31 May 2005

Callooh! Callay!

I received a book in the mail! And a very interesting one at that...

A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography by Carl Rollyson

According to Amazon's description, "This book explores the nexus between scholarship and biography, and demonstrates how the similarities of method between Leon Edel and Kitty Kelly outweigh the differences. Viewed through the prism of biography, the scholarly and the popular may not be as clearly separated as people suppose."

Flipping through it, I get the sense that Rollyson must be quite the character (a shameless rascal?). And a quick glance at the index shows me that Lucasta Miller, Ian Hamilton, and Janet Malcom are discussed. I forsee a quick read...

(Heaps of thanks, TK!!)

29 May 2005

I'm thinking of a song or two

It's been almost too hot to read. I've been alternately sweating my skin off and finding relief by getting lost in Morning Becomes Eclectic's archives. It helps to fill these empty spaces with moments of ineffable beauty...

Aimee Mann, "Little Bombs"
Cat Power, "Maybe Not"
Eels, "Girl from the North Country"
Iron & Wine, "Upward Over the Mountains"
Belle & Sebastian, "Women's Realm"
Wilco, "When the Roses Bloom Again"
Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher, "Troubled Soul"
Tori Amos, "Carbon"
Joseph Arthur, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"

An afternoon with Eco

Nigel Farndale at the Telegraph has an enlightening conversation with Umberto Eco:
His second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, took eight years to write. It was about three editors at a Milan publishing house trying to link every conspiracy theory in history, including that now famous one about the medieval Knights Templar and the secret of the Holy Grail.

'I know, I know,' he says with a laugh. 'My book included the plot for The Da Vinci Code. But I was not being a prophet. It was old occult material. It was already all there. I treated it in a more sceptical way than Dan Brown did. He had the excellent idea of treating it as if it were true. Millions of people believed him. They took it seriously, but it was all a hoax.'
'I would describe myself as an insecure optimist who is sensitive to criticism. I always fear to be wrong. Those who are always certain of their own work risk being idiots. Insecurity is a great force, apropos of teaching. The moment I start a new class I feel panic. If you don't feel panic, you cannot succeed.'

They also discuss The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, his formerly fascist youth, and his family.

(Via Bookslut)

28 May 2005

Beyond negative irony

In Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Brian Boyd comes to some very interesting conclusions regarding the seemingly inexplicable cohesion between the poem ("Pale Fire") and the commentary. It's a fascinating piece of close reading, and although I still have some reservations as to his evidence (which probably says more about my comprehension of his detailed account), I can't argue with his main point:
The confidence that through one's art one can understand the design hidden behind life and death might be completely misplaced, or true in a richer way than one could possibly imagine. Nabokov admits that his own confidence, even more robust than Shade's, could be as misplaced as Shade's appears to be at the moment he is killed. Yet the very possibility of design as concealed, as complex and as confounding as all that he packs into the small compass of Pale Fire suggests it might well be possible that there is deliberate design behind our world that we cannot yet see.

Some readers still read Nabokov only as far as his negative irony, his trenchant ability to deflate, to register disappointments, humiliations and horrors, the kind of thing that they think demonstrates his scorn and Schadenfreude. As his Hermanns and his Humberts and his Paduks and his Graduses indicate, Nabokov is anything but blind to the darkness in life. But readers who stop there, and think that he stops there, in modernist irony or in a postmodernist abîme, miss altogether his positive irony, his attempt to encompass all the negatives, as he suspects life itself does, and reverse their direction in the mirror of death. The search for that possibility is what makes Nabokov different, and what makes him write.
Bud at Chekhov's Mistress has some great info on the upcoming Cambridge Companion to Nabokov (which includes Brian Boyd's "Nabokov as storyteller"). There's even a PDF of the "introductory chapter that summarizes each of the essays."

Here we go again

Jeanette Winterson has a few words for John Carey:
Last year John Carey asked me to deliver a lecture at Oxford called What is art for? I did not see my host later, which puzzled me slightly, but now, finding his new book, What Good are the Arts?, I am not puzzled any more, and I remember that Macbeth, too, was a host.

I begin in this way because readers of this review should know that I am not neutral; not simply because I am cited in his book as “superior”, “elitist”, and “barely sane”, but because he was present when I explained to more than a thousand students how I had escaped from a life of poverty, got myself to Oxford, become a writer, and all because of the power of art. My text was simple; if art can do that for a working-class girl whose father could not read, art is neither remote nor a luxury. [...]

