The art world can’t help but be pleased with the efforts of its victims — there’s money to be made, after all. But there are those of us who watch these developments with increasing alarm, wondering if the art world will ever wake up. The saving grace is that art’s machinations generally have little effect on the rest of the globe. That may be the reason that art — especially today’s art — “is the only human activity that does not lead to killing.” Contemporary art has made itself so meaningless that nobody can be bothered to pull the trigger over it. – Alex Melamid
On Kawara (image courtesy Wikimedia)
I am almost finished with Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, but rather than rush through the novel’s ending and write hurriedly about it, I wanted a few days to ponder it since I feel it deserves thoughtful consideration. I’ll write about it in my next essay over the weekend.
That, of course, leaves me with the need to find a topic for this essay. I have two, and after careful consideration (that sound you hear is the coin landing on the table), I’ve decided to write about an interesting piece from Huffington Postthat is yet another complaint about the problems facing contemporary art. The piece focuses on visual art, but I think the same is true for literature and music, so much of what the author says applies to art in the broad sense of the term’s usage.
Complete detachment or complete engagement – as Billy Joel observed, it all depends upon your appetite….
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (image courtesy Goodreads)
I am still making my way, rather too leisurely probably, through Walker Percy’s marvelous novel The Last Gentleman (about which I will have much to say, since I corresponded with Mr. Percy while completing my first book, a novel, The New Southern Gentleman). I’m also awaiting delivery of my copy of about which I’ll write some more once I’ve read it and digested its what promises to be awesomely hyped mediocrity.
That left me casting about for something to write about for this essay, and I found it by stumbling upon an essay in The Nation about the latest trend (counter trend might be another way of viewing it) in literary fiction: novels composed of the musings of completely detached narrators rambling on in some sort of Onionesque version of the literary equivalent of a “nattering nabob of negativitsm” that the vice-crook of the Nixon administration once was on about.
When Yanis Varoufakis left academia to take up his position as Greece’s finance minister after the far-left electoral victory which brought Syriza to power, he said words to the effect that – if things didn’t work out – he could always go back to university.
“I mean, I really don’t want to be in this office … I will go back to my book about Europe, which is half-finished. It’s very difficult to find an ending when I am still in this job.”
I took away from that soundbite that he, akin with many of his ivory-tower colleagues, is unsuited for the real world and would abandon the consequences of his actions as soon as he got bored.
What makes Handke exceptional is his willingness to engage us as well as himself in the difficulty of telling our truths, sharing our sorrows, interpreting our dreams….
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (image courtesy Goodreads)
For the last (well, perhaps next to last) work from the “world literature” segment of the 2015 reading list, I return to an author who has decidedly influenced me in the way I write, in the way I think about writing, in the way I assess writing, particularly the writing of literature. I have written before about the great Peter Handke, the brilliant and controversial Austrian novelist, playwright, and filmmaker and about the power of his work to force the reader to reexamine his/her ways of looking at literature and at life. No author of our time has been more relentless in his search for truth, nor has any author been able to say more with fewer words than Handke. For those few of you who know my work, a light bulb has probably just come on. For those of you not familiar with my work, please go buy it so that I can become a rich, vapid celebrity and lose all this delicious artistic integrity I’m always on about.
Handke is relentlessly brave, sometimes foolishly so, in his pursuit of what it means to be alive and writing about being so, so it should come as no surprise that he is equally as brave and equally as relentless in his examination of death and what it means to be so. His brilliant short meditation A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, written in the weeks after his mother’s suicide in early 1972, is vintage Handke: his search for the meaning of, in this case not simply the death of his mother but her death by suicide and the reasons behind her decision to end her life, as well as his search for what her death means to him, is a tour de force: terse, sometimes curt as a news item, sometimes poetic as a Heine lyric. The result is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius that actually is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Continue reading →
Steps is a National Book Award winner, a glowingly reviewed best seller – and a completely forgettable book by an author who may or may not be one of literary fiction’s greatest charlatans…
Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (image courtesy Goodreads)
The name Jerzy Kosinski conjures varying reactions among readers and critics and writers of serious fiction. An infamous 1982 exposé in the Village Voice accused him of – well, faking his literary career and may have, at least in part, contributed to his suicide at 57.
The Kosinski literary reputation was/is based primarily on his first three novels: ThePainted Bird, a harrowing depiction of childhood (Kosinski claimed it was his, though there are doubts) during the Holocaust, Being There, a novel about the confusing and vulgarizing influences of media on even the most serious minds, and Steps, a rambling, episodic depiction of bad romances, life under totalitarian rule, and sexual and other forms of depravity that won the National Book Award in 1969.
