Chomsky’s Dewey lectures, I was most interested on Rovelli’s comments on the limits of our understanding and our current fascination with free will. For comparison, here’s Chomsky on Descartes:
Despite much sophisticated commentary, it is also hard to escape the force of Descartes’s conviction that free will is “the noblest thing” we have, that “there is nothing we comprehend more evidently and more perfectly,” and that “it would be absurd” to doubt something that “we comprehend intimately, and experience within ourselves" merely because it is “by its nature incomprehensible to us,” if indeed we do not “have intelligence enough” to understand the workings of the mind, as he speculated.
Rovelli’s version is perhaps more elegant, referencing Spinoza:
There is not an “I” and “the neurons in my brain.” They are the same thing… Our intense sensation of internal liberty, as Spinoza acutely saw, comes from the fact that the ideas and images which we have our ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us. We are the source of amazement in our own eyes.
While acknowledging how much we don’t know, Rovelli is generally optimistic about what we do and will come to know. But –
I believe that our species will not last long… All of our cousins [of the genus Homo] are already extinct. What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes which we have triggered are unlikely to spare us… I fear that soon we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.
Once again we encounter a paradox that is likely to become ever sharper: the mysterious majesty of human being and its suicidal short-sightedness....more
A short book based on Chomsky's lectures at Columbia, composed in his usual boring* style, a deceptively simple summa of his work on language, scienceA short book based on Chomsky's lectures at Columbia, composed in his usual boring* style, a deceptively simple summa of his work on language, science and society. I've been reading Chomsky's books since the 1970s. This is my favorite.
If you haven't read Chomsky before, this is probably not the best place to start.** According to Kirkus Reviews, "The writing is academic in its tenor, referencing throughout the work of philosophical luminaries such as David Hume, John Locke, Joseph Priestley, and many more. As such, general readers may find the text opaque and the narrative flow disconnected." That's one impression; mine was the opposite. Reading these lectures was like watching a great artist pick up a pencil and sketch. A few lines, and everything's there: the style of thought, a lifetime of learning and critical thinking, and above all, the integrity of the thinker.
The chapters on language and the common good cover familiar Chomsky territory, but what I found most fascinating was his elucidation of "mysterianism" – of what we can't understand – in the final chapter. The discussion of Newton, Locke, Descartes, Hume, Priestly, and Bertrand Russell is bracing, but here I'll just pull some icing from the cake:
In brief, if we are biological organisms, not angels, much of what we seek to understand might lie beyond our cognitive limits – maybe a true understanding of anything, as Galileo concluded, and Newton in a certain sense demonstrated… We might think of the natural sciences as a kind of chance convergence between our cognitive capacities and what is more or less true of the natural world. There is no reason to believe that humans can solve every problem they pose or even that they can formulate the right questions: they may simply lack the conceptual tools.
He follows this with a bit of dry Chomskyan humor: "Since the Newtonian revolution, we speak of the 'physical' world much as we speak of the 'real' truth: for emphasis, but adding nothing." and "A more appropriate formulation, I think, is to recognize that post-Newton, the concept 'physical facts' means nothing more than what the best current scientific theory postulates, hence should be seen as a rhetorical device of clarification, adding no substantive content."
It's tempting to hear echoes of Paul Feyerabend, but Chomsky is no puckish provocateur. If anything, he's logical to a fault. (But it's probably no coincidence that both he and Feyerabend are anarchists.) The intellectual clarity, probity and fearlessness evident throughout is animating, quickening, exalting. A perfect book for the first day of the year. __________ * His own word, according to Stanley Fish.