Real writers, painters, musicians, do what they do because they love what they do. The money is secondary. We are often dazzled by the media circus surrounding the arts, but behind all that, going on as it ever did, is the intent and endeavour of the artist, an intent and endeavour that we share when we choose to read, or look at pictures or go to the theatre, and so on. The 24-hour emergency zone that we call real life saps our energies. Art renews those energies because it allows us an experience of active meditation. The energies of the artwork cross-current into us. It is a transfusion of a kind, and if this has religious overtones, it doesn’t matter. Nobody need be nervous about a connection between art and religion. All of life is connected and our deepest experiences — whether of faith or love or art — will share similar qualities. That does not mean they are the same thing, it means we are in a particular territory — that inner life that Carey finds so suspect. [...]

The real worry of this odd book is that it is a bible for all those who would like to cut arts funding on the grounds that art is a bit of a trick and you can do as well watching television or downloading internet porn. It will play into the hands of those who love to use words such as “pretentious”, “elitist”, “irrelevant”, to justify their own indifference to art.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole article--she's got even more good points. As I've said before, people who look down on art are snobs.

(Via The Literary Saloon)

UPDATE: Stephen Mitchelmore voices his thoughts:
Carey resents the real thing. While he argues that the opposition of high and low art is wrong, he does so only because he doesn't know what high art is in the first place. If he did, he wouldn't bother making the argument. He thinks that authors write the real thing in order to exclude "the masses" whoever they are (so why didn't Proust and Eliot and Woolf write in Latin?). Everything he writes reveals unacknowledged assumptions, even the titles. Winterson says "What Good are the Arts? seems as idiotic to me as asking: What good is food?" And there's his recent collection Pure Pleasure subtitled A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. One wonders what isn't "pure" about literary pleasure? From looking at the contents, it's the choice of a predictable English literary sensibility. What is being rejected here? The unenjoyble modern classic? But what would that be? It seems like an excuse to make sloppy generalities that appeal to the British fear of ideas and call it "literary criticism".

Carey's project is profoundly unhelpful as it will stunt the development of many stuck in otherwise unhappy, unfulfilled lives. I tend to think of myself here, from a proudly anti-intellectual town, from a working class family not one member of which had been to university. Luckily I didn't have a guide like Carey to prevent me from reading all sorts of apparently unenjoyable books without shame (e.g. Proust at 15). The books were in English. How much more accessible do you need to be? As a result, my life wasn't dominated by embedded ideas such as the opposition of utility and pleasure. I couldn't tell the difference. My life wasn't too bad, but there was so much more.
Apparently, I'm not alone in thinking Carey espouses an "inverted snobbery."

25 May 2005

Musical meme

1. The person who passed the baton to you.

Anne slid this note across to me in study hall, and I've spent the past couple of hours gazing out the window (while I should be working), trying to pick only five (!) songs... (It's also my first meme, thank you very much.) I know that as soon as I post this I'm going to want to change something, but I'll do my best leave it alone.

2. Total volume of music files on your computer.

As I just bought this machine before moving, there isn't much on it yet. My old machine had quite a bit, though. That said, I'm pretty "old fashioned" and love owning CDs. (Lizzie says it best.) I will most likely live out my life without ever owning an iPod.

3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.

Picaresque ~ The Decemberists. Colin and company do it again. ("The Engine Driver" nearly made the following list.)

4. Song playing at the moment of writing.

The waves lapping on the shore below.

5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs)

I'll go with "personally meaningful" because "all-time fav" would have me sitting here all night! Here goes...

a) "You Are the Light" ~ The Innocence Mission (they love William Maxwell, Eudora Welty, and Charles Dickens)
b) "Latter Days" ~ Over the Rhine (they love Annie Dillard, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Dylan Thomas)
c) "I Can't Remember" ~ Vigilantes of Love (Bill Mallonee loves Flannery O'Connor, Frederick Beuchner, and Jack Kerouac)
d) "Speed of Light" ~ Joseph Arthur
e) "I Dream a Highway" ~ Gillian Welch

(If anyone can contribute fav reads of Arthur or Welch, you'll get a special mention!)

Freebies: For the record, "Don't Let Me Down" is my favorite Beatles song, while "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is my fav Dylan song.

6. The five people to whom you will ‘pass the musical baton.’

Ms. Croc...to see what's been filling her creative space lately.
The Count of Monty Cristo...I'm willing to bet he's got some good stuff.
The Teaching Assistant...because she hasn't had enough memes tossed her way.
Chris at Splinters...sheer curiosity.
Enoch Soames, Esq....because I trust this isn't beneath him and I would genuinely like to know more about the gentleman.

24 May 2005

On the beloved Manchegan

Ok, so the Pale Fire comments will have to wait another day, but I've had a productive night. Here are a few thoughts I posted to the other blog where I hang out, 400 Windmills:
(This started out as a comment on Bud's previous post, but quickly mushroomed into its own full-fledged response.)

