Friday, July 30, 2010

After Henry

By the standards of Joan Didion’s other collections of journalism, After Henry (1993) is not that great, although it has some strong individual essays and would be a satisfying enough read if it were the first Didion I encountered.  It did not help that I had previously read Political Fictions, which reprints one and expands on another of the three essays in the Washington section of After Henry—the one really strong section in the book.  I will grant that the opening, eponymous tribute to Henry Robbins is one of the better personal essays of hers that I have read: Didion is usually best covering subcultures, politics, or crime.  Regarding the last, “L.A. Noir” is a hilarious and brutal smack-down of what Didion describes as the nonsensical news coverage of a 1983 murder.  Otherwise, the California section felt a little ho-hum.

The final New York section’s sole essay, “Sentimental Journeys,” also the longest essay in the book, is a more complicated treatment of the various narratives rising up around a particular Central Park rape.  In many ways in echoes “L.A. Noir” in its indictment of the media, but here matters are complicated by race, by gender, by class, by the particularities of New York politics.  I found myself generally admiring the essay—Didion is especially good at showing how the media and city obsessed over the crime as a way of avoiding other realities, including realities of rape and the tendency to ignore it when it does not happen to an upwardly mobile white woman.  

However, from a current perspective I did question Didion’s critique of the news media’s standard practice of not naming rape victims in reporting.  She does so because she believes that this anonymity contributed to the fantasy the media built up about the case and, more broadly, because of the possibility that this reinforces a shame surrounding rape that is, essentially, victim blaming.  I don’t entirely dismiss that point.  Nonetheless, we live in a world now where, partially due to the sensationalism of the 24-hour news cycle and even more due to internet tabloid journalism, rape victims get named all the time.  And the general effect has seemed to be that people become incredibly dismissive about rape, probing into the victim’s sexual past in order to find reasons why she shouldn’t be taken seriously.  We know the victims all too well these days, in ways that are meant, by those who tell us about them, to suggest that, well, the women really wanted it and are crying rape just to get someone in trouble.  This would, in fact, seem make it harder for victims to speak up, knowing that they are likely not to be taken seriously—not quite what Didion is hoping for in her desire for transparency.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the Horizon: Group Reading

Ever since the group read on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 ended, I’ve been looking forward to the possibility of another group read, which, I thought at the time, was an ideal way to do book blogging.  Still, I passed on Moby Dick (although I avidly followed the posts on Infinite Zombies) since I had read it a couple of times—a book I love, but I already had a lot of summer reading I wanted to do, including one longer readUlysses, the current IZ read, was more tempting.  I have read about half of it before—all of the Stephen chapters, several, though non-continuous, Bloom chapters, and the Molly chapter—and a few parts several times over, and a group read seems like a fun way to do it.  Still, the other reading intervened. 

Now, though, Scott Esposito has announced that he will be running a group read this fall over at Conversational Reading.  The book is Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2002), a book I did not even know about, but which sounds absolutely great.  My participation could hinge on how busy I am at the time with life events, but right now I am planning to read along and post.  I have already ordered my copy, so even if I am deterred when September rolls around, I will be getting to it.  Apparently, though, I need to go watch The Seven Samurai first (no, this book has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I had been hoping to get to José Saramago’s Blindness this summer anyway, so it is mostly coincidence that leads me to be posting on it so soon after his death.  It is easy to see why Blindness has become such an international success—it is convincingly and frighteningly apocalyptic, yet also far transparently allegorical than most apocalyptic narratives (none of the characters have names, for example, and there is little local specificity of any sort).  Much of the novel has a feel of The Lord of the Flies with grownups.  And perhaps this is why I’m surprised I like the novel so much: I didn’t really like Golding’s novel, nor do I generally care for allegory.  Perhaps it is simply that I so easily am caught up in the terror of the possibility of going blind, which I am a little surprised more writers have not explored, at least in my reading experience.

When I read António Lobo Antunes earlier this summer, I recall running across a claim that Antunes and Saramago had a well-known rivalry within Portuguese literature, and a comparison of this novel with Knowledge of Hell suggests the general aesthetic grounds for disagreement.  Antunes is a writer with a much stronger tie to place and the problems of modernity, whereas Saramago wants to address concepts of basic humanity (or inhumanity) in a universalizing lack of spatial or temporal context.  Both have a tendency to the long sentence and surrealism, but enact them to different effects.  With Antunes, the long sentences derive from the modernist representation of mind—even while the sentences are grammatically sound and are not stream-of-consciousness per se, they suggest a train of thought.  The same is true of the surrealism, which mostly results from Freudian dream-like conflations and displacements.  In Saramago, by contrast, the long sentences are very often just a series of simple sentences spliced together, a neat formal representation of the way that dialogue gets semi-detached from distinct voices for these newly-blind people.  Sentences frame particular conversations rather than moments within conversation.  The surrealism is also much more that of horrible and degraded situations in gothic fiction: the inexplicable plague of blindness (a perfectly terrifying invention for this thought experiment), the descent into inhumane behavior it brings. 

