If you are fond of pleasure postponed, of insertions, digressions, concealments—and who is not?—this maze will amaze you.
- William H. Gass
Gass’s comments about Walser’s The Robber are spot-on: the novel is certainly a maze, “an unsolvable riddle” as Walser describes the Robber’s beloved Edith’s lips. The last novel that Walser wrote, The Robber was long left untranslated because it was found in its microscript form, a miniaturized version of Kurrent script which Walser used for his manuscripts from about 1917 onward and which he would then transcribe into longhand German soon after. When his posthumous papers were found, no one knew what to make of these documents, some citing Walser’s twenty-six-year-long stay in mental hospitals as evidence for writing gibberish, secret code, etc. In her translator’s introduction to The Robber, Susan Bernofsky suggests that Walser never intended for the novel to be read because it was the only one he kept in microscript form: “When Walser wrote The Robber, he must have been fully aware, at least after the first few pages, that he would never be able to publish it. This would explain why he never prepared a clean copy of the manuscript for submission to publishers.”
But why would The Robber have been so condemned by publishers, especially given that it shows Walser—who, despite not making much of a living from his writing was still famous in his heyday, praised by Robert Musil and envied and imitated by the likes of Kafka—at the height of his powers? Perhaps that is precisely why no publisher would have touched The Robber because its themes, while radical, are to be found in virtually all modernist novels: madness, artistry, dissections of class and gender, authorial interjections and insertions, etc. The Robber truly is a novel whose style mirrors its content, and vice versa, so that the reader is left in Walser’s wholly capable hands, forced into often bizarre, idiosyncratic rhythms in large stretches of prose that simultaneously lull and jar the reader.
What is this novel about? The Robber is about everything and nothing; it is about the anxieties and trappings of class just as the class system is undergoing a destabilization after World War I; it is about an unnamed Robber and the author of the novel about said Robber, identities that often become conflated and intertwined throughout the text (“I have to be constantly on my guard not to confuse myself with him”). Above all, The Robber is about love and contradiction: it is an attempt to render in prose the ineffable emotional highs and lows that come with living, loving, and the many metaphoric acts of “robbery” of which we are all guilty. However, with that said, due to the diversionary tactics employed by Walser in this novel and the authorial interjections of his narrator, The Robber is also about the failure that meets anyone seeking truth or the depiction of truth in art. As the narrator even notes of his role: “I will make it my business to depict to you. One shouldn’t say depict, but rather present... It isn’t right for everything to be uncovered, illumined, otherwise what would the connoisseur have left to ponder?” And so The Robber is a continuous game of hide-and-seek, of revealing and occluding, of explicating and silencing.
Walser is a genius at using his characters to serve as microcosms for society at large—e.g., Jakob von Gunten in the eponymous novel, the writer-narrator in The Walk, Joseph in The Assistant, and the fluid “I” in his tales and criticism, an “I” that is both Walser and not Walser. What he is also a genius at is presenting individuals’ flaws and strengths, balancing out each aspect of his characters’—and our own—identities. While the Robber is persecuted by his community, the portrait that Walser (or, more accurately, the “I” narrating the novel) paints of him is sympathetic: “Flaws are touching.” And while the narrator distinguishes himself as socially superior to the Robber—discussing “this postwar age all aglitter with plebeian sentiment”—it is clear that Walser is asking us to not judge these prejudices, but instead to learn how they are instilled in the first place in order to overcome them.
The Robber is the work of a master, and one is literally left breathless coming away from the novel—from the sheer magic of Walser’s prose and, sadly, from the fact that this was his final performance.(less)
A group of septuagenarians in late-1950s Britain are receiving upsetting phone calls: a man keeps harassing them, simply stating, "Remember, you must...moreA group of septuagenarians in late-1950s Britain are receiving upsetting phone calls: a man keeps harassing them, simply stating, "Remember, you must die." In Spark's hands, what would be a vehicle or device for a crime/thriller in the hands of someone like Agatha Christie instead becomes a tour de force of social commentary.
Like Christie, Spark uses social banter to explore and criticize social issues; in Memento Mori, Spark brings postbellum anxieties about class, gender, and death to bear on relationships between individuals. Unlike Christie, Spark is not concerned with placing the mystery at the center of her novel. Instead, Spark creates an often laugh-out-loud funny—and often bewilderingly and staggeringly cruel—portrait of a close-knit group of people who are actually not all that close-knit at all.
Spark's scope here is phenomenal, as is her mixture of farce, politics, and drawing-room comedy of manners. One is often reminded of writers like James and Elizabeth Bowen when reading Spark: her razor-sharp wit, her combination of high-brow and low-brow comedy, and her ability to expose idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies in social interactions are what make Memento Mori work so well as an attack on a very real fear—the fear of death after having lived through the death of the world, twice over. (less)
The latest in Melville House’s Last Interview series, this collection compiles several interviews that David Foster Wallace gave—including the last be...moreThe latest in Melville House’s Last Interview series, this collection compiles several interviews that David Foster Wallace gave—including the last before his death. I certainly make no claims to be a DFW expert, so I’m unsure whether these pieces are collected here for the first time or if they’re just reprinted from other sources: the only information Melville House offers in the press release is that this is “a unique selection of [DFW’s] best interviews.”
For the DFW completist, here are the interviews collected in this volume:
- “Something Real American”: Interview by Laura Miller, Salon, 9 March 1996 - “There Can Be No Spokesperson”: Interview by Tom Scocca, Boston Phoenix, 20 February 1998 - ”A Brief Interview with a Five-Draft Man”: Interview by Stacey Schmeidel, Amherst Magazine, Spring 1999 - ”To Try Extra Hard to Exercise Patience, Politeness, and Imagination”: Interview by Dave Eggers, The Believer, November 2003 - ”Some Kind of Terrible Burden”: Interview by Steve Paulson, To the Best of Our Knowledge, 19 June 2004 - ”The Last Interview”: Interview by Christopher Farley, Wall Street Journal, May 2008
In these interviews, DFW speaks about a range of subjects, but the ones to which he keeps returning (along with some quotes of his):
- His teaching career: “I was hired to teach creative writing, which I don’t like to teach.”
- Pop culture: “I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction, but what I mean by it is nothing different than what other people mean in writing about trees and parks and having to walk to the river to get water a hundred years ago. It’s just the texture of the world I live in.”
- Magazine editors: “God love magazines, but the editor picks the title [of the piece], and they don’t even really consult with you about it. And if you protest, they’ll invoke house style, blah blah blah blah...”
- Writing book reviews: “In my opinion it’s far more difficult to write a review of something that you don’t like because if you’re a fiction writer you know how hard you work even on something that seems really crummy to somebody else.”
- The film Good Will Hunting: “I think it’s the ultimate nerd fantasy movie.”
- The role of footnotes in Infinite Jest: “the footnotes were an intentional, programmatic part of Infinite Jest, and they get to be kind of—you get sort of addicted to ‘em... And in a way, the footnotes, I think, are better representations of, not really stream-of-consciousness, but thought patterns and fact patterns.”
- The difference between his fiction and nonfiction: “Fiction’s more important to me. So I’m also more scared and tense about fiction, more worried about my stuff, more worried about whether I’m any good or not... I guess nonfiction seems a lot more like play. For me.”
- Loneliness and alienation: “... there is this existential loneliness in the world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me."
- Writing for an audience: “The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read.”
- The role of fiction in our lives: “I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.”(less)
... the inward self is the only self which really exists.
Walser’s The Walk is anything but a light, jolly stroll: it’s a trek uphill through spiralin...more
... the inward self is the only self which really exists.
