Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paul Valery - Blogger-in-Chief?

Paul Valery is presently blowing through my life like a healthy winter storm. First rush impression is that here is a guy who has wonderfully over-thought everything. But some key-concepts stand out: the study of History as fraud, the vacuous arbitrariness of literature (I don’t agree with his assessment against the novel but he makes his case forcefully), the emptiness of great events, the blankness of reality, the tensions of living in the modern world, the conversion of science and polity, the dissemination and balancing of European enthusiasms throughout the world: democracy, innovation, technology, never letting anything alone, exploring something to the bitter end. He describes Europe’s short sightedness, had the power to change the whole world for the better but went back to 'squabbling over her neighbor’s acreage' (a great line). Valery was very keen on China and its potential to rival the West. Remember, at the time Valery was writing (1920s), China, the country, was barely a country and it was a shambles. Filled with warlords, drugs, mayhem, starvation, growing exploitation by the Japanese, it was a mess. Valery saw beyond all that. Prescience has got to be a hallmark of excellent thinking. So many things I am now reading are coming into my thinking. Perhaps oddest of all-- you see his fan club includes the Who’s Who of American Literature of the 20th century, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, et al. You wonder why he didn’t influence contemporary American thought more; his ideas are anything but conventional, they blaze right out of the stratosphere, but the whole line up of American literary light stands by as translators and enthusiasts.

It is fascinating to read hard political science from such a precious and aerie poet but he does the job well. Again, speaking of China, in an entry from 1927, he predicts the rise of China as a result of the West trying like mad to unload its technical secrets upon India and China -- and the rest of the world. Traditional barriers will give way and he predicts China's great entrance onto the stage of the world and you pretty much hear him describing the world of 2010. Then he talks of the futility of trying to predict the world 50 years in advance of a given point. He is suspicious of history as a study. The documents come at us from 2 feeble sources: eyewitnesses and historians. About literature: he thinks that detail in literature is isolated, arbitrary, random and nearly meaningless -- that it doesn't amplify by being described to become universal. Here I think he is wrong because literature simply does so; writing captures the particular, no less than painting or sculpture. Valery wants to think himself beyond art but I don't see how he can do it. Art is seeing in itself; if mankind had been able to do without art it would have done without it by now. Trying to think himself free of art he falls into slight incoherence or preciousness.

About politics he is full of common sense that borders on profound: politics is a second-rate art filled with second-rate minds (and by extension, people). Valery thought so hard about art, about everything. And he had the means to do the thinking, too. Math, science, close quarters with art, he gave himself over to clarity of thought about all these. He was a great student of the mind itself. He had an almost medical interest in the mind, not the physical brain but what was happening to man and his mind in modernity. He rejected all the clichés. The supposed blessings of mass communications, journalism, the movies, the telephone, etc.

But Valery offers some of the best summations of the modern condition anywhere…I finally feel understood, reading Valery. A great liberation! He breaks things down to their smallest components. He goes through the junk heap of modernity and looks at it closely and then throws out what he doesn’t like (just about everything gets radiated). Journalism, Politics, Economics, bah. He examines the value of creativity, of writing poems and novels. They squeak by. He compares Victor Hugo to a local toymaker/inventor. He understands the nature of the work the craft involved, its uselessness to the going economic system. Yet it has value because of its potential to express the excellencies of a given culture or nation. He recognizes complexity and doesn’t always try to explain it or pretend that he understands it all. Above all Valery was a kind of ambassador to the concept of individualism to the world. He stood as protector of the concept of individualism as first promoted and lived by the Greeks. Whence his bridling at the simplicities of art and history and the humanities, his railing at classical education (the twice-dead languages of Latin and Greek) and the whole concept of the classics. No man is ever embodied in a single representation; no one can be captured in a photograph or single still image at a given moment. All men break out of their ‘personality’ from time to time, in drink, or tiredness, the culture of fixed character abodes, etc. Valery resented art that depended overmuch on stock characters or characterization, etc.

Valery can write like the most elegant consultant ever, like an expert analyst for the RAND, Corp; then he is a statistician, then he is an art critic, then he is a sociologist, then he prognosticates, then he analyses the entire economy and culture of Germany at year 1897 that sounds contemporary, then he puts forth theories about history or philosophy or writing or art or reading or shipbuilding or education policy; the guy is amazing at once commonsensical and then suddenly esoteric and barely graspable. He filled 290 notebooks with his special thinkk-writing -- a proto-blogger! His Achilles is his esteem of Edgar Allen Poe—well, we’re all sinners. He also falls back on a rhetorical phrase that drives me crazy; after he exhausts a subject, he writes: “But I can’t go on to all that here, it would take an entire book to explain this.” I respond, “Well, you just wrote about ten million words on everything under the sun what are you talking about?”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Summer notes

Cheever by Blake Bailey. This is a fine and detailed biography of the American writer, John Cheever (1912-1982) published in 2009. And now for some thoughts on Cheever's life and writing:
Cheever’s prose has a tartness that keeps you going; velocity and daring and urgency come to mind. You don’t wonder when you read his work, “What in the hell are these people doing here,” or “Why am I reading this,” or “Why was this written?” There is a great canniness and knowing in his work. A sense of different language registers and the clash between the intimate and the social always coming to the surface. I admire all his stories and novels greatly.

About Cheever's life, as revealed by Bailey, you are not shocked by the concupiscence but the harrowing self-pity and verbal and annotated outcries give pause. He had wonderful kids, a beautiful wife, for starters. He had unique accomplishments: he could have marshaled his own writing classes, he could have called any number of shots but so often (in his journals) he sidelines himself. Did he never pick up a book? Of course but you get the sense that absolutely nothing was steady with the man.
(photo: Nancy Campton)
The absolute childishness and lack of self-knowledge he reveals in his journals is beyond belief. The alcoholism is grotesque. Did he have no sense of the stage he had been granted? Three times on the covers of national magazines? Whence comes the roaring self-pity? He escaped hard bloody fighting during WWII; his regiment was practically wiped out after D-Day. Does that count for nothing? How about a bit of gratitude for that? Yes, of course Cheever writes about the quest for gratitude, love, valor, etc., but still there is an unbounded amount of sheer jawing and complaining across an otherwise valiant life.

Looking at Cheever’s torrent of introspection (The Journals) and afterwards you think: wait a minute. Shouldn’t all this ego-mass be injected into the novels and stories for God’s sake? There is great height and depth here. Do not hide your light under a bushel! It is a torrent after all. Not much gets by him, description, melancholy observation, smells, sound, atmospherics, making odd connections with simple stating or describing what he sees. Crows taking off from a roof, a woman buying a small bag of potatoes in front of him at the line in the grocery store. These are the observations, simply, of a man alive to his lashes. At the same time, my God. What is going on here? His marriage sounds truly hideous; why would someone want to live this way? You admire the arc of his life the redeeming work towards the end (Falconer) but the tools of analysis fall clattering to the floor when you try to make sense of it. At the top of his game he had love and accomplishment, candor, interest, a free life, at least free of the restrictions 99% of humanity toils under, a vastly interesting life, if interest can be deemed a point. So in the end you have to ask, “What was all the shouting about?” Yes, there were kinks in the origins but what about the later adult encounters of success? Do they matter for nothing? (An aside: why repeat the coldness of your parents with your own kids?) He did what he wanted to do for the most part; after that it becomes hard to forgive his cruel, lashing-out preponderances. Yes, it is a sorry thing to read of the money hardships of Cheever. Even those that loved and supported him couldn’t see him through dry spells and into a future of productivity. Easier said than done, perhaps, but was it such a long shot to bet on John Cheever? I think not. (Looks like The New Yorker ripped him off for years paying out at low scale for short stories.) It is unbelievable the pecuniary nature of it all--even at these success levels.

Contrast with Anthony Burgess who just gets on with it and writes a novel, a near masterpiece, Earthly Powers, with a homosexual protagonist to boot (homosexuality, one of Cheever's life-long demons). You wish Cheever had done the same. It gets worse, the cover ups, the hetero-boasting strike you as extremely bizarre.

There's the life and then there is the writing...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ken Kesey: love and regret

First the love: Ken Kesey was an outstanding writer; among those who so believe there are two schools: A) those who think it's OK that Kesey didn't write much after the two great early 1960s novels (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion) and B) those who don't think it's OK. I'm of the latter group.

I can still see my young self, sitting in the red chair in my parents basement laughing and stirring to the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I loved McMurphy; I had grown up around guys like him in a northwest milltown. Wild and untamed guys you would meet at Herfy's Hamburger stand on a Friday night getting ready to ride their motorcycles on a whim to Montana (to see a girl). I also liked the group therapy scenes in which each characters' fears and nuttiness emerges; I like the descriptions of northwest scenery - finally the northwest makes it into some good fiction, I remember thinking at the time. On the downside I thought Kesey kept underdeveloped the black flunkys of the psyche ward. I don't think Kesey really knew what to do with them. Why were they black, specifically? This is never explained. They don't even work out as some kind of sociological symbol. I also thought nurse Ratched underdone. Kesey, the skillful writer, as he showed in his portraits of the mental patients, could have done more to humanize her. Kesey had the perfect narrator, the perfect point-of-view in the character of the Indian, Bromden, whose depth, stealth watchfulness, knowingness allowed Kesey to go in any direction, in or out of focus, sharp or clear.

