I’m not really qualified to review this book. I found it thrilling to read, but so much of that thrill was tied up in the circumstances in which I rea...moreI’m not really qualified to review this book. I found it thrilling to read, but so much of that thrill was tied up in the circumstances in which I read it—pulling it from the shelf in a house where I was staying in Spain, knowing nothing of the author or the book but looking for something to help me practice my Spanish, choosing it over two or three other options mainly because it was the shortest—though at 233 pages it is the longest book I’ve ever finished in Spanish. And that was the real thrill, finding that I could slip inside the language and move around with more freedom than I had been used to, that I didn’t need to slog my way through with a dictionary but could absorb new words in their context—or intuit their meaning from their relationship to other Spanish words rather than relating them back to English. It was a big thrill, but I’ll admit it makes me an unreliable reviewer. I can picture everything in the book—but the picture gets hazy around the edges.
From what I’ve been able to figure out, this book hasn’t been translated into English yet—most of Millás’s oeuvre hasn’t. I took a crack at the first page or so, just to give people a sense of it. (I’m not happy with it. The syntax is smoother in Spanish.)
******************************************************************** My father kept a workshop for electronic medical appliances. He fixed them, he invented them, he figured them out from North American publications. He didn’t know English, but he could interpret a schematic, a diagram, or a circuit as easily as others read a traffic sign. X-ray machines and iron lungs came through the workshop, and my brothers and I used to play more than just doctor with them. Among the devices that left the greatest impression on me, I remember a suction unit from the days before the electric scalpel when the wounds a surgeon opened would fill with blood, blocking his view of whatever organ he was operating on. The suction tube cleaned out the wound in a matter of seconds, the blood collecting in a glass recipient with a wide mouth, like the kind we stored olives in—in fact, it probably was an olive jar since in our house we never threw anything away. Toothpaste caps, for example, served as control knobs for radios. Later, with the development of the electric scalpel, which cauterized the wound as it inflicted it, I think suction units passed into medical history.
My father claimed to be the first person in Spain to build an electric scalpel, though he surely took the idea from some foreign publication. I remember seeing him bent over his workbench, making incisions in a piece of steak, amazed by the precision and the neatness of its cut. I’ll never forget the moment when he turned to me as I watched him, somewhat frightened, and made this formative pronouncement:
—Look closely, Juanjo, it cauterizes the wound in the same moment that it produces it.
When I write longhand in a notebook, as I am now, I think I am a bit like my father in that act of testing the electric scalpel; for writing, too, opens wounds that it cauterizes at the same time. ************************************************************************
This scene is typical of the novel’s way of proceeding, of moving back and forth between the resonant moments of the protagonist’s childhood and the professional writing life that he has grown into—right up to the present moment of the book’s composition. The author and the protagonist are the same person. The past and the present seem always to be happening at the same time. Life repeats itself. Metaphors accumulate in layers that expand and transmute. Even with my limited background in Spanish literature, I recognize the influence of Borges and Cortazar—their insistence that our imaginations are more powerful than any brute reality. In the case of Juanjo, reality is his family’s poverty, the sickness and death of a childhood friend, and the abuse that he suffers at school. His means of escape are sometimes destructive, sometimes transformative, always related with a blend of humor and pathos.