Walser’s The Walk is anything but a light, jolly stroll: it’s a trek uphill through spiraling landscapes, before the reader realizes that Walser has begun an abrupt, downward descent. The closing pages of The Walk are utterly heart-rending.
This is a novella about everything and nothing. The narrator, a writer, leaves his “writing room, or room of phantoms” to take a walk through the town and the countryside. Along the way, he meets many different people from various walks of life: a postal worker; a tailor; a bookseller; a young woman singing; dogs; children; “the giant” Tomzack; a woman with whom he dines; and several others. It’s no wonder that W. G. Sebald has called Walser “a clairvoyant of the small” as each of these interactions—and the bizarre, often archaic, speech acts we witness (e.g., after seeing a sign for lodgings, the narrator goes on for three pages to give the reader the sign’s strange subtext)—tells us more about both the narrator’s psychological state of mind as well as the world in which he feels so displaced.
In many ways, The Walk can be read as a parable of a changing world where natural scenes are giving way to increasingly industrialized ones; it can also be read as a commentary on how insular a writer’s world is, and how the sense of sequestration and loneliness carry over into social interactions and also inform prejudices rooted in aesthetic judgments rather than firsthand observations. One can see how Walser’s prose is indebted to pastoral influence of the nineteenth century while also forging new ground stylistically in his modernist musings, causing a strange chorus of dissonant tones to run throughout The Walk—a dissonance that works quite well here, if the reader is patient, knowing he or she is in masterful hands. As Walser’s narrator/alter ego exlaims here: “I am a solid technician!” And so he is.(less)
A combination of several things, but most notably J. M. Coetzee’s recent article on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, made me realize th...moreA combination of several things, but most notably J. M. Coetzee’s recent article on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, made me realize that it was high time to revisit Murnane’s work. In particular, because I found Inland to be a very repetitive work which was better fleshed out in the rather complementary Barley Patch, I thought that a more generous immersion into this enigmatic (and often elusive) writer’s work would do me well.
The Plains is considered by many critics to be Murnane’s finest work, and, in many ways, I wish that my journey through his oeuvre had commenced here. The Plains is a metaphysical meditation on our relation to landscapes, how they form our individual, familial, and cultural identities—and yet also how they complicate these identities. Like the narrators of Barley Patch and Inland, the narrator here is trying to fathom creatively the dynamic, interrelated pieces of the plains and yet continually finds his attempts at analyzing fall short of the medium of art.
From “outer Australia,” the narrator journeys to “inner Australia” in order to research the region of the plains for a projected film he plans to make entitled The Interior, a “film that would reveal the plains to the world.” As an outsider, he wavers between letting the plainsmen know of his true identity or else letting them think that he comes from the borderland close to “the interior.” It helps, as he gets to know the plainsmen and the history of the plains themselves, that he is an artist. Indeed, the world of the plains that Murnane creates here is one that is deeply rooted in and also one that is highly respectful of the arts—particularly poetry: “writing was generally considered by the plainsmen the worthiest of all crafts and the one most nearly able to resolve the thousand uncertainties that hung about almost every mile of the plains.”
That this portrayal of “inner Australia” is better-versed than its “outer” counterparts, and also that the narrator is able to locate philosophical truths that resonate across borders and cultural spaces, is one that Murnane maps skillfully on to larger questions about artistic creation (“I’ll go in search of the places that lay just beyond the painted horizons; the places that the artists knew they were only able to hint at”); the importance of living as opposed to learning; the many possibilities and routes our lives can, and perhaps do, take (“the moment when a young woman saw as he might never appear again a man who saw her as she might never appear again”); traveling as revealing and yet also isolating (“each man in his heart is a traveller in a boundless landscape”); how life resembles one’s own landscape (“They saw the world itself as one more in an endless series of plains”; “I was trying to discover my own kind of landscape”); how we spend our lives “shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth”; and the perpetual sense of dislocation that we feel whether we are in our homeland or in other lands—the landscape “always invisible even though one crossed and re-crossed it daily,” “a land beyond the known land.”
The Plains showcases all of Murnane’s omnipresent themes and concerns while remaining a wonderfully lucid and self-contained narrative in its own right. Murnane might well be said to be one of those writers whose different books all speak to one another in an overarching piece, as if each of his books were a piece of a puzzle that contain ruminations on similar questions but in slightly different keys. If anything, The Plains made me think about Murnane’s other work in a wholly different light, and I thank Coetzee for making me see that this revisitation of Murnane’s work was a journey well worth taking.(less)
Hardly a novella, but thankfully finally translated into English as part of Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series, The Lemoine Affair occupie...moreHardly a novella, but thankfully finally translated into English as part of Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series, The Lemoine Affair occupies a curious place in Proust’s work.
Written over a period of four years (1904-1908) before Proust began to conceive and draft what would become his monumental A la recherche du temps perdu, The Lemoine Affair is a series of pastiches written in the styles of a variety of authors ranging from Balzac to Flaubert, from Sainte-Beuve to Saint-Simon. Proust said that the format of the pastiche allowed him to write in the style of authors in whose work he had recently immersed himself, largely in order to get their influence out of his system so that he could write in his own style, unfettered by even unconscious influence of the grand masters. (One wonders what Harold Bloom would make of this idea of “purging” the anxiety of influence, especially as these pastiches are relevant to the Recherche as Proust comes into his own style after writing them. There is even a scene in which Proust, in his pastiche of Edmond de Goncourt, “forgetting the gratitude he owed Zola, sent him flying ten steps backwards with a pair of blows, and knocked him flat on his back.”)
What unites these pieces is the impact that Henri Lemoine had on Parisian high society after his diamond fraud caused many of Proust’s milieu—and even Proust himself—to buy into the fraud and lose a considerable sum of money. As Proust writes in his preface:
This legal affair, which, although insignificant, enthralled public opinion at the time, was selected one evening by me, entirely by chance, as the common theme for a few short pieces in which I would set out to imitate the style of a certain number of writers.
And imitate he does. We have crowded drawing room scenes that could be straight out of Balzac; we have a courtroom ringside seat to the Lemoine case that focuses on individualized and collective reactions à la Flaubert; an attack on Flaubert’s piece by Sainte-Beuve (or, rather, Proust writing as Sainte-Beuve and attacking himself); we have a Micheletian account of the sociopolitical context of the Lemoine scandal which points the finger at high society and modern science; and, among many other pieces, we have Proust channeling Saint-Simon very generously, in the longest pastiche collected here—a pastiche that fits Proust’s own style rather well, and which reads almost like a passage from The Guermantes Way. Proust’s own style does come through in many of the other pieces, too, such as in the following passage:
But some, thinking of the wealth that could have come to them, felt ready to faint; for they would have placed it all at the feet of a woman by whom they had been scorned until now, who would have finally given them the secret of her kiss and the sweetness of her body.
There are also some delightful metacommentaries here by which Proust inserts his own rejection of society—e.g., in speaking of how the elite would have spent the money the diamonds would have afforded them, Proust suggests that they “would have their bedrooms padded with cork that would deaden the sound of their neighbors”—, the role of gossip as a rumor of his own suicide over the Lemoine affair circulates in high society (a rumor that, in the fiction of these pastiches, eventually proves to be unfounded), and also a self-deprecating comment about his role as translator and literary figure more broadly:
An Englishman who lived at that time, John Ruskin, whom unfortunately we read now only in the pitifully insipid translation that Marcel Proust has bequeathed to us...