Sometimes a Great Notion should have inspired a school of fiction, a movement, hundreds of imitators but it didn't. It was snubbed by the east coast literary establishment. It did not get the critical attention it deserved. When this, his 2nd novel, came out, I wonder if Kesey didn't see himself, sudenly, in the same postion as William Faulkner a few decades earlier: he had staked out original literary territory and now the only way he could win and maintain it would be to write up another brace of novels defending it, defining and clarifying (uggh, what a horrible term in this context) it--as, again, Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, after writing The Sound and the Fury. Whatever the case, Kesey did not follow Faulkner, and, in fact, declined to write novels at the level of Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey went on to become a counter-cultural figure, a kind of old-time medicine man, promoting the use of LSD and marijuana as life enhancing enhancements for American leisure--and consciousness expansion. Kesey made a choice and I believe it was a literary choice; let's take a look.
...the regret
Yes, you can say that Kesey’s attitude and program expressed a kind of freedom that might have been lacking in 1950s America but only if you define freedom in the most delicate and parochial of terms. Yes, America was a conservative country up until the hippy freedoms took root: hair was cut short and interracial marriage was generally not accepted and divorce was a social stigma. I remember a classmate of mine whose parents got divorced and he ended up moving away from our tight knit community. Teen pregnancy was frowned upon. A large swath of social pathology was not approved of publicly. My grandmother had a very hard time telling me of the shame she experienced when her parents divorced when she was a little girl in the 1920s. It was almost like she was describing the Salem witch trials. So, yes, there did exist social stigma to overcome. But personal freedom was available if not widely and vastly seized; Kesey was out-of-line to make grand claims for his originality of intent or purpose. Yet, it is hard to measure his influence because it was so vast. Are we better with drugs rampant and a reflexive anti-authority bent to our society? Not so sure. For KK to try to make the case for his own repression is not right. His gifts were recognized and sought after. He could have called the shots in any number of areas of social or civic or academic life. That he chose a kind of fiction to live in is disappointing. He was never really repressed. He didn’t have the money drive? OK, but he could have stretched himself more. If drugs were such wonderful things then where are the results of that enlightenment? Every college campus dorm is a mini Acid-Test cum rock concert; the authorities have not kept up pace with the nihilism. KK would not admit that individual achievement is the cornerstone of identity, not communal drug romps. KK could have chosen his place within American letters at any phase. Instead he retreated--well, not a retreat--but what would you call it? He was a father and a family man. He responded to community and family needs. Even so, we wanted him to give more to literature than he did. Isn't that is the crux? Artists give and who are we to demand that they give give give? Still, it rankles to imagine KK backing away from such great gifts.

Saul Bellow is right: there is, was, or can be a tremendous power in writers: a power of style. Kesey is a case in point, as were the Beats, and perhaps Hemingway before him. They hit on something that young people responded to. Truth does not matter here. It is the style that counts and writers can be very powerful when it comes to style. Take KK: you have an abundantly talented young man. He can do with words what people enjoy tremendously. He innovates and sets his own course. He can do anything call the shots, as they say. Then he swerves off into gadfly areas of knowledge: drugs, communal happenings, rock festivals, etc. He imputes to things bigger problems than really exist (that is what the whole counter culture did). I would give anything to hear Kesey on Proust or Gaddis or Bellow, but I suspect Kesey didn't give a rip for any of these. Problem is, once you declare for writing or literature you do belong to a club or a guild. You can deny this (KK already belonged to a guild by virtue of his novels), but it is still true. You owe it to yourself--if not your fans--to explore the guild, i.e., the history of literature; I'd hate to see in Kesey another American re-inventing the wheel as is our wont.

Drugs, and the counter-culture that Kesey helped foment, were the hammers that opened fissures in US society. When you hear debates about Texas school board debating this or that aspect of America, gays, guns girls whatever this is the fissure that the 1960s opened. Problem is, America wasn't all that oppressive and the liberators were not all that liberating. There was a fascist strain in the counter culture movement; conformity reigned. These ideas were always present in western literature. Kesey claimed that Neil Cassidy lived the perfect novel, but that is an absurd statement if you believe the point of novels is that others can share in them and you communicate a literary experience...a reflection of a lived experience. Kesey, the supreme individualist, turned his back on the novel for communal pleasures of hanging out and drugs and partying and dressing up in jester’s uniform. It's not that he was so unconventional; when you really scratched at him he was totally conventional. For real non-convention you have to turn to Kesey's novels or to Nabokov and Lolita. And what of the dangers of LSD? It did twist people's minds around nothingness and panic. The guy should have booted all the hangers on out long before he did. Drugs turned into anarchy which turned into a power play. In the wider culture, the worst elements came forward and dominated the weaker. You could see this in Haight Ashbury when all the drug dealers moved in and dominated all the runaway kids, and then later when the motorcycle gangs got involved in the drug trade. Bad news all the way around. Look at the toll drugs took on a generation of musicians.

Anyone who didn't catch the strains of fascism in the hippie/drug/counterculture/new left was blind. Worst of all, the counter-culture didn't grasp any clear idea of who or what the enemy was. Hence, the childish bashing of all authority. If you're going to make great claims for the ultimate things: consciousness, peace, love and cosmic understanding you must also account for the lowest things: brutality, oppression, mass murder and that the counter-culture could not do. Drugs may liberate yes, but for Kesey, to still be beating the drug drum through the 1980s and 90s, when every drug was available to every frat house in the nation--was simply unbelievable. If the magic of drugs was ever going to make itself felt it would have made it felt by then. Move on is something Kesey declined to do; he always maintained that some authority out was to get you; with no recognition of how generous and benign America really could be.

Kesey, with a personal integrity and a personal magnetism intact over the decades, nonetheless got sidetracked by performance art, communal espri di corps, gatherings of the tribe, a kind of free-floating love and peace, this and that and a strange brew of New Age flimflam. What of individual striving and achievement? He wrote a novel cherishing those qualities and ideals. In a modern democracy identity comes through achievement.

As Eric Hoffer wrote, America not hospitable to mass movements of any sort, so much reinventing the wheel in Kesey's ideology; he knew he should have cleared out the trash and cut the bullshit long before; that there was no enlightenment to be had in dope and low-grade tricks and nonsense. He let go of that vision of himself as a young striver and competitive literary if you don't get better with effort...what we missed...greedy as we are...

Coda: I read this over and it seems harder on Kesey than I meant it to be. I do love his writing and find his life fascinating to contemplate. He is gone now and we can only speculate or continue to speculate about his career--Kesey himself was one of the grand speculators about Ken Kesey. Surely the indifferent reception of Sometimes a Great Notion wounded him. He took time off to party and celebrate youthful confidence and defiance. The party, unfortunately or not, lasted a long time; and his advocacy of hallucinogins threw the seriousness of his artistic achievement out of whack. He lost a son in a horrible bus accident in 1984; no one, I believe, had any right to demand anything more from him after that.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Swann's Way: a remembrance, Proust, etc

Last week I finished reading Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's long novel: In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past as translated by Scot-Moncrieff). As with anyone who makes this claim you must squint your eyes and counter with, "Really?" Yes; really. But now for the qualifiers. I liked the opening section where the narrator sketches in portraits of family and friends; I enjoyed the description of the small town and the cathedral and the moments of recall as he ate his 'madeleine' biscut (they sell these at Starbucks now). Then we come to the long description or disquisition or exploration of Swann and his frustrating pursiut of love object, Odette. There were large stretches, say 50 pages at a time that barely held my attention. My eyes skeetered across the page; they saw words; I can't say for sure if they read the words but the two--words and eyes--did meet. I held fast though; the narrator goes on and on, no gunshots, no kidnappings. Just parties and more parties and party commentary and comments about people who go to parties or people who don't go to parties. This is all a bit hard on the modern American raised on a plain menu of guns n' ammo. Things pick up when Swann realizes that Odette is messing around with other guys. One evening he creeps back around to her house after having taken his leave earlier; he becomes a Peeping Tom. His obssession with Odette bounces him from polite society which he comes to realize is really stupid society. Of course there is more, much more and in the end strict plot lines are not what it's about. I think it's about getting caught in the net of Proust's prose style which becomes a way of looking at life...
(more later)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Nabokov vs everybody

Vladimir Nabokov, the exceptional, vivacious, singular American-transplanted-Russian novelist, was always quick to put down a contemporary writer (or a past writer, too). Recently I read an interview with Nabokov where he calls Saul Bellow “mediocre.” An astonishing insult. Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, to take one example, bristles with life embodied in many dozens of original lively phrasings and perceptions. In a vibrant American English. Or those first beautiful pages of Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet where he sketches the main character's personality while hinting at the book's themes to come. I want to ask Nabokov, “If you call Bellow mediocre then what are your terms for judging talent?” What are Nabokov’s terms of comparison? The Nabokovian aristocrat comes out, perhaps. Just call everything “vulgar” and keep moving; seems to be VN’s M.O. But wait. There’s more: don’t comment about anything related to current events; to highlight social or historical context is vulgar. In one interview (or other) Nabokov states that courage is one of the highest human qualities. But if you disallow social context you void a huge arena of life wherein courage might be tested and displayed. No? Yes? Perhaps the aristocratic view maintains that human life is 90% waste and silliness? Not worth bothering about; a strange, jarring way of looking at life, that. Nabokov would deny his contemporaries any creative scope--much as V.S. Naipaul would deny them scope from the opposite end: contemporary writers--according to Naipaul--are not sufficiently socially engaged. (Naipaul has written that modern novelists are too self-involved, too inwardly glamorous for necessary social observation. As a result, the modern novel is used up, nearly dead, etc.)

