From Marguerite Duras:
(...) when women don’t write about desire, . . . they’ve entered the realm of plagiarism.
George O'Brien on the meaning of the title of Philip Roth's classic:
One version of America’s notion of its exceptionalism is that it embodies the values of the pastoral, that it is uniquely a haven, allaying the homeland insecurities of, say, Eastern European Jewry, and doing so not by accident but with a degree of national awareness that reaches the assurance and inviolability of myth. Deliverance, shelter, the huddled masses and the green fields of the republic on which they may safely graze, are all to the fore in the story of the Swede and his immediate forebears. But as well as achieving, thriving and profiting being possible, so are their opposites, and these too make their presence felt as lavishly as American bounty, only with destructive consequences. It is as though the extreme promise of America generates an alternative extreme that betrays and negates that promise, a negation that is particularly intimate and corrosive when the promise seems to have been perfectly reproduced in the person of the Swede’s beloved daughter Merry. America is the pastoral and the anti-pastoral, the “paradise remembered” of this novel’s opening section and the “paradise lost” of its close. Between the two is “the fall”: what else could there possibly be? The fall and all the fallibility it connotes is inevitably the synthesis of the two opposing but related paradises, the American and the pastoral.
Sugary excerpt from Mary Beard's must read article over at the London Review of Books:
For it seems to me that many aspects of this traditional package of views about the unsuitability of women for public speaking in general – a package going back in its essentials over two millennia – still underlies some of our own assumptions about, and awkwardness with, the female voice in public. Take the language we still use to describe the sound of women’s speech, which isn’t all that far from James or our pontificating Romans. In making a public case, in fighting their corner, in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’.(....) Contrast the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; they don’t hear muthos. And it isn’t just voice: you can add in the craggy or wrinkled faces that signal mature wisdom in the case of a bloke, but ‘past-my-use-by-date’ in the case of a woman.
They don’t tend to hear a voice of expertise either; at least, not outside the traditional spheres of women’s sectional interests. (...) More interesting is another cultural connection this reveals: that unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she’s stupid. ‘Sorry, love, you just don’t understand.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘an ignorant moron’.
Awesome response from Philip Roth to the assertion that he is considered to be a Jewish American writer:
'An American-Jewish writer' is an inaccurate if not also a sentimental description, and entirely misses the point. The novelist's obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word. For me, as for Cheever, DeLillo, Erdrich, Oates, Stone, Styron and Updike, the right next word is an American-English word. I flow or I don't flow in American English. (...)The American republic is 238 years old. My family has been here 120 years, or for just more than half of America's existence. They arrived during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, only 17 years after the end of Reconstruction. Civil War veterans were in their 50s. Mark Twain was alive. Sarah Orne Jewett was alive. Henry Adams was alive. All were in their prime. Walt Whitman was dead just two years. Babe Ruth hadn't been born. If I don't measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.
Race.” I really can’t understand it as anything other than something people say. The people who have said that you and I are both “black” and therefore deserve a certain kind of interaction with the world, they make race. I can’t take them seriously. Not beyond the fact that they have the ability to say that you and I are a single race. You know, a piece of cloth that is called “linen” has more validity than calling you and me “black” or “negro.” “Cotton” has more validity as cotton than yours and my being “black.” It is true that our skin is sort of more or less the same shade. But is it true that our skin color makes us a distinctive race? No.
The people who invented race, who grouped us together as “black,” were inventing and categorizing their ability to do something vicious and wrong. I don’t see why I have to give them validity, or why I have to approach that label with any kind of seriousness. We give the people who make this category too much legitimacy by accepting it. We give them too much power. They ought to be left with the tawdriness of it, the stupidity of it. It’s a way of organizing a wrong thing, it’s a way of making a wrong thing easy. It’s too easy to say this or that is “race,” and that has been a vehicle for an incredible amount of wrong in the world. (...)race as a subject only comes about because of what I look like. If I say something truthfully, people say “Oh, she’s so angry.” If I write about a married person who lives in Vermont, it becomes “Oh, she’s autobiographical.” Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, and was not ever described as angry, and nothing he wrote was ever described as autobiographical. And all of these things are, in some sense, ways of diminishing my efforts.
If I describe a person’s physical appearance in my writing, which I often do, especially in fiction, I never say someone is “black” or “white.” I may describe the color of their skin—black eyes, beige skin, blue eyes, dark skin, etc. But I’m not talking about race. I’m talking about a description. What I really want to write about is injustice and justice, and the different ways human beings organize the two.
I agree with Kincaid.
From Christian Lorentzen:
There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental. She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people – ‘people people people’, as Jonathan Franzen puts it.