It had been a long time since I'd read a Dickens novel, but this one came up so may times in recent conversations (with Jim Raterman, with Barbara Osb...moreIt had been a long time since I'd read a Dickens novel, but this one came up so may times in recent conversations (with Jim Raterman, with Barbara Osburg, etc.) that I committed myself to reading it by putting it on the extra credit list for British Lit. The three days that I spent racing through it while convalescing this February were some of the most pleasant I passed all winter--my hacking cough notwithstanding. To watch the way in which Pip's notions of himself and the world are distorted by his contact with the moneyed classes reminded me (painfully) of the airs I took on when I started attending a private school, of the terrible ambivalence toward money that has been the legacy of that period of my life, and even, I am ashamed to admit, of the inordinate persistence in me of that longing to be "made" by some circumstantial connection outside of the drudgery of work. That is to say, I found the novel (excepting a few sensational digressions) frighteningly true, right down to its understanding of the ways in which we willingly cooperate in our own destruction. Of all the expectations that are overturned in the novel, the most thrilling to watch going down are the narrative expectations of the Victorian novel. As the story moves toward its conclusion, Dickens dangles before us a number of sentimental possibilities of the kind a less writer (or a younger version of himself) might have settled for before steering a course for an outcome that (especially in its unedited form) is humble and human and worthy of the realities of life.(less)
Like so many other things that I've been reading lately, Aeschylus's trilogy is concerned with human beings thrown into the crucible of extremest inte...moreLike so many other things that I've been reading lately, Aeschylus's trilogy is concerned with human beings thrown into the crucible of extremest intensity, pressured from every direction my conflicting obligations, driven to violent action and violent remorse. Few poets are as willing as Aeschylus to stare into the profound darkness of human suffering and name the curse that seems to hold us to the wheel of our own violence. Yet, even fewer are ultimately as hopeful about the possibility of our breaking that wheel, of our suffering a way through to wisdom and truth. In this way, Aeschylus is a religious poet who believes in redemptive sacrifice. And by placing his faith in the power of civic institutions to domesticate the chthonic forces of our souls and turn them toward public service, he is also a political poet. At a time when it is hard for poets to be either of these things, a time when our families and our politics seem equally bound up in sterile cycles of fear and retribution, Aeschylus may have much to teach.(less)
In the beginning, reading Anna Karenin can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Muc...moreIn the beginning, reading Anna Karenin can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Much of what you see from the bus you recognize from pictures and movies and books. You can’t help but think of the great writers and artists who have been here before you. You expect to like it. You want to like it. But you don’t want to feel like you have to like it. You worry a little that you won’t. But after a few days, you settle in, and you feel the immensity of the place opening up all around you. You keep having this experience of turning a corner and finding something beautiful that you hadn’t been told to expect or catching sight of something familiar from a surprising angle. You start to trust the abundance of the place, and your anxieties that someone else will have eaten everything up before your arrival relax. (Maybe that simile reveals more about me than I’d like.)
My favorite discovery was the three or four chapters (out of the book’s 239) devoted to, of all things, scythe mowing—chapters that become a celebratory meditation on physical labor. When I read those chapters, I felt temporarily cured of the need to have something “happen” and became as absorbed in the reading as the mowers are absorbed in their work. Of course, the book is about Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty and Dolly and poor, stupid Stepan Arkadyich. It’s about their love and courtship and friendship and pride and shame and jealousy and betrayal and forgiveness and about the instable variety of happiness and unhappiness. But it’s also about mowing the grass and arguing politics and hunting and working as a bureaucrat and raising children and dealing politely with tedious company. To put it more accurately, it’s about the way that the human mind—or, as Tolstoy sometimes says, the human soul—engages each of these experiences and tries to understand itself, the world around it, and the other souls that inhabit that world. This book is not afraid to take up any part of human life because it believes that human beings are infinitely interesting and infinitely worthy of compassion. And, what I found stirring, the book’s fearlessness extends to matters of religion. Tolstoy takes his characters seriously enough to acknowledge that they have spiritual lives that are as nuanced and mysterious as their intellectual lives and their romantic lives. I knew to expect this dimension of the book, but I could not have known how encouraging it would be to dwell in it for so long.
In the end, this is a book about life, written by a man who is profoundly in love with life. Reading it makes me want to live.
The first of the poems in Thom Gunn’s Collected to really knock me out appears half way through his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). In the...moreThe first of the poems in Thom Gunn’s Collected to really knock me out appears half way through his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). In the poem, “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” Gunn pays homage to his former teacher with a portrait of the Stanford professor that compares his training of Airedale terriers—an activity that requires “boxer’s vigilance and poet’s rigour”—to his life as a scholar who must
…keep both Rule and Energy in view, Much power in each, most in the balanced two: Ferocity existing in the fence Built by an exercised intelligence.