Politically, we understand that Nabokov despises dictatorships and loves freedom. OK. Do we then bury our natural human curiosity about how dictatorships--or freedom, for that matter--come about? The history and the why? How to reconcile a perceptive original writer with a man who seems to live behind closed doors—figuratively speaking. In America the social vibe is strong along with the family squall. Must we oppose history, society, family, school, with the hillsides of mountains in which to chase butterflies? Nabokov is famous for his batch deletions of contemporary writers. What rankles in VN’s dismissiveness (“vulgar mediocrities”) is his lack of recognition that literature is built from the group up; its nature and development rises from a necessary social swell: language is its raison d'etre. Or does literature fall off trees? Individual writers, of course, make all the difference but Nabokov’s refusal to acknowledge the social packing of literature and influence across generations, gnaws. Are writers not a family of sorts? Whatever; they can, nabokovly, be dealt with by the wave of the hand. Vulgar. Mediocre. Nabokov presents a very cool character that you suspect couldn’t stand to share the spotlight with anyone famous. Whence come the sniffy attacks upon other writers, so ungenerous and spiteful; it must be fun to mumble, “topical trash,” from on high at everything that comes along. But for better or worse human beings are topical. Well VN’s aristocratic disdain only goes so far. I respect his writerly illumination enough to think of a dozen human occupations I would like to have had him investigate; or scenarios wherein his genius would illuminate. How about a main character as butcher or surgeon or racing jockey or farmer? Instead, we get Mr. Middle-aged obsesseser over 12-year old girls, Mr. Pervert--over and over again. VN too high to bend into the trashy topical quotidian? Or maybe I am one of Nabokov's dull, plodding, philistine readers...I hope not.

Friday, January 22, 2010

John Cheever

A great way to take in the short stories (and novels too) of John Cheever: cassette tape or disc recording. Cheever's sentences are, when read out loud, bouyant, brisk and paced. They almost seem measured as though annotated musically. Indeed they carry a great musical charge. They give Cheever solid ground upon which to say wonderful, sometimes weird and marvelous or nearly hallucinogenic things.

(More to come...)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Thoughts on English

Why is English so hospitable to nonsense syllables and words?
Hickory Dickory Dock,
the mouse ran up the clock

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

I think English was first a dance-hall, drinking language of peasants. Or maybe it was the language that peasant and working parents spoke to their children in the crib. Think of all the nonsense words: dither dather, scribble scrabble, hither and thither; there is a bubbly, fizzy, unharnessed (un-nailed down) quality to English that welcomes new words and babble. Speaking of nonsense, closer to our own day, I recall, as kids, my brother and I running around the house singing with Roger Miller,
And you had a do-wacka-do,
Wacka do, wacka-do, wacka-do

What is black jazz scat-singing after all but elaborate nonsense lyrics? An early English poem by John Skelton (1460-1520), Phillip Sparrow, is full of delightful nonsense rhyme. By contrast when Dante’s (1265-1321) wanderer confronts demons howling bizarre syllables in the The Inferno it startles dramatically because the rest of Dante's Italian is so structurally poised.
Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!»,
cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia;
e quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe,

disse per confortarmi: «Non ti noccia
la tua paura; ché, poder ch'elli abbia,
non ci torrà lo scender questa roccia.
(Inferno, VII, vv. 1-6)

Does it make any sense to appeal to our highly developed infantile qualities? No, but there is something going on--a language does not easily shake off its beginnings. Perhaps this 'baby talk' understructure explains why it is so hard to do English well. Our complex verb forms are very complex even for native speakers:
“If that had happened, I would have had to…”

Contrast Spanish, a romance language, wherein workers, peasants and Indians can, usually, gracefully handle the horrendously complex subjunctive. Our grammar is so unsettled, our punctuation seems improvised. The only thing vaguely settled about English is the sentence order and that is a distinct disadvantage. Subjec--Verb--Object. It is too rigid. Unlike romance languages English must adhere to its sentence structure. We lose sight of the subject so easily in English. We do not have masculine and feminine designations for nouns or clause markers. Romance languages can devise elaborate sentences with numberless clauses because the clause denominator--which, that, whom, whose--is clearly marked as masculine or feminine--you can always trace back and identify the subject noun.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

T. C. Boyle Pro & Con

#1) The largest feeling reading TC Boyle, after the first few chuckles, is sadness; his writing makes you realize how hard literature is. He has all the pluses on his side and he still doesn’t pull it off. 1) Be entertaining: Boyle knows how to entertain. 2) Charm: he recognizes social hypocrisy and can deal with it in funny ways, he has a wide embrace of social pathology. 3) Shorthand: he gets to the point. 4) Technique: he keeps things moving. He knows how to move people around.

#2) Why does literature have to be so damnably difficult? His writing has what most other writers don't have: humor, momentum wisecracking knowingness. Boyle's got all the gifts but one: heart. He so earnestly tries to get through the story that he misses the most important thing. Yes want to remember and retain. Mostly his stories become linguistic exercises; topping the previous metaphor. Yes, literature is made up of words but it is also made up of the extraneous and there is no extraneous in Boyle. Everything is down to the metal.

#3) Or he overdoes it. Boyle writes over his characters, he applies the literary standard, lapsing when he shouldn't, allowing clichés. He won't let anything unfold. The momentum is driving and sharp, but arch. He understands the made up nature of American life and it allows him to puncture it from all sides. But America does work after all, not every money maker is a con, not every housewife is a harridan, not every babe is a whore out for herself.

#4) It is in the interstices that America runs (and inspite of itself), you'd never know that from Boyle where the cartoon standard applies. Boyle tries to make literature out of comics. Graphic novels. In the weird way that graphic novels can be made to strive towards written literature, to emote and promote ambiguity and depth, so Boyle’s prose strives towards the picture frames of a graphic novel. The words get in the way. They are fueled on his metaphors.

#5) The event drives character rather than the other way around. Think of the many ways Boyle must describe anger, surprise, or disgust: a set of revolving emotive stills and a straining after words that exhausts imagination to keep up with his relentless events. It is bar-stool storytelling. Or campfire storytelling: who doesn’t love it? Its appeal is as old as…

#6) Often the thoughts narrated aren’t the character’s thoughts; they are Sociology’s thoughts. Or Boyle’s sociological thoughts.

#7) Overwritten: the characters are plundered, not observed. They are not even invented they are starched, typed out – (does anyone type anymore?) They are buttered with jam, oiled, creamy and sauced and jammed and yolked and creamed again with parmachiano; they are indicated. Shrimped and pimped and recopied; they are meatballed with parsley, oats and gin.

#8) Boyle tends to mount forward movements like military campaigns or football plays. He moves his narrative forward via the exertions of metaphor. Vein popping metaphor making. He goes into the breach. Narrative advances by straining language through metaphor. Yes you can do this but -- unless you are Shakespeare, watch out.

#9) Language plundered for its mobility. Boyle tries to get around the technical difficulties of his art by forcing metaphor; too many contrivances, though art is contrivance, he goes too hard at it. Masked by nearly unlimited charm. Where does charm come from? Being different from the norm (which is usually dull as darts).

#10) Consider the world and all its things as an audience waiting to tell you interesting things. Waiting to be noticed and tell you things. You don’t get the sense that Boyle listens to the world of things. He is not open to the world of things so they can't tell him what they want to tell. He writes over eveything. He writes over his characters and he writes over his things. Arch, contrived, flip, and yes, fun. I don't mean to sound so harsh. I am trying to identify a technique or a style.

#11) TC Boyle goes wrong by offering up a constant string of metaphor and simile; he never lets the reader put anything together. He does all the work.

#12) His recit is faulty. When Boyle writes, “His ears pointed up and with a flash of white teeth turned like a felon…” it is fair to ask do ears really point up? Do teeth really flash like that? Or when he writes, “The Doctor’s eyes snapped wide open at the thought--” it's fair to observe that eyes don't really snap. When Boyle writes, "Ashen, the long bones of his legs chattering, Will Lightbody got unsteadily to his feet,” it's OK to complain that leg bones don't really chatter. You have to go back to early Mark Twain to get this kind of Western exaggeration: “Yup. He was spitting teeth after the fight.” Yet, somehow Twain manages to really see, to really describe. Boyle seems to be writing from a memory of rhetoric...

#13) Sometimes I think Boyle is doing stand-up comedy, skits, gags, fictional pressure, I wrong?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Exposing the tyrant while writing a beautiful book

(from left to right: Young Huber Matos just before Castro threw him in prison for 20 years; Guillermo Cabrera Infante in his prime; Carlos Franqui, an elderly exile in Italy)

Family Portrait with Fidel by Carlos Franqui
Mea Cuba by Guilermo Cabrera Infante
Como Llego la Noche (How night arrived by Huber Matos; not sure if the English translation is out yet.)

Franqui and Infante were both artist intellectuals who held official posts in the early Castro government; by 1965 both were disillusioned and planning their escapes. Their books are by turns fascinating witty brutal and tragic. Matos is a man with truth for a backbone; he was sentenced in 1959 and served out a 20 year sentence, obtaining release from prison in 1979; he was on to Castro early on and paid a steep price.

These books are not hard to get hold of. When you hear pretty-faced Hollywood/and TV reporters praise Castro you realize that these people do not read. How many talking heads have given a stern look over the last couple days and said, "we don't know much about Raul Castro but..."