The Lemoine Affair shows us Proust dealing with some of the major themes of the Recherche—especially how hypocritical and dangerous Parisian high society could be, poised as it was on the edge of extinction, as well as how greedy and vulture-like this world often was—and it shows Proust imitating his favorite authors with an obvious kind of glee and playfulness that makes the pastiches a comical look at a collective tragedy.(less)
Rimbaud’s 15 May 1871 letter to fellow poet Paul Demeny stands not only as a touchstone for modernist literature, but also as a presage of poststructuralist thought on alterity, most notably the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For Rimbaud, “I is an other” is a concept that serves a cultural function for the artist, the writer as visionary (“I say it [the I] must be a seer, make oneself a seer”), dissociated from the self to forge an aesthetics whose focal points are meditations on the fractured nature of the “I” and the similarly unstable state of the world in which this being lives, creates, and desires.
This dual meditation on self and other is omnipresent in the Kafkaesque images for which Berlin-based artist Max Neumann is so well known. His images are absurd, surreal, and unsettling, many displaying Munchian faces with little or no distinguishing features, such as an untitled 2007 painting whose eerie chiaroscuro pits a darkly-clad figure against a pitch background to spotlight a white face literally coming apart at the seams from its center.
Whereas Munch’s Screamer actually does scream, a howl that is carried along in a circuitous wave of blue into the orange-tinted sunset above his head, Neumann’s images appear to be screaming silently: his palette suggests the alienation and dissociation individuals feel in the world at large and also in their own skin. As Cees Nooteboom puts it in one of the companion text pieces in Self-Portrait of an Other, his collaboration with Neumman: “Unable to advance or fall back, he turns circles in the space left him, screaming his discomfort in the scorched air.”
These themes of Neumann’s work were united recently in a collaboration with Hungarian author László Krasznahorhai; that collection, Animalinside, drew from each of their haunting concerns about self and other, the individual versus the state, and how the artist can act as a mediating figure for dominant culture to present the schismatic nature of things using an aesthetic approach indebted to Rimbaud’s visionary “I” as well as poststructuralism’s questioning of the dichotomies surrounding the nature of identity. It seems only fitting that Dutch author Nooteboom would want to collaborate with an artist like Neumann given that Nooteboom’s poetic prose fuses reality and dreams in uncanny ways that often mirror prosaically what Neumann does visually. As Nooteboom writes of first encountering Neumann’s images:
I could not reconcile their restlessness with the calm their maker radiated. I felt as if I knew the world I encountered in his work very well without being able to say why. Later I saw his work again in Barcelona and Paris and there too, far from his German base, I again felt the enchantment of those strange, unprecedented creatures, dream figures that resist description.
Self-Portrait of an Other roots itself titularly in the Rimbauldian, poststructuralist tradition by calling attention to the divisive nature of existence which Nooteboom and Neumann make the crux of their project: “Instead of trying to describe [Neumann’s] work, I would draw on its atmosphere and my own arsenal of memories, dreams, fantasies, landscapes, stories and nightmares to write a series of textual images as an echo but unlinked, a mirror.” (I will return to this idea of the mirror and its relation to otherness shortly.) The title “cuts both ways” according to Neumann in focusing its concerns on the same phenomenological events with which Lacanian psychoanalysis is concerned: “memories, dreams, fantasies,” and so on. In addition, the epigraph to Self-Portrait of an Other underscores the collaboration’s intent to examine various dichotomies—self/other, reality/dreams, landscapes/cityscapes—from a liminal standpoint as a Rimbaudian seer: “Transmigration of the soul does not happen after but during a lifetime.” This curious statement problematizes the teleological aim in most discursive practices, noting that what is to come after at the level of discourse is an event that actually takes place during one’s lifetime, thus becoming a phenomenon to which we can choose to bear witness.
Neumann’s palette for the background of the images in this collaboration consists entirely of variants of blood orange and a deep, sharp red, one reminiscent of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s canvases and installations made with blood. Here, Neumann’s reds serve as artery-like settings against which his figures can emerge as though from scenes of carnage. One image is of a seemingly human form either wrestling with or morphing into a birdlike other whose beak is open in what appears to be an anguished cry. Another image places a hybrid figure in a series of obstructions—harsh black lines near the sides of the body present an obvious restriction, but Neumann carries this further by fashioning his painting into an oppressive force upon this being with a self-reflexive rectangle that calls our attention to the painting being a painting, a move uniting this collaboration’s poststructuralist tenets with aesthetic experimentations paired with linguistic inquiry such as René Magritte’s, most notably his La Reproduction Interdit (1937).
Like the figures that feature in Neumann’s startling images and which emerge from a blood-soaked background, Nooteboom’s prose poems emerge from and speak to Neumann’s own. A series of dreamscapes and ruminations, of splintered moments in time and fetishized compulsions, Nooteboom’s words weave in and out of different states as seamlessly as do Neumann’s paintings; as such, the repetitive themes of the project are stressed, becoming an obsessive rhythm to which the images add an additional level of anxiety, melancholy, and despair.
In one text, the text facing Neumann’s image of the figure obstructed which I noted above, Nooteboom situates his prose in the Rimbaudian tradition where intellectual and artistic discovery is the cause of existence: “He knew his continued existence was due solely to his addiction to thought, the chains of words he draped over things that remained unnameable despite their names.” Naming the unnameable is at the core of any artistic endeavor; here, the binary relation between what is named and what cannot be named stands as but one of the tenuous dichotomous relations examined throughout Self-Portrait of an Other, the examination of which can never be exhausted except through a Derridean “slippage”: a transgression of binaries by positioning oneself in the middle, by embracing an otherness that is paradoxically part and parcel of one’s self.
The artist is also visited by gods, but Nooteboom, rather than embracing a divine presence to serve as a poetic muse, rejects such intervention: “He kept still and hoped the god would not notice him.” Solitude remains the province for the poetic and artistic examination of existence, then, but this is complicated by the fact that the self is a series of masks, a collection of identities often so disparate that they can only remain in the realm of the unnameable: “When he is alone, crowds become mysterious. Among others, he no longer knows himself. Who are they? Does he recognize his own mask?” Apart from being masked from one’s own self, the “I” is under constant panoptic surveillance, with “perfectly circular eye[s] watching him”; as such, despite the solitary task of fathoming one’s own identity, this endeavor is also a performance of sorts, one that takes place under the eyes of society at large and therefore reduces the self to an actor in the drama that ensues when an individual attempts to challenge hegemonic meanings and norms.
Otherness is related to this idea of the gaze: “As the day proceeded, he saw the faces change, growing less and less recognizable. He wondered if he was like that too, but he didn’t dare touch it and avoided his glance in the windows… This time there were two of him.” According to Lacan, the mirror stage is one of the most pivotal development stages in our growing understanding of who we are and what makes us an “I”; however, in the mirror it is not recognition but misrecognition (méconnaissance) that causes us to begin to fathom our identity. As Nooteboom writes: “He didn’t know if his body has recognized him.” Like Neumann’s images, Nooteboom wonders if “there were holes where the eyes had been,” causing a project concerned with an analysis of the self to buckle as the self is an entity that is ultimately a stranger. Tellingly, then, it is the Other—our reflected image which we fetishize as an “ideal-I”—that defines our self, and it is for this Other that we are continually striving, barred from this idealized version of ourselves by desire and the linguistic trappings of the symbolic order. If “I is an other” then the “I” is also always in pursuit of the Other.