Andrew McMillan's sinewy Physical just won the Guardian first book award. There are indeed some excellent poems, starting with "Jacob with the angel."Andrew McMillan's sinewy Physical just won the Guardian first book award. There are indeed some excellent poems, starting with "Jacob with the angel." Yet, perhaps because I read Richard Siken's Crush only a few weeks ago, perhaps because McMillan repeatedly references the poems of Thom Gunn, I could not feel the intensity the poems announced. One example: the broken cento of "Saturday night." Every time McMillan sampled Gunn's lines about the Barracks (a long-closed San Francisco bathhouse, evocative of a vanished world) I was pulled back to the original, stronger poem. But bravo! to McMillan for taking the risk.
One passage did make me laugh unexpectedly (because the book is so deliberately grim) – it comes in the sequence of the long poem "protest of the physical"*
graffti Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco this bridge is not as beautiful as people said
To which I respond: Yes it is, Andrew. Unclench a little. Read Gunn again.
__________ * Apologies for typography, Goodreads will not allow me to display these lines as they're set in the book....more
Sarah Freligh's book comes swathed in blurbs, paragraphs of praise it doesn't need. I didn't read them. Its cover was enough to prompt me to open theSarah Freligh's book comes swathed in blurbs, paragraphs of praise it doesn't need. I didn't read them. Its cover was enough to prompt me to open the book, to read the first poem that met me –
SHUT UP, PLEASE, I'M SPEAKING
of love. You remember. We made it once in a crummy motel near Binghamton
while snow fell, four inches in an hour. The curtains gaped, admitting a slice
of light that cut your back in half while all night clouds shaped like potatoes
floated across the TV screen. Afterward you untangled the sheet from our feet,
rolled wordless into sleep leaving me to stare at your back, smooth as the motel
soap fresh from the wrapper. Like love was before I said it out loud and someone
in the next room fisted the wall, shouted at me to please shut the fuck up.
and I held it in my fist next to the coffee and said No don't shut up, tell me more – and she did, every line strong, sometimes funny, sometimes sticky with blood or tears or the seed of a second-string quarterback or the warm gush of Juicy Fruit, but strong.
and though this is the fifth time Charlotte
has died my mother is crying again and we're laughing at her because we know nothing of loss and its sad math, how every subtraction is exponential, how each grief
Without question this is the book I'd recommend to anyone trying to get a grasp of what's happening in Syria and Iraq. As reportage it's a year out ofWithout question this is the book I'd recommend to anyone trying to get a grasp of what's happening in Syria and Iraq. As reportage it's a year out of date (easily supplemented by following Cockburn's articles for the Independent and The London Review of Books); as background, it's a lucid, perceptive summary.
I've started 5 or 6 of Aira's tiny books. This is the only one I've managed to complete. Their charm is undeniable, there's plenty of droll humor andI've started 5 or 6 of Aira's tiny books. This is the only one I've managed to complete. Their charm is undeniable, there's plenty of droll humor and antic improvisation – but as stories their novelty quickly fades. I think my new rule has to be: if I pick one up I must finish it in the first reading. Otherwise it will join the stack with a bookmark 20 pages from the end. I find Aira's writing wonderful as an idea and unexceptional in fact....more
Maigret is retired (already?); his nephew awakens him at his country cottage in the middle of the night to extricate him from a junior mistake. The stMaigret is retired (already?); his nephew awakens him at his country cottage in the middle of the night to extricate him from a junior mistake. The story is interesting mainly because Maigret is now an outsider and is forced to improvise in order to save his nephew from prison.