On the whole I am the kind of reader who prefers what Antunes does a little more, even though I think in this particular comparison Blindness holds together as a novel more convincingly than Knowledge of Hell.  I think that someone could claim (and perhaps has claimed) that Saramago is basically trading in a watered-down (amongst other things, easier to read) modernism, but it might as easily be said that Antunes is a little too faithful to the Faulknerian model.

Friday, July 16, 2010

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part II

I would guess that most people, like me, enjoy Proust for the meditative quality, its reflections on anticipation, memory, and experience buttressed by carefully crafted sentences piling precision upon precision.  Nonetheless, it might be too easy to overlook the humor.  I saw one Amazon reviewer insist that Proust never satirizes any of his characters because he cares about all of them equally, but I’m not sure I can agree.  The portrayal of Norpois at the beginning of Shadow seems unforgiving and pleasurably barbed.  When I read Op Oloop earlier this summer, I found its representation of longwinded blowhards in a dinner conversation a little bit dull—the book itself became too much what it meant to satirize.  Proust, on the other hand, manages to represent the endless palaver of Norpois yet make the experience worthwhile.  This is where his first-person narrator plays a useful role: Norpois’s speech prompts reflections that interrupt it and offer a reprieve, allowing us to come back to it fresh.  Turning away and back again only refreshes the sense of how silly he is.

Yet more interesting to me was how, in the second part of this volume, the narrator himself became much less reliable than he had seemed previously, and the object of the book’s satire.  This mostly revolves around the girls of the title, the “little gang” as they are called in this translation, and which include his new love interest Albertine.  Everywhere in this section the narrator’s reflections on love become more suspect than they were in regards to his love of Gilberte in the first part.  Although I thought she was not a very impressive choice as far as love interests go, his reflections on his experience seemed true enough—particularly his discussion of how love fades slowly over time.  With the “little gang” on the other hand, the narrator fully reveals himself to be a typical teenager: he is really only interested in having sex, and all of his attempts to convince himself that what he is feeling has anything to do with love just seems silly.  His inability to see Albertine’s disinterest, and Andrée’s obvious attraction to him, reveals his blindness.  He also behaves very badly, ditching Robert Saint-Loup with paltry excuses and tortured logic.  Although I haven’t read the first volume in some time, I think this must be the section with the most (or most transparent) unreliable narration thus far.

Proust being Proust, the ambivalent waffling between homoeroticism and homophobia is maddening.  In what is otherwise a rather funny extended meditation on vices, he considers the principle that “each vice, like each of the professions, requires and acquires a special knowledge that we are not displeased at being able to display.”  His immediate example: “It takes a homosexual to detect a homosexual.”  Ugh.  And yet, while the book does not seem to question the homophobia occasionally voiced by its characters, it is also filled with homoeroticism, as you might expect knowing that Proust himself slept with men.  The Baron de Charlus is just the kind of hyper-masculine homophobe that you would expect to find out has sex with men in bathhouses—his approach to the narrator in fact seems like an attempt at seduction.  The narrator’s friendship with Saint-Loup (who, I daresay despite the anachronism, reads like some sort of aristocratic McDreamy imported from a Harlequin romance novel) is rife with undertones.  Saint-Loup’s letter after leaving sounds exactly like a coded message, referring to a relationship of which he cannot tell his fellow soldiers because they would be “incapable of appreciating” it.  Sure, you could justify his language through recourse to the idea of nineteenth century same-sex romantic friendships—but surely it is worth noting that many of those friendships had a sexual element, and that by the time Proust is writing the romantic friendship is already starting to carry the association of homosexuality.  Indeed, the fact that the other soldiers could never understand suggests that the lower classes that make up his troops would see romantic friendship as something alien, a little too limp-wristed and aristocratic rather than properly masculine.  If anything, it is this homoeroticism that allows one to read against the grain of the novel and find in it many of the pleasures from which it might otherwise distance itself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part I

As the previous post indicated, I have been reading Proust, specifically the second part of In Search of Lost Time (the artwork formerly known as Remembrance of Things Past, which I have to say I think does a much better job of capturing the spirit of the book).  This is the new Penguin translation, with a different translator for each of the seven volumes; this one, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is the product of James Grieve.  I am finding it delightful—as I did the first volume (trans. Lydia Davis), which I read a few years ago—although I have a hard time imagining reading all seven volumes back to back.  It is a novel that requires a lot of time and a willingness to immerse yourself in its series of memories and reflections, and it invites you to pause over the narrator’s conclusions about life and compare them to what you know of people.  In this the book is about as far removed from what most people want of media these days as you can get—even more so than most novels, inasmuch as there are no chapters and very few section breaks of any sort.  This is not a novel you will be able to enjoy if you are stopping every few minutes to answer a call on your cell phone or look at the latest tweets from your friends, for the simple reason that doing so will cut off the flow of thought—that of the narrator, but also your own, which needs the freedom to wander, spinning off of a particular passage, rather than succumbing to a series of exterior distractions.