In Nooteboom’s prose poems, the mirror comes to stand as the place where this terrifying performance of recognition and otherness is enacted, and therefore there is both an attraction to this scene as well as a repulsion: “How easy, he thought, to disappear, becoming someone who has left his clothes on the rocks and entered the mirror forever, the impossibly thin, living mirror that seals the silence.” This image again emphasizes this collaboration’s aim to dismantle binary oppositions, and yet risk being “seal[ed] in silence” in the process. While images can help us to remember past experiences, they can also be traumatizing in that these reminders can further alienate us from our sense of self, recalling events in an ostensibly objective way when it is subjectivity that governs our relation to things: “There must still be photos with him in them, photos in which he didn’t want to see himself. The number of lives in an old body is unbearable.”
Recognition and rupture: these extremes are at the heart of many philosophical and aesthetic projects and Self-Portrait of an Other is a relentless meditation on the relation between self and other, between text and image, between the individual and the world, and, most importantly, what the artist’s role is in trying to elucidate these questions—for these are phenomenological questions to which there are no answers—in ways that do not repeat old discourses. Neumann’s images and Nooteboom’s texts work together to postulate a world in which the self can be free from all fetters, a world that can exist only in the dreamscapes and nightmare worlds the two men create together for there can be no self without the divisions, fissures, and schisms that we conceptualize as the Other.(less)
Alex Estes has written a really wonderful review of Hilst’s novel for Full Stop, one in which he views this first publication of her work in English a...moreAlex Estes has written a really wonderful review of Hilst’s novel for Full Stop, one in which he views this first publication of her work in English as “the literary miracle of 2012.”
Estes’s positioning of Hilst’s work in the context of Hélène Cixous’s notion of l’écriture féminine is spot-on. In Hilst’s prose, reality is blurred with madness; the pious is conflated with the impious; and love, grief, and mourning are emotional states that cause profound meditations on individuality—as well as how one can subsume one’s identity beneath another’s without wholly realizing it.
It makes sense that Hilst was friends with, as well as greatly admired by, Clarice Lispector. Both women share similar themes and, again in line with Estes’s review of Madame D, their writing can be said to embody a frenetic, nonlinear l’écriture féminine which allows for these liminal, transient states to be explored in more depth and with more freedom. With that said, Hilst’s work is definitely more scatological than Lispector’s, and there is a great emphasis on the body and its functions in Madame D, almost reminiscent of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray’s work. (In fact, throughout, I wondered if Hilst and her circle had been reading Lacan’s work which would make a lot of sense given her use of the Other, her narrator calling herself “Oedipus-woman,” and the stress on self-analysis as a kind of descent into a pre-linguistic realm ungoverned by laws of syntax, meaning, and representation.)
This is a fine book, and one that should be read in one sitting in order to enter into the mind of—or, rather, the chorus that is the mind of—a woman who poses the major philosophical and metaphysical questions of our time and all times. As this is the first Hilst to be translated into English this year, I look forward to reading more by this unclassifiable Brazilian author who manages to cover every human experience, dream, fantasy, despair, nightmare, and desire (both sacred and profound) in a mere fifty pages.(less)
What is “a writer’s writer”? Although the phrase is often used both haphazardly and problematically, there is something inherently useful about it when discussing the enduring legacy of certain authors. The OED attributes the first use of the term “a writer’s writer” to Orwell, who uses this description when writing about Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is particularly fitting, perhaps, as Julian Barnes—in his London Review of Books review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—brings Davis’s own discussion of Hopkins’s work to bear on what Barnes refers to as Davis’s status as “a writer’s writer’s writer.”
Recently, too, J. M. Coetzee’s assessment of Gerald Murnane’s work in The New York Review of Books raises this question of inspiration and influence: as Coetzee himself is often described as “a writer’s writer,” does his praise of Murnane’s literary output cast Murnane into the realm of “a writer’s writer’s writer”? To be sure, while the term “a writer’s writer” is often ascribed to “difficult” prose, such as Proust’s and Beckett’s, it’s usually used to emphasize their influence on other writers and artists.
Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser is perhaps the most unsung of these influential “writer’s writers,” and two recent collaborative texts underscore his ability to speak across artistic mediums. A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser, to be published in April by New Directions, includes short microscript pieces by Walser himself, as well as essays, creative writing, and art objects ranging from installation pieces to etchings, all of which speak to Walser’s own microscripts. This collection stems from a series of exhibitions curated by the late Donald Young in Chicago from December 2011 to October 2012, who, in his introduction, explains how he “became more and more interested in the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists.” Another text, Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s dramatic monologue Her Not All Her, with intercalated images by Thomas Newbolt, is collaborative in that Jelinek asserts in her subtitle that she is writing the piece “On/With Robert Walser.” In his afterward, Reto Sorg notes how Jelinek’s own text mixes with those of Walser: “It is almost impossible to tell when any given utterance has Jelinek speaking directly or when she is quoting texts by or about Walser, since the voices and languages intertwine, overlap, and blend together.” Indeed, the very title of Jelinek’s piece (in German, er nicht als er) is itself “formed out of the sounds of Robert Walser’s name.”
Texts like these demonstrate not only Walser’s effect on the literary and aesthetic work in world literature half a century after his death but also his status as a niche author, a seeming prerequisite for any “writer’s writer.” Although Hermann Hesse has famously remarked that if Walser “had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” his continued status as a marginal “writer’s writer” also causes a sense of protection and adoration to be aroused in his admirers; as one of Walser’s major English-language translators, Christopher Middleton, puts it: “Robert Walser was known only to a happy few, and his writing has a resistant purity which will keep any larger public, I hope, at bay forever.” Similar strains of idolizing homage and protective insulation are found in both A Little Ramble and Her Not All Her.
* * * *
Walser’s writings in A Little Ramble showcase his predilection for how small, everyday moments and observations can lend insight into more pressing issues affecting humanity and the world at large—themes apparent in all of his short writings, like those collected in Berlin Stories, Selected Stories, Speaking to the Rose, Microscripts, and Masquerade. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary,” he writes in A Little Ramble’s title piece. “We already see so much.” Walser’s considerations of town and country, of walks and parks, of artists like Cézanne and van Gogh, and of the aesthetic world of Russian ballet and the cabarets of Berlin are paradoxically of no consequence and yet contain all the wisdom in the world. W. G. Sebald has called Walser “a clairvoyant of the small,” noting how he “almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself”: his “prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which he spoke.”
Many of the contemporary artists engaging with the microscripts in A Little Ramble display a warm, glowing regard for this “writer’s writer.” Rodney Graham’s piece is a painted aluminum lightbox with chromogenic transparency depicting a genderless person reading in bed, eclipsed by the cover page of a 1937 edition of The Sunday Sun so that all the viewer can see are sets of fingers holding the newspaper at its edges, a coverlet, and the knobs at the top of the bedpost. In addition, Graham takes Walser’s microscripts and makes them even more microscopic, creating a series of pantoums dedicated to curator Donald Young, a self-reflexive move not out of step with Walser’s own metafictional insertions of self. Here, Walser’s “On the Russian Ballet” is metamorphosed textually, the opening sentence (“How ravishing, the Russian ballerinas from the Imperial Theatre in Petersburg”) becoming in Graham’s pantoum
How ravishing The ballerinas Languishing In ice arenas
Another collaborative pairing juxtaposes Walser’s profound “The Park” with stills from Mark Wallinger’s video installation, Shadow Walker, which shows the shadow of a man against an exterior setting, his body morphed and transfigured due to the angle of the camera. This feels especially suitable to “The Park” which exclaims “it’s always Sunday in a park” and yet contains the lament: “What has become of us as a people that we can possess the beautiful only in dreams.”