As much as I love Simenon and the new translations from Penguin, I'm finding that the series provides diminishing returns. Still – I enjoy the atmosphere of Paris in the 1930s, the rather bleak insight into everyday life that the novels display through the eyes of their jaundiced inspector....more
Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren is one of my favorite detectives (especially as played by Sven Wollter in the film versions of the books). Borkmann's PoinHåkan Nesser's Van Veeteren is one of my favorite detectives (especially as played by Sven Wollter in the film versions of the books). Borkmann's Point was the first of Nesser's books translated into English, and I keep hoping for another as good. The Living and the Dead in Winsford isn't even close. It gets high points for atmosphere – the evocation of the Somerset moor is superb but cannot support the the feeble plot. The narrator, an enervated Swedish television presenter betrayed by her literary husband, is tedious from the start and her ruminations only get worse over the next 400 pages. Mildly intriguing events are never explained; mildly mysterious characters are never illuminated. The plot divagates pointlessly (particularly in its disappointing backstory) then collapses, predictably, about 300 pages too late....more
Benjamin Taylor's abbreviated biography is not the place to begin with Proust – there are massive biographies by George Painter (a sentimental favoritBenjamin Taylor's abbreviated biography is not the place to begin with Proust – there are massive biographies by George Painter (a sentimental favorite) and Jean-Yves Tadié, as well as Edmund White's handsome abridged version.* Taylor's book belongs more in the good company of slim volumes like Proust in Love or Monsieur Proust's Library, a view into one aspect of Proust's life and work: the mysterious inner alchemy that turned a lazy fop into the author of the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Taylor doesn't provide any dramatic revelations. What he offers is a series of polished reflections on the transition that will engage anyone who's worked their way through the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I could have forgiven his omission of one of the more distasteful aspects of Proust's private eroticism, but appreciated his light touch.
On the subject of Proust's erotic tastes Tadié writes: "He required increasingly complicated scenarios: voyeurism and masturbation had always been at the wretched core of this. Proust possessed nothing and no one despite his attempts at relationships; the power he tried to exercise over people was of a moral kind, which explains the cross-examinations, the solemn pacts, the inevitability that to be loved by him was to stand trial. He never succeeded in these relationships except with his mother, and with Céleste Albaret. We should console ourselves with the thought that no historian has ever classified writers according to their sexual achievements."** All just and accurate and beyond anything said by earlier Proustians – though what is so wretched about voyeurism and masturbation I do not see.
Indeed - such are the besetting sins of any writer, more or less. The astonishing thing is that Proust's books seem to know everything about love, jealousy and the permutations of desire.
___________ * For those looking for instant insight into Proust, I highly recommend The Proust Project with lightning essays by André Aciman, Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Susan Minot, Colm Tóibín, Edmund White et al.
A characteristically dark, satisfying conclusion to the Verhœven trilogy. I started it the day before the shootings in Paris, which added an uneasy asA characteristically dark, satisfying conclusion to the Verhœven trilogy. I started it the day before the shootings in Paris, which added an uneasy aspect to the whole tale. ...more
Yesterday Manotti's most recently translated novel arrived in the mail. Eagerly, I read it in a couple sittings and am sad to say Escape was not veryYesterday Manotti's most recently translated novel arrived in the mail. Eagerly, I read it in a couple sittings and am sad to say Escape was not very interesting. The pace is off entirely, the political history behind its plot points is convoluted and not particularly engaging (in this respect it reminded me of the background of Massimo Carlotto's "Alligator" novels). Her protagonist, a small-time criminal who (improbably) becomes a celebrated Parisian writer for his first fiction, is a delightful confection – but he's overshadowed by political machinations, as is the confused, confounded reader.
Don't mistake me: Manotti is a terrific writer. I consider Rough Trade one of the very best examples of Euro Crime, as good as and even edgier than the first books by Fred Vargas. But, for me, this book was a dud. Other Goodreads reviewers tell a different story; maybe they read her better. I wouldn't want to discourage fans of crime fiction from discovering her work....more
Dying last was like dying first, Albert thought to himself; it was rank stupidity. But this was exactly about what was about to happen.
I thoroughly enDying last was like dying first, Albert thought to himself; it was rank stupidity. But this was exactly about what was about to happen.