I don't think Don Quixote is a coward--think of all the times he's hurled himself bodily at various and sundry objects/people/sheep! I actually read this "modification" of his penance as humorous. (I find that Cervantes' subtle comedy more than makes up for the gory slapstick kind.) Remember, when Sancho runs into the priest and barber he tells them (heedless of any changes to DQ's self-inflicted plans), "My master is doing penance in the middle of those mountains, as happy as can be" (208).

It seems to me that Don Quixote doesn't mind suffering as long as it is poetic and in keeping with the types of suffering found in those stories of chivalry. After his "million Ave Marías" on his homemade rosary, "he was greatly troubled at not finding a hermit nearby who would hear his confession and console him" (206). I don't think he was "greatly troubled" because he truly needed consolation, but because finding a hermit would make the scene that much more "authentic" or "how it should be."

Maybe this goes back to what I asked previously re. what constitutes actual suffering: personal perspective or demonstrable pain? At first I thought his "sighs and verses" a mere mockery of actual suffering (i.e., Cardenio's)--hence, "fake." But Don Quixote isn't just playing a role--in his mind, he is suffering all this. (Page 208 also says, "if the squire had taken three weeks instead of three days, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face would have been so altered that not even his own mother would have known him." I wonder how many plants he would've found "that would sustain him"?)

I know that this may sound contradictory. How can it be "real" suffering, yet intentionally picturesque (or artistically accurate) at the same time?

I see Don Quixote is a type of artist. He finds fulfillment in becoming a martyr to the cause of chivalry, and strives to embody it in the least detail. There is an inherent integrity to his apparent artifice.

This brings me the aforementioned essay by Mario Vargas Llosa, "Una novela para el siglo XXI" ("A Novel for the 21st Century"). In it, he asks, "Is Alonso Quijano's insanity born from the desperate nostalgia of a world gone by, of a visceral rejection of modernity and progress?"* He says that this would be the case if the world that Don Quixote longs for had actually been part of history. But "in reality, it only existed in the imagination, legends, and utopias that human beings forged in order to [...] find refuge in a society of order, honor, [and] principles". (In other words, something to take their minds off the typical trials and tribulations of the Middle Ages.)

He then says, "The chivalric literature that causes the Quixote to lose his mind--this is an expression that must be taken in a metaphorical sense rather than a literal one--is not 'realistic,' because the delirious prose of its paladins does not reflect a lived reality." Yet in spite of this, the stories are a "genuine response" to the "real world" in that within their pages, good always triumphs over evil.

So "the dream that changes Alonso Quijano into Don Quixote de la Mancha does not consist of reactualizing the past, but in something much more ambitious: to realize myth, transform fiction into living history." It is this dream that slowly seeps into the "reality" of those around him until "little by little--like a Borgesian tale--it becomes fiction."

He then asserts, "Fiction is a central theme of the novel, because the Manchegan hidalgo that is its protagonist has been 'unhinged'--his insanity must first be seen as an allegory or symbol before a clinical diagnosis--by the fantasies of chivalric books, and, believing that the world is how it is described in [these novels], he is launched in search of adventures that he will parody, provoking and suffering small catastrophes."

I believe that the disparity between what the Quixote aspires to and what he sometimes does (not what happens to him--this is an important distinction) is a source of wry humor rather than hypocrisy. For all his grandiloquent speeches, the actual work of transforming myth into reality can be a pretty thankless task.

* Again, all translations are mine (for better or for worse).
Also, you MUST check out Castilla-La Mancha's offical website for the IV Centenary of Don Quixote. It's simply gorgeous--filled with dozens of photographs and a nifty interactive map that traces the Quixote's route through Spain. (The Spanish version seems to have a few more articles.)

P.S. In my last post, I forgot to mention the other memorable moment of the weekend: watching the first Thomas Pynchon episode of The Simpons...in Spanish! I laughed so hard, I had to explain the gag to my younger cousin. (Yeah...I'm a dork.)

23 May 2005

Return of the semi-native

On Thursday, I left for Bogotá in search of my ever-elusive Colombian passport. I won't go into the long and incredibly boring details, but will say that I can't be the only dual citizen over 25 who's had to do this! (Judging from my experience, it would seem that way.) Thankfully, at the 11th hour, things worked out and I can now actually leave the country during vacation next month. (So far, so good.)

It was good to see my family, although I wound up house-bound all weekend due to unforseen circumstances. This meant no Episode III for me. (Nuts.) Of course, the upside was that I got a lot of reading done: I finished Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote and Brian Boyd's intriguing analysis of Pale Fire. (More on that tomorrow.) However, I soon found myself with nothing to read (!). My aunt and grandmother are moving to a new apartment soon (after about 40 years in their current home in La Soledad), and all of the books are sealed in boxes. But my cousin came through...

Somehow, he had a 1957 paperback copy of Alan Le May's western The Unforgiven stashed away in his room. In English. Also (as a joke) a 1950s-era "Basic Guide to Marriage" (courtesy of Planned Parenthood). Too funny.