A Little Ramble also includes excerpts from friend Carl Seelig’s Walks with Robert Walser, diaristic recollections of Walser’s comments on various walks during and after World War II, when he took refuge at Herisau Clinic. Famously, when asked why he no longer wrote after 1933, he replied with: “I am here to be mad, not to write.” Seelig quotes Walser as saying the following on 16 May 1943:
I was so glad this morning . . . to see the clouds instead of a clear blue sky! I have no use for grand vistas and majestic scenery. When such distant things recede—that’s when all that is nearby comes gently into view. What more do we need to feel content than a meadow, a forest, and a few quiet houses?
Later, on 28 December 1944, Walser remarks: “The war at least has one benefit in that it forces a return to simplicity.” Despite his primary focus on what is ostensibly simple and mundane, Walser’s work always bemoans the modernization of the world, particularly how it separates the individual from these Arcadian meadows, forests, and “a few quiet houses.”
For Walser, nature and individual work together to create a collective mood; in “The Teacher,” for example, a woman who “showed herself unwilling to be the doormat or dishrag of her most excellent husband” is eventually freed: “Liberated, overjoyed, she breathed a sigh of relief. In the sky, smiling little clouds were out for a stroll.” Similarly, in “Tiergarten,” Walser writes: “Everyone is displaying the same appropriate, mild solemnity. Is not the sky doing the same with its expression that appears to be saying: ‘How marvelous I feel’?” While these microscripts are celebratory, one thinks, too, of the claustrophobic setting of the Benjamenta Institute where the titular character in Jakob von Gunten enrolls himself to learn the secrets of being of service; in that novel, Walser’s childish, perverse, and lovable narrator represents a liminal character who exists in a temporal zone of uncertainty—somewhere between the idyllic beauty of the past and the capitalistic nightmare of the modern city, a tension that is also felt quite resoundingly in The Walk. While the external world moves toward war and anxiety, Walser’s writings echo these concerns while also taking internal refuge in the simple pleasures yet to be found in everyday moments and interactions.
In “The Job Application,” Walser directly evokes the oppositional elements noted above with a narrative voice that uncannily speaks in the register of an older Jakob von Gunten:
Large and difficult tasks I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I do not like to strain my intelligence overmuch. I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp. Assuredly there exists in your institution, which I imagine to be overflowing with main and subsidiary functions and offices, work of the kind that one can do in a dream?
In another writer’s hands, this might well descend into naiveté; however, Walser’s narrators are always extensions of himself as writer and observer, well aware of the cultural function of the artist as well as the artist’s task of critiquing society through deft observations (e.g., “The Job Application’s” juxtapositon of the oppressive and stifling nature of the modern workplace with dreaming and individual existence). As Seelig writes: “Robert is compelled to talk of the relationship between the poet and society. In his view, it is necessarily one of torment.” This is related to what Walser calls “sluggardizing” in his piece “Berlin and the Artist,” which Tacita Dean takes up in her visual response to that text, a collage of drawings, photographs, and cultural artifacts from Walser’s time, which she collected at flea markets around Berlin. As Dean interprets it:
Sluggardizing . . . is the artist’s way: thinking, equivocating, waiting, delaying—indolence without intent. I like the word, which he wrote in German as Faulpelzerei—lazy under pelts, and I like that he has named this most maligned of behaviors, namely, this passive and recumbent state of incipient inspiration.
It is no wonder that Walser has been so influential to artists and writers whose work is similarly charged with social criticism, examinations of the individual in relation to the world, and the attempt to fathom artistic inspiration.
* * * *
Jelinek’s Her Not All Her is a monologue that considers inspiration via Walser’s personal mythology and thematic concerns: where does inspiration come from, and what is at stake when the artist translates this moment of inspiration into a piece of art? For Jelinek, walking on/with Walser is the best way to consider such questions, and, despite the fact that the narrative voice in Her Not All Her is meant to be “[a] number of people [speaking] to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs. as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” the voice also shifts from muse to artist, from connoisseur to creator, as if suggesting their interrelation. Indeed, Newbolt’s facing images stress this swapping of roles in creating and consuming art through figures who are so obscured by brushstrokes that the viewer must decipher them.
Central to Jelinek’s analysis of the creative process is the identity of the writer: “Now who does the writer mean by himself?” Whether inspired by “a goddess” or a “soul . . . peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you . . . wanting to get out,” the writer “can only bring someone else to life, never revive himself.” This is especially interesting given the “I” in Walser’s writings, a persona that always causes the reader to question how much of Walser is encaged within this “I,” and also how much is poetic license (er nicht als er); as much as artistry is rooted in the artist, Jelinek also observes that “it’s from inside that you have to slide back the bolt so that you can finally get entirely out of yourself.” Jelinek continues:
This Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.” It is true that he never stops saying “I,” but it’s not him. Like the music of late Schubert, or Schumann: mouldering away without really meaning it. Walser sees what everyone sees. And he shows us his tools for taking up what he sees.
This tension between self and other maps neatly on to Walser’s “sluggardizing” wherein the writer strolls and observes life as a kind of flâneur, taking from everyday experiences the inspiration for a written piece and thus injecting into the mundane the flavor of poetry and philosophy.
Tied into this are those people whom the writer encounters and houses in a work of art, a work that many of them would sadly fail to appreciate:
Today, once again, no one has let me depict them with syllables, words, and lines. Once again, no one has welcomed me with open hands and arms. Maybe I go right past people too fast with all my requests. It must be almost unpleasant for them at times, to know that they possess such and such value, since they would then have to grant me almost exactly the same value too!
This is the artist as a marginalized figure, existing on the outskirts of society while at the same time requiring social interactions in order to fuel the creative process. There is always the sense of witnessing and not being actively engaged with others: “I enter into every circle and then again none.”
This outer antipathy between artist and society is joined by the inner struggle: how to represent in any artistic medium what strikes the artist in a sudden jolt of inspiration. This is also a problem of translation: of translating the “divine” material into language—the writer here is caught in the trappings of the limitations of language itself. As Jelinek writes: “the disadvantage of language is that it can all too quickly seem familiar and so you throw it off, horrified, as though you touched something disgusting. . . . Language is worth as little as life itself, for it is life itself.”
It is with such limitations that the artist must work, and, as Jelinek journeys with Walser in reflecting on these moments of profound insight and the despair of creation, nothing is elucidated, yet everything is invoked: art’s intrinsic futility (and how it causes the artist to see the world differently) eventually leads to an oeuvre that inspires others. There is both the depth and the struggle to bring what one locates there to the level of discourse and representation: “And I speak of deep things. . . . No, my depth doesn’t reach its limits. No one should try to pour depths into something as shallow as me!”
Walser’s legacy for Jelinek, then, in her walk with him, is a legacy that places the artistic journey above the actual creation: “All the lines are now stowed away safe and silent inside you like dead bodies. Even now there is life enough in most of us if only we give ourselves time to find ourselves!” For those who wish to follow in Walser’s footsteps, to take a little ramble with him, the task is to experience each moment and sensory perception to its fullest and to make oneself as humble and small as possible, an endeavor more about process than any teleological endpoint: “Everyone should make himself as small as he possibly can. That should certainly apply to me too, no question about it. I am not making fun of the somnolent. But I myself am always wide awake.” In this way the artist can translate to the best of his or her ability; as Walser observes in “Thoughts on Cézanne”: the artist’s function is “to make mountainous . . . the frame of things” and to depict things “which are as ordinary as they are remarkable.”(less)
A wonderful, quick read about the role literature played in shaping Proust's life and his approach to the Recherche. Muhlstein's prose is readable; he...moreA wonderful, quick read about the role literature played in shaping Proust's life and his approach to the Recherche. Muhlstein's prose is readable; her use of quotes from the Recherche are generous and contextualized well so that someone who has yet to read it will not be lost in any way; and her quotations from Proust's work and letters are unfettered by academic jargon (she leaves most of these in footnotes which doesn't interfere with the flow of her main text—a wise choice in this sort of book).