I thoroughly enjoyed this darkly humorous tale of two poilus whose fates cross at the bitter end of the first world war. Anyone who's read Alex knows that Lemaitre is capable of wickedly shifting the frame of reference so that the reader's expectations are confounded again and again. In The Great Swindle he's up to his tricks from the very first page. Much of the story unfolds like something out of Dickens – juxtaposed characters clearly marked as Innocent Dummy, Plain Virtuous Woman, Aristocratic Villain (etc) – and there are plenty of pleasurably anxious moments along the way. A few scenes are spectacular, and the resolution is almost what one would expect....more
Last month I picked up a massive book – Germany: Memories of a Nation – just because the illustrations were so fine. MacGregor's book (as yet unfinishLast month I picked up a massive book – Germany: Memories of a Nation – just because the illustrations were so fine. MacGregor's book (as yet unfinished) is well-written but episodic, so I hunted down Ozment's history which had been stuck on my shelves for the last decade. This time I read it straight through. Ozment is a straightforward stylist; he's easy to read, he's obviously mastered a wide range of material, and his judgments and emphases are original. In a little more than 300 pages he takes us from the Germanic tribes of Tacitus to the 21st century nation (still) at the center of European politics.
Readers who expect "the gloomy moralizing of post-World War II historiography" will be disappointed. I was amused to see that Ozment dismisses the (voluminously-documented) battles of World War II in a couple pages, focusing more profitably on the question "Why Hitler?" His answers were surprising – not in that he produces a new point of view, but that he shows how Hitler "made sense" in the context of the time. Very few Germans were signing on for "the barbarian prince" and the unimaginable horrors he entailed. This excuses nothing, of course, but does make the average German less demonic. (Few Americans, whatever their political preference, will feel that we have been represented by our own government; more likely that our core values have been contravened.)
A Mighty Fortress was published in 2004. Ozment concludes his survey with the remark that
There are clear signs that the foundations of the postwar welfare state, exceedingly generous to natives and foreigners alike, are shaking under the accumulated weight of what has been called egalitarianism… The good Germans today are being undone not by war crimes and war guilt but by their own postwar generosity and pursuit of a just society.
This is prescient, as Germany is currently absorbing the majority of refugees from the Middle East, people fleeing the malignant, predictable effects of the US/UK invasions. There's plenty of guilt to go around....more
Gutting does a good job of making the incomprehensible clear, namely explaining what some recent recondite philosophers actually mean. His book opensGutting does a good job of making the incomprehensible clear, namely explaining what some recent recondite philosophers actually mean. His book opens with a short sociology of haute philosophy (institutionalized in the École Normale and the Sorbonne), then drags us through some arduous pages on Hegel and his interpreters. After that initiation it quickly improves – past Heidegger, Sartre and Nietzsche, into some stimulating readings of Levinas, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Jean-Luc Marion (new to me) and Badiou.
When it comes to this crew, I'm accustomed to either reverence from their epigones or polemics from their skeptics. Gutting eschews either extreme, although his conclusion suggests he's less than impressed. Derrida comes in for the roughest treatment:
Derrida's deconstructions fail because they lack the logical rigor that his own standards of success require. His treatment of différance… [cuts itself] off from the basic pre-philosophical concerns that lead us to philosophy in the first place.
Gutting later quotes John Searle, who was quoting Foucault, about Derrida's "obscurantist terrorism." I hunted down the reference for the full remark.
With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part."
That's worth a chuckle. I came to a similar conclusion following L’affaire Derrida in the exchange between Derrida and Thomas Sheehan in The New York Review of Books back in 1993.
Gutting praises French philosophers for keeping "an admirable connection to the richness of personal, social and political action" – yet their "disdain for the obvious," their deliberate hermeticism, severs them from the larger, genuinely philosophic questions they intend to address....more
Siken's first book of poetry was published in 2005 but I just discovered it. It's relentless, obsessed, over-the-top skeltering lines of exacerbated eSiken's first book of poetry was published in 2005 but I just discovered it. It's relentless, obsessed, over-the-top skeltering lines of exacerbated emotion.
Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake and dress them in warm clothes again.
