None of those other blurbs and reviews about boredom and comedy prepared me for the horrible creeping dread that underlies all of this. This moves andNone of those other blurbs and reviews about boredom and comedy prepared me for the horrible creeping dread that underlies all of this. This moves and fails to move in all kinds of amusing rhythms and digressions, but the humor is, at heart, very dark. And there's a weight to the malaise that more recent literatures of ennui are less able to invoke. It's 1947, Europe is restored to reason. It's 1947, and no one will ever really recover. Brilliant and imperceptibly devastating....more
Blunt memoir of, yes, paying for sex, broken into chapters corresponding to different call girls, expanded with the author's conversations with the giBlunt memoir of, yes, paying for sex, broken into chapters corresponding to different call girls, expanded with the author's conversations with the girls about their professions, and with friends on why this is, to him, preferable to the possessiveness and pain of long-term monogamous romantic love. This is a comic, so it's entirely illustrated, but not exactly graphic and certainly not erotic, everything depicted flatly at a remove and from a kind of philosophical distance. Brown's case is well-reasoned and thoughtful, but also sort of reductive -- sure, lots of crappy monogamous relationships resemble prostitution anyway, or trap people in impossible ideals, but this is, I think, more in line with the total inequality of social structures finally (albeit slowly) being phased out. Brown entirely disregards the possibility of relationship as a free exchange between two equals, or perhaps considers this a self-deception (in many cases, due to structural inequalities, it may be), but I'd like to be a bit more optimistic here. Still, even if you strongly disagree, this forms an interesting, and useful, social analysis....more
One of Comyns late trio of novels written in her 80s, here taking an apparent light comic mode quite different from her works of 20 to 40 years beforeOne of Comyns late trio of novels written in her 80s, here taking an apparent light comic mode quite different from her works of 20 to 40 years before, but strongly characterized and with a characteristic social insight into the lives of her female subjects, here those fading into their twilight years, widowed or vocationless an figuring out how to scrape by. (The comedy belied by actually rather bleak realities). I was encouraged to see that even here, after setting up the opportunity for melodramatic misadventures of a kind that a Hollywood screenwriter would pounce upon, Comyns has little interest in such predictable paths, settling instead for something less familiar, manipulative, or implausible....more
The theme of the conference was -- for once! -- not The Future. It was The Contemporary. This was even worse.
Yes, the Contemporary is much much worse
The theme of the conference was -- for once! -- not The Future. It was The Contemporary. This was even worse.
Yes, the Contemporary is much much worse than it seems. Or seemed. Things seem quite bad now, but here, a few years back, McCarthy was conducting a mass anthropological excavation of a dysfunctional post-modern world -- vast and inescapable systems, invisible power centers, lost objectivity, sullied data sets, and, at its heart a magnetically fascinating system of waste and decay. McCarthy briskly spins out his concepts in essayistic numbered sub-sections, self-dissecting and recomposing continuously. There's not really a plot, but there doesn't ever need to be. This gives me a new kind of reassurance in the continuing relevance of the classic high-concept late-modern/lightly-post-modern novels of Delillo and the like that I've lately sort of instinctually avoided....more
Regional reading for a film festival in Abu Dhabi. Naguib Mahfouz is assuredly an international phenomenon, Nobel Prize and all, but this is still a dRegional reading for a film festival in Abu Dhabi. Naguib Mahfouz is assuredly an international phenomenon, Nobel Prize and all, but this is still a distinctly Egyptian book, exploring the state of the country in the post-second-revolution-60s, through multiple representative generations living in a boarding house. A little research into 20th-century Egyptian history gave me the outline in which to fit the political forces that lead to an unfamiliar socialist, semi-opressive, semi-open society in the 1960s, but this is in fact all just context through which Mafouz investigates more universal themes -- the constancy of power even as the players change, and, across the political spectrum, the objectification of women, personified in the young, aspiring, hopefully upwardly mobile former peasant maid of the boarding house. In light modernist configuration the action plays out four times, from differing perspectives, each offering a different version of these power/gender relationships, none all too flattering. Egypt, even having socialized and granted women the vote with the revolution, was still naturally caught up in deep inequalities, making this elucidating both in the specific, and in, far outside of Egypt, in the archetypal. Time and place blunt the more obvious edges, but the gestalt hasn't entirely retreated....more