Here, we see how Proust was shaped by Racine's rejection of proper syntactical structure and also how Baudelaire piqued Proust's interest in issues of queerness and sexuality in literature; we learn of his unemphatic views of George Sand from whose book, curiously, the Narrator's mother in the Recherche reads to him in the beginning of the first volume; we see how British writers such as Hardy, Eliot, and especially Ruskin influenced Proust's approach to his novel; we get a good grasp of how influential Ruskin was on Proust after he had shelved his unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, and found Ruskin to be "the gateway" to finding a workable structure for the Recherche both in terms of narrative and aesthetics; and we also meet the many writers and artists that populate Proust's massive novel, learning how their reading tastes reflect their moralities.
Recommended to any fans of Proust, or those who are embarking on their first read of the RechercheNote: Muhlstein offers an introduction of the major characters from the novel in the beginning of her book. Some major plot points are given away in these character sketches, and, given that she contextualizes the quotes from the Recherche rather well throughout, I would advise first-time Proust readers to skip this so as to not ruin the novel for them.(less)
Critically irreverent and at the same time theoretically flawed, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines shows an obvious stylistic debt to the work of writers like Kathy Acker and Hélène Cixous. Indeed, following Cixous, Zambreno places her own text within the genre of l’écriture féminine, or women’s writing as it is informed by the body. As Cixous writes in “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975): “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Zambreno’s heroines here are modernist women including Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Jane Bowles, but her main interest lies with the first two women. The reader of Heroines is immersed in their stories, from Vivienne’s suggestions to improve husband T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to Zelda’s own fictional output, dismissed by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald as mere “sketches,” and his incorporation of her diaristic writing into his own fiction. “Such cruel fate,” Zambreno writes, “[f]or a writer to lose her words.”
While Heroines is both subjective literary criticism—one that is against Eliot’s brand of New Criticism quite emphatically—and memoir, the insertion of the first-person perspective and Zambreno’s own experiences causes the text to revolve around her rather than the modernist women she writes about. Although she looks to them for guidance as a female writer herself, she is also looking to them for a model of how to live with the social and cultural stigma of mental illness. Heroines’ project is to rescue these women from the pathologizing silence in which they were forced to live and which lent them no afterlife in literary scholarship apart from how their lives relate to those of their husbands: “She is important only as connective tissue to the Great Man.” But it is also evident that Zambreno is trying to rescue herself, as a female writer who suffers from mental illness: in the examples of the modernist women and also Zambreno, the female body in Heroines is an ill body. Because of this, despite her insistence that “[m]emoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided continent” since “[t]he charge against women writers” is often narcissism, it is impossible to discuss Heroines without discussing Kate Zambreno, or, at least, the “I” who inhabits this text as the main character.
Zambreno’s recurring intertextual evocations of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own attempt to suggest that female writers today face many of the same issues Woolf observes in 1929. Living nomadically and moving wherever her husband, John, can find an academic position, Zambreno is constantly reminded of her “lack of a terminal degree” and lack of credentials to teach literature courses: “My life mirroring the mad wives more and more. Always moving, moving, moving.” While John encourages her to write, Zambreno faces scorn in these often temporary neighborhoods which only intensifies her need for an embracing community of other female writers; this is what leads her to begin her blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, from which Heroines evolved, a space Zambreno views as “an alternative canon,” a “subsubculture” of “scribbling sisters.” Whereas Woolf contends in Room that a woman needs only “a room of her own and five hundred [pounds] a year” in order to write, Zambreno—having a room of her own with each move her and John make—finds that this room still defines her in relation to her husband: “you become a wife … once you agree to move for him. You are placed into the feminine role—you play the pawn. … A woman trapped inside her home haunted by the mad wives of modernism.” Furthermore, the room functions in a dialectical way to posit Zambreno’s attempt to forge her own identity through her writing, while at the same time increasing her sense of isolation due to the lack of a likeminded community: “Yet a room of one’s own can feel like a prison if there’s no reason to leave it.”
In one anecdote, Zambreno rages against the phallocentric canon and its prevalence even to this day, recalling meeting in Chicago after some time a male writer with whom she had “a brief and stupid hook-up”:
Quite unlike myself I then found myself bragging to him that I had my first novel coming out. So do I he says. He tells me his is a ONE THOUSAND PAGE novel. Mine is a slim nervous novella, a grotesque homage to Mrs. Dalloway, and an exorcism of my toxic-girl past, published by an experimental feminist press.
Although never named, the allusion is clearly to Adam Levin and his 2010 debut novel The Instructions. Although Zambreno hinges her criticism of Levin’s work and the critical praise it garnered on the fact that he is a male writer, it seems clear that her main issue is that her sense of inferiority—an overt self-criticism evident throughout Heroines—rests upon the fact that she is a small-press writer. As such, this Zambreno-versus-Levin juxtaposition is less about gender than it is about audience: clearly, Zambreno desires an audience (her blog was evidence enough of this), and yet she also seems fully cognizant of the fact that her writing is not mainstream enough to reach a wider readership. “It just seems there is too much to defend against,” she writes. “I want to write my little outlaw texts and not have to reason with the Professor X’s… [T]he sense of invisibility coupled with an always desirous need for recognition.”
This contradictory tendency is found throughout Heroines, and it severely negates Zambreno’s arguments about the pathologizing silence imposed on women, especially as this silence is one with which Zambreno herself wrestles rather brutally—perhaps all the more so as it is self-imposed rather than enforced. Zambreno is hardly like the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) who is ordered to take a rest cure and whose physician-husband prohibits her from writing, in spite of the similarities Zambreno appears to draw from the story as she views her own life: “Just like the heroine… Must not be overwrought… I have two selves too. The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.” Rather, Zambreno’s seething contempt for medicalized models in Heroines reads as a shameful admission of her own precarious mental health, an attempt to come to terms with diagnoses (she is diagnosed, at one point, with bipolar III), the limitations they impose on the creative process, and the overwhelming sense of dependency that mental illness can cause in one’s relationships. As she remarks of her marriage: “I need to become more independent, I realize. It is nothing John does, really, it is me.” Although Zambreno condemns male writers like Fitzgerald and Eliot for silencing the creativity of their wives, the fact that both Zelda and Vivienne grapple with the double-edged sword of artistry and illness is one that she undermines in her critical approach—almost as if preferring to blame the psychiatric models and the men who eclipsed their wives’ talents rather than acknowledging the very real, lived experiences of these women suffering from mental illness: “I am realizing these muses of modernism were often objectified twice over, through literature and psychiatry (both reducing them to their BODY).”
There is a complicity here that is unaddressed; indeed, Zambreno is willing to admit her complicity when it comes to marriage and feeling inferior to her husband in the eyes of society (and also herself, a “self-imposed exile of wifedom” with no “life outside of John’s”), but when it comes to admitting that these modernist heroines were indeed ill, Zambreno’s argument has no room for this. With that said, she does allow for Zelda to be “in some form of distress… But I think we choose to call it pathological.” Mental illness is a wholly discursive diagnosis according to her, with no experiential counterpart, a point she makes with sloppy recourse to Foucault’s work on madness. However, Zambreno’s adoption of Foucauldian tenets in Heroines is flawed, reading almost like a graduate student’s notes toward something more nuanced and theoretically sophisticated. That this denial of modernist wives’ bodily existences and experiences is so counter to a project she has rooted in l’écriture féminine makes Zambreno’s critical maneuvers here all the more flimsy.