Ordinary people turn out to live in a rural corner of Ontario between Toronto and Lake Huron, and to be white, Christian, prudish and dangling on a class rung somewhere between genteel poverty and middle-class comfort. Occasionally they move to the vicinity of Vancouver, only to go back to Ontario again. If this patch of the North Country sounds like a provincial cage, just think of it as a Canadian Yoknapatawpha County, and ignore the ways the plainspoken Munro is otherwise anti-Faulknerian. (‘I didn’t really like Faulkner that much,’ she has said.) It might be too much to call her an anti-modernist, rather than someone on whom modernism didn’t leave much of an impression, but her conventionality – a writer ‘of the old school’ in Anne Tyler’s phrase – won’t quite do.
Maybe I have been trying too hard to love Munro's prose. Probably not!
From Stefany Anne Golberg:
When we say that love is ineffable, as Beckett knew, what we mean is that, when we love, we don’t know what the hell we are doing. We can’t stop talking through it, trying to figure it out. We think we ought to be talking about everything, doing everything, doing anything — breaking into spontaneous rage, talking about suicide, playing games, complaining about our boots — instead of just loving. We wait and wait and wait. Inevitably, boredom creeps in, terror creeps in. (...) When we attempt to utter what we think we know, Beckett wrote, we are doomed, doomed to fail. Trying to talk about love may be the most futile performance of all. But just because words fail love doesn’t mean that love fails. Samuel Beckett is not known for writing explicitly about love. But he was writing about love all the time.
There is a lot of Samuel Beckett in Michael Haneke!
Interesting stuff from Tim Parks:
America is very much a net exporter of literature. Its novels are read and translated worldwide, where readers generally accept miles and Fahrenheit, pounds and ounces, AM and PM and indeed have grown accustomed to these old-fashioned, American oddities (when it comes to doing science, of course, Americans use the more practical European systems). In Germany, for example, where around fifty percent of novels are foreign works in translation, Roth’s and Franzen’s characters are not obliged to discuss distances in kilometers.
Conversely, America imports very little—only three to four percent of novels published in the States are translations—and what it does import it tends to transform as far as possible into its own formulas and notations, in much the same way that Disney has turned every fable and myth worldwide into a version of Mickey Mouse. This situation is a measure of American power, but brings with it the danger of mental closure and inflexibility. Speaking recently at a conference in Milan, the Italian literary agent Marco Vigevani, lamented that fewer and fewer American editors are able to read novels in Italian, French, and especially German, and this inevitably has reduced their enthusiasm for publishing foreign literature, since they are obliged to rely on external readers for advice.
From Angela Bourke in the Dublin Review of Books:
Writing culture assumes “the reader” to be male, until marked otherwise ‑ statesmen and churchmen are commonly portrayed reading ‑ but the unsettling of this assumption has been a critical pastime for decades, under the joined banners of reader-response and feminist theory. A text’s meaning changes over time, according to the culture where it is read and understood, and according to who reads it. If that person is a woman, the meaning may become excitingly unpredictable, not because women are capricious, or any more so than men, but because little in our education, even if we are women, has prepared us for how anyone but a white, northern hemisphere, heterosexual male, will read.
From Mo Yan's Nobel Lecture:
I am as uncomfortable and as annoyed with Yan's defense of what he calls 'necessary censorship' as I am with the oppressing notion that writers and their writing are always and solely pawns on a bigger political chessboard. It is true that being politically neutral is almost impossible for a writer, but so is being right especially when s/he believes that being a great writer means being a decent politician or even just a good intellectual.
Words I munched on last weekend from Adam Shatz's critique of Benoît Peeters' biography of Jacques Derrida:
(...)Derrida’s argument was that Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’. Even Heidegger, a radical critic of metaphysics, had failed to escape its snares. This illusion, according to Derrida, was the corollary of a long history of ‘logocentrism’: a privileging of the spoken word as the repository of ‘presence’, at the expense of writing, which had been denigrated as a ‘dangerous supplement’, alienated from the voice, secondary, parasitic, even deceitful.
Derrida wanted not only to liberate writing from the ‘repression’ of speech, but to demonstrate that speech itself was a form of writing, a way of referring to things that aren’t there. If logocentrism was a ‘metaphysics of presence’, what he proposed was a poetics of absence – a philosophical echo of Mallarmé’s remark that what defines ‘rose’ as a word is ‘l’absence de toute rose’. (...) The meaning of what we say, or write (a distinction without a difference, for Derrida), is always ‘undecidable’; it hardly takes shape before it dissolves again in an endless process of differing and deferring.