The poem is Augustan in its form, Latinate in its diction, and philosophic in its argument, yet it feels warm and humane throughout. In this respect, the poem reminds me of Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”—another homage to a public intellectual. Like Auden’s, Gunn’s poem is elegiac. Though Winters would not die for another thirteen years, Gunn is already aware that “night is always close, complete negation/ Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion.” The poem knows that the mind is as mortal as the body and so turns for its consolation to teaching: the dissatisfied urge to “raise from the excellent the better still.”
It is all the more moving to me then that some of the last great poems of the collection are elegies to Charlie Hinkle, one of Gunn’s graduate students, who died of AIDS in the late 1980’s. Written in the same iambic pentameter couplets in which he wrote “To Yvor Winters, 1955”—and so many of his other long meditations—“The J Car” also mourns the loss of a great mind, one that must suffer the knowledge that “he would not write the much-conceived/ Much-hoped-for work now.” But the bulk of the poem’s attention is on the body, on the life of sensations that dissipates slowly with the body’s diminishment. Gunn describes meals he shared with his friend in the last year of his life, meals during which “the connection between life and food/ Had briefly seemed so obvious if so crude.” He notes the painful contrast between his friend’s sickness and his own health, including such details as “I’d eat his dessert” as if shy of presenting his visits in a saintly light, yet he doesn’t let the narrative tip into self-indulgent assertions of guilt either. In a similar display of tact, he steers away from the emotional traps inherent in elegy, mourning his friend without idealizing him, achieving a tone to match his friend’s taste for food like Sauerbraten “In which a sourness and dark richness meet.”
[click on the first comment on this review for the last paragraph](less)
I think this is one of the best books of literary criticism I've ever read, a nearly overwhelming demonstration of Helen Vendler's powers as a reader,...moreI think this is one of the best books of literary criticism I've ever read, a nearly overwhelming demonstration of Helen Vendler's powers as a reader, which are primarily the powers of imaginative identification. Perhaps the reason Helen Vendler reads Keats so well is that she reads as Keats wrote, immersed in that famous negative capability that allows reader or writer to be not herself but the other, the object of her contemplation. To Vendler, this means primarily reading the poem along the line as if one were writing it and asking at every moment of choice, Why would I do it this way and not another? If I am Keats, why am I writing an ode? Why am I rhyming these particular words? Why am I listing these adjectives in this particular order? etc. Of course, she does not plague us with cheesy rhetorical questions as I am doing here but dazzles us with the insights such investigations yield. This is the closest kind of reading--not the invasive closeness of the detective with his magnifying glass, looking for clues by which to convict or acquit, but an intimate sympathy with the lyric speaker, letting oneself think with another's language for a while.
If the literary imagination I'm praising sounds too mystic, know that Vendler's is backed up by an immense amount of hard research, the most interesting of which is her deep familiarity with what Keats himself read (a familiarity made possible by the Houghton Library's ownership of Keats's personal library). In ode after ode, she traces words and phrases and syntactical constructions back to Milton, to Spenser, to Dryden's translations of the Georgics, and, of course, to Shakespeare, supporting her claims of influence with reference to underlinings and marginalia in his books.
Ultimately her book makes the argument that, taken in the order that she chooses more for narrative convenience than logic, the odes form a kind of sequence through which Keats more and more courageously refined his ideas about art and the artist's relationship to the mortal world. While I find I can't take the sequence theory literally, the effect of the argument is undeniable. By the time she reaches her sixty-page explication of "To Autumn," she has laid the groundwork for understanding that poem as the culmination of every concern on Keats's mind in that last year of his career as a poet, everything that he had to master in order to achieve the almost rippleless equanimity that plays across the surface of that poem. I can't imagine putting down her book at the end without the conviction of having experienced more deeply and felt more fully than ever what must undoubtedly be among the richest and most beautiful poems in our language.