Zambreno’s scholarship is impressive and she is obviously well-versed in her primary material; however, the lack of citation and accrediting of quotations (e.g., several times she merely states “Another biographer writes”) means that readers can’t locate these materials on their own in order to read more on the subject. One wonders, too, how seriously one should take critical writing when the author readily admits, in speaking about the online blogging community, that “many of us also read and write like girls. It is perhaps not ‘serious’ criticism, but intensely personal and emotional. A new sort of subjectivity is developing online.” When Zambreno engages with theoretical secondary sources, her contradictory argument becomes all the more apparent. For example, despite her disdain for Freud, Zambreno finds herself longing for an analytic relationship that eschews the more hierarchical doctor-patient relationship in modern psychiatry: “it is this feeling of being placed inside of a box, that makes me long for the patient-narrated model of the talking cure.” To be sure, Zambreno does note the theatricality of Charcot’s hysterical cases, the to-be-looked-at-ness (to bring Laura Mulvey’s work to mind) in the clinical scene where the male gaze renders the ill female body a spectacle. But this is a criticism she then problematically extends to Freud and Breuer’s Anna O. whose speech resulted in the alleviation of her hysterical symptoms, thus giving credence to psychoanalysis as “a talking cure.” Although Zambreno accuses Freud of eliciting this talking in an analytic scene, Zambreno’s own longing for analysis and her overall project of giving voice to silenced women and encouraging women to speak out (“To break the silence, the silencing”) are actually more indebted to psychoanalysis than she would readily admit.
Indeed, many of her secondary sources are thinkers whose names have become synonymous with psychoanalytic feminist criticism: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Shoshana Felman. While Felman makes an appearance in Zambreno’s bibliography, there is no direct engagement with her work in Heroines. One wonders what Zambreno makes of Felman’s seminal Lacanian reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in her Literature and Psychoanalysis (1982), especially since Zambreno repeatedly takes issue with James’s fictional representations of women—although, to be fair, she does limit herself to only one of his texts, Daisy Miller. Similarly, Zambreno often makes use of the word jouissance, Lacan’s term for ultimate pleasure and one that Cixous invokes in her conceptualization of l’écriture féminine; however, Zambreno only mentions Lacan twice, the most extensive mention being as follows:
I love that anecdote about Lacan telling [Marguerite] Duras in a basement bar that [Le Ravissement de] Lol V. Stein is a “clinically perfect delirium” and Duras dismissing this later, in an interview: “When Lacan says, ‘She knows, the woman knows…’ Those are a man’s words, a master’s words. The reference is himself.”
Since Heroines is concerned with the idea of mental illness and female artistry, one wonders again why Zambreno chooses to discard Lacan’s work on the symptom when embracing one’s symptom and writing one’s experiences are endeavors so central to her own project.
Zambreno is critical of Woolf’s mandate that women should not write out of anger, perhaps because she is quite obviously angry: the last sections of Heroines catalogue her psychiatric history, her feelings of isolation and ostracism, her desire to be read and appreciated, and her call for women to be “our own heroines.” The animosity and rebarbative self-loathing evident throughout the text can hardly end with Zambreno speaking to an audience of women and offering them a way forward as Woolf attempts in A Room of One’s Own: Zambreno is too close to her anger to pave the way for others unless the way forward is only a way in to one’s own despair. This is not to say that a text written out of anger can’t be brilliant: Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 novel Zazen is a good example of anger turned into art with an incisive political engagement that Zambreno attempts here but at which she ultimately fails. One can’t help but come away from reading Heroines with a genuine concern for Zambreno, who has only succeeded in pathologizing herself according to the same literary and psychiatric models against which she argues with such hostility for three hundred pages. R. D. Laing—the antipsychiatry radical whom Zambreno references several times—writes famously in The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (1967): “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough.” In Heroines, we witness only the breakdown, not the breakthrough.(less)
While the story here is fairly commonplace, about the trappings and miscommunications in interpersonal relationships, Schutt's prose is magisterial: it truly is the primary focus in Prosperous Friends.
There is a temptation perhaps to call Schutt's prose poetic, but this is a phrase so often used when discussing novelists' prose that it's hardly fitting here. By "poetic" I don't mean lush or flowery; I don't mean an attempt to suggest dreams or fantasies (although there is some of that here, too). What I mean by Schutt's poetic prose is that it's very technical and formal, yet at the same time loose and fluid—fluid, at least, in adherence to its own rhythms. Assonance, dissonance, syntactical ruptures: all of these formal and technical elements abound in this novel, causing us to be both within and without the characters: as Winters says in his review, "Schutt has mastered an intricate indirectness."
There is a Jamesian distancing here, and I think this might well frustrate some readers who may have picked up Prosperous Friends based on the plot summary; however, the prose is something to be marveled at, relished, and also puzzled over at times. I definitely look forward to reading more of Schutt's work after this wonderful performance—for there's no other word to describe the skill evident here, a truly wonderful performance.(less)
A very smart, cleverly written and well paced noir. Hughes places an interesting spin on the wrong man noir genre here, with a soaring critique and in...moreA very smart, cleverly written and well paced noir. Hughes places an interesting spin on the wrong man noir genre here, with a soaring critique and indictment of societal prejudices and injustices. (less)
Canadian author Barry Webster's whimsical, perversely playful fiction has garnered numerous accolades; indeed, his 2005 collection, The Sound of All Flesh, took home the ReLit Award for best Canadian short story collection. With The Lava in My Bones, Webster brings his talents in the shorter medium to bear on the medium of the novel. As a debut novel, The Lava in My Bones is witty and mature, and painstakingly intertextual, in its nearly seamless segues from teen angst to social commentary, from the use (and, most times, the overuse) of magical realism to a universal tale of the search for love and self-acceptance. However, where The Sound of All Flesh succeeded in its brevity and the far wider scope for which a story collection allows, The Lava in My Bones reads too redundantly like a short story stretched far beyond its logical narrative constraints, a series of vignettes tied together loosely by the themes of family, social ostracism, and the motherly ties that bind -- not to mention the oedipal ties that strangle when they can no longer mold according to social and cultural expectations.
The Lava in My Bones begins with Sam Masonty -- a geological expert on climate change "who'd gotten a BA, MSc, and PhD in eight years" -- barred from reentering Zurich and imprisoned in his native Ontario, where he commences not only his first relationship with another man, Franz, but his curious habit of eating rocks ("If you love something, you put it in your mouth"). Sam vacillates back and forth between recalling Canada's vast natural expansiveness to his lover who knows only the monotonous tedium of life in his own country, "Switzerland, the most land-locked country in the world." Webster's skill here is in presenting a relationship between two men that plays into self-parodies of queer life while also eschewing them: although Sam and Franz enact a doomed love affair, one that comments on queer subculture insofar as it emphasizes taut bodies and designer clothing, the body is less the focus than are the ways in which desire can be viewed as something intimate and yet something dangerous.
Webster foregrounds this theme of desire in a prologue that situates Sam's inchoate queer identity in terms of the grandiose and fantastic world of fairy tales; in these tales, Sam encounters "lovers who bit off each other's organs and when they opened their mouths, birds flew out," all the while recognizing that "these tales were telling the very story of his life." The magical realism found in these tales makes its way into the main narrative: during the height of Sam and Franz's relationship, snow falls in Zurich despite the fact that it is summer; Sam's academic work on climate change ("Rocks bear the imprint of the weight of our bodies... rocks record the details of someone's life") becomes personal when Franz first swallows a rock and then tempts his lover to appease his own wish to be closer to the core of the earth; and Sam's malevolent, religious mother appears at the foot of the bed he shares with Franz, casting judgment and externalizing Sam's own conflict about his sexual identity.
