26 October 2012

In his review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, John Banville writes:

The Dream of the Celt is, like its subject, stout-hearted, well-intentioned, tender, and somewhat naive. It is not in any real sense a novel, but is, rather, a biography overlaid with a light wash of novelistic speculation. It is an exoskeletal work, in that it wears its research on the outside. The author has read widely and diligently on his subject, but the material gathered, instead of being absorbed organically into the narrative, is presented to the reader in the form of raw data. The forays that Vargas Llosa makes into Casement’s thoughts and dreams, although warmly sympathetic, are less than inspired. The novelist has fallen in love with his subject, which is admirable, but his amatory approach does not help the novel.

Vargas Llosa would have done well to remember Henry James’s repeated injunction to himself in his notebooks: “Dramatize! Dramatize!” Yet Casement’s story is so absorbing, and the background against which it unfolds is so fascinating, that the reader will be swept along regardless of the novel’s flaws as a work of fiction. In The Dream of the Celt, for all its shortcomings, Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.

I found this to be a strange conclusion to a review of a novel; Banville seems to forgive Llosa for writing an underwhelming novel, because he has delivered to us compelling historical information.

I was thinking about this in relation to ARGO, which I saw last week.  I enjoyed it, I recommend it; but I was also left thinking that the film could have been so much better.  The material was fascinating, and dramatic; the film delivered the action but gave us, I thought, very little character.  Since it was conceived as a narrative feature, not a documentary, I wanted to see artistry and history working together to create for the viewer an experience.  It sort of did that, but not fully.

I guess what I’m feeling is: if you’re going to work with the dramatic forms — narrative film, novels — then do it!  Your material alone won’t carry you.  A great concept is just half the hog.

30 June 2012

I had hit a dud streak in my reading; Anna Keesey‘s Little Century saved me.  Really enjoyed it and hope you do, too. My review at The Millions.  (Note: I don’t normally write reviews; when I write about books, I more just pontificate and/or relate the book to other things I’m thinking about.  Something about Little Century made me want to actually look more closely at its strengths; I was surprised that I liked it so much, for various reasons.)

 

30 January 2012

This month, my Post-40′s Bloomers column at The Millions features Daniel Orozco, whose story collection Orientation will (in my humble opinion) both engage and inspire you.

4 January 2012

Mark Haddon‘s new novel, The Red House, will be out in June.  I wrote a brief blurb about it for The Millions‘ “Big Preview,” i.e. our most-anticipated-2012-releases extravaganza.  Check it out — it’s exciting and overwhelming, from the perspective of both writer and reader.

In researching The Red House, I found a few of Haddon’s blog posts about his writing process, in real time.  This one encouraged me — it reminded me that writing a novel is hard, it’s supposed to be hard; and yet half the angst of the process (for me, lately) is this ridiculous, tormenting voice inside that says “It shouldn’t be so hard, so slow, so painful; what’s wrong with you?”

I’m about 30,000 words in and it finally has momentum, but it’s been a long haul (i’ve just noticed a previous entry last december in which i announce cheerfully that i’m under way, so whatever i say should be taken with a pinch of salt). on the train on the way home i was perversely reassured by reading hermione lee‘s introduction to virginia woolf’s the years in which she detailed the interminable, painful and tortuous genesis of the novel (impossible… eternal… incredibly dreary… my vomit… i’m so sick of it… never again… failure… failure).

Perverse reassurance is something that we seem to “pay forward,” so thank you, MH.  And thank you, VW, who is perhaps the most extreme/haunting example of this sort of reassurance: there is suffering in the process of art-making – meaningful suffering – let us never forget.

30 December 2011

My piece on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard is up today at The Millions.

I found it surprisingly difficult to write. I suppose that when a book strikes you dumb, when it’s doing so many beautiful wonderful things, it is very difficult to write about.

(Love this Italian book jacket)

What I didn’t include in the piece, because I couldn’t figure out how to do so without it seeming a non sequitur, is the fantastic dog character (Bendicò) who, it turns out, Lampedusa himself felt was “a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.”  The novel in fact closes with an image of Bendicò.

Speaking of which, stay tuned for my “Dogs of Buenos Aires” photo-post, coming up soon.

15 December 2011

Can I just say how much I love the siesta concept, here in Latin America (and many places around the world)?

I’m using mine to catch up on… well, to catch up on everything at this point, but at the moment, catch up on blogs and literary periodicals.  From Claire Messud‘s review of Michael Ondaatje‘s new novel, The Cat’s Table:

In a rare, distinctly essayistic moment in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje articulates his position thus:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they: we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves…. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

This view, almost an authorial ethics of representation, explains some aspects of Ondaatje’s literary style: his prose, while gorgeous, is on occasion quite oblique, and his narratives—as is true of The Cat’s Table—can be strikingly fragmented. (It is wonderful and, in these fundamentally homogenizing times, increasingly rare to encounter a writer who does not shape his art to a known and satisfying form, but instead fashions the form around his content.) His goal is to reach toward that elusive complex we might call experienced human reality, and in so doing, precisely to grant each of his characters his own wisdom and autonomy. In an Ondaatje novel, there is much that we do not directly know, much that we cannot know for certain.

I think often about what it means, in this current cultural moment, to be a “literary” writer; and if that terminology even matters anymore.  There is a sense that it doesn’t; that it is an anachronistic, old fuddy-duddy kind of categorization; that you will die in dinosaur-like fashion if you hold too tightly to such high-art ideas.  But something about Messud’s description of Ondaatje’s literary vision speaks to what I consider to be literary — to be art — in a way that matters.  Uncertainty; unknowability; “experienced human reality” as elusive and complex; ultimately a reading experience that effects some discomfort and reminds us that life is a mysterious, unstreamlined business.