I tore through the western, finishing it while waiting for my plane back to Santa Marta. It was pretty typical of the genre and nostalgically reminded me of all those Zane Grey books I used to read--but bloodier. (As a teenager, I would've given anything to be Rachel Zachary.) It was definitely absorbing and helped pass the time. Although it has nothing to do with the film Unforgiven (as I originally thought), it was made into a film starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn back in the day. And apparently, Alan Le May also wrote The Searchers. (Yes, that makes sense. Despite the stock themes, it was surprisingly unsentimental.)

Things got better. At the airport this afternoon, I had my first mocha since leaving the States at the beginning of April (!) and--glory be!!--had the luxury of browsing in a bookstore for over an hour (also a first since leaving the States). Pure heaven.

Looking through a stack on the display table, I found this...

...and promptly bought it. I started reading it on the plane. I think I'm still glowing.

So in spite of everything, it was a pretty good weekend. It was lovely to see my family and share a room with my 91-year-old grandmother, who rises at the crack of dawn to cook breakfast for everyone. (She has the drollest little chuckle.) I gazed out a back window at Monserrate in the rain, and saw a gorgeous rainbow. A pigeon wandered into the dining room (I escorted him out). And I'm that much closer to full dual citizenship.

17 May 2005


As innovative blog ideas come, the deceptively simple Bohemistika has a singular linguistic vision: Ms. Croc is creating a "diary of pictures, or a pictographic dictionary" for learning Czech. Her hauntingly elegant artwork serves as an interpretive bridge to a foreign tongue.


Over at The Reading Experience, Dan Green says,
In fact, I do believe there's a connection between the popularity of such things as reality television and the relative non-popularity of literary fiction: "most people" have no interest, have never had any interest, in the sorts of things serious art and literature have to offer. For whatever reason, "most people" are incapable of paying attention to the formal and stylistic qualities that most artists seek to embody in their work, the qualities that make art art. In the case of literature, "most people" pay no attention to the "writin'" (as MB puts it) because "most people" are barely capable of using the language well enough just to get by in their own daily lives, never mind being able to appreciate the skill with which some poets and novelists can make the language say things it's never said before.

These are not "elitist" observations. They are simply facts. It is also a fact that literature has never been something of interest to "most people."
I couldn't help but be reminded of e.e. cummings' introduction to New Poems:
The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople--it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. [...]

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included.

Life,for mostpeople,simply isn't. Take the socalled standardofliving. What do mostpeople mean by "living"? They don't mean living. They mean the latest and closest plural approximation to singular prenatal passivity which science,in its finite but unbounded wisdom,has succeeded in selling their wives. If science could fail,a mountain's a mammal. Mostpeople's wives could spot a genuine delusion of embryonic omnipotence immediately and will accept no substitutes.
Obviously, literacy/education barriers do exist, but I tend to think that a lack of interest in art indicates a narrowness of mind akin to arrogance. (A word like "artsy" is rarely a compliment.) No, I don't think Dan's comments are "elitist," but I do tend to think that "mostpeople" have a capacity for growth that they often deny themselves. The illusion of "security" can have a lot to do with it. Mostpeople don't like being made to feel or think about things they aren't comfortable with. Anything foreign or unfamiliar to their experience is usually treated with suspicion. It is this rejection of anything "different" that reeks of elitism, which is why Flannery O'Connor said,
Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards.

12 May 2005

Conventional morality

In a recent column, Anne Applebaum pulled Jane Eyre into a discussion of the recent "runaway bride" fiasco:
To the British reading public of the mid-19th century, the story was a shocking one: A woman left her fiancé standing at the altar after an unexpected revelation, ran away without a penny, threw herself on the mercy of strangers -- and then ultimately returned. Some found this tale deeply moving; others did not.

"We feel for her struggles," wrote one literary critic, "but for all that, the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman -- one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend."

The woman was, of course, Jane Eyre, the fictional creation of the writer Charlotte Brontë. She was not a real-life runaway bride, as is Jennifer Wilbanks, the woman who sent cable news stations into a frenzy last week when she disappeared a few days before her wedding, and then turned up in Albuquerque, confessing to cold feet.

But in her own time, Jane Eyre was no less widely discussed. What made her bravery or "vulgarity" so fascinating was her defiance of conventional morality: her frank passion for the errant Mr. Rochester, her refusal to observe social niceties, her blunt speech. And to some, her behavior seemed every bit as tacky and attention-seeking as does the behavior of Wilbanks today.
Hm. When I see "defiance of conventional morality" right next to "frank passion," a woman who leaves the man she loves because she refuses to become his mistress isn't the first thing that comes to mind.