It's hard to believe a book of poems could keep that imagistic intensity all the way through, but for the most part Crush succeeds. Siken is working at the serrated edge of language, employing some kind of focused insanity. The lines whip back and forth like godless serpent in a snake worshipper's hands. At one or two points actual love appears, but for the most part it's pure paranoid propulsion.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.
The only writing I've read by Mary Karr is her By the Book interview in the NYT Sunday Book Review, the type of interview that delights bibliophilic lThe only writing I've read by Mary Karr is her By the Book interview in the NYT Sunday Book Review, the type of interview that delights bibliophilic lovers of lists.* When asked her opinion of "the best memoirists ever," Karr mentioned this book by G.H. Hardy, first published in 1940, which "acts as a pithy argument against suicide." Hmm, I thought, perfect bedtime reading.
Unfortunately (for me) the most interesting part of the book is its introduction by C.P. Snow, who makes Hardy more interesting than he does himself. Three parts stood out:
His life remained the life of a brilliant young man until he was old: so did his spirit: his games, his interests, kept the lightness of a young don's. And, like many men who keep a young man's interests into their sixties, his last years were the darker for it.
So that's something to look forward to.
Snow also recalls a key point of tension between him and Hardy, which recalled the central argument of Peter Watson's The German Genius.
Like many of his Edwardian intellectual friends, he had a strong feeling for Germany. Germany had, after all, been the great educating force of the nineteenth century. To Eastern Europe, to Russia, to the United States, it was the German universities which had taught the meaning of research. Hardy hadn't much use for German philosophy or German literature: his tastes were too classical for that. But in most respects the German culture, including its social welfare, appeared to him higher than his own.
Finally there's the account of Hardy's botched suicide in the wake of a coronary thrombosis, the death of a close friend, and the irruption of the Second World War. Hardy swallowed a handful of barbiturates, then vomited them up, blacking his eye on the edge of the toilet. Snow tried to cheer him up. "I talked about other distinguished failures at bringing off suicide." Hardy promised not to try again. "He wasn't good at it."
After this, the Apology itself is a bit dull, although it does support Snow's observation that he was "utterly free from moral vanity." On the other hand, Hardy can be superbly astringent.
Good work is not done by "humble" men… most people can do nothing at all well… perhaps five or even ten per cent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full… Ambition has been the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.
Hardy believes he followed his own maxim – by his account he was a first-rate mathematician and not much else. Aspects of this Apology sound almost archaic; in my view, the best parts. ___________ * My other favorite is the Guardian'sTop 10s....more
Sometimes when I can't sleep I'll wander over on my iPad to Glenn Harper's International Noir Fiction, which is where I discovered Pétel's Gallic bookSometimes when I can't sleep I'll wander over on my iPad to Glenn Harper's International Noir Fiction, which is where I discovered Pétel's Gallic book. If anything, I was even more disappointed than Harper.
I'm fan of French policiers, but this one hardly counts. It's more of a fevered fantasy that clothes itself in the elements of crime novel but has none of the substance. The plot employs the old doppelganger effect, as in a 19th century Gothic tale or (more scarily) in Polanski's "The Tenant." Here we get the dubious double figure of a Scottish rogue/Parisian detective. I didn't despise the book, but it left me wanting something better, something like (probably because of the Glasgow connection) Louise Welch's terrific book The Cutting Room....more
Kafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally.
It took me 10 years to finish this short book. For some reason I was generally satisfied with aKafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally.
It took me 10 years to finish this short book. For some reason I was generally satisfied with a few pages, something that easily happens with Calasso's writing, always astonishing in its erudition even when it seems to glide across the page. K. is less a commentary than a meditation on what Kafka called "the indestructible."
This word brings to mind the Vedic akshara more than it does any term used in less remote traditions. Kafka never chose to explain its meaning. He wanted only to distinguish it clearly from any faith in a "personal God." Indeed he went so far as to assert that "belief in a personal God" is nothing more than "one possible expression" of a widespread phenomenon: the tendency of "the indestructible" to "remain hidden."