In honor of Thanksgiving, the sugary excerpt of the day from John Fletcher which comes a day after Voltaire's 318 birthday :
Irony is a notoriously two-edged weapon: ambiguity is of the essence. Writers seek to be understood à demi mot, that is, they wish for their overt statement to be grasped, and immediately afterwards, if not simultaneously, for their “true” meaning to force itself upon the reader’s attention. For this to happen, the skill of writers must be such that what they write will neither be too obvious (in which case there would be no irony, merely sarcasm), nor too obscure (for then the point would be lost). But the reader’s intelligence and sensitivity must also engage if the writer’s half-hidden meaning is not to pass altogether unnoticed. In other words, long before it became a commonplace in literary theory that the pursuit of literature necessitates the engagement of writer and reader in an act of cooperation rather than in the passive reception of a monologue, authors were in fact relying heavily on their audience’s ability to go half-way to meet them; if this did not happen, ironical discourse fell on stony ground. How often we say of a person in everyday life that he or she is “deaf to irony,” or that “irony is lost” on her or him. Obtuse people will receive only a writer’s overt meaning, and take it seriously; Voltaire’s belief that “a tyrant can only be spoken to in parables” holds true only if the tyrant in question is open to persuasion and willing to engage in the interpretation of double-entendres. But accomplished ironists usually manage to be sufficiently plain so that all but the most obtuse reader grasps the point they are obliquely making.
I share Baudelaire's poetic contempt for Voltaire, which is expressed magnificently in this super and still relevant maxim:
Je m'ennuie en France, surtout parce que tout le monde y ressemble à Voltaire.
Emerson a oublié Voltaire dans ses Représentants de l'humanité. Il aurait pu faire un joli chapitre intitulé : Voltaire, ou l'anti-poète, le roi des badauds, le prince des superficiels, l'anti-artiste, le prédicateur des concierges, le père Gigogne des rédacteurs du Siècle. (I am bored in France, especially as every one resembles Voltaire. Emerson forgot Voltaire in his "Representative Men." He could have made a fine chapter entitled Voltaire or The Antipoet, the king of boobies, the prince of the shallow, the anti-artist, the preacher of innkeepers, the father who "lived in a shoe" of the editors of the century.)
Sugary excerpt of the day from a piece in the Telegraph about Colm Tóibín whose latest The Testament of Mary sounds thrilling:
Tóibín explains that he once told a class that “you have to be a terrible monster to write. I said, ‘Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here. If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will. Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom.’”
I agree totally with Tóibín except that I don't think that great monsters make good writers.
From Claire Lowdon 's review of Paul Auster's Winter Journal:
[...] Auster strives to inject romance into his account of the sex industry. The result is sentimentalism. “If everyone in the world could smile as she did, there would be no more wars or human conflicts . . . peace and happiness would reign on earth forever”, Auster thinks as he sizes up Sandra, a Parisian prostitute. After sex they talk about poetry, and, in what is “one of the most extraordinary moments” of Auster’s life, Sandra closes her eyes and recites Baudelaire. Auster is careful to tell us that this was “the last time [he] ever paid a woman to sleep with [him], the summer of 1972”. Why? Because it’s a happy ending that translates the carnal into something spiritual.
And yet, in The Invention of Solitude, we see Auster paying for oral sex in a topless bar in New York – in 1979. Oral sex isn’t “sleeping with” someone; Auster hasn’t lied, not quite. He gets off on a Clintonian technicality. But it’s hard not to feel that, by tarting up the truth in this way, the Auster of Winter Journal is airbrushing himself.
I often wonder how many 'members' of the sex industry are true sentimentalists.
Sugary excerpt from Pankaj Mishra's review of Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir:
Rushdie's neat oppositions between the secular and the religious, the light and the dark, and rational literary elites and irrational masses do not clarify the great disorder of the contemporary world. They belong to an intellectually simpler time, when non-western societies, politically insignificant and little-known, could be judged solely by their success or failure in following the great example of the secular-humanist west; and writing literary fiction could seem enough to make one feel, as Tim Parks wrote in a review of Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, "engaged on the right side of some global moral and political battle".
Indeed, such complacencies of imperial intellectual cultures were what Rushdie had bravely attacked in his brilliant early phase. "Works of art, even works of entertainment," he had pointed out in 1984, "do not come into being in a social and political vacuum; and … the way they operate in a society cannot be separated from politics, from history. For every text, a context." No text in our time has had contexts more various and illuminating than The Satanic Verses, or mixed politics and literature more inextricably, and with deeper consequences for so many. In Joseph Anton, however, Rushdie continues to reveal an unwillingness or inability to grasp them, or to abandon the conceit, useful in fiction but misleading outside it, that the personal is the geopolitical.