Applebaum's gloss may not be intentionally misleading, but it certainly gives an inaccurate impression to followers of sensationalist news items. Jane wasn't considered "vulgar" for shunning morality, but for her frank honesty. As Lucasta Miller points out in The Brontë Myth, the vitality of Jane's character is that she is both rebellious and devout, free-thinking and full of personal integrity. Victorian society had a difficult time coming to grips with the idea that these features are not mutually exclusive. She defies "her era's conventional morality" precisely by taking what it stood for seriously.

As Charlotte Brontë wrote in the preface,
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is--I repeat it--a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make external show pass for sterling worth--to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines. It may hate him who dares to scrutinise and expose--to rase the gilding, and show base metal under it--to penetrate the sepulchre, and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.
Oh, and by the way--Libby Purves is right. (Via The Literary Saloon)

09 May 2005


I'm supposed to be working on lesson plans, but instead I'm watching a gecko clinging to the outside of my sliding-glass door, munching his second moth. His underside looks like the opaque white plastic of a shower curtain, his tiny heart going a mile a minute. I've had other visitors on the inside: a small scorpion in the curtains (summarily dealt with), and a moth the size of your hand (eased back out the window with a pillow). Then there are the ants. Fortunately, as long as I keep everything clean they're not too much of a problem, but I still have horrible mental images involving the ants from the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude...carrying everything away with them. Hence, my sink is always empty of dishes!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine recounts his own adventure at their new home...
We got our piano moved in the day before we left for the West Coast. I played it in the old room at the end of the house and listened to the sound of the wide-plank hardwood floors and plaster walls and divided light windows built before the civil war. The piano sounded good, full of history. We can make music here. And then I walked out on the porch, and there, listening less than a foot away from the back door was a motionless, sprawled, five-and-a half-foot black snake with bands of brown diamonds. I cannot tell you the primal chord that this struck. I say five-and-a-half-feet, because he wasn't quite as tall as me.

Luckily Karin was away and it took me three garden tools to dispose of the old fellow, and there I was apologizing while I killed him, and I had to write about the experience for most of the rest of the afternoon. I wrote the black snake the best poem I could write for ending his life. I hope it's a good poem.

My friend Brandon said that coexistence is an ideal that cannot always be realized. "If it hadn't been day three, and if he hadn't been a foot from the back door..."

"But the fact that he was listening to me play the piano, a sound he may not have heard all his life, a curious serenade coming from what would soon kill him..."

"I have to make this farm safe for my family, for the ones I love..."

Snakes get a bad rap. I'm really glad I didn't meet him while I was lying under the house in the crawl space, barely able to roll over on my own stomach. (Every plumber and electrician out here seems to have his own story about the snake in the crawl space. Our own electrician would sometimes send in his teenage daughter. She was fearless when it came to dark, unknown spaces and would run wire anywhere.)

There are powerful metaphors at work that make me secretly mourn his blood on my hands.
(Incidentally, he's the reason I found Annie Dillard. You just can't beat book recommendations by your favorite band.)

In other news...

Cowboy Junkies have announced the completion of a new album, Early 21st Century Blues. Margo writes,
After coming off the road in October we took a few months off to get reacquainted with our spouses, pets and children (not necessarily in that order). But once the snow began to pile-up we decided to get together in The Clubhouse for a few days of R&R and to play a little music. Lo and behold, by the time we emerged, a few days later, we had a brand new album. It is a document that we are all very proud of, even more so because it just snuck up on us. Initially we were just going to release it through our website, but the
reaction to it has been so strong that, in the next couple of months, it will find its way in to your favourite record shop ....But why wait! Starting today you can purchase it exclusively through our website (which is the best way to support the band).
There is also some additional information about the book that helped inspire "December Skies": The Wars by Timothy Findley. (Another song was inspired by Tennyson's poem, "The Passing of Arthur.")

Amardeep Singh shares some lovely anecdotes and photos of his recent trip to France. (With all the gorgeous snapshots, it was this one that totally made my day.)

David Fincher is slated to direct Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in the other Fitzgerald adaptation. (Via Jeffrey Overstreet)

Another great interview with Chuck Palahniuk:
He seems like such a nice, well-balanced chap, I tell him, to have such peculiarly graphic fantasies, not at all the gleeful anarchist-come-nihilist described in book reviews. 'Well, Charlotte Brontë was probably called a nihilist and an anarchist,' he replies, sounding slightly pissed off that I have used the two words often thrown at him by reviewers who find his books adolescent and misanthropic. 'That is just lazy journalism. My books are always about somebody who is taken from aloneness and isolation - often elevated loneliness - to community. It may be a denigrated community that is filthy and poor, but they are not alone, they are with people. Typically, too, my characters make that Kierkegaardian leap of faith to commit themselves to one person. I write nothing,' he says without a trace of irony, 'but contemporary romances.'
(Via Conversational Reading)

After midnight

I've decided it's ok to let coherence slip a little and post assorted one-liners:

Dan Green's (nearly) back!