This is nonsense. It common knowledge that Raul is a bigger thug and murderer than Fidel and it is well documented. In the early days of the Revolution Fidel would purposefully humiliate Raul in large meetings to the point that fellow revolutionaries, hardened murderers, would turn their faces away so as not to have to share in Raul's utter abasement.

Anyway, these books are loaded with fascinating and sometimes funny but always tragic detail of life under the tyrant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If All Seattle Read A Different Book

It is a measure of Seattle’s endemic middlebrow infantilism that Nancy Pearl, author of the Booklust series, holds such sway over the Seattle reading public. About a decade ago she started Seattle off on the If All Seattle Read The Same Book kick. For someone who knows writers and the world of writing she, and her reading publicity stunts, shows a real callousness towards them. Why not encourage the reading public this way: IF ALL SEATTLE READ A DIFFERENT BOOK. There are thousands of writers published in English each year; encourage the discriminating Seattle reader to look into them. Forget the childish rule of One Book. I don't see how this dotty little bookmaven can get a large, supposedly well-educated, gentrified city to go along with If All Seattle Read the Same Book. What writers want is for everybody in a city to be reading a different book. Pearl promotes a slightly fascist, pajama-party view of reading culture and literature.

To be fair Pearl does present a wide variety of books in her frequent radio and TV interviews. Even so something rankles about her literary enthusiasms. She misses the hallmark of literary masterpiece: excellent books savage you and drive all other books off the shelf, for a time anyway. A masterpiece enfolds you and takes you over and shoves out of the way all the other books floating in your brain. When I hear Pearl bubbling with delight over the latest detective thriller then moving on to a pre-teen novel I suspect I could never trust her to recognize a true masterpiece. She can go from breathily praising the latest trash detective novel to some new young adult fiction and then onto Toni Morrison’s latest novel and then over to the latest ethnic cookbook without pause. Pearl for all her admirable reading misses the point that a good book drives out all before it. I believe Pearl represents a librarians' view of books: bring ‘em on, that’s what we’re here for…a Dewey Decimal reading list. For Pearl it doesn’t seem to matter as long as there are words on the page and glue in the bindings. Again, great books drive everything before them: criticism, book clubs, social fashion. Excellent books rage and turn readers inward to pause and then hate all other books, even if only for an hour. Pearl's multitudinous book enthusiasms are really declarations of Seattle’s hopeless middlebrowness; she has bubbled for too many books.

Every good book carries seeds of criticism within it. Seattle reading culture represents another manifestation of Seattle’s colonial, past twice removed: once a colony of England and now a colony of east coast intellectual fashion. Never though, will Seattle have the confidence to recognize something beautiful and homegrown. Seattle media doesn’t have enough confidence to trust its own reactions to things artistic. It needs the swell of millions of other opinions before it can weigh in with its own non-entity opinion.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Garcia Lorca and thoughts...

I really love the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). His poems sneak up on you like sunshine slipping from under a cloud. They are full of taste and smell and color processed by a loving sensibility. Garcia Lorca was a poet, an artist, a playwright and a musician and he was also an amateur folklorist, gathering folk-nursery songs from all corners of Spain. He celebrated without shame Spain's southern/Arab-influenced region at a time when it wasn't fashionable to do so. He formed part of Spain's generation of 1927 which gave the world a great burst of unique scholarship and artistic achievement.

When I think of the various generations of Spanish writers (generation of ’98--that would be 189--of 1927, etc) and looking at photos of Garcia Lorca, arm in arm with Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, Damaso Alonso, etc…I really have to admire those guys. Those Spanish poets and writers saw, before their politicians, that Spain, in the first part of the 20th century, was headed for the sewer culturally and politically; these bold men (and women) rallied as artists and writers and thinkers; they overcame their jealousies and competition and they really did something for their country and their mother tongue. You can see them taking off from the powerful 19th century influences (American: Poe, Whitman, French: Hugo, Mallarme, Baudelaire) and committing themselves to making something of their own. It is tremendously affecting to see how cross-fertilized they were in all the arts: music, painting, sculpture, theater, poetry, fiction.

Maybe I am dreaming but I think Seattle will forever be muddled in provincialism as long as none of our cultural leaders take a stand on anything. Until they stop taking their cue from the New York Times or the National Librarians Guild or National Bookclubs or whatever. The first step away from provincialism is to commit yourself to something you love and trust with your own reactions. Having an opinion that doesn’t have to be shored up by 1000 or a million other consenting opinions. Until then Seattle will be mired in provinciality and maintain its backwater status.

Back to Garcia Lorca; how can you not love a poet who writes poems to the guitar? (My translations)

When I die,
bury me with my guitar
beneath the sand.

When I die,
among the orange groves
and the heirbabuena.

When I die,
bury me if you please
in a wheathervane.

When I die!

To the Ear of a Girl
I didn't want to.
I didn't want to tell you anything.

I saw in your eyes
two crazy trees.

How they wriggled.

I didn't want to.
I didn't want to tell you anything.

If You...
The sky will get lost:
country girl,
under the cherry trees,
full of red cries,
I want you.

The sky will disappear...
if you understand this,
just walking by the tree
you give me your kisses.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Anthony Burgess and spring sundry

1985 by Anthony Burgess.
A pastiche of essay and story telling and futuristic projection based on George Orwell's 1984. Written in the late 1970s it is interesting to see what Burgess got right. He predicted accurately the rise of Islam in London, with active construction of mosques funded by oil-rich gulf princes (a telling line from the book: With the death of institutional Christianity will come the spread of Islam). More: the wide screen TV, tighter airport security, search for fuel substitutes, women in trousers men in kilts, more and more newspapers closing down, microbombs of immense destructiveness placed in public buildings, a German coup breaks down the Berlin Wall.

He got a few things wrong. Burgess thought labor unions would excercise an overwhelming power over daily life in the future, that porn would overtake violence in the movies and he missed the computer/telecommunications revolution in daily life (though he does portray the union enforcement officials capable of a Google-like effiency in capturing personal details on a computer system). A wonderful overlooked book.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui.
A 625 page nightmare. Mao's private doctor lived in nervous terror of the various cabals surrounding China's maximum leader. Fascinating but in the end repetitive; Dr. Zhisui is mainly concerned with keeping Mao alive. Mao unleashed insanity on a mass scale during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1975), but Dr. Zhisui, it appears, was not privy to the political machinations that constantly flowed from Mao's brainpan. We read mostly of the difficulties of getting Mao to take his medicine. Mao was a megalo-maniac and often quite ill during the last 20 years of his life. What comes through is his heartlessness and cruelty. His policies led to the death of millions. You can't help thinking that there is a bill come due in China - despite her current power and prosperity.

Before the Sabbath by Eric Hoffer.
This book is a half year's worth of diary entries from the mid-1970s by this fine and original thinker. Hoffer extrapolates the future just looking around and commenting. For example let me quote a few entries at random:

If the present fuel debacle brings about a decline of Western Europe, France wants to make sure that it ends up sitting on top of the heap. To solve the fuel problem by force would result in a situation in which France could not play a paramount role. Hence France will urge submission to Arab dictates. It will also be for the abandonment of Israel and the cold-shouldering of the United States.

I have long assumed that the stagnation of the Arab world is due to the congeniality of the religion of Islam - its lack of the inner contradictions and tensions which stretch souls. But it seems that hashish is also a factor. The Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century which put an end to Arab supremacy also introduced hashish. Egyptian doctors have blamed this drug for the sluggishness of Egyptian workers. Will the use of marijuana have a similar effect on American workers?

Backward countries are crying about the maldistribution of the world's wealth: one quarter of the world's population has threee quarters of the wealth. Not a word is said about how wealth comes into being; the toil, sweat and self denial which make an accumulation of wealth possible. This is how a once poor and backward Japan became an affluent country. It is curious how in both domestic and international affairs there is at present a stubborn refusal to see a connection between effort and income. It is widely assumed that individuals or countries are poor because they are exploited or discriminated against.

The danger inherent in reform is that the cure may be worse than the disease. Reform is an operation on the social body; but unlike medical surgeons reformers are not on guard against unpredictable side effects which may divert the course of reform toward unwanted results. Moreover, quite often the social doctors become part of the disease.

It needs an effort to realize how offended Europe's cultivated, aristocratic minds were by the spectacle of common people eloping with history to a vast, new continent and essaying to do there all the things - build cities, found states, lead armies - which from the beginning of time were reserved for the privileged orders.

Hoffer thought a special line of cultural demarcation occurred in the Sputnik launch by the Russians in 1957. As a result, back in America, Hoffer proposed that many traditional business types got washed into academia during the early 60s (and conversely, many creative or scholar-types washed into the business world). The new academics Hoffer wrote, "felt superior to the trivial businessmen and politicians who were running the country. They were going to create a new society in which every act was pregnant with meaning and destiny..."

Maybe. Hoffer puts forth interesting models-as-tools to help think about the various antagonistic-worlds that bump against each other in modern America: businessman vs artist, politician vs professor/theorist, ancients vs moderns. His thoughts often carry a counter-intuitive streak that give them a pugnacious or challenging effect. Even so, Hoffer presents his ideas in vivid, musclular prose worth reading for its own sake.