It is as if I had never really understood before what it means to read.(less)
I loved Don Paterson's earlier collection, Landing Light, when I first heard him read in 2005. So I was eager to dive into this latest volume of poems...moreI loved Don Paterson's earlier collection, Landing Light, when I first heard him read in 2005. So I was eager to dive into this latest volume of poems in forms that range from sonnet to haiku, poems in Scots dialect, and poems adapted from Spanish, French and Chinese (among others). Here, again, are the pliable rhythms and the searing intellect I've learned to expect from Paterson, this time in a darker key. This volume is loaded with elegy and metaphysical anxiety in the tradition of Larkin's "Aubade." It's sad and sobering and steady. And really quite beautiful. I especially like some of the longer poems, but here's a short translation I'm fond of:
On this wine-bowl beaten from the purest silver, made for Herakleides' white-walled home where everything declares his perfect taste — I've placed a flowering olive and a river, and at its heart, a beautiful young man who will let water cool his naked foot forever. O memory: I prayed to you that I might make his face just as it was. What a labour that turned out to be. He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.
**spoiler alert** It’s embarrassing how long it’s taken me to get to Dostoyevski’s longer works. I read some of his novellas—Notes from the Undergroun...more**spoiler alert** It’s embarrassing how long it’s taken me to get to Dostoyevski’s longer works. I read some of his novellas—Notes from the Underground, The Eternal Husband—in college and was drawn to him then—all that Kierkegaardian hand-wringing, all that Christian Romanticism played back in a minor key. I should have read Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment right away, but I kept putting them off. Now I fear I may have missed the moment when I would have felt a novel like this one more deeply. For the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t sure I could enter the book at all. On his own, Raskolnikov doesn’t interest me very much—neither psychologically nor aesthetically. The novel doesn’t open up until other characters arrive on the scene: Razumikhin, Avdotya Romanovna, Porfiry Petrovich, even the wicked Svidrigailov. But once the book is fully populated, I feel as though I’m reading something great. It is dull to be locked inside the interior monologue of Raskolnikov’s brain, but once Porfiry Petrovich is there to spar with him, the scenes come alive with psychological tension. Raskolnikov’s self-imposed alienation is lugubrious until Razumikhin’s bumbling interference gives it a comic edge. In meeting the protagonist’s sister, we encounter something of a fully realized human being, someone capable of both action and suffering. By contrast, Raskolnikov himself seems capable of neither, his great transgression as much a matter of accident as of agency. He is like a Hamlet who does all his dithering and delaying after committing his bloody deed—except that he lacks Hamlet’s wit, his sense of irony, and his keenness of feeling. More accurate to say that he is to Napoleon as Prufrock is to Hamlet: a humiliated imitator trying to live out a notion he has received from books. Svidrigailov is a real criminal; Raskolnikov, for all his guilt, is only posing as a criminal. Perhaps this explains why he ends up with Sonya, who is only posing as a prostitute—or whose identity as a prostitute is figured as a purely social (rather than a carnal) humiliation. There is something about the sexlessness of their union that makes Raskolnikov’s redemption feel unsatisfying to me—as though he were being saved into another brand of abstraction from the one he’s been locked up in all along. As with the claustrophobic first hundred pages, the epilogue is less than engaging. Depopulated of its human beings, the novel grows cold and remote with just these frail spirits to sustain it.(less)
"At dusk the sky turned blood red and his sister took him out walking along the outer edge of the barracks to watch the sun go down over the mountains...more"At dusk the sky turned blood red and his sister took him out walking along the outer edge of the barracks to watch the sun go down over the mountains. 'Look. Look away. Look. Look away.' That, she told him, was the proper way to look at the sun. If you stared at it straight on for too long, you'd go blind" (65).