The Charlock's Shade has a challenging Anti-Pop (culture) Quiz. Unfortunately, I could only answer about 7 of the 24 from memory. Perhaps if I'd been able to participate in these as a child, I'd wow them all and get at least half. (This came from Ed, btw.)

To my utter delight, I've found a site that has actually posted excerpts from Charles Williams' Taliessin Through Logres! I had difficulty finding a copy of this while doing an independent study of his work as an undergrad, so this is a great find.

If you're unfamiliar with Williams, All Hallows' Eve is an excellent place to start--and T.S. Eliot helps usher you into his complex, Dantean world.

Meanwhile, I'm on p. 330 in the Quixote and have finally hit my stride...

08 May 2005

Listening to her voice

I was fortunate enough to be read to as a child, and The Chronicles of Narnia were bedside favorites. One of my clearest memories of these times is of my mother reaching the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and hearing the tears in her voice. My ten-year-old self was taken aback that a book could do that to a grown-up. (You see, a couple years prior to this, I had snuck a flashlight underneath the covers to get through a particularly tense part of Wardrobe, only to find tears streaming down my own face.) No, it wasn't just me. Books could make anyone cry in sorrow, as well as joy. What powerful things they must be!

At the risk of sounding unbearably maudlin, I was very excited to see the trailers for both Goblet of Fire and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe this weekend in my little apartment by the sea. Surprisingly, they made me feel closer to home. We'd gotten in the habit of waiting until Christmas Eve to see each installment of The Lord of the Rings together. This year, I'll return to the northern hemisphere for the holidays and will get to revive that tradition with another old favorite.

I've ranted a bit about some of the misguided hoopla surrounding the Narnia adaptation, but for now I'm enjoying the trailer and remembering those nights under our comfortable roof in our small Californian town.

All that to say, happy mothers' day! Thank you for those countless hours of reading, M. I know I wouldn't be quite the same person today without them. (And I love sharing Harry Potter speculations with you too!)

07 May 2005

A kingdom of Spain

From The Guardian's interview with Spanish novelist Javier Marías:
Dark Back of Time is much more than a statement for the defence: it is a bravura enactment of the spirals and vicissitudes of intellectual curiosity, especially the sections relating to a passage in All Souls many people assumed to be invented but was actually the most true: the life of John Gawsworth, a pseudonym for Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, poet and literary man-about-town in the first part of the 20th century, who was also King Juan I, third king of Redonda. Redonda is a real, barren island in the Caribbean which belongs, legally, to Antigua, but has been an imaginary kingdom since the father of fantasy writer MP Shiel claimed it in 1865. From him the kingship passed to Gawsworth - who claimed it enthusiastically, conferring titles on, for example, Barry Humphries, Joan Crawford, Lawrence Durrell and Diana Dors. Gawsworth bequeathed it to writer Jon Wynne-Tyson (who ennobled, among others, Alan Coren and Libby Purves). Wynne-Tyson, as Marías tells it, abdicated in favour of Marías because, in All Souls, he had written about Gawsworth so sympathetically.

"I thought I shouldn't term myself a real novelist if I don't accept this," says Marías, who considers Redonda "a realm inherited through irony and writing", even though "at heart I'm a republican and islands make me nervous". He has taken it seriously, becoming literary executor for Shiel and Gawsworth and establishing his own press, Reino de Redonda, to publish them, as well as some of his own translations, and any books he feels need rescue, such as Richmal Crompton's fiction for adults.

And he has conferred his own titles - on Pedro Almodóvar (Duke of Trémula), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), AS Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), and Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalópolis), for example - and established his own literary prize. The dukes each suggest three nominees (Almodóvar is particularly conscientious), and the winner - so far there have been four, JM Coetzee ("before he got the Nobel"), John H Elliott, Claudio Magris and Eric Rohmer - gets €6,000, and a dukedom.
(Via The Literary Saloon)

Marías also writes a monthly column for The Believer, "La Zona Fantasma." This month he contemplates "anachronistic attraction":
Not long ago a friend and I went to the Prado to see the exhibit entitled “The Spanish Portrait.” As we walked through the show she turned to me at one point and asked, “Have you ever looked at a painting and felt intensely attracted to the subject for some reason? And then remembered that you will never meet the person, who has been dead for centuries. And yet, the person is still there, and you still feel attracted. What do you do when that happens?”

More on Palahniuk

Amazon has an engaging interview with Chuck Palahniuk, which includes talk of "Guts," the Brothers Grimm, Poe, writing, and what he's reading. Choice bits:
Amazon.com: What is it about your writing that taps into that elusive publishing demographic--the young male reader?