2 December 2011

The annual YEAR IN READING extravaganza is on at The Millions.  See what writers have been reading (and loving) this year.  Up today, Jennifer Egan and Ben Marcus.

18 November 2011

Something completely insane seems to be happening.  Last week, Sam Allingham wrote an analysis at The Millions of Jonathan Lethem‘s takedown of James Wood‘s review of his own novel The Fortress of Solitude (from eight years ago).  The Lethem essay was recently published at the LA Review of Books.

But that’s not quite the insane part (depending I guess on how you feel about Lethem/The Fortress of Solitude).  The comments section of Sam Allingham’s post blew up and started to get rather heated.  Then, suddenly, someone calling himself “James wood” joined the conversation, and it got even more heated.  Soon it became clear that “James wood,” who started his comments referring to “Wood” in the third person, was in fact the James Wood in question.

From a comment by someone named “Lewis,” deep into the thread:

Talk about post-modern moments. A critic writes a review of a writer. Then the writer responds to the critic. Then a blogger writes an article about the writer’s response to the critic. Then posters attack the writer for responding to the critic and other posters attack those posters for attacking the writer’s response. Then the critic responds to the posters, but no one believes he is the actual critic. The strangest/funniest part was perhaps when one poster pretending to be the critic also in response posted a link to a James Wood web site that is for James Wood the used car dealer and another asked that money be deposited in an offshore account for James Woods in the Cayman Islands, although those posts were unfortunately deleted. In any case, I do apologize if I offended you James for my sometimes gratuitous comments, although I never said that all you write about is Flaubert and you don’t write about contemporary authors. In fairness to you I have not read all of your critiques, only enough to get perhaps a biased impression. In fairness to me and Steven though, I agree that it is extraordinarily odd for a writer or critic to write about himself in the third person. Why would you expect any of us to believe you’re you when you speak of yourself as though you’re a corporation or a press agent speaking for you?

Completely apart from the issues of literary criticism and author-responses that this thread of comments addresses; what is going on here?  I feel lost and confused about how it is we are all learning/unlearning to communicate in the blogosphere; it seems scarcely human.

11 October 2011

At the New York Review of Books, James Salter reviews Paul Hendrickson‘s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost.  A rather clunky title for a book that sounds well worth reading if you are a fan of the man, or at least the work.

This I did not know about Hemingway’s son Gregory:

[I]n the final riveting act, there enters a grotesque, almost demonic figure, tortured, mesmerizing, a doctor with the prodigious wreckage of three wives, seven or eight children, alcohol, drugs, and adultery trailing behind him, a transvestite who finally has a sex change operation and ends up dying in jail: the always troubled, gifted youngest son, Gregory Hemingway.

He is last seen sitting on the curb in Key Biscayne one morning after having been arrested the night before trying to get through a security gate. He’s in a hospital gown but otherwise naked with some clothes and black high heels bunched in one hand. He had streaked, almost whitish hair that morning, painted toenails, and as the police approached was trying to put on a flowered thong. Five days later he died of a heart attack while being held in a Women’s Detention Center. He was listed as Gloria Hemingway. This was in 2001; he was sixty-nine years old.

More here.

 

1 September 2011

From Katie Roiphe‘s interview with Nicholson Baker at Slate about his new erotic novel, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch – about which Sam Anderson wrote in the NY Times, ““Hoo-boy, people, get ready for this book. It is going to be Talked About”:

In a funny way he is more exposed in this book than his others because he is laying bare his fantasies. For some reason, it’s almost more intimate and confessional to write about crazy scenarios you find arousing than a more realistic or straightforward autobiographical novel might be. As he put it, “Things are in this book because I found them arousing. I was excited by writing this book. There is no point in doing it if you are not. You know the worry is, is it too tame? Is it too nice? Is it too weird? Is it too Dr Seuss-y? There is a review that says that. I kind of like that.”

My previous post on Baker here.

4 August 2011

At the Hindustan Times, Sanjay Sipahimalani calls The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books “a breath of fresh air” and quotes my essay in the final paragraph of the review.

It’s Sonya Chung, though, who strives to look at the present in just the right manner. The pendulum will swing back one day, she writes, but meanwhile, “…whether you are optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or dispirited, it is clear that our needs, desires, fears, and values are at stake; and what could be more exciting for literature?” A new age of Modernism could be around the corner, in other words. As that quartet from Athens, Georgia, might well have sung: It’s the end of the book as we know it, and I feel fine.

An R.E.M. comparison?!  Definitely a first.

Read the entire review here.

29 June 2011

At The Millions today, my Q&A with Ayelet Waldman, author of the NY Times Best-Seller Bad Mother and the novels Red Hook Road and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.  Waldman and her husband Michael Chabon are co-writing a pilot for HBO called “Hobgoblin.”  Darren Aronofsky to direct.

Also, from last week, my take on Richard Yates‘s The Easter Parade.

   

A couple of other interesting posts recently at The Millions: Lydia Kiesling reviews Carmela Ciararu‘s Nom de Plume (and the author responds strongly in the comments), and Timothy Aubry reviews The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.  

      

Finally, we are reminded of Deborah Eisenberg saying, in a 2010 profile, “I’m sort of desperately throwing myself against pieces of paper and only coming up with what look like bug smears.” A new short story by Eisenberg is up at NYRB.

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