This novel about a family's exile to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II is artful in the way it manages emotion by looking at and looking away from intensely painful experience. Incidents are few as their days of tedium go by, but the imagery is rich, the language taut in a way that sustains the narrative's drama. Ultimately, this is a book about restraint. The longer that restraint goes on, the more one feels the agonizing power of everything that's being held back.(less)
“Shahrazad turned to King Shahrayar and said, ‘May I have your permission to tell a story?’ He replied, ‘Yes,’ and Shahrazad was very happy and said,...more“Shahrazad turned to King Shahrayar and said, ‘May I have your permission to tell a story?’ He replied, ‘Yes,’ and Shahrazad was very happy and said, “Listen”:
Of all of the world’s story collections, surely The Arabian Nights has the best framing device—the best fictional pretext by which to justify the telling of the other stories. I mean the story of Shahrazad (as this text transliterates her name), the daughter of the vizier to King Shahrayar. Bitter over his first wife’s betrayal, Shahrayar decides that he will avenge himself on womankind by marrying a different woman every night and having her killed in the morning. As the tally of victims rises, the vizier, who has been charged with procuring these wives from among the daughters of the kingdom’s princes, becomes more and more desperate until one day Shahrazad herself volunteers to marry the king and stubbornly refuses to be dissuaded by her father. On the night of her nuptials, Shahrazad begins to tell Shahrayar a story to while away the hours until dawn when she will be killed. When the sun rises before she can complete the tale, the king decides to spare her until the next night so that he can find out whether a demon kills the merchant against whom he has raised his sword. And so begins the endless series of narrative delays and nesting of tales by which the storyteller manages to make herself indispensable to the tyrannical king—and so too begins the tyrannical king’s education in empathy as he listens to tales of justice and injustice, of fidelity and betrayal, of statecraft and misrule. Some of the tales have more artistry than others.
Some are sentimental. Some seem intended merely to titillate. To my mind, no single tale lives up to the best of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are roughly contemporary to these. Still, the power of the Nights is cumulative in the way of good refrains. Again and again, we are told, “But morning overcame Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence”—only to have the tale taken up again the next night. These lapses and interruptions invest even the silliest tales with gravity, reminding us that all art is an appeal against our common death sentence, a plucky assertion of the meaningfulness of human experience against the overwhelming evidence that we are powerless and disposable. What could possibly have motivated Shahrazad, the safest of all the kingdom’s virgins, to put her body in the tyrant’s bed? One can only call it love, terrifying as it is to invoke that word: love for the victims that led her to love their killer and to gamble her life on the humanity of his heart.
Though a translator’s note informs us that “tradition has it” Shahrazad bears Shahrayar three children and somewhere along the way earns enough trust to have her death sentence lifted, the tales where never finished by their original author—whoever that may have been. Later editors have felt free to add material, including many of the tales we most commonly associate with the Nights: Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves. Husain Haddawy leaves these out of his translation, following the editorial choices of Muhsin Mahdi, whose fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript is the earliest one we have. The fascinating history of the text and of its translation into Western languages is thoroughly documented in Haddawy’s introduction—convincingly enough to persuade me that I’m in the hands of a good translator as I read. (less)
Jacques Réda reminds me of a French Adam Zagajewski, singing amidst the rubble of history, writing psalms of praise without believing in any God to wh...moreJacques Réda reminds me of a French Adam Zagajewski, singing amidst the rubble of history, writing psalms of praise without believing in any God to whom they might be addressed. These are poems of light and shadow; cobblestone and countryside; loss, promise, and revenant longing--all marked by a pervasive secular mysticism, an "amen" that can't quite muster an "alleluia."
The English-speaking world is indebted to Jennie Feldman for bringing out this first book-length collection of translations (drawn from Réda's early work, 1968-75). She tackles the rich vocabulary with which the poet renders the world in such palpable detail and manages knotted syntax and French idiom with admirable skill. For example, she takes the nervous chattiness that flutters up in these lines--
"Des fenêtres de l'hôpital on avait vue À vrai dire ma foi vraiment belle sur ces collines..."