Travel reading -- a slightly absurd, slightly sarcastic novel of detection set in a remote resort, perfect for my current environs (particularly a quiTravel reading -- a slightly absurd, slightly sarcastic novel of detection set in a remote resort, perfect for my current environs (particularly a quick foray onto the remote island of Delma, in the Gulf of Arabia). Co-authors (and Argentine literary power couple who never otherwise collaborated directly on a novel) Casares and Ocampo were friends of Borges and their own brand of fantacist and surrealist (respectively) in their own right so they imbue this story of a mysterious death on vacation with eerie beachscapes, odd narrative ellipses, and postmodern sleights of hand with allude back to the process and structure of literature itself. It makes for something quite fun and twisty, if modest in scope and purpose. It's a crime that I've read so much more Casares than Ocampo to date, actually, I need to track dow more of her novels....more
Read entirely aloud over Skype with Maya while we're on different continents. Probably the slightest of Comyns' novels I've come across yet (but it'sRead entirely aloud over Skype with Maya while we're on different continents. Probably the slightest of Comyns' novels I've come across yet (but it's just her second). Even so, she has such a perfect yet completely unaffected and conversational turn of phrase that she's always a pleasure. Plus:
Social realism -- the precise details of class and place and social atmosphere in depression-era England are spot-on and create a vivid portrait. She crams the pages with perfect particulars. Right down to the title.
Social surrealism -- and as with Comyns' best works, things can get nonchalantly weird and horrific, blindsiding the reader and then going on as if nothing much had happened.
And through those details, those structural rhythms, Comyns has a kind of social purpose. Not exactly feminist here as the narrator wouldn't have possibly considered things on those terms, but her strength of character, and Comyns', draw attention to subtle, and not-so-subtle, realities and gender politics in a constant undercurrent. Now if only the protagonist had been able to make her own way out of her troubles an not required the neat ending that this reaches, but again, such was likely outside her (the character's, not Comyns') imagination in those times....more
Admittedly, I'm not totally sold yet, but I'd like to give this some time. The concept -- form-breaking post-modern novel sequence as multi-season telAdmittedly, I'm not totally sold yet, but I'd like to give this some time. The concept -- form-breaking post-modern novel sequence as multi-season television series, a kind of conceptual post-Lost international interlacing of characters and interrogation of reality, certainly lacks precedent, and is highly ambitious, but the actual content doesn't quite excite me. With its central L.A. polyphony, this reads more like a reduction of Vanessa Place's La Medusa, than anything really form-pushing. But, then how could it accomplish anything truly impressive in itself, when these 800 pages are just the first volume of a planned twenty-six. Like television, there's a certain amount of structural padding, but like a television series, how much can we really judge from the first episode alone? Really this will all be about the development of these characters and threads over multiple volumes, and all this so far is little more than setup. Arguably even in this volume everything happens, across the globe, but none of it really feels like more than introductory motions. And there's also an element of a game to this --- with its multiple languages and web of references I suspect that this was intended, from the first, to be a code to be cracked via coordinated action across the internet. Having read this mostly on a long flight, I've not yet probed the conversation around it very deeply, so it seems, for the moment to be an extraneous playing with the reader. But I hope it may engage in deeper ways as well. Since I obviously have to keep going with this to see how it develops, I'm quite grateful to find that the Brooklyn Library seems to be stocking them all. So far....more
When I go to the library for blind browsing, a big part of my search image is to look for the thinnest books on the shelves. Not because I favor shortWhen I go to the library for blind browsing, a big part of my search image is to look for the thinnest books on the shelves. Not because I favor short works, but it seems like all the Best-seller list types have stake in taking up as much shelf space as possible. Most of the best new fiction I stumble doesn't even have a hardcover edition. And on the other hand, if I am going to read extremely short books, all the better to get them out of the library rather than pay for something I'll read in one sitting.
And so the thinnest book on the shelves this week converged with another key search image -- the similarly textured paper that adorns the covers of Archipelago and Pushkin Press titles. (Having Bruno Schulz's name in the title would also be a search image if there were enough books about him to warrant it).