I am left wondering how much the personal even when it is geopolitical should matter in literature even when it is not fiction. Another way to phrase my discomfort would be to wonder how much who Rushdie is or isn't should affect not only how he is read, the value of his writings.
In short, I am butting heads with Mishra because although I am conceding to him that the personal is the geopolitical, I question the essential nature and even the meaning of that assertion...
Words to munch on this weekend from Simon Schama's essay in the Financial Times on why he writes:
Orwell’s four motives for writing still seem to me the most honest account of why long-form non-fiction writers do what they do, with “sheer egoism” at the top; next, “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the pleasure principle or sheer relish of sonority (“pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”); third, the “historical impulse” (the “desire to see things as they are”), and, finally, “political purpose”: the urge to persuade, a communiqué from our convictions.
To that list I would add that writing has always seemed to me a fight against loss, an instinct for replay; a resistance to the attrition of memory. To translate lived experience into a pattern of words that preserves its vitality without fixing it in literary embalming fluid; that for me has been the main thing.
The best essay writing since Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who invented the genre, is where this reanimation of experience is shaped by the purposeful urgencies of thought. It is not the thoughtless recycling of experience for its own sake, the fetishising of impulse, which these days is what mostly passes as “blog”; a word well suited to its swampy suck of self-indulgence.
I must the most self-indulgent person in the word! For some reason, I think that it is my greatest and most fruitful trait...
I agree with Zadie Smith on this:
(...) people of colour do not think of themselves as exotic or other to themselves. We think of ourselves as white people think of yourselves, as central to ourselves, and not some stylisation, political points, added extras: none of those things. We are ourselves.
I hate with a passion the expression 'people of color!' It is as repugnant as 'human beings with a uterus' would be.
Stuart Kelly reacts to Paulo Coelho's 'dumb opinion' that James Joyce's Ulysses is nothing more than twit:
Coelho is, of course, entitled to his dumb opinion, just as I am entitled to think Coelho's work is a nauseous broth of egomania and snake-oil mysticism with slightly less intellect, empathy and verbal dexterity than the week-old camembert I threw out yesterday. (...) Coelho gives the game away when he brags that he is "modern" because he can "make the difficult seem easy". I think it's an ethical as well as a literary proposition that anything that aspires to make the world and the people in it less complex, less paradoxical, less multifarious, is a kind of dirty little libel on reality.The real slander is to the reader, or rather, to readers. Note how the anti-Joyceans have all read him and then tell readers he's not for them: too difficult, too abstruse, too weird – with the "for you" hanging in the background. I've been there, they say, and you wouldn't like it. It is an attitude that surreptitiously belittles the reader. There is nothing as profoundly patronising as a middlebrow, supposedly "literary" author on a soapbox.
Well, I have to admit that I can't be impartial in this fight. I have always thought that Coelho is a storyteller who can barely write and I share Beckett's admiration for James Joyce who didn't need to tell mystical fables because he had enough style to make anything grand.
Sugary excerpt of the weekend from Levi R. Bryant over at his great blog Larval Subjects :
(...) works of art are in excess of all contexts (author’s intention, historical setting, audience reception, etc); and it is because they are in excess of context that they are able to endure throughout the ages. Works of art are perpetually escaping all historical and hermeneutic horizons, all regimes of attraction, and falling into new regimes of attraction modifying them in all sorts of ways.
At first glance, which means I haven't had the time to digest what I have munched, I agree with Sarah Boyes on this:
In general, cultural theory aims to reattach literature to its lived context in a superficial way, viewing its inclusion in a literary cannon or salon as an act of estrangement from real life. This wrongly understands the articulation of shared standards for judging novels as a kind of violence, whereas it is only by being included in a vigorous literary tradition that they can truly aspire to a universal, common culture. Embracing cultural studies at the cost of literary criticism is really a displacement activity for people’s confusion about their own place in the world, reflecting a heightened crisis and anxiety at the direction of modern life
The better and the more literary the writer, the less culture and context matter. They become garnishes, unnecessary and irrelevant.
Sugary excerpt of the day from Kate Rees
Maupassant wrote that “life is made up of the most differing, unexpected, conflicting, ill-assorted things; it is brutal, incoherent, disjointed, full of inexplicable, illogical and contradictory disasters which can only be classified under the heading ‘faits divers’”. Across the range of his short stories, he reflects such brutal incoherence. Faits divers is the French term used for a newspaper story a couple of lines long, the compressed report of an unusual occurrence. This journalistic metaphor is appropriate: the diversity of Maupassant’s output reflects the heterogeneity of the newspaper page; his works, like newspaper headlines, evoke everyday life and a sense of modernity. Journalism was formative for Maupassant; he began to make money through writing by publishing his short stories in newspapers and by writing articles, while the central figure of his second novel, Bel-Ami, finds success via journalism.