--and renders the tone just right without being slavishly literal:
"From the hospital windows there was a view Really such a lovely view you know over those hills..."
Or she brings the very long "La fête est finie" to a close with these rhythmically satisfying lines:
"Could her honey shoulder be another day beginning, Her silence the space where birds will burst forth?"
The musicality of the translations comes and goes, however. At the end of "Je montais le chemin quand j'ai vu d'un côté," Feldman gives us
"That's when it's good to go walking with tobacco in your pocket For later, and to kick through these bones and metal scraps on ploughed fields While the sun rows low to leave the whole field free for its light."
That last line is perfect--or it would be if it weren't for the clunky repetition of the word "field" from the line before it. (The original uses two different words, "labours" and "champ.") "Ploughed fields" is an accurate translation of "labours," but the poem's music pays a high price.
Feldman renders all of the poems in free verse, even though about a fifth of the originals are written in rhyme and meter. This too is a choice I'll quibble with, a choice to ignore the poems' music.
Still, given the limited ambitions of the translations, the book still provides a great service. It gives us the poems in their original form along with a reliable trot to guide us through them. And occasionally that trot breaks out in a dance.(less)
This was a really delightful book with which to start my summer reading: the life story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the son of minor nobility in eigh...moreThis was a really delightful book with which to start my summer reading: the life story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the son of minor nobility in eighteenth century Italy, who, at the age of twelve, leaves the family table after a fight with his father, climbs a tree, and swears never to set foot on the earth again. Though he never breaks his promise, as he grows up, his reasons for keeping it evolve away from this youthful impetuousness, deepening into a kind of wisdom. On the one hand, the trees are a separate realm, a world of solitude in which, like Robinson Crusoe, he must invent both the material means of his survival and the rules that give his life significance. On the other hand, the trees are no desert island of detachment. By moving from tree to tree, Cosimo can cross first the wall that separates his family from his neighbors and then the boundaries between the (increasingly irrelevant) nobility and the common life of his village. The branching trees that touch one another and the earth they spring from become a metaphor for the fragile interdependence of human society and of all life--though we are reminded early in this twentieth century novel that the great forests of Europe, already dwindling in the eighteenth century, are all but gone now. The tone of the story, narrated with two parts wonder and to one part skepticism by Cosimo's younger, earth-bound brother, blends the exuberance of human freedom and creativity with the pathos of human limitation, perhaps reminding us that our limitations--not just those imposed on us, but those we choose for ourselves and abide by--often aid in the creation of what is most beautiful about our lives.(less)
My brother Mike described this as the only book I've ever given him that he didn't like. I can understand why: lots of literary references, lots of in...moreMy brother Mike described this as the only book I've ever given him that he didn't like. I can understand why: lots of literary references, lots of in-jokes for English majors, graduate students, and anyone who's ever suffered through a course in literary theory. But I'm all of those things, and as I read Small Word through for the second time--this time in preparation to teach it at the end of my British Lit class--I found myself liking it even more than I did the first time. It's more than just a very funny satire on the pretensions of literary geeks; it's also a cleverly plotted, semi-allegorical critique of love, Romance, and sex, as well as a lucid primer on the very critical theories whose self-important adherents it mocks. It has its flaws, of course. All satire can get cartoonish at times, but I'm disappointed by the xenophobia with which the book surrenders to the most superficial stereotyping in order to depict its non-anglophone characters--the German critic is a Nazi, the French critic a lizard-like homosexual, the Japanese translator a humorless, mechanistic stiff who sings karaoke. English, Irish and American characters do not escape mockery, of course, but they tend to be depicted with more sympathy, their vices more charming than repugnant. Persse McGarrigle, the virgin Irish poet whose romantic quest drives the novel's plot, remains irretrievably (and delightfully) naive from beginning to end, playing Candide in the conferences and dupe in the bedroom. I identify with him less than I did on my first reading. This time, I find myself liking Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow. For all their infantile self-importance and infidelity, each emerges from his experiences chastened and restored to humanity. The book ends comically--all marriages and reunions. And the marriage between Philip and Hilary Swallow--the fragile, at times tediously mundane cohabitation that is the subject of some of the novel's least funny, most poignant scenes--somehow emerges as normative. Joy isn't elsewhere as the young or would-be-young imagine it--somewhere one must fly to in a never-ending quest--but at home with the windows open, letting the breeze blow in.(less)