Steps is, then, a fair book by which to evaluate Kosinski and determine whether his meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall as a major literary figure of the later 20th century is justified. Continue reading →
“…I must point out that a memory which is suddenly revived carries a great power of resuscitation. The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (image courtesy Goodreads)
Sometimes one reads an author who makes one wonder what the hell the Nobel committee thinks about when it selects prize winners for literature. I had read some Yukio Mishima many years ago, during my undergraduate days, actually (Nixon was POTUS which should give you some idea of how long ago that was). Mishima’s strange death sparked my interest (I remember reading an article about him and his bizarre ending from, of all places, Life magazine at my parents’ home), so I had been on the lookout for one of his works. I ran into a used copy of his story collection Death in Midsummer and Other Stories and remember thinking, in my idiosyncratic way, that the title story reminded me of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In fact, the collection resonates with the same sort of angst, alienation, and anger at the world/life/what ya got that pervades Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.
That same angst, alienation, and anger pervades The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, one of the richest, finest novels a reader will find anywhere in literature. Reading such a powerful work makes one wonder how the Nobel committee ignored Mishima even as they rewarded his friend and mentor Yasunari Kawabata. The answer to that question is like the answer to another question about the non-rewarding of literature’s most well-known prize that I asked last year: likely political in nature. Continue reading →
The poems in the Genet collection Treasures of the Night will shock and offend those unprepared to accept love’s alternative practitioners. Genet would like that….
Treasures of the Night by Jean Genet (image courtesy Gay Sunshine Press)
The next work from the world literature section of the 2015 reading list is an early (and problematic) translation of the collected poems of French playwright, novelist, poet, vagabond, and professional ne’er-do-well Jean Genet called Treasures of the Night. Genet is one of literature’s most celebrated “bad boys,” having been sent to a reformatory as incorrigible when he was 15 and to the French Foreign Legion, an organization with a long history of making bad boys shape up, at 18.
They failed with Genet. If anything, he became even more of a bad boy. According to conflicting accounts Genet either deserted or was kicked out of the Legion for “indecency.” The indecency involved Genet and another Legionnaire. Over the two decades following his separation from the Legion, Genet would be arrested and jailed on numerous occasions for vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. Finally, perhaps out of sheer desperation, he began to write and became a cause célèbre among France’s most distinguished literati and artists including Cocteau, Sartre, Gide, and Picasso. As his career progressed he enjoyed considerable success as a novelist, even greater success as a playwright. Perhaps his least known works are his poems. Continue reading →
There’s much to like about Bernie Sanders, but can he really help us kick the war habit?
Occupy Democrats and US Uncut have a handy macro going around that highlights Bernie’s 11 point economic agenda. It’s big. It’s important. It’s to be lauded. And if we’re not to have Bernie, it’s to be emulated. But we’ve also seen the devastating effect war has had on our economy, to say nothing of the lives lost to our wayward military adventurism. Below you’ll find my own reasons for supporting this 11-point economic plan as well as some serious consideration of his missing 12th point. Continue reading →
AK-47s kill more in a year than nuclear weapons have in all of history. But NRA lobbying against the Arms Trade Treaty helps keep the pipeline of death flowing.
by David Lambert
In the isolated northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo sits a small town called Dungu. Not too far away from the borders of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, Dungu is in one of the poorest, most volatile regions in the world. A few years ago, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a psychopathic band of predatory rebels notorious for kidnaping children, began regularly tormenting villagers, prompting the international humanitarian community to take a fleeting interest in Dungu.
But the residents of Dungu are tragically familiar with this sort of thing. Even before the LRA moved into the neighborhood, a particularly high number of child soldiers, under the command of feuding warlords in constant, slow burning conflict, lived throughout the area. Continue reading →
“Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring. If he were to melt into a life of simple repetition, there might possibly come a time when they could be quite unconscious of him” – Kobo Abe
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (image courtesy Goodreads)
Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of those books that leaves one feeling as if one has read a textbook on how to combine schools of literary fiction of the 20th century into an amalgam – a brilliantly executed amalgam, but an amalgam nonetheless. One has the sense of oppression and confusion of a Kafka work like The Trial; the sense of determination to hold onto sanity in the face of absurdity like Camus’s The Plague; and the sense of existentialist grimness in a Sartre work like No Exit. (For good measure feel free to consider works by your favorite existentialist or absurdist author – Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter. et. al.)