These fantastical elements carry over into the subsequent vignettes, episodes that are sieved through Sam's main narrative as we return to him for grounding. (It is no wonder that as each thread in The Lava in My Bones is titled after the four elements, Sam's element is that of the earth.) As Webster extends his terrain to introduce the reader to Sam's family, the reliance on magical realism becomes more of a crutch than a quirky trope that would allow the novel to flow more smoothly and inventively. We are introduced to Sam's sister, Sue, who begins to ooze honey from her pores; Sam's maritime father who is obsessed with mermaids; and Sam's hyper-religious mother who enlists the help of the Virgin Mary to save the souls of her far-from-normal children. Although the mother's vigilance is one of the most absurd flights of fancy in the novel, it does, all the same, emphasize an intertextual debt to literary and cultural sources; to be sure, in spite of his unique voice in characterizing a mother who feels she has not done enough to steer her children in this world, one is often reminded of the omniscient, phallic mother figure in Guy Maddin's film Brand Upon the Brain!
Franz later admits in his own vignette: "In truth, I did not want you, Sam. I wanted the space that surrounded you... The German language is so damned sexy; just hearing it gives me a hard-on; no wonder you wanted me, Sam." This clumsy juxtaposition of Webster's major themes here is made all the more so by this point in the novel; the introduction of first-person narratives grants us more subjectivity for tangential characters than the reader receives in Sam's more major and profound sections. In fact, the narrative distancing results in further displacing the main character along divisive lines that belie Webster's overt attempt to dismantle them: time and space, language and confusion, love and shame, and reality and fantasy are dichotomies that are less blurred by the cacophony of voices and the overwrought structure of The Lava in My Bones than they are fixated and made more resoundingly separate.
Webster certainly has a way with words, and this is largely what carries the reader through his debut novel. Less focused than his short fiction, The Lava in My Bones still explores similar themes of longing, the search for love, and the desire for self-acceptance; at the same time, due to the novel's excessive length and its chorus of voices -- many of which seem to be dead-end paths on a road already labyrinthine in terms of structure -- one comes away feeling as though language is the primary focus, especially how language can render magical the otherwise marginalized existence of the sexually and socially outcast. Webster's uniting thematic here is definitely praiseworthy in its message of tolerance, but it is one that is often lost among eaten rocks, mermaid infatuations, oozing honey, and the many fairy tales and films that overpopulate his novel.(less)
In the early years of the twentieth century, a woman who is bored playing housewife to her literary brother purchases Parnassus from a wandering book...moreIn the early years of the twentieth century, a woman who is bored playing housewife to her literary brother purchases Parnassus from a wandering book salesman. Parnassus is "a caravan of culture," a traveling book treasure trove designed to bring books to the masses in more rural and outlying areas.
I found Morley's attention to gender issues really interesting here, plus his mixture of a bibliophile's dream—who wouldn't want to travel for a living with books literally at one's back?—with a social message of spreading knowledge to the disenfranchised.
An adventure book about books if ever there was an adventure book about books.
Many kudos to Melville House for bringing this title back into print; here's hoping they bring the sequel back as well.(less)
Olaf Olafsson’s Walking into the Night will draw inevitable comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, both of which have butlers as thei...moreOlaf Olafsson’s Walking into the Night will draw inevitable comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, both of which have butlers as their protagonists. While both deal with conflicted manservants’ inner anxieties and failures in the midst of a changing global crisis—Ishiguro’s novel focuses on the build up to the Second World War in Britain whereas Olafsson’s focuses on the years just prior to this in America, emphasizing more the Depression’s impact on celebrities—they are very different in their treatment of their protagonists’ inner lives.
Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, has reflections about his childhood, but his anxieties and stalemates are located uncannily in his place of work. By contrast, Kristjan’s reflections are of a lost world that is no longer available to him geographically or emotionally, except in dreams and memories. I could say more about the two novels' similarities and differences, but I suppose that would then see me repeated the critical move of joining the two so simply and irrevocably. I think that any novel that has a male butler as its protagonist, especially given the brilliant portrayal of Stevens’s conflict by Ishiguro, will always be compared to The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro has, in essence, created a subgenre all his own, then.
To return to Olafsson:
Kristjan is unfailing at his duties as Chief Hearst’s butler, but his nagging conscience, the mistakes that he has made in the past, his regrets and his isolation (not least of which is underscored by his choice to move from Iceland to California, from a job of power to a job of service) soon interfere with his typically by-rote existence at the San Simeon castle.
In stark, spare, and unrelentingly gutting prose, Olafsson shifts the point of view here in a way that gives the reader increasing glimpses into the interior life of his main character, and then by turns to Elisabet, the woman whom he has left behind and to whom he writes letters he will never send. The idea of confession is very intriguing here: how the person to whom Kristjan feels he must confess is the one person he will never see again.
Bleak but beautifully imagined, Walking into the Night is a meditation on love, loss, and the myriad regrets we make as we go on about our lives. Olafsson is a master at rendering place, especially outdoor scenes, and also in insisting on how tiny gestures (the closing of a door, the gathering of blossoms, a finger tracing a lover’s spine) can convey the emotional and psychological states of people more succinctly and accurately than words can.(less)
"Can you remember what we used to say about secrets?"
Niles and Holland are thirteen-year-old identical twins; born on opposite sides of midnight just...more"Can you remember what we used to say about secrets?"
Niles and Holland are thirteen-year-old identical twins; born on opposite sides of midnight just as Pisces turns into Aries, the two boys couldn't be more different despite the fact that they are each other’s spitting image.
Actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon has a frightening way with words—pun intended. The Other is his first novel, and yet it reads as if it’s written by a writer at the height of his powers. Technically, it’s a powerhouse of a novel: cleverly paced, skillfully plotted, and with the right measure of psychological insight and uncanny terror.
What is also intriguing about The Other is that it is very obviously a recasting of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, that eerie forerunner of the genre of psychological trauma/horror that insists that children are hardly as innocent as they seem. Tryon recasts James’s Miles here as Niles, and the reader is at Niles’s side for the duration of the novel apart from a very clever reworking of James’s frame narrative, as well as a haunting revision of James’s final scene, that Tryon uses to increase the more American gothic feeling of his text as opposed to James’s (yes, I suppose I’m calling James a British writer—at the very least, The Turn of the Screw is a British novel).
I finished The Other just as the New York City area is readying itself for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, several days prior to Halloween. The sense of panic, hysteria, and Tryon’s sense of the macabre—while still emphasizing the psychologic over the fantastic—are still very immediate; it does make one lament, however, the fact that Tryon’s novel might sadly lack the power to shock in our day and age as much as it did when it was first published in 1971.(less)
I'm thoroughly surprised by this book, and it's a testament to the power of Goodreads and friends' reviews on here: I never would have picked up this...moreI'm thoroughly surprised by this book, and it's a testament to the power of Goodreads and friends' reviews on here: I never would have picked up this book if it hadn't been for that.
Abbott knows what she's doing: the lingo; the pacing; how the plot unfurls. What really intrigued me was how a book so rooted and reliant upon plot could be so well-written. The balance here is really seamless, and it makes for both an addictive read as well as a sly social critique; at the same time, it's a very real portrait—in a noir way—that shows the underbelly of glitter and pomp.
I think I may well move on to Bury Me Deep next. Dare Me was that good.(less)