Still, the fact that even the individual volumes run long and require such a sustained investment for a single reading seems to undercut the likelihood that they will be reread, even if greatly enjoyed, by many people who are not Proust scholars, and this seems contrary to a theory of perception and art which the narrator offers, as he considers music played by his hostess, a hundred pages into Shadow and which I take to be Proust’s own:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.  So not only was I wrong in my belief that, since Mme Swann had played over for me the most celebrated phrase, the work had nothing more to reveal to me (the result of which was that, for a long time afterward, showing all the stupidity of those who expect that their first sight of Saint Mark’s in Venice will afford them no surprise, because they have seen the shape of its domes in photographs, I made no further attempt to listen to it); but more important, even after I had listened to the whole sonata from beginning to end, it was still almost entirely invisible to me, like those indistinct fragments of a building that are all one can make out in the misty distance.  Therein lies the source of the melancholy that accompanies our discovery of such works, as of all things which can come to fruition only through time.  When I came eventually to have access to the most secret parts of Vinteuil’s sonata, everything in it that I had noticed and preferred at first was already beginning to be lost to me, carried away by habit out of the reach of my sensibility.  Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirety—it was an image of life.

The reflection actually goes on for another page, every bit as smitten in its language with the changeability of art, but this excerpt gives the emphasis on time that Proust brings throughout.  Art, he emphasizes, needs to be lived with, and can only be recognized and experienced in a series of encounters that reveal art’s pleasures as protean and increasingly complicated.  Yet, how do we square this with the immense length of Proust’s work, which places severe limits upon anyone’s ability to re-experience it? 

One possibility is that Proust is writing for a class so leisured that it might in fact have the time.  However, two others strike me as well, both revolving around the idea that Proust is using the length of his work to simulate repeated contact.  He might, for example, be substituting the narrator’s series of encounters, and his ever-evolving, ever-more-subtle reflections on their meaning, for our encounters with the text.  In other words, the narrator’s series of encounters become the reader’s aesthetic encounters (and indeed, they to some extent already are aesthetic for the narrator as well).  Or, in a different permutation, the simple demands of the length, in leading to a lengthy series of encounters of reader with text, result in a deeper familiarity with Proust’s style (which, presumably, does not change appreciably over the seven volumes, although only being in the second I could not say for certain) than one would normally obtain of a shorter novel, symphony, or other artistic work.  In other words, by the end of it, you have gone through the different pleasures of his style just as you would have if he had written a 200-page novel that you then reread a dozen times. 

This last is the most satisfying explanation, perhaps, since the second, regarding substitution of the narrator’s experiences for the reader’s, might seem to beg the question.  The narrator’s experiences, even if aesthetic, are after all not experiences of Proust’s own style, and thus could not really lead to the same kind of appreciation of the work as art—even if they are certainly one of the pleasures dished out for our delectation.

Monday, July 5, 2010


Something amusing from Lydia Davis’s translation note at the beginning of each volume of the new edition of Proust published a few years ago:

We agreed, often after lively debate, on certain practices that needed to be consistent from one volume to the next, such as…leaving the quotations that occur within the text—from Racine, most notably—in the original French, with translations in the notes.

Some changes may be noted in this American edition, besides the adoption of American spelling conventions. One is that the UK decision concerning quotations within the text has been reversed, and all the French has been translated into English, with the original quotation in the notes.

Shorter Lydia Davis: Even the Americans who read Proust are too insular and incapable to handle brief quotations in French. Yes, even if the footnotes translate them.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes is so disappointing largely because I have so enjoyed the few novels I have read by him—if he was a new author I would just forget it and not read anything else he wrote. The short stories here take a typical feature of his work, the naïve and/or sycophantic narrator, but stretch these faults so that they become implausible. In novels like The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, the narrators’ actions and beliefs are sustained by a convincing social fabric, whether a historical reality or an invented dystopia. By contrast, in Nocturnes the characters behave by codes that simply do not make sense for who they are. The stories usually occupy themselves with traditional questions of professionalism in art, and particularly the tug-of-war between a desire for artistic purity on the one hand and the impulse to do whatever will get one a record contract (as the title indicates, these are stories about musicians) on the other. The character flaws are, I suppose, meant to be rooted in the desire to be recognized, out of the masses, as a genius, but the characters always allow themselves to be taken too far. That said, the very worst story, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” uses a different kind of situation, in which the narrator really has no reason at all to debase himself as thoroughly as he does. Is Ishiguro going for slapstick farce here? It doesn’t really seem like it, but it is the only excuse I can think of for how over-the-top the masochism goes.

Admittedly, there are some nice touches here, perhaps because Ishiguro is as skeptical of the purist position, a less typical position in a writer of “literary” fiction, as he is of the argument for simply doing what the audience wants so that you can have a career doing what you want. If the panderers have questionable abilities playing their instruments, then, humorously, so does one of the purists: a supporting character in the final story, “Cellists,” is a musical genius who nonetheless never learned to play her instrument because, she says, she was genius enough to know that the teachers her parents paid were not that good and would thus lead her astray. While the protagonist (although here not the narrator) is an example of too much naiveté to really be believable—he never catches on that she can’t play until she confesses it—her character itself is well drawn, and I wish Ishiguro would have found something else to do with her.