This is not to say that the work is not engrossing (in a relentlessly depressing way) or that Abe is not a fine writer (he is). For me, however, this selection from the 2015 reading list does not have the resonance of the earlier selection I read, The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata. That book engages us deeply in Japanese life as actually lived, especially in the years after WWII even as it engages profound questions of national and cultural guilt; Abe’s book is a nightmarish fairy tale set in a bizarre dystopia (yes, I know, dystopias are sooo cool – but I’ve made myself clear on my lack of enthusiasm for such settings as the stuff of serious literature) that posits its hero, the only named character in the book, as a victim of – name your 20th century angst and anxiety inducing trend in human behavior.
In other words, The Woman in the Dunes is a beautifully, complexly written put up job. Continue reading →
Catherine Morland is like most adolescents: too certain about what (she thinks) she knows, too uncertain about what she knows (she thinks) she doesn’t. Her negotiation of coming of age is about learning to manage both what she knows and what she doesn’t know – as well as learning how to recognize when she knows and when she doesn’t….
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)
My life as a famous and beloved book essayist has its twists and turns. This week’s particular turn took me north to Maryland where I served in the graduation festivities at the university where I teach. As a result (and because I’m currently working my way through Daniel Forbes’ dystopian satire Derail this Train Wreck), I’m doing what I warned you I might a week or so ago: writing about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey is probably my least favorite of all great Jane’s works. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you may as well know them. First, it was published posthumously (as was my favorite of Austen’s works, the marvelous and prescient Persuasionabout which I will write near the end of this year) although it was the first novel she ever completed. The story behind that is well documented: Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication, but the publisher later decided not to issue the book. Over a decade later – near the too early end of Austen’s life – her brother Henry bought the book back from that same publisher for the same price for which it had originally been purchased. Evidently, that publisher, Crosby and Co., was not known for either editorial or business acumen: in the time between their purchase of the manuscript in 1803 and Henry Austen’s repurchase of the manuscript in 1816 (a mere year before Jane’s death), Miss Austen had published four other novels of which a good publisher ought to have heard: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Though published initially by “A Lady,” anyone with an interest in literature or reading knew who the author was – except the fine folks at Crosby and Co. it seems. To get to the point, reason #1 why Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work is that it’s a first novel with a first novel’s foibles: too much self-satisfied obvious authorial voice, too little attention to smoothing out the rough patches, which are numerous. Continue reading →
“…the longer you live the more you will realize that the world is like a great shadow pervading our hearts. That is why the world seems so empty and eventually becomes unbearable.” – José Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda
Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago (image courtesy Goodreads)
After taking longer than I should have (and mewling and puking about it in the process) I have finished Portuguese Nobelist José Saramago’s masterful Baltasar and Blimunda from the 2015 reading list. It’s a powerful novel as both a tale of the mystery of love and as a novel of ideas. Saramago’s genius is his ability to wed these very disparate sorts of stories (romance, political statement). Saramago’s gift to readers is that he does both of these in a subtle, even elliptical way, introducing themes, spinning them out, spinning away from them, then gradually winding us back to them when we have all but forgotten them. Like a Scarlatti sonata, Baltasar and Blimunda is part entertainment, part education, and part expression of the artist’s view of the world.
More about the power of the imagination to do both good and evil than any other theme, Baltasar and Blimunda asks us to consider why we allow others’ ideas to control our destinies…. Continue reading →
Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite.
Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory (image courtesy Wikimedia)
That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone. Continue reading →
“For a long time, I took my pen for a sword; I now know we’re powerless. No matter. I write and will keep writing books; they’re needed; all the same, they do serve some purpose. Culture doesn’t save anything or anyone, it doesn’t justify. But it’s a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognizes himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image. ” – Jean-Paul Sartre
The Words by Jean Paul Sartre (Image courtesy Goodreads)
Back to the 2015 reading list for a book I did not expect to like and have found myself liking a great deal. Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words (Les Mots) purports to be an autobiography, albeit a most limited one: written when the great Existentialistwas in his late 50’s, TheWords covers only the first ten years of Sartre’s life. But, as we shall learn, the first ten years of the life of one like Sartre, sifted through the the mind of one like Sartre over 40 years later, is no ordinary autobiography. As one can and should expect from Sartre, it’s part memoir, part philosophical inquiry, and part pretentious bullshit disguised as profound insight.Continue reading →
R.K. Narayan’s Under the Banyan Tree is really a collection of sketches rather than short stories that bring to readers the daily life of the India of his time. They are often clever and always charming; still, from such an obvious talent, one wishes for more than one gets here.