Maupassant is still worth reading precisely because he makes the happenings of monotonous and daily lives faits divers!
Sugary excerpt from Amitava Kumar's note on Toni Morrison's latest Home:
Here is a voice that records violence in brief, brutal detail, and then, in a testament to human survival, finds honey in the rock.
Frank Money is Morrison’s protagonist in Home. He has survived, if only barely, the Korean War and come back to his segregated motherland. Each page reveals the shock of living in a society built on the exploitation of blacks. Reading the book at a time when the White House is occupied by a black president further heightens the pain of these discoveries instead of assuaging it. And yet, as steady as the cruel blows, are the comforts of community. The strength of conscience. The tender spark of love.
Piercing sorrow mixed with a sense of hope, or sometimes, only a keen appreciation of life’s bittersweet taste. Isn’t that the sublime truth of the blues?
(....)he [Camus] was preoccupied by what he thought of as the “American tragedy.” The tragedy of the students was that they lacked a sense of the tragic. For Sartre the tragic was the mechanization and objectification of the human. For Camus, the tragic was something more elusive: whatever it was, it was missing in America. (...)
The clash between Sartre and Camus would come to be defined by their political divergence in the ’50s, crystallized by the publication of “The Rebel” by Camus. But already, in their different reactions to the United States — and particularly New York — we have the ingredients of a philosophical schism. Sartre, on his return to Europe, recalls above all America’s racism and practice of segregation, the inevitable counterpart to its drive to conformity. (...)
Camus, on the other hand, begins to sound more like Samuel Beckett. While Sartre after the war was more than ever a self-professed “writing machine,” Camus was increasingly graphophobic, haunted by a “disgust for all forms of public expression.” Sartre’s philosophy becomes sociological and structuralist in its binary emphasis. Camus, all alone, in the night, between continents, far away from everything, is already less the solemn “moralist” of legend (“the Saint,” Sartre called him), more a (pre-)post-structuralist in his greater concern and anxiety about language, his emphasis on difference and refusal to articulate a clear-cut theory: “I am too young to have a system,” he told one audience. And it is this anti-systematic aspect of America that he retains and refuses to clarify: “After so many months I know nothing about New York.”
Sugary excerpt of Friday from Andrew O'Hagan :
Each era gets the erotic writing it craves, or deserves, if that doesn’t sound too much like I’m asking you to spank me into an ecstasy of submission.The ﬁrst thing to say about this decade’s multi-million-selling contributor to the art of terrible writing about sex is that she will not easily be mistaken for Andrea Dworkin. It’s not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E.L. James’s other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote.
Sugary excerpt of the day from Junot Díaz:
White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.
I am going to munch on Díaz words for a bit while wondering what the impact of his argument would have been if he had used the word 'men' instead of using 'white.'
Sugary excerpt of the night from Nathalie Rothschild on the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy:
(...)the idea that modern women are aroused by the thought of sexual submission signifies a betrayal of the values that second-wave feminists fought so hard for on the barricades. (...)Being excited by fictional accounts of raunchy sex doesn’t necessarily equal any intention or desire to replicate them in real life.
No, the freedom to read crappy novels or to fantasise about being tied to a bed post is not what feminists went to the barricades for. Why should they have? Those are personal proclivities rather than matters of political struggle. The suggestion that women who read and enjoy Fifty Shades are debasing themselves, that they can’t cope with equality and don’t realise what’s good for them, is condescending and anti-feminist.
Sugary excerpt of the weekend from Kate Summerscale :
Writers before [Flaubert] had agonised about style. But no novelist agonised as much or as publicly, no novelist fetishised the poetry of “the sentence” in the same way, no novelist pushed to such an extreme the potential alienation of form and content (Flaubert longed to write what he called a “book about nothing”). No novelist before Flaubert reflected as self-consciously on questions of technique. With Flaubert, literature became “essentially problematic”, as one scholar puts it.