Friday, January 30, 2009

In memoriam: re-post about Updike

#1 A couple novels per decade; Updike can really knock it out of the park (Roger’s Version is one). Even so, he overwrites and you get the feeling that no editor had better shadow his existence; even so, Updike delivers in novels that rise to his obsessions and intellect. So Roger’s Version is very good (with some stilted overwritten descriptions)…

#1a Anthony Burgess faults U’s sense of rhythmn.

#2 There is so much to admire in this novelist. His Rabbit novels especially. He moves so comfortably through consciousness. Though I do think he gets a bit lazy in these; taking characters right off the pages of Time magazine. What you can’t take away from Updike is his mastery of intense self-introspection...

#2a Updike disturbs because in rendering--always rendering--a heightened reality-- dumbing himself down for certain characters, smartening himself up for others, he sacrifices some of the seer responsibility required of great fiction writers. He is afraid to fictionalize character the way Dickens did. Pecksniff and Uriah Heep are loathsome but they live and stand in for people or circumstances that have thwarted our hopes. Updikes’s high octane sensibility seems oddly right for the novel but oddly wrong for human character. Think of the way Dellilo approached rock n roll in Great Jones Street. He predicted or divined the death wish that accompanies mass adoration (or is its fulfillment). The fans: we love you so much we want you to die so that we can worship pure image or memory or nostalgia and even the balance between your greatness and our nothingness (something like that). The death worship of Lennon and Elvis. The weird and nearly inexplicable power of certain rock figures, the multiple meanings. Updike is too eager to throw his characters middle class life jackets. I hate to see high intellect dumbing itself down to what high intellect imagines dumb people are like.

#3 Anthony Burgess gets close when he says that Updike’s prose lacks inner rhythm; this is true as far as it goes; there is no inner correlative in his prose, no backing, no underground music; the prettiness of it disconcerts. There is no music/time in his prose; it is all effect. He resembles a skillful soloist who can't keep time on his instrument. There is no spiky beat to Updike. Sentences are snakelike and beautiful; the snakes have no teeth. JU derides composers in many of his works. Music in general doesn’t get to him much. Composers rate low. There is not much life to Updike’s life. What has he done but read and write? Get awards and doctorates. Comment and write more. Introductions and squibs and write write write. Muscle and sinew vs. clouds and violet scent water and perambulators and potpourri, sperm vs. cotton candy. Snot verses shit. An arm vs. a leg. Updike writes over his characters. He can’t hold back the observation no matter how irrelevant to the character (critic James Wood complains about this).

#4 I consider Updike’s comments on music rude and baseless. They could easily be inverted towards literature: the seamless ruck of messy writerly personal lives hopes aborted and finally doublihg back on a contrived conclusion, etc...His snotty disavowels of music via some of his characters. God, what would we do without music? And what would Updike do witout the music of his prose? Fool.

#5 Updike takes a pretty hefty swing at Celine for indulging in the picaresque novel form. Says it is like writing poetry without rhyme.

#5a Updike getting slack. He gives Jane Smiley’s latest, Ten Days in the Hills, a good review. I thought it slack, ungainly and poorly executed; she attempts Updikean sexual description and it doesn’t always work. The narrator slighting the mind and thoughts of its egg-like heads of characters. Lack of detail and imprecision. And the heavy, cliched, anti-Bush slant, the why unfired by its own rockets, still smoldering. A work not arising out of anything but the historic injunction to “pay attention” when you are being spoken to by a great artist. But Jane is not a great artist; she is a pupil of the Iowa Writers Retreat. God save me from the Jane Smileys of the world!

#6 ...sumptuous John Updike. Beware, too, of Updike’s “with its” clauses, summations really – too much authorial cock frottage (he was an unwieldy writer as a young man – he got a pass and how). "The city, with its suptuous lights and seductive beat, etc...;" even so the man can write - for sheer ability to transmute reality into words, see Updike’s memoir, Self-Consciousness.

#7 So many of Updike’s judgments in his latest (Due Considerations) are soft; he leaves you hanging in the air with some fluff line at the end. He won’t lower the boom, as it were.

#8 Updike as thoughtful, provocative literary critic. Updike, in a review of V.S. Naipaul's The Loss of El Dorado says, “But in viewing an entire hemisphere as a corrupted dream, Naipaul dissolves what realities there were…[TLED] rests upon an unexamined assumption, of metropolitan superiority…Was the cruelty of slavery not an extension of the cruelty already present on the African continent?” I think Updike is trying to push back at Naipaul’s assumptions that we – the Americas, say, only got the bad from Europe as all the high flown phrasings of brotherhood equality, constitutions, democracy became pure air under a floor of despotism and slavery; giving the Americas an atmosphere of unreality and emptiness. That real life was happening elsewhere (Europe for instance); that the collapse of metropolitan values led to unreality simplicity and moral degeneracy. Updike ends with this reasonable question: “Does not the collapse of “metropolitan” values amid “simpler” conditions demonstrate their own frailty and unreality?” He pronounces finally about Naipaul’s “bleak and caustic” tone; two adjectives appropriate to much of his writing. In a latter volume of essays Updike refines his assessment of the Naipauls (this time commenting on a book by Shiva): “Yet people live here, under these imperfect governments, and their lives are truth.” What a redemptive statement.

#9 Two Updike ticks that have become near-fatal flaws:
1. “with its”
Example (about Françoise Sagan), “We have come a long way from Bonjour Tristesse, with its animal quickness and…”
2. Summary, smug, last sentences of paragraphs.
Example (touring the graveyards of Europe), of the “…Jews whose death-dates were 1943, 1944, 1945. Years whose smoke permanently stained the ceiling of Heaven.” Something so smug about that last little ending sentence. Does the WWII holocaust of Jews deserve that little flourish, the little smudge? Yeccch! There is no scale in Updike. You don’t know what anything weighs what anything is worth; he drops a dipstick in the temperature of America – right off the pages of Time or Newsweek; there is no peculiararity in Updike. Specificity of incident – conjecture-based. He can’t tell just what happened everything needs to be swathed in an eternal word-swathing…the shiny doorknob carries as much weight as the ass-hairs of the new mistress (see: James Wood). What is observed is not given its observational force by the mind of the observer; it is always Updike’s super-charged observant mind going on and on. Nevertheless―
Updike is a master explainer and expounder of other folks’ prose and fiction. He is very good. Reading Updike I realize I am a man of the 1970s – that was my intellectual formation: a sense that something exciting is happening somewhere (hat tip: Edmund Wilson); and to get there all you have to do is drop in on a party with a friend or hitchhike somewhere. You would always get a ride (this of course died out in the mid-1970s with the rise of local mass murderer, Ted Bundy). Americans would get along better if they viewed their own lives as episodes in the history of civilization; we are so hard on ourselves.

#10 (this was written before David Foster Wallce died) You feel swathed and emboldened by reality when you read Updike, with his lambent, unguent, all-swallowing prose (that last sentence supposed to be a parody; not so good...). David Foster Wallace does a real kendo sword job on John Updike in a review of Until the End of Time included in his book of essays called―(?). Disgraceful mess, sez DFW. It is a sad affair and DFW feels that some kind of mix of demotic and elegance is called for. He summons three opinions of three girls who offer reasons why they dislike Updike (a penis with a thesaurus, makes Rush’s fascism seem funny by comparison, I can't remember the third). Who are these young women? Why should we give them any weight beyond DFW? Are we writing for a high school gossip column? What have they accomplished compared to John Updike? Then DFW mischaracterizes JU’s oeuvre, saying that since 1980 he has portrayed uniquely self-absorbed men who denigrate woman and who are solipsistic. How nice of DFW to forget about The Witches of Eastwick, or the elegant and moving S. Is DFW disingenuous saying that he is one of the only literary types under 40 who really likes JU and that he has read all his work? While not a fanatic on the level of Nicholson Baker? The answer to female criticism is: we wait in vain for women writers to really tell us what it is like―having a cunt. Don’t blame him until women writers come up with the goods. The women accuse him of the sins of male hegemony and male dominance. Foster Wallace is not being truthful here. He ends up by simply calling the character in Until the End of Time an “asshole.” As if that is any kind of criticism! This is what passes for the literary thinking and criticism of the literary mafia’s own then we are in trouble. There is much to criticize in JU but this is not the way to go about it. Let women rise to the challenge. In the same book DFW reports on a AVG (adult porn convention) in Las Vegas. Talk about a barn-sized topic. To the anonymous girl opinionates that DFW quotes I would say: what you cannot write about whereof you must remain silent. Where are the female texts that write about penises with the same detail and meditation that JU offers up. Or what about they own cunts? There is a literary project for you. Tell us what it is like to be a woman. Trouble is, men have done it better. Does the novel's rushing onward probing force of creativity lie with men? DFW has licensed himself to the asinine in this book review.

#11 Memories of the Ford Administration; Updike’s tendency to hijack his characters’ thinking with these “nail-it” tags; “the world’s bloody business of birth and murder.” Who in reality thinks like that? In bite sized summations of the world, sex, death, the other? It is a cheap way of moving the plot along. When he is on he is on; and I do love his prose – he is so good at interpersonal dialogue (help that last phrase is quicksand); I am never quite finished with him. he uses a figure that scores all his work and the figure is “with its.” For example (my invention):
The mall, with its requisite contingent of 12 year old girls and boys, dressed alike in tight jeans and tee-shirts, bodily decorated with hanging metal rings, opened before us as the breadbasket of the ancient middle east, upon which hope and anguish reigned in the higher quarters of the nation’s capital with its..etc….