Palahniuk: We could blame several aspects of my stuff. One, it's loaded with physical action and sensation and lacking in emotions and thought. Characters tend to act without a lot of hesitation. Two, the plots move relentlessly. Three, there's enough nonfiction research to ground the story in reality. Four, it deals with potentially offensive topics without investing those topics with drama and morality. This allows room for the reader to make his or her judgments and explanations.
Exactly. I haven't read all of his books, but I would say that this last point is the reason it's easy to keep an open mind about his work. There's room for the reader to make a personal investment in the underlying "meanings" of the stories.
Amazon.com: Does music influence your writing at all?

Palahniuk: As part of creating a character, I tend to find one song that would be that character's favorite song. Then, I play it endlessly, until the lyrics no longer make sense. This creates a continuity of mood. Best of all, it drives everyone from my life. With no friends, I'm forced to invent a story for company.
Sounds fool-proof! (I wonder what Misty's song was?)

Having had the pleasure of attending one of his readings in the past (and no, "Guts" did not make me pass out), I'm looking forward to hearing what Scott and Ed have to say about their experience. And make sure you guys add any lurid details for Chris!

05 May 2005

Virginia Woolf on book awards

In 1928 To the Lighthouse was awarded the Prix Femina as best foreign book, and Woolf agreed to attend the ceremony to accept what she later called her "dog show prize." It was "an affair of dull stupid horror," attended by "elderly fur bearing women," but Woolf woke up in the middle of the night afterwards, horrified at "having looked ugly in cheap black clothes." Vanessa giggled at the picture in the Times of Virginia accepting her award from Hugh Walpole, as conventional a storyteller as Woolf was not: "Do tell us how you behaved -- did your drawers drop off?"
(Via Today in Lit)

Just imagine what she'd say to Rick Moody!

04 May 2005

In praise of the pilgrim

Robert Macfarlane on Annie Dillard:
Moments such as this happen all the time in Dillard's writing: moments where the natural world streams through her, and she through it. There is a continual process of exchange; or, to use John Donne's word, interinanimation. And this is the greatest lesson of Dillard's prose: that we do not live separately from the natural world, but are part of it. She writes against the heresy of aloofness; what John Gray has called "the humanist belief in human difference" - the idea that humans are a separate, unnatural order of life, the sub-Sartrean belief that we are self-created individuals.

It's for this reason that Dillard speaks unashamedly, comfortably, of the spirit, and how it is accommodated by, extended by, animated in, landscape. "You can heave your spirit into a mountain, and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will." "What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object."

Dillard's is a naïve vision, of course, and deeply beguiling for it. The best thing is her glee, a pied-piperish glee at being in the world, which she evokes better than anyone else: "I go my way, and my left foot says Glory and my right foot says Amen: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise." When Dillard is in such a mood, it's hard not to follow her recommendation that, on an "excellent" day, you go out for a walk, and "take huge steps, trying to feel the planet's roundness arc between your feet".
(Via Arts & Letters Daily)

03 May 2005

From Bill Murray to Thomas Kuhn

A friend of mine, who's been working for Jim Jarmusch, points to some newly-released photos of the current project, Broken Flowers. It comes out in August and stars Bill Murray, Julie Delpy, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, and Chloë Sevigny. I'd love to hear more, Tom (hint, hint)!

Patricia Storms does it again! In the second installment of "Art Imitating Lit," she takes on the story that won't die...

Over at 400 Windmills, I toss out a couple thoughts that include Cardenio, Shakespeare, Thursday Next, George Herbert, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Echo.

In the "I-meant-to-link-to-this-ages-ago" department, The Complete Review takes on Steve Fuller's Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science (to the wishlist forthwith!):
Popper and Kuhn had very different views on science. Among other things, as Fuller puts it: Popper "held that science was much too important to be left to scientific discretion", while: "Kuhnian normal science was a politically primitive social formation that combined qualities of the Mafia, a royal dynasty and a religious order." Fuller stresses how conservative Kuhn's views are (and suggests why this is) -- noting also how The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is now read very differently than it was originally.

Fuller also suggests why Popper's thought has been less successful in establishing itself -- including because of Popper's dialectical approach ("his deductivism was anti-inductivism, his liberalism anti-authoritarianism, his individualism anti-holism"), as well as the fact that followers tend to focus on certain aspects of his work, rather than the whole.

Fuller is much more sympathetic to Popper's work, and the book usefully covers a broad range of it, suggesting its value (and some of the difficulties with it). Kuhn, on the other hand troubles him deeply, and he goes so far as to compare Kuhn's willingness "not to question the larger context" with Heidegger's attitude towards Nazism.

In the personal department, I've finished proofreading my sister's writing thesis, which is altogether lovely. (It's good that creative brilliance splattered some of us!) She graduates from Emerson (with a double BFA, no less) in two weeks. Alas, typical passport and financial issues are preventing my inclusion in the family's radiant reunion. If this blog becomes morose at some point soon, at least you'll know why.