Or just modern? Flaubert himself affected a nostalgia for the great unselfconscious writers who came before him, like Molière and Cervantes; they, said Flaubert in his letters, “had no techniques”. He, on the other hand, was betrothed to “atrocious labour” and “fanaticism”. In different ways, the modern novelist is shadowed by that monkish labour. [...]So what did Flaubert mean by style, by the music of a sentence? This, from Madame Bovary – Charles is stupidly proud that he has got Emma pregnant: “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.” So compact, so precise, so rhythmic. Literally, this is “The idea of having engendered delighted him.” Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation, renders it as: “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.” This is good, but pity the poor translator. For the English is a wan cousin of the French. Say the French out aloud, as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four “ay” sounds in three of the words: ‘l’idée, engendré, délectait.’ An English translation that tried to mimic the untranslatable music of the French – that tried to mimic the rhyming – would sound like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’
I have always wonder whether Emma Bovary was stylish because she was real or real because she was stylish. I am making the assertion that Gustave Flaubert filtered his style to make reality 'artistic' as some filter their wine to make it more palatable by erasing its imperfections and often diluting its complexity.
To put it differently, I have always preferred Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary because I sensed that the former wasn't just a stylish idea of what female amorous angst ought to be.
Les phrases du jour are from Nadine Gordimer:
You accept or reject the influences around you, you are formed by your social enclosure and you are always growing. To be a writer is to enter into public life. I look upon our process as writers as discovery of life.
The sentence of the day is from Beckett, the greatest writer of the 20th century :
Since 1945 I have written only in French. Why this change? It was not deliberate. It was in order to change, to see, nothing more complicated than that, in appearance at least.
It is impossible to make the choice to write in French and not love complicated things and to be a masochist.
Sugary excerpt from BHL (Bernard-Henri Levy) talking with alarming seriousness/narcissism about his habit of leaving his white shirt undone:
No, I just like to be loose. (...)I do. It's a form of my will to freedom. I like to be free in every sense of the word. I have never worn a tie in my life. There was even a diplomatic incident when I met Pope John Paul II. But it's a physical impossibility. I cannot have a shirt buttoned to the neck, I suffocate. I have to be free.
My reaction to this sugary excerpt from Natalia Antonova is ah!:
Good fiction features a lot of bad sex writing for the same reason as porn actors (Sasha Grey immediately springs to mind) have a tough time crossing over into mainstream film – society's desperate need to compartmentalise sex.
Literature should be, well, literary, we reason – for stimulation of the brain, not other parts. The ghettoisation of eroticism is the reason why you'd be hard pressed to find a "serious" book review that praises an author's approach to sex scenes, no matter how difficult they may have been to write.(...)Good writers are hyper-aware, neurotic creatures, which is probably another reason why so many tend to fail miserably (or entertainingly) when writing about an activity that puts much of the brain on autopilot. (...)Good sex writers, like bad sex writers, explore the dark side of desire. But bad sex writing is often a tough guy act – an attempt to intimidate the reader with shocking detail – whereas good sex writers invite the reader to explore strange territory.
Sugary excerpt for this welcomed first day of November from Nicole Krauss:
It seems to me that we have lost something that used to be considered fundamental in the world of literature, which is the role of the critic. There used to be extraordinary critics. I’m thinking Edmund Wilson, say, or Lionel Trilling. At that time, the role of the critic was to not only know about literature, and to tell us what books were about and why they were interesting or not. Their role—their true role—was to teach us how to read. Ultimately, those critics taught whole generations how to read. The professional literary critic, in that mode, no longer exists in our culture. To begin with, there are no longer places where serious, extensive reviews are published—very, very few are left. So critics can no longer make a living—so unimportant are they to our culture, that we can no longer bother even to pay them.
The sentence of the morning is from the greatest writer of the twentieth century, Samuel Beckett writing to Georges Duthiut:
Never understood so clearly as when reading you, not even when reading Proust to what extent French is the language of the infinitesimal.
That explains why French is the best language for poetry!
Sugary excerpt from Lionel Shriver, whose writing I find as sobering as a good cup of Kenyan coffee:
[...]do we always want to read about characters who conform to current political conventions – who don’t smoke, never say anything bigoted, and always recycle their yoghurt pots? Or who conform to our private code of behaviour – in which case, fiction writers might write for niche markets, their novels labelled “suitable for vegetarians” (no characters eat meat) or “does not contain nuts” (what a pity, a novel without nuts). Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.(...)Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying. In fiction and reality both, multilingual, loftily-educated ponces on missions to save the rainforest are probably pains in the bum. Thus, however readily I might construct exemplars who pick up litter and volunteer at soup kitchens, this cheap courting of your approval might well backfire. Despite my heavy-handed stacking of the moral deck, you wouldn’t like them. Nick Hornby made exactly this point in his delightful novel How to Be Good, in which the main character’s determination to be virtuous – he gives away the family assets and invites homeless people to live in the house – is delectably repellent.