I bought this book three or four years ago for a graduate course I was taking on Wilde and Joyce. For that class, we read mostly Wilde's criticism (th...moreI bought this book three or four years ago for a graduate course I was taking on Wilde and Joyce. For that class, we read mostly Wilde's criticism (the dialogues "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist I & II"). Studying these and seeing Wilde's influence on Joyce helped shake me from the opinion that Wilde was clever but shallow and to see him as a canny and restless subversive. Still, as I read his major plays this winter (trying to pick one for the Brit Lit course) and reread The Picture of Dorian Gray (in order to put it on the extra credit list), I found I still can't quite get my mind around Wilde—can't settle the question of why his work fascinates and disturbs me while remaining ever beyond my endorsement. I love to cheer on his swashbuckling satire of Victorian self-satisfaction, narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy (and wish we had a latter-day Wilde to counter our new Victorians). But I can never find a norm to stand on in his work. I find certain ideas of Aestheticism compelling—for instance, the effort to disentangle art from a slavish relationship to moral norms—but, practiced in the form of Dandyism, it seems as ridiculous to me as Philistinism. Still, I find that Wilde's work pricks at my own complacency, that I can't read him without laughing at myself and without brooding over the world's almost unbearable insanity. The dissatisfaction that I can't quite articulate is part of why I find myself coming back to read him again.(less)
All three of these novellas explore questions of art and sex in the context of a totalitarian state (specifically, the Cultural Revolution) with that...moreAll three of these novellas explore questions of art and sex in the context of a totalitarian state (specifically, the Cultural Revolution) with that sad-funny irony that I guess we call post-modern: Kafka + Catch 22 + Kundera + Maoist China. Of course, sex is a metaphor; and, of course, the state is a metaphor. Art may be a metaphor, too; but there are also human beings trying to live with the weight of such metaphors, accidental rebels who are also accidental collaborators. "2015" is the funniest of the stories, perhaps at times too caught up in its own cleverness, but in all a charming dose of darkness. I prefer "The Golden Age," however, for its weird nostalgia, its sad recognition of the way the absurd logic of the reeducation camps and the casual rebellion of a pair of lovers actually create each other, feed off of and reinforce one another in such a way that love, if there is such a thing, is contingent upon the very opposition it tries to escape. And what are we when the coercion by our resistence to which we have have become ourselves collapses?(less)
It was Dante's Inferno that first led me to Ovid's Metmorphoses: tales that explore the ways in which the violent passions of the soul apply pressure...moreIt was Dante's Inferno that first led me to Ovid's Metmorphoses: tales that explore the ways in which the violent passions of the soul apply pressure to the body until it changes shape. In Dante's Hell, shape-changes are governed by divine justice--punishments fitted to the sinners' crimes--but Ovid's world is governed by the gods' caprice, punishing, rescuing, rewarding and destroying sinners and victims alike. It is hard to say which is the more true depiction of the way we live, but reading Ovid, one feels the world to be dazzlingly, magically beautiful and terrifyingly violent all at once, full of passions more powerful than wisdom and uncontrollable urges toward hubris. Rereading the tales this summer at the same time that I have been tackling Cien años de soledad, I couldn't help but see in Ovid an ancestor of the Magical Realists whose modern myths are inspired by that same conviction of the imagination that insists that eros and thanatos, not gravity or atomic energy, are the true elemental forces of the universe and that human emotions in their extremes of pathos and desire exert a sympathetic power over the natural order of the world--whatever Ruskin might insist to the contrary.(less)