Under the Banyan Tree by R.K. Narayan (image courtesy Goodreads)
I stumbled upon this collection by Indian author R.K. Narayan in my favorite used bookstore last fall and picked it up for my 2015 reading list segment on world literature. This is one of those rare instances where I have come across an author and realized I had no recollection of ever reading any of his work. Given his status as one of India’s most respected authors of the 20th century and a multiple time Nobel nominee, he seemed a natural for my reading list. As with another writer new to me, Yasunari Kawabata, I expected great things. Kawabata did not disappoint.
After reading Under the Banyan Tree, I won’t say that Narayan disappointed me, but I do believe I will have to go further into his oeuvre to discover the writer who won so much praise. While the pieces in this volume are full of charm and turn a clear eye on the character of Indian daily life, they are mainly character sketches rather than stories. Continue reading →
“…it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.” – Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (image courtesy Goodreads)
I first came across Sigrid Undset during my first year of teaching. The school where I taught had a set of world literature texts that they were discarding (the books were in great shape and to this day I puzzle over why books full of world literature classics were being discarded) and I snagged one of them and over the course of a few weeks of casual reading made my way through a variety of selections by writers I knew like Hugo and Goethe and de Maupassant and Cervantes – and writers I sort of knew like Strindberg (“Half a Sheet of Paper” shows how flash fiction should be done) and writers I didn’t know – like Sigrid Undset.
The world lit collection contained a selection from Kristin Lavransdatter I. (For those familiar with the work,it’s the chapter where Kristin and Ingeborg become lost in the forest and are rescued from the German boys by Erland.) I found it rich, engrossing writing, though the pace was not such that it appealed to me in my youth. Still, I remembered the careful accrual of detail and the power of the writing and made a mental note to read more Undset.
It’s taken me about 40 years to get back to her. Perhaps I needed those years to develop a palate able to appreciate what rich gift patient, thorough storytelling is. If so, I am grateful; Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is the embodiment of what we should mean when we talk about great storytelling. Continue reading →
“And men will not understand us…and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves…the years will pass by and we shall fall into ruin.” – Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (image courtesy Goodreads)
It is often called the greatest war novel of all time.
Erich Maria Remarque’s depiction of the horror of an ordinary soldier’s life in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a work of great power that haunts one long after one has completed it. Like other great examiners of war from Grimmelshausen to Stephen Crane to Norman Mailer to Kevin Powers, Remarque has the skill to give us the psychological horror of being lost on the battlefield – and lost at home.
What sets Remarque’s novel apart, of course, is that it is told from the point of view of an “enemy” soldier, Paul Baumer, a private in the German Imperial Army. (Simplicius, the hero of Grimmelshausen’s novel, is German, too. But since the Thirty Years’ War is only vague European history to Americans, one can safely assume that his nationality is not a matter of controversy.) One of the revelations, in fact, of All Quiet on the Western Front is the discovery that the ordinary German soldier felt much the same as the ordinary British soldier, the ordinary French soldier, the ordinary Russian soldier, the ordinary American soldier: like a pawn being moved – and sacrificed – without regard for his humanity. Ordinary people’s lives don’t count to the rich and powerful who believe themselves masters of history.
“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” Hermann Hesse
Demian by Hermann Hesse (image courtesy Goodreads)
We turn in this next essay from the subtle, Zen inflected musings of Kawabata to another Nobelist, this one a lifelong yearning seeker of self understanding. In the original 2015 reading list I had chosen Hesse’s novel describing an artist’s search for spiritual fulfillment, Rosshalde, as my selection from the novelist whose lasting reputation owes as much to his adoption as spokesperson by the Boomer generation (a mistaken adoption) as to his literary merit (which is real). Instead, when it came time to pull Rosshalde from the shelf, I took it down and thought about how many times I’ve read Siddhartha which is a better treatment of the same themes as the earlier novel. Instead, I pulled out the Hesse novel next to Rosshalde, the lesser known and equally fascinating bildungsroman, Demian.
It turned out to be an interesting choice. I had not read Demian for many years, at least since the mid-seventies. Like most of my generation, I’d read Steppenwolf and Siddhartha as an undergraduate, taken in by the mystique attached to both books: in the case of the former, the “magic theater” section that suggests psychedelia (though there is no proof anywhere that Hesse ever used drugs) and in the latter its fable like retelling of the life of the Buddha. Both were, of course, very groovy, read in those heady times. But by the time I came to Demian I was a young teacher and part-time graduate student and had learned a bit more about the author Hesse besides that he wrote groovy books. I approached this tale of a youth’s search for self understanding, self confidence, and self acceptance in a more critical fashion. My assessment from that reading was that the novel was simply a quest narrative wrapped up in a bildungsroman.