Sugary excerpt of the weekend from Elizabeth Lowry's review of Wendy Steiner's The Real Real Thing: The model in the mirror of art:
Today’s aesthetic controversies seem to turn specifically on the issues of truth-telling and the ethical treatment of the real in art. Oprah Winfrey’s indignation over authorial fraud can and often does make headlines – consider the furore when James Frey’s account of his drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces (2003), and Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence (2008), were revealed to have been less than scrupulously factual. “Readers demand their money back for memoirs that lie; publishers rush to withdraw unsold copies from bookstores; editors, denying collusion with their fraudulent authors, are nevertheless fired for their credulity.” The real thing is no longer enough – our touchstone now is the real real thing.
I have a problem with Bill Benzon's post on Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad at the Valve in which he compares them to Ike Turner and Sam Philips and finishes by suggesting that the solution is to get beyond the boundaries of language. Sugary excerpt:
The point of this exercise, no, this demonstration, is that language and its reasonings and arguments cannot, in principle, encompass everything. That life itself is greater than language goes without saying – or does it? What matters is how we conduct ourselves around and about, in the shadow of, language.
Because I believe as Eluard that les mots ne mentent pas, I have a problem with what Benzon is demonstrating. The attempt should never be to get beyond the boundaries of language, but to acknowledge them and to break them down.
I know I promise to stop bashing constantly Obama (I believe that I'm doing it rationally and analytically), but I believe that his 2008 campaign showed that Benzon is wrong and that America's problem with race isn't about its people not being able to get along, but rather about their need to believe that race is all encompassing and that it is about something grand, when it is about petty stuff and about that itch that Benzon seems to have to want Achebe and Conrad get along. It is far too obvious that Achebe didn't want to get along with Conrad, but needed to punch him in the gut to affirm his own existence and to define in his own terms what it meant or rather didn't mean to be 'african' (my contention is that it doesn't mean anything for Achebe has much more in common with Joseph Conrad than he does with Ferdinand Oyono).
In short, my point to Benzon, to America, and to Americans is get over it already! Race isn't about race and instead of obsessing about getting along or pretending that you want to or that you do get out your own way and stop being so self-involved!
The sugary except on which I'm going to munch on to have a meaningful and productive weekend is from David Winters's review of Gary Gutting's on French philosophy, Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960:
It is perfectly possible to read works of philosophy as if they were works of literature. To read them without concern for their ‘truth content,’ attending instead to what leads them not to describe the world, but to create worlds, or to propose worlds at odds with our own. In the end, philosophy never really does succeed in describing anything. It tries to articulate what life is like, but it fails, at all times, in all places. This is the very thing that reveals and redeems it as literature.
Something about this passage by Monique Ruffey bugs me:
(...)sex is still riddled with social stigma and taboo. Church and state still patrol what is deemed OK, moral, loving and safe. Anyone who chooses to write about sex will attract stinging criticism from the moral right and so, relatively speaking, sexual memoirs are still rare. And they are mostly written by women.
Men, by and large, leave this subject alone. Somewhere it's a given that men don't have anything too reflective to say about sex, or they feel silenced by feminists. Where is the male Suzanne Portnoy, the male Melissa P? What men will write honestly about their highs and lows, their triumphs, their sexual sorrows? What man is brave enough to express himself freely about his desires? Few. My guess is that male sexuality has been so heavily associated with violence that men suffer an even stronger taboo than woman. Best keep quiet.
Really? I must be living in a different planet than Roffey for it seems to me that the problem about sex or rather about your sex life is that you have to be able to view it about than a pornographic and a solely pleasurable/carnivorous experience, which makes it a challenge difficult for both sexes, but particularly for men. I may be wrong, but I doubt it.
The best sentences I read all weekend are from Philip Roth:
I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. (...)I wised up ... ”
I find it difficult to stop reading Roth no matter how much he bugs me.
Sugary excerpt of the best article I read last weekend, Amy Kazmin's portrait in the Financial times of Arundhati Roy:
(...) her fiction writing has been on the backburner, while she has dedicated herself to political activism, travelling to remote corners of the country, attending political meetings and writing essays on topics from India’s dam-building to its judicial corruption and its abuses in the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. “You get drawn into a world where people realise, here is somebody who is not frightened of saying something. All of the last 11 years has been unplanned. It’s been a process of deepening your understanding,” she says.
In her political writing, Roy has been scathing in her description of India’s two-decade old economic liberalisation programme – which is widely credited with bringing unprecedented opportunities to many – and seemingly contemptuous of the emerging middle class.