Recently I read Roberto Balaño's short story "Police Rat," which echoes Kafka's late tales "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" and "The Burrow." What is it, I wondered, with Kafka and mice? Specifically, the noise they make en masse, which I would have called chirping, but Kafka (and Bolaño following him) refer to as "whistling" or "piping." Toward the end of Calasso's book I found the answer, in a letter Kafka wrote from Zürau.
Dear Felix, the first great flaw of Zürau: a night of mice, a frightening experience. I am unscathed and my hair is no whiter than yesterday, but it was the most horrifying thing in the world. For some time now I've heard them here and there, every now and then at night I've been hearing a soft nibbling, once I even got out of bed, trembling, to take a look, and then it stopped at once – but this time it was an uproar. What a dreadful, mute, and noisy race. At two I was awakened by a rustling near my bed and it didn't let up from then until morning. Up the coal box, down the coal box, crossing the room diagonally, running circles, nibbling the woodwork, whistling softly when not moving, and all the while the sensation of silence, of the clandestine labor of an oppressed proletarian race to whom the night belongs.
First my bias: ever since its inception in the mid-80s, I've regarded Queer Theory as a species of rhetorical barbarism, a ferreting of fabrications fFirst my bias: ever since its inception in the mid-80s, I've regarded Queer Theory as a species of rhetorical barbarism, a ferreting of fabrications fueled by incestuous citations and discredited deconstructionist fantasies of domination, liberation and transgression – all crimped within the conformist cadences of academia. Sebald's Bachelors certainly has its share of these.
The tension in the first three sections of Schwindel. Gefühle. is, more precisely, between what Deleuze and Guattari term 'a schizo Eros and an Oedipal Thanatos,' here a queer erotics that resists the Oedipal process… It further demonstrates what Laura Penny has usefully diagnosed as a tension between Benjaminian and Deleuzoguattarian readings of Kafka, between 'Benjamin's modernist mourning and Deleuze's schizoid affirmation.'
There are occasional hilarities ("the queer heterotopia of the railway toilet"), dutiful affirmations of anti-Orientalism etc. and a crash of jarring metaphors (Sebald's Vertigo "is not a fully realized revolutionary literary machine"). And there is a wealth of insight, nourished by an astonishing range of Sebaldiana.
Despite my queer resistance to this style of argument, Finch held my interest throughout. True, at key points I felt she simply misrepresented the texts she was reading, conjuring homosexual eros out of the most unlikely relationships. (I was reminded of the early days of Gay Liberation when everyone everywhere had to be gay.) But fundamentally I was convinced: there is something queer about Sebald's bachelors. It was worth fighting past the scholastic fetish of Theory. Serious fans of Sebald will find much to enchant them here.
PS: Legenda did a beautiful job publishing this text....more
A fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroyiA fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroying the world it's been given. Humboldt appears as a brilliant, even heroic, transitional figure between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, between the positivism of science and the inwardness of art, between Goethe and Darwin. Wulf is also good at demonstrating his influence on other naturalists, not only Darwin but Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh (new to me), Ernst Haeckel and John Muir.
Because I'd just finished reading On the Move: A Life, I couldn't help being reminded of Oliver Sacks, who also stood outside his own profession of neurology to capture the human and artistic dimension of knowledge, creating a new kind of scientific literature in the process. I was also intrigued to find out that Humboldt never married. He claimed his passion was only for science, but he was rarely without the company of another charismatic young man. His equally famous brother, Willem, "disliked his brother's intense friendships – probably a mixture of jealousy and a concern for what might have seemed the inappropriate nature of these connections." And finally, to my private embarrassment, I realized I've confused Alexander and Willem my whole life. (Humboldt University in Berlin is named after both of them.)
The dark irony is that, although Humboldt was revered his warnings about how humanity was destroying its own environment were largely ignored. What should be obvious to everyone is still the stuff of partisan politics, and the grim conviction deepens that nothing will be done until it is too late, that it is in fact too late already.