That's my review of why I decided to read this slim novella. As for the actual content: this starts off enticingly, with Schulz beset by anxiety at home in 1938, writing a letter to Thomas Mann about a man claiming to be Thomas Mann who has just arrived in Schulz's small town in Poland. Biller clearly knows his Schulz and surrounds him in details that seem right, but he also makes of Schulz's writing something far more direct and dread-tinged than anything extent in his writing. Given that he would be shot by Nazi in the street four years later, it's hard to argue with premonitions of destruction, but in the end this feels a little forced -- words put into his mouth rather than an evocation of his own. But how would Bruno Schulz actually have dealt with the holocaust in his own writing? We may never know.
And then, after Biller's version of Schulz, we get Schulz's version of Schulz, via a couple key stories from The Street of Crocodiles. Biller's story is a compelling short addendum to Schulz's legacy, but placed against real Schulz, there's really no comparison. But really, would anyone else fare well in comparison to the luminous Cinnamon Shops, which must be one of the best evocations of the unfolding of any city by night ever written. In just a handful of pages it outdoes the entirety of Last Nights of Paris, for instance....more
Total fluff, but that seems to have been by the design of making a "preposterous" book. Halsman's a clever pop portraitist, so this can perhaps be jusTotal fluff, but that seems to have been by the design of making a "preposterous" book. Halsman's a clever pop portraitist, so this can perhaps be just taken as a series of inventive variations in representing a single subject. The fact that that subject is Dali's mustache and this is framed as a kind of interview might make this more annoying or more essential depending on your interest in Dali's persona. Despite my interest in surrealism, for me that tips this towards "a little annoying". HOWEVER, this was in the library of a house I stayed in in Mexico City, which makes running across it at random nothing but a perk....more
Having pushed the sci-fi genre into new terrain over the first two decades of his career, Delany turned to an even more seemingly blighted genre to prHaving pushed the sci-fi genre into new terrain over the first two decades of his career, Delany turned to an even more seemingly blighted genre to present his most thoughtful and theory-heavy sequence of works: the barbarian novel. If you actually dive into any of the Neveryon works, you won't be fooled for long. Delany's main conceit is to take the moment of coalescence of civilization out of hazy pre-history as the perfect test chamber in which to study the foundations for all of our societal conventions -- economics, culture, politics, everything that's still with us today. He has much to say about all of this, all the while toying with the audience over the fact that he's induced them to read ostensible pulp, or else has enticed them to read critical theory by way of pulp.
Incidentally, this is also a markedly feminist work, not just for having strong female characters (which is just a basic necessity of writing a good book, not necessarily a feminist one!), but for its actual interrogation of gender roles and social constructs. As well as for choosing its theoretical epigraphs for each section almost entirely from female thinkers and philosophers, which given the usual male-domination of the discourse definitely did not happen by accident....more
Of course Borges would have felt compelled to create a bestiary -- a perfect meeting of Borges and his double, Borges the librarian and Borges the fabOf course Borges would have felt compelled to create a bestiary -- a perfect meeting of Borges and his double, Borges the librarian and Borges the fabulist (but which doubles which?!). Much of this is lovingly, exhaustively assembled as an actual reference work, compiling various literary, historical, and traditional references to familiar and unfamiliar creatures, but the finest bits are the ones that I suspect were invented by Borges on the spot, Borges stories with fictitious references masquerading as cultural tradition. What could be more apt than to fit such things in, but I admit I'm really only guessing as to which of these are inventions....more
Alberto Savinio is pretty interesting. That's covered a little better in my review of his Lives of the Gods. However, I think that whereas that materiAlberto Savinio is pretty interesting. That's covered a little better in my review of his Lives of the Gods. However, I think that whereas that material was from his earlier career, as was the enjoyably strange Tragedy of Childhood, this was later, his last in fact. It's not as annoying as Childhood of Nivasio Dolcemare, but it's far from his most worthwhile.
I think I was hoping for something more like that late work from that other great Italian fantasist -- Italo Calvino's Mr Palomar. But instead of wise and lively, if tempered by age, Savinio's proxy here, Signor Dido, is a little bit boring, a little bit full of mild pettiness towards family and milieu (the sort that masquerades as satire I suppose). In fact, an Italy fresh out of fascism at the time of these writings would have been ripe for a much harsher satire, but there's nothing like that among his targets. His scope is narrowed to immediate surroundings -- when he's able to subvert them via myth and magic, all the better, when he can only vaguely gripe about them, so much the worse....more