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.

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