I read Hazareesingh's book soon after finishing Gary Gutting's Thinking the Impossible, which addressed a narrower subject (French philosophy) withinI read Hazareesingh's book soon after finishing Gary Gutting's Thinking the Impossible, which addressed a narrower subject (French philosophy) within a more concentrated span (since 1960). Even so, the overlap is less compelling than expected. Hazareesingh's French thinkers are a bit more grim, less brilliantly Gallic than Gutting's. After a telling prologue (Dominique de Villepin's 2003 address to the U.N. countering the Bush/Blair rush to invade Iraq), Hazareesingh begins with Descartes, and the book bogs down.
Of course: À chacun son goût. For my taste, the bulk of Hazareesingh's book is as dry as a day-old baguette – as compared to (first example to mind) Tony Judt's Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 or even Gutting's careful account. The last couple chapters, documenting French thinkers' thoughts on their own decline, are slightly more interesting but at the cost of a certain acerbity ("mindless word games in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard"). Those targets are too easily hit, and far from affectionate.
At its best, the book provided a dogged survey of writers I knew nothing about or had largely forgotten. One example: I was startled to see the name of Reynaud Camus, whom I remember only for his unapologetic Tricks: 25 Encounters (1981, introduction by Roland Barthes and the ostensible subject of Gore Vidal's spectacular polemic "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"). It appears he's moved far beyond sex with strangers.
Camus believed that the notion of France as a land of immigration was a "myth" that had been fabricated by the ideologues of the establishment for the sake of promoting multiculturalism and the "decivilized" utopia of a global village. According to the author, the strategy was succeeding: the sacred concepts of patriotism, patrimony, and heritage had been emptied of their substance, and France was facing a "replacement" of its native populations by immigrants from the Maghreb – an Islamic invasion that Camus described as a "counter-colonization."
Indeed, a quick read of the Wikipedia entry on Camus reveals a complicated character who does indeed (as he did in 1981) seem entirely French. And Hazareesingh is helpful on explaining this exacerbated debate, especially post Charlie Hebdo.
I could have used more of this, more flavor – there's precious little on French fiction (nothing on its crime fiction, one of my favorites); almost nothing on its music or film or food. – Well, there is one orotund quote from the philosopher Yves Roucaute
who used a sustained comparison between the blandness of the fast-food hamburger and the authenticity of the French sandwich jambon-beurre… This opened the way to a lyrical evocation of the liberating virtues of the French café… "Remarkable school of equality, the French café symbolizes equal dignity. Extraordinary school of liberty, the French café opens its doors to all and allows true choice. Prodigious school of fraternity, by this apparently simple act of buying a sandwich is created a communion around regional products. So with butter, bread and pork, without knowing it, you declaim these three words: 'liberty,' 'equality,' and 'fraternity.'"
Like other reviewers here, I lived through the dark decade of AIDS and experienced the loss of friends and lovers, young men in their 20s and 30s justLike other reviewers here, I lived through the dark decade of AIDS and experienced the loss of friends and lovers, young men in their 20s and 30s just beginning their lives. Gooch's memoir brought all that back to me, although not quite with the chilling immediacy of the recent documentaries How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here. This book has the feel of something that needed to be written, an act of homage – and it rings true....more
A wonderful memoir, packed with exorbitant adventures, brimming with a joy both physical and intellectual. When I first spotted the book I was shockedA wonderful memoir, packed with exorbitant adventures, brimming with a joy both physical and intellectual. When I first spotted the book I was shocked at the muscle boy on the motorcycle – not at all how I'd pictured the neurologist as a young man. Who knew he that was gay? Who knew that he'd won prizes for weight-lifting and hung out on Venice Beach? Who knew that he had such tenderness? Sacks is humble and humorous about his extraordinary, often astonishing life. A genuine delight.