#12 Some of the purpose of prose is to capture the swing and sag of life and you can’t always do that with sterling prose – you end up with a John Updike novel, if Plato were to write novels he would write like John Updike. There is a certain manginess to the novel;

#13 Updike’s lacquered prose; (sentences. Layered coated glazed glossy prime coat); overbooked sentences.

#14 Funny. Reading through Updike’s A Month of Sundays. I haven’t looked into it for over a decade but always considered it one of my favorite Updike novels. I thought he achieved his aims in a challenging but entertaining way. The intimate 1st person the extravagant poses and postures the processing of detail always expert but it seems to fit in with the over-the-top or slightly insane. Thomas, the narrator/pastor, is a Christian version of Ellellou of The Coup, long sentences voiced into, fed, saturated with particulars of intensity and insanity. Does Wood’s criticism apply? Yes, sorry. The gorgeousness of which Updike is capable inhibits the actions of the book. Everything is beautifully rendered. You wonder if the novel is solely for beautiful rendering.

#15 Brazil. The imperial intelligence of John Updike. He has characters notice things that implies a super intelligence. Tristan notices the hushed way that his brother and wife process each day; how they forge a lower middle class existence. I can’t believe that Tristan, a child of the Rio slums, would have such a compressed synthesizing intelligence. Yes he would notice the difference but he would not be able to process it so thorough-goingly. So updikily.

#16 On a book buying spree we get Updike’s Seek my Face; ergo, the usual adjective fest. He doesn’t so much describe things as assign tags to them. He reads an issue of Time Magazine and decides to make a novel of it. He fills in standard interpretations. No original organic vision. Rabbit Run may have been his best, along with The Coup and A Month of Sundays. The Life magazine nostalgia-view of the world. Anyway we get a spinster, an elderly lady with a super-slick synthesizing ability with the English Language that sounds like Updike; soft floating recumbent prose. Much use of grand adjectives, gallant, luminous head, etc. The elderly lady observes and generalizes about an younger woman - her observations and notations are slightly off the mark but just accurate enough to keep the engine of the novel going. This is Updike irritatingly dumbing himself down. Grrr.

#17 Let Updike have the last word here: “Authors do well to remember that they are not really kin to priests and politicians but to singers and stand-up comedians―entertainers, of a devious sort.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

#1 John Updike died yesterday, January 27, 2009; I am moved. Anyone who loves writing and the imagination must stop to acknowledge Updike's power and talent. Updike brought the adjective back into American letters after Hemingway banished it for decades.

#2 Updike was a generous reviewer, junp starting many writing careers from his post as book critic at The New Yorker. He only wrote mean-spiritedly of one writer that I can think of: James Gould Cozzens; perhaps because he saw in Cozzens a slapdash overreacher , a sprayer of adjectives - in short, a lazier version of himself, Updike.

#3 Updike's love of the adjective did not always serve him well. Adjectives should be treated like viruses in English writing; they tend to multiply and infect all the other words around them, sapping their punch and singularity, and generally inducing torpor into the whole sentence.

#4 Some of his books demanded adjectives. The Coup, for example, attempted to catch the mental arabesques of an African dictator educated in the French Foreign Legion and at an American mid-Western campus during the 1950s. Here is an excerpt:
"My education here has been strange," Felix told Craven, contemplating with loathing the toubab's dry prematurely gray hair; his soft broad lips like two worms bloodless and bloated; his complacent, ever youthful eyes.

#5 When Updike stretched himself (The Coup, A Month of Sundays, Brazil, Roger's Version, The Witches of Eastwick), he wrote well, exquisitely well. When he leafed through Time Magazine and wrote a novel based on current events (the later Rabbit Novels, S, In the Valley of the Lillies) he wrote less well. He had the intellect, talent, imagination, the magic to write a large, all-encompassing American novel - a War & Peace - but he refused to lend his magic to a project not anchored in a local street or family; instead of one magnificent novel he left us a shelf of good, sometimes wonderful, novels.

#6 Thank you, John. You gave me so much reading pleasure over the years and inspired my path as a writer. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year of reading long, difficult novels

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
JR by William Gaddis

#1 Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion; an astonishing work of art; it must have smashed KK to have it ignored so. The skill with which he jumps around consciousness of characters, impressive. Adept at weaving stories, setting scenes and evoking atmosphere. Why he is held at bay by those who compile lists of Best Novels is beyond me. Same with William Gaddis. You want to see American novelists build on their advances in technique and novel construction. Kesey, ever tuneful, strikes many wonderful notes. Yet the theme of the brother antagonism, at times wanes. One brother so involved in the physical world, observing, watching, wondering - can he be so bound by obsession? OK. Anyway, wonderful to hear West Coast slang: Hey bub, Doohicky, rinkydink. Closing in on the mystery of Ken Kesey, all his themes were there, the nature of men and the nature of nature; he was the first to write about the Pacific Northwest; to make literature about it. He wasn’t sufficiently celebrated for his vision, for his art. His power, the slang, the bringing alive of what was not there before. Who else? Bernard Malamud in his big long Oregon novel, A New Life. But Kesey. Massive, ballsy, wonderful. I’m under the influence. Reading notes to the annotated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Kesey stresses point of view as essential to the growing of a novel. Where Nest is compact Notion is diffuse. You can practically see KK running – even though many of the themes are the same: strength vs weakness, self-overcoming, west vs east, brothers-in-conflict, etc. You see his seriousness in Notion. Kesey's artistic seriousness is plain. Strenuous even, maybe?

#2 Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra- so damn complicated; he’s got the Faulkner disease: wherein you empty out the thesaurus and the dictionary mix stir blend whip chop grate and hope that something edible comes out. A species of higher ventriloquism. Terra Nostra: Carlos Fuentes is determined to be placed in the Louvre or the Prado or the Madrid Museo de Bellas Artes…you often sense that Fuentes is writing books from inspiration based on his wide reading in history and coffee table art books or from spending time in museums. Where is the life felt, lived, tasted? The details in his novels, however good, seem second hand. But onwards, we go…will I get a masters degree for reading it? I am at 695 pages still at sea with this thing. It’s harder than hell to tell just what he is up to here. The novel seems to be some kind of historical monograph on the Spanish conquest of America and Spain’s failure to take the better of many roads when it seized European ascendancy in the 16th century; AND that Spain’s great writers – Cervantes, Fernando de Rojas – and artists had some idea of the correct road to take. Thus the blending of fictional and historical characters. Even so the book is striking me as monstrous and self-indulgent to a degree not to be believed. The effect is somewhat like looking at Niagara Falls for a year. Torrent of words. Terra Nostra is circles of themes, circular history versus fiction or fable, austerity vs lush tropical abundance, old vs new, ancient vs modern. Also that the thread of Spanish history has followed illusion while Hispanic ficcioners have followed what is reality; also power as the pathway to impotence/madness. However, Fuentes seldom stoops to illustrate those themes in other than chalky, literary inflated literary language. Fuentes tosses out contrasts and circles like so many language frisbees. While Felipe II was building the Escorial in Madrid, America was being discovered. During its Golden Age Spain turned its back on success and hope sacrificed all for gold. Crazy power-mad orthodoxies become prisons, wasting, unhygienic bodies in uncleanliness. The austerity of the Spanish king, Felipe II and the craziness of his wife Juana la Loca (La Dama Loca), ruling narrowly while a new world was being conquered and re-born. Fuentes would assert that the Golden Age fiction writers were writing reality while the living historical personages were living a fiction. And the style; heavy word showers; Faulkner as though the Mississippi had taken a turn into the Rio Grande and then into the Amazon...

#3 El Ontoño del Patriarca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ powerful and ballsy novel (finally a novel which you can rightly call powerful). I now see it as a natural development from Cien Años de Soledad. Garcia Marquez has boiled off the charm, gotten rid of the cutesy stuff and matched method to theme. Portrait of a gruesome dictator, GGM inhabits his life and brain; it is a vast tidewater of slush and terror; a study of power and loneliness; GGM’s leftist politics aside, he has nailed forever the wimpyness, the smallness of dictators. Castro must read this and weep, as must Pinochet, Rios-Mott and all the bloodthirsty madmen who sick armed forces on their own unarmed civilians. GGM has torn off the mask of terror, the hollowness of the power-mad and given us the insides of these monsters, the puny lonely swamp-messes that they are…

The poetry reading (I may not be good but I am not this bad)

- The cute self regard
- The idle description
- Cliché, of course: dropping on us like leaves
- The why was this written poem
- The I am in love with my own pen hand poem
- Anthropomorphic dreck: the kitten loved me, etc
- Weird nonsensical flights that could be good in a wholly different context
- Illogic covered in sloppy word paint
- Unwarranted shifts in point of view
- Abuse of authorial point of view and authorial privilege
- Torturing-teasing the reader with non-meaning
- The loved one dying of cancer poem (overwhelm your reader)
- The overwrought undeserved epiphany
- The mismanaged metaphor: …the mood hanging over us like a gavel falls…is the mood hanging or banging? A gavel doesn’t really hang does it?
- The disregard for the sovereignty of the line: the usual chopped prose (who lets students get away with that?)
- Overuse of abstract nouns: Death, our..seas…loss
- Overly evanescent description – you don’t know what they are talking about – perhaps to mask a dull or pointless theme
- God Bless my psychedelicasies
- X 2 poems about the French language: wretch
- The usual references to Europe, painting, critical theory…The trite the inane wagon hitched to the sublime