Meanwhile, Quixote calls...

P.S. Hotmail has been behaving v e r y strangely--I haven't been able to to check my email in the past four days. If you've tried to make contact regarding the book quest and have yet to hear from me, this is why. Hopefully the cyber-powers-that-be will whip it into shape soon!

02 May 2005

Loss & gain

Much gratitude goes out to wood s lot for remembering Annie Dillard's birthday and Richard Fariña's deathday. The daily wealth he manages to amass never ceases to amaze me. Try to take a peek and not come away deepened by the experience. (I want to steal his pictures, but I won't. You just have to see them for yourself.)

As a feeble echo, here is one of my favorite passages of Dillard's. It broke my 18-year-old heart when I first read it, yet I was comforted by its truth and the mere fact that she had articulated something that had roamed around in my skull for years:
Loss came around with the seasons, blew into the house when you opened the windows, piled up in the bottom desk and dresser drawers, accumulated in the back of closets, heaped in the basement starting by the furnace, and came creeping up the basement stairs. Loss grew as you did, without your consent; your losses mounted beside you like earthworm castings. No willpower could prevent someone's dying. And no willpower could restore someone dead, breathe life into that frame and set it going again in the room with you to meet your eyes. That was the fact of it. [...]

Time itself bent you and cracked you on its wheel. We were getting ready to move again. I knew I could not forever keep riding my bike backward into ever-older neighborhoods to look the ever-older houses in the face. I tried to memorize the layout of this Richland Lane house, but I couldn't force it into my mind while it was still in my bones.

I saw already that I could not in good faith renew the increasingly desperate series of vows by which I had always tried to direct my life. I had vowed to love Walter Milligan forever; now I could recall neither his face nor my feeling, but only this quondam urgent vow. I had vowed to keep exploring Pittsburgh by bicycle no matter how old I got, and planned an especially sweeping tour for my hundredth birthday in 2045. I had vowed to keep hating Amy in order to defy Mother, who kept prophesying I would someday not hate Amy. In short, I always vowed, one way or another, not to change. Not me. I needed the fierceness of vowing because I could scarcely help but notice, visiting the hatchling robins at school every day, that it was mighty unlikely.

As a life's work, I would remember everything--everything, against loss. I would go through life like a plankton net. I would trap and keep every teacher's funny remark, every face on the street, every microscopic alga's sway, every conversation, configuration of leaves, every dream, and every scrap of overhead cloud. Who would remember Molly's infancy if not me? (Unaccountably, I thought that only I had noticed--not Molly, but time itself. No one else, at least, seemed bugged by it. Children may believe that they alone have interior lives.)

Some days I felt an urgent responsibility to each change of light outside the sunporch windows. Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside? Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain. That it was impossible never entered my reckoning. For work, for a task, I had never heard the word.
~ An American Childhood, pp. 172-173

Then we come to know its sisyphusian nature, yet cannot help but be drawn to it. So we never buy cameras, and own few pictures. We keep every letter, but store them out of sight. Forgetfulness becomes a friend.

And then, if we're lucky, more time passes. And something akin to grace allows us to realize something like this (I'm still waiting):


I was tired. So I lay down.
My lids grew heavy. So I slept.
Slender memory, stay with me.

I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater.
He wrapped me in it, and I never gave it back.
It is the sweater he wore to America,
this one, which I've grown into, whose sleeves are too long,
whose elbows have thinned, who outlives its rightful owner.
Flamboyant blue in the daylight, poor blue by daylight,
it is black in the folds.

A serious man who devised complex systems of numbers and rhymes
to aid him in remembering, a man who forgot nothing, my father
would be ashamed of me.
Not because I'm forgetful,
but because there is no order
to my memory, a heap
of details, uncatalogued, illogical.
For instance:
God was lonely. So he made me.
My father loved me. So he spanked me.
It hurt him to do so. He did it daily.

The earth is flat. Those who fall off don't return.
The earth is round. All things reveal themselves to men only gradually.

I won't last. Memory is sweet.
Even when it's painful, memory is sweet.

Once, I was cold. So my father took off his blue sweater.

~ Li-Young Lee

Weekend reading

Haruki Murakami, "Where I'm Likely to Find It" (Via Scott)

Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" (Via 400 Windmills)

Chuck Palahniuk's excerpt from Haunted, "Slumming: A Story by Lady Baglady" (Via Randa at Moorish Girl--and here's where she can be found on days that are not Friday.)

Regarding this last one, I was interested in reading the novel until I read the Publisher's Weekly and Booklist mini-reviews on Amazon. If they're trying to sell the book, why have they posted "reviews" that give so much away?