Her diatribes have made her something of a hate figure for many Indian nationalists. There is also a feeling among a number of liberals and left-leaning activists, who have a concern for social justice – and for many of the issues she raises – that her strident polemics are too extreme. “I know I alienate people, but there isn’t any possibility of writing about these things where everybody is going to agree with you,” she says. “I am not scared of alienating the middle class. I am saying what I think. I know the entire establishment obviously disagrees with it, and would like me to shut up, or soften it or be more tactical, but I am saying things in a space that no one says.”
“When I write something, I have to spend a few days filtering out the fury,” she adds. “I don’t do anything to be deliberately provocative.”
Certainly there is plenty in India to be angry – even outraged – about. I ask tentatively whether she really feels that economic reforms have brought no benefits at all. I am thinking of the remote villages, and impoverished slum dwellers, now connected to a wider world by mobile phones. After a moment’s reflection, she answers.
“It’s as though you had this churning,” she says, slowly. “You had a feudal and very unequal society. In this churning, this thin milk separates into a thick layer of cream, and a lot of water that can be just slop. The thick layer of middle class that has been created becomes a great market. Suddenly, there are so many people who need cars and A/Cs and TV, and that becomes a universe of itself. Of course it looks great. Then there is this unseen thing that’s just being drifted off.”
Quote of the day from Morgan Meis:
Rimbaud wrote his poetry of absolute modernity and then ran away, gave up writing completely, abandoning the very ground he begged the rest of us to defend.
I have ever been able to love or to even like Rimbaud because I was profoundly touched by Verlaine, whom I'm still under the illusion, was a woman.
Sugar excerpt from VS Naipaul, which needs no commentary, although I have to say that it bugs me:
One day in Kinshasa I had the inspiration to leave the hotel and take a taxi to the university. They were very all very nice, very welcoming, although they had no idea who I was or what I did. And I thought then, here are all these very bright people, whose minds are going to be turned to lead very soon - this was in Mobutu's country, and they had to be turned to lead if they were to earn a living. And I wondered how this could be done. And I had a feeling that it was done through this old belief. And Mobutu gave to it a nice name, authenticité. There are these brilliant young people who would talk to you about Stendhal, something so far from their experience, and talking quite intelligently about it. And yet when you met them in their next incarnation as government officers, all that had gone away.
Shameless, but needed self-promotion. If you read French, you can read my latest interview here.
Thanks to Idriss Linge.
My reaction: I don't like to look at my navel.
Reading is a test of our sympathetic abilities, our capacity to connect with the thoughts and feelings of someone else, and so stands for our ability to exist in, and respond to, a wider community than ourselves.
If you read French, you can read another review of my book, L'Empreinte des Choses Brisées by Jules Romuald Nkonlak. Didi I mention that I don't read review, I skim them and then I remind myself that I don't know everything about my book, which has a life and its own identity.
I agree with Roger Ebert on this:
Anyone offended by the use of that word the way it is used in Huckleberry Finn cannot read and possibly cannot think.
The word is spoken by an illiterate 11-year-old runaway on the Mississippi River of the mid-19th Century. He has been schooled by his society to regard the runaway slave Jim as a Nigger and a thief. Jim's crime: Stealing himself from his owner. Huck reasons his way out of ignorant racism and into enlightenment and grace. He makes that journey far in advance of many of his "educated" contemporaries. Part of reading the novel is learning to be alert about how the N-Word is used in that process.
In an outbreak of mealy-minded Political Correctness, an edition of Huckleberry Finn has now been published which meticulously replaces the word nigger with the word slave. The argument is often put forward that a young reader might be traumatized by finding a word in a 19th century novel that he hears a hundred times a day. If I were that young reader, I would be more disturbed by the notion that I was incapable of learning how and why it was used.
One of my favorite Eluard's quotes is, 'les mots ne mentent pas' (words don't lie). Nowadays, people have this childish notion that words are the problem when it is quite obvious that they are not. I'm wondering how did the apparent consensus that cleaning up language was the way to cleansing a society started and why too many believe that cleanliness is the surest way to Godliness as if people had to stop being imperfect. Is accepting that people are bad and can have disgusting thoughts and beliefs about one another really that unacceptable nowadays ? The answer seems to be yes, and it is a further proof of intelligence or rather common sense as Thomas Paine would say has lost a lot of ground .
I appeared on a show called le débat africain (in French) on RFI in which I asserted that there isn't such a thing as Africanity. It is a position on which I will elaborate on December 13 when at last, I'm having, at the Lucernaire in Paris (7 pm), a soirée to present my book, L'Empreinte des Choses Brisées and of course to sign copies. So if you are in Paris or just want to pick a fight with me or just to listen to something fresh on identity, sexuality and les choses brisées, come and bring a friend.