Monday, December 29, 2008

Literary fuses III

#1 The Figured Wheel Robert Pinsky’s collected poems (bought for a dollar at the ½ Price remainder rack). Again baffled at the whole poetry/publishing/academic matrix. As a book it is a lovely package, cover, layout etc…But not one line jumps out and claims your emotions or love or loyalty. Not a line of risk, of ambition, or daring, let alone savagery. It’s all so safe. Sensitive writing, yes, careful description, yes; but where is the fucking poetry? He uses the word “heart” (that puts anyone on my shitlist) in fact, includes it in the title of his 1984 book: Poets! Remember this was a word Woodrow Wilson used to get American boys to throw their bodies into the breach in 1918! His essay on Psychiatrists is a piece of buffoonery. Lightweight dithering. Who gives a shine about psychiatrists anyway? And then you’re pissed because you want to like this guy…

#2 Don DeLillo: you read his depictions, his observations funny finely honed finalities of observation; they are often brutal often brilliant, e.g., the way technology changes us, e.g. “we don’t pick up” (the answering machine) not “we’re not home.” The concept of not being home is destroyed. His observations are like glass: beautiful to look at but will shatter if you handle them too roughly. You sense that he tries too hard, sees too much. DeLillo stares at the picture of the boat on the water so long, so hard that the boat in the picture starts to move. Things become sinister, while he offers up too much of the private self to the storms of public madness. For DD a cigar is never just a cigar. It’s a conspiracy, a symbol, a plan - BUT human beings are weirder bouncier more supple than he gives us credit for. Slavery has to qualify as about the most degraded institution that good ol’ demonic human mind could devise; but how did blacks deal with it? What tools did they use to get over? They didn’t all commit mass suicide. They talked to themselves, sang to themselves, came up with new and weird ways of being…there’s more bounce to us to humans than writers give us credit for…

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Literary fuses II

#1 Stanley Crouch’s Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome
It’s a book I wanted to like. I like his total perspective that doesn’t cave in to unscientific race babble. He wants to dig at the sore pick the wound. Even though the book is here with me I feel it chained to the author’s mind. The feeling that he is still writing it. It is a composition of arias. Strung together. Deep conversations keep popping out of nowhere to analyze the black white situation in America. Some of this material has been done over via Baldwin in Another Country.
SC takes the amateur techniques
a) interior monologue
b) meaningful exposition
…vices of young writers…I agree with so much of what he says about race but he drops into essays….insistence on the middle class as the breeding ground of all civilized things. He despises, rightly, the fake gangsta chic that has taken hold among black kids.He was not inventive enough. He stuck to the old interior monologue scheme and failed. I submit that we – the mind – never says “however” to itself while thinking. So many false notes wrong notes of tone of carriage (my literary term as in “no carriage”). You can see that he lacks the gift of dramatization. This does not have to be a total defect. He should have done like Manuel Puig and written a dialogue novel - or La Celestina - a novel in dramatic dialogue. But some of his arias and catching the black idiom are simply grand – the frank discussion of bodies, that no area of life, of body, goes unchecked.

#2 T.C. Boyle is content to run a highlighter pen across social and journalistic situations. Gone the sense of discovery in his fiction; it is all rendering, expertly done of course, but full of cheap shots and pandering to our recognition. We’ve done Dickens for god’s sake. Enough already.

#3 Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ true model is Pliny the Elder. He – Pliny – recounts fabulous tales and “facts” with a deadpan objectivity, wild tales and bogus illustrations of animal lore and far off countries and customs…

#4 If I taught poetry class I would set up a few rules:
a. Down with Pathetic Fallicy- no more sensitive waves or happy clouds. Nature ain’t us or ain’t about us. The “ambivalent” surf, surely the “indifferent” surf is meant here.
b. Don’t make things do what they don’t do: the pinecones rang in the green steeples on the hillside (when describing a stand of pines). There are no bell like sounds coming from trees and esp not from pine cones. They may look like bells but they are non-ringing-quiet bells…
c. Watch your verbs…”doused” with flour? (after frolicking in a bakery); sorry, douse is to extinguish with liquid or plunge a thing into liquid. i suppose you can use powder to de-louse but not douse. Or how about screeching sun? Does the sun make noise? Small shards of rock…aren’t shards usually already small…on and on…
d. Poetry is not an excuse to be poetic. No adjectives as nouns: Coins of perfect clear appear under my feet: clear what? I want to ask…
e. Poetry is not an excuse to wax poetic.

#5 It is unreasonable to expect Americans to be interested in novels or poetry. We do not possess the extended sympathy required to share what the aims of a novel are. We do not know how to ask questions or carry on conversations. It is a tall order to ask Americans to get involved with imaginary characters unless those characters reflect themselves or echo their own mundane and cliché ridden selves. We do not have sufficient civilization to extend ourselves beyond kids and jobs into the imaginative worlds that novels offer. Forget character. Unless that character is outstanding…Remember: everyone thinks about himself first and foremost.

#6 Reading Rick DeMarinis’ short stories: lively, funny, poignant, clever, vivid. Then, you get restless; that sense that the author knows his characters too well which leads to stage management; sins I include here:
a) What he does for a living (info dumps: you try the reader’s patience; the set up; very few of these set ups are intrinsic to the story; mostly they just succeed in showing the author’s intelligence before a broad range of data – about work, life, school, psychology; the rush to inform is a sign of weakness, or nerves such as at a cocktail party: “and what do you do?” think of Chekov; he disposes of information as an aside to get you into the story not to show off his cleverness. This is so hard to do it even fouls an expert like RD.
b) What he looks like (looking in the mirror) more manipulative information;
c) Setting boundaries of character early on and knocking them over (the conservative man whose life is turned topsy turvy by a cad).
d) The basic problem of the short story as practiced in America; since there is no hook or strong conceit then the writer has to perform in a vacuum; if you do without conceit you must be subtle; RD is so smart and there is so much going on that you can only think: this writer is smart ; and the first person preclude the necessary oxygen of other perspectives that make a short story happen.
e) This is my impatience with the short story;
f) But then; he puts one right in your head between your eyes: Novias the guy can write and here is proof;
g) The problem of fiction is the problem of knowledge; how do you get to know things? You learn things along with the narrator or does he feed you as you go?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

VS Naipaul and thoughts

#1 Naipaul’s follow up to Among the Believers, Beyond Belief. There is no laughter in Naipaul. For all his criticisms of 3rd worlders their disillusionment with revolution and frustration with their present and submission to murderous buffoons he is all sympathy; his judgments make you wonder are human beings so loaded with their pasts? Do people pass lives in stolid unreflecting torpor and has the West such a comprehensive grip on the more successful countries of the world namely the Anglosphere? Are peoples, entire countries so bereft of hope, of humor or enduring human qualities? I wonder. Naipual rightly decries the insane murderousness of what he sees in the convert countries. But does he have to sweep away all signs of life before him? Of humor? Independence and struggle for life? Do they not exist at all? Really? It is hard to believe. Updike, in a review of The Loss of El Dorado says, “But in viewing an entire hemisphere as a corrupted dream, Naipaul dissolves what realities there were…[TLED] rests upon an unexamined assumption, of metropolitan superiority…Was the cruelty of slavery not an extension of the cruelty already present on the African continent?” I think Updike is trying to push back at Naipaul’s assumptions that we – the Americas, say, only got the bad from Europe as all the high flown phrasings of brotherhood equality, constitutions, democracy became pure air under a floor of despotism and slavery. Giving the Americas an atmosphere of unreality and emptiness. That real life was happening elsewhere (Europe for instance); that the collapse of metropolitan values led to unreality simplicity and moral degeneracy. Updike ends with this reasonable question: “Does not the collapse of “metropolitan” values amid “simpler” conditions demonstrate their own frailty and unreality?” He pronounces finally about Naipaul’s “bleak and caustic” tone; two adjectives appropriate to much of his writing.

#2 In a latter volume of essays Updike refines his assessment of the Naipauls' (this time commenting on a book by Shiva): “Yet people live here, under these imperfect governments, and their lives are truth.” What a beautiful statement. Also found: a perfect copy, bookclub edition, of Marquez’ The Autumn of the Patriarch. He worked so hard on it I have to give him credit; the scale of Latin American misery and subjection to murderous fools; the scale is so small and seems to take place in a rim of the world so far off as to be barely notable, yet it exists. The cultures are dynamic and vibrant filled with mistrust and thievery they are hermetic, however. And not so hospitable to outsiders.

#3 Finished Naipaul’s Beyond Belief. It is beyond belief the madness taking place in the Muslim convert countries he writes about: Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan. Insanity on a mass scale. And to hear leftists trash America as an imperial power messing up the world. These people have no sense of how good we have it; we still have the power to deliver happy childhoods to our kids. These other countries don’t.

#4 Have to admit I love the stretch of Rainier between Graham and Henderson. It is full of life: drugs, prostitutes, religion (Muslims, Black churches galore), politics (Black Panthers). Driving through it with my cousin D--, he pronounced it “seedy.” I said, "au contraire it seethes with life." I do love it so. It quickens my writer’s eye and pen. I can see a V.S. Naipaul passing through and declaring it a intellectual wasteland; worse! A quicksand, undernourished or mal-nourished, on dreams of resentment and a whirling nihilistic drag; with no apportionment for the future, no sense of the wider world of success within which it is lodged. So true, but it is filled with life...

#5 Naipaul’s thesis that Islam is a lock and hammer upon people and their sense of past; it - he believes - closes down inquiry and historical knowledge. It only allows for itself to flourish. Islam is the most demanding of mental imperialisms, sez he. Are you sure, Vida? Muslims in America: our inner cities are seeing thousands of orthodox Muslims, mostly from Somalia, set up families and shops. They are the ones who have decided to invest in lives in our towns and cities. This is not exactly unprecedented. Big cities of the eastern seaboard saw many thousands of orthodox Jews from Europe fill their poor neighborhoods at the end of the 19th century - beginning of the 20th. Otherwise, extreme religious folk have chosen to develop out of the line of fire, as it were; the Mormons founded a community on the hard salty badlands of Utah. The Mennonites took to the far fields of Pennsylvania to develop and breed apart from totalizing secular America. But the forces will go two ways: they will pick up converts, yes, but the pull of plain-flavored, God-less life will also work its way into their communities. This tension will bring about good things, much as orthodox Jewish communities of the end of the 19th century brought forth creative thinkers and doers in every field of human endeavor. This is what happens when you plunk down in the middle of a secular modern city. It is inevitable. So mostly I am optimistic. The current liberal left however is not doing this new community any favors by leading them to think that America is ready to pay them obeisance or otherwise codify their reverence with civic niceties. The new immigrants must take their knocks along with everyone else.

#6 Just because VS Naipaul is tired of the novel am I supposed to give up enjoyment of literature? He loves to declaim and make pronouncements: the novel is dead and dying, it doesn’t address the imaginative needs of readers, it is fake, it is phony, therefore let’s be done with it. Well, this kind of pronouncement-making is what intellectuals do. He claims he is not an intellectual but like bodily smells you can’t just wish ideas away. They stay close. So he pronounces and produces ideas; there is a grimy peasant mentality to VS Naipaul’s work; it is truth, but it is an ungenerous and mean truth. A mean and spiteful truth of peasants, their hostility, spite and suspicion.

#7 Naipaul riffs on Latin America. It is screwed up because there is no facing up to the Indian part of the country that is despised. That is to despise a part of yourself and you will never overcome. Latin America wants to be an extension of Europe; that is all and well but there is more to the story. Latin America is a continent that has been trampled over. I'll quote Naipaul on Latin America. He sez:
These things happen over the course of a writer's life. I used to be called a satirist. I don't know what I was supposed to be satirising. The reason is probably that I've never been an official writer - many colonial chaps, their passion is to be an official writer. Latin America is full of nothing but official writers. You mean as they were in the Soviet Union? No, an official
writer is someone whose views do not harm the Establishment, the government, authority of all kinds. I was thinking about Latin America, where most writers are trying to be official writers, who do what is required of them, who do what they feel they are expected to do. It is full of official writers who offend no
one, and leave Latin America eternally in its mess, because they offend no one. The truth is dodged, the mess continues.

Further comment from Naipaul:
Well, I'll tell you what happened. I actually was in Trinidad at the end of 1971, by which time this Michael X had murdered and buried people. And out of interest I went to look at the house and the holes where the people were buried, and I followed the story there. I had no intention of writing about it, and then my friend Francis Wyndham of the Sunday Times asked me to write about it. And I went back and did a lot more research, got a lot more documents and everything and did that story. And in doing it I learnt something about people who support revolutions, and that was not greatly different from what Conrad had discovered,
in The Secret Agent. What did he discover? This woman who supports the anarchist believes she is so secure and so aristocratic, that when the world is blown up only the others will be destroyed. She will float serenely above the wreckage. So there are secure people who encourage revolutionaries. When societies are not secure it's a different matter.

Naipaul keeps calling 3rd World countries and societies “half-made” but their mere living grants them a shot at truth. (Naipaul offers up the sharp criticism of Latin America ever: he said these are scum societies, societies that think that killing the right people will solve all their problems. Hate to say it, but, he got that part right.

#8 It took me a long time, but I might finally get Naipaul. I am a slow learner. I believe I can peg the two poles of modern literature: at one end stands Nabokov who proclaims all ideas “hogwash”. Only the production of superior images matters in fiction. At the other end you have Naipaul, who claims that literature should only reflect ideas that in turn, act as X-rays into society of the time; these ideas should also deliver commentary on society, also poke it, prod it, shake it up, etc. Both writers point to Gogol, incidentally, to shore up their positions. Naipaul calls Gogol a great novelist of his society and times and Nabokov wrote a short biographical tract to say that Gogo; was, like Nabokov, interested only in flashing images of pure art, society be damned.

#9 Here is J.M. Coatzee reviewing Naipaul’s Half a Life:
Both father and son believe they see through other people. But they detect lies and self-deception all around them only because they are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves. Their shrewdness of insight is grounded in nothing but
a self-protective reflex of suspicion. Their rule of thumb is always to give the least charitable interpretation. Self-absorption, minginess of spirit, rather than inexperience, are at the root of Willie's failures in love.

#10 Naipaul would dash myth or the mythopoetic spirt of modernist literature. He condemns Joyce for sitting in Trieste and writing about his life or life in Dublin (much as a young Naipaul sat in London and wrote about a long-lost Trinidad). I want to tell Naipaul, there is more to it than that. Europe, the continent of free wills, of generosity of spirit and the spirit of community, metropolitanism, of self-sacrifice and civic ideals is that but it is also a killing floor. Its own maniacal death-seeds contain its defeats and fears and these have not all been faced; yes, the 19th century novelists did their jobs and did them well but in the 20th century we inherited a suicide/slaughter house; Western novelists have been on suicide watch and as ignominious as that is, it is the reality that we inherited. We can’t go back to the comprehensive liveliness of the 19th century and atomize society as the grand novelists of the time did. Pine, as we may, for the comprehensive vision of 19th century novelists but theirs is not our world. We must take the world as we got it. It is not fair of you, Naipaul, who, yes, forced through the novel the voices of the unknown, to say now that all is known and the novel has nothing further to contribute. Is it up to Naipaul to declare this? Go ahead, but it is just one more nattering intellectual voice offering prescription and proscription – telling the artist what to do. Art management, Naipaul’s new bag. The novel may be a failure as a form but a bigger failure is Art Management. There is still much room to move.

#11 VSN on Latin America, again. As for Latin America being a place of self-deception and mythmaking – wide avoidance of history and past cruelty – a longing for denial, etc – well, Latin America’s literary artists didn't exactly avoid reality in their novels. As early as the 1920s you had Miguel Angel Austurias writing up his society realistically albeit in ghostly forms - as he saw it. Ditto Alejo Carpentier. Worthy and artistic attempts perhaps influenced by European or American literature but very much their own design. To come to Naipaul and the present: The successful novelist pronouncing the death of the novel is a bit of a cliché. Let Updike have the last word here: “Authors do well to remember that they are not really kin to priests and politicians but to singers and stand-up comedians―entertainers, of a devious sort.”

#12 Sadly much of Naipual’s critique can be hurled at America, think of Faulkner and his mythmaking. His style. Now I am reading Naipaul's A Turn in the South; very strong, very moving. It is hard to believe that such hatred (between black and white but mostly the hatred of white toward black) thrived in your own country. Naipaul’s renditions of slavery: the entry of a new slave from Africa and how they would put him in a box while next to the box an old slave would calm him down, sooth him into his new life. This is the true horror of slavery, if you can imagine your way into it. You want to weep, to tear your teeth out, to scream; it was a violation of everything that America stood for. One of humanity’s truly unavenged crimes. The whole enterprise was hysterical, the looting of Africa for flesh over centuries. What happened to the moral core of the west? It vanished when it came to slavery. And its particular brutal American variety that denuded the slave of his past; obliterated it. It was an exalted (or rotten) sex cult in which everyone who came near it was degraded.

#13 VS Naipaul continues with his thesis that great civilizations, not realized, lie to themselves and that all modern literatures not of the West, are fakes and fantasists (they don’t tell things or portray things as they are but spin fantasies about themselves). He indicts the ancient Romans for not exposing the brutalities around them but for fluffing up their own mythologies. For all Naipaul’s emphasis on truth telling and hard realities, you often don’t believe him. The seeing and not seeing, the half-seeing of ancient writers; heavily weighted sociology. Well now, can’t societies produce misfits, visionaries and dreamers? In short, novelists? And why can’t they dream? Are dreams the monopoly of the fully realized, self actualized, truth tellers of the West? (What does that mean?) I am suspicious. That is, I suspect Naipaul’s claim to Indian-ness, especially in that he doesn’t speak Hindi. He places himself at the periphery of British Colonial civilization, that much is true, but to insert himself into India as Indian is wrong; he can praise the aspects of the British world that he internalized, even living on the periphery, and exult in those but I don’t see his background as granting him any special place in Indian life. India has its own dynamics and ways of carrying on. Some of them strike Naipaul as shameless and self-serving but so goes the life of nations. Nationhood is a push me - pull me affair; VSN has some idea of the West as a self-fulfilling dream - all was good for the novel, in the old days of early Dickens. But shame on modernism and Joyce and all that decadent, non-socially useful flowed into the novel via Modernism. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Then VSN calls the ancient writers to task for not analyzing their own societies, but what did Seutonius do? What did Tacitus do? What about Apuleius? What about Saint Augustine’s Confessions? Martial? Juvenal? Petronius? These were not exactly time-servers or ass lickers. Likewise, to return to the present, is the 3rd world so bereft of critical writing of self-reflection and condemnation? Miguel Angel Austurias? Early Carpentier?