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.

29 September 2012

I loved this piece by Michael Chabon in the NYRB on dreams—real and literary.  I think a lot about dreams, my own and those of my fictional characters. And I love writing dreams; which is why I’m not sure I agree with Chabon in the end:

Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that […]

17 September 2012

Thanks to Lisa at Like Fire for alerting us to NYRB’s new e-book series, NYRB Lit — “devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world.”  Launching this fall, which means, presumably, now!

I’m way behind when it comes to e-reading; when I speak of “turning the corner,” I mean my relationship to e-reading, not e-reading itself.  (I tried the Kindle a couple of years ago and just couldn’t do it — no pages, all that scrolling, ick.) But then again: NYRB launching an e-reading series feels momentous; with their beautiful Classics Series (bringing worthy classic titles back into print), and tabloid-format bimonthly mag (long-form reviews and articles), NYRB has felt to me like the last man standing.

And yet, their new series feels…  natural.  As if they waited until it felt right, no need to rush, and then went for it.  Of course it just makes sense, when your mission is to bring the best (non-blockbuster) literary work into the world, and you want to publish new work, economically risky work, that you’d take advantage of low-cost production and distribution.  I’m excited.

As always, it looks as if many of the titles will be works in translation; and the “covers,” i.e. the digital thumbnails, are lovely.

I’ve been thinking about an ipad; if the rumors about an ipad mini are true, then the corner may very well be turned this fall — for me, and for NYRB.

30 March 2012

I enjoyed Elaine Blair‘s review of Michel Houllebecq‘s most recent novel, The Map and the Territory in the NY Review of Books.  It was one of those reviews that I suspected was more interesting/compelling than the book itself, the ultimate effect of which was to interest me in a book I otherwise would have bypassed.

Now, I realize that what I appreciated in Blair’s approach to the review was my sense that she is a kindred spirit: she is a woman interested in the “maleness” of male literature.   This week, she writes about Houllebecq v. American male novelists.  She cites (as I have many times) David Foster Wallace‘s essay on the Great Male Novelists (GMNs), and the gap between Updike/Bellow/Mailer/Roth and today’s younger generation of male novelists:

When you see the loser-figure in a[n American] novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me […]

Into this theater of struggle, in 2000, arrived The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq’s loser characters have thoughts like “her big, sagging breasts were perfect for a tit-job; it had been three years since his last time.” And he doesn’t call them on it. Except occasionally he does. Houellebecq has a relaxed looseness about the whole matter of whose point of view (author’s or character’s) is being expressed in a given moment. He is happy to keep readers guessing about what he actually believes and what he’s satirizing.

American male novelists (post-Updike et alia), according to Blair, want to be liked by female readers; Houllebecq is more interested in the reality, i.e. the duplicity, of maleness.

Now I suppose I really do want to give The Map and the Territory (and The Elementary Particles) a look.

2 January 2012

In contrast to a barrage of “man of the year” talk surrounding the late Steve Jobs, Sue Halpern offers a counter-view at the New York Review of Books — of a “repellent man” who gave the world not “something of enduring beauty” but rather “products.”  Unlike Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson, who put Jobs forth as a “genius” (with attending personality issues), and Jobs who considered himself  a great artist-figure, Halpern suggests that Jobs was mainly in the business of “manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s” — no more, no less.

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man […] derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Ouch.

This question of the bad behavior of artists is one I am always interested in.  While I’m not sure I’d necessarily take such a hard line as Halpern’s, there is something — here at the start of the new year — sort of cleansing about her voice in the sea of Jobs-mania.

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.

29 October 2011

It’s no surprise that I would be delighted to read Charles Simic at NYRB on the virtues of keeping a notebook, of writing things down longhand.  I still write in a Moleskine journal, and I use spiral notebooks and Bic pilot pens for writing fiction and essays.  I write emails more than texts, which I know is rather outdated, and I still can’t quite get comfortable posting at Facebook (and don’t tweet), because I find that degree of brevity and frequency really stressful.

But I wonder about iPhones/iPads.  I’ve been tempted for a while but haven’t seriously considered it yet (price point is of course an issue).  I like the idea of an “all-in-one” device, but what’s still missing from the “all” is, well, words.  If words are your main medium (generating them, that is), not images or sound or information chunks, then the i-devices still aren’t quite for you.  Yesterday, I left my phone somewhere, and for a short while I didn’t know where.  I thought, O shit, I’m going to have a get a new phone.  Will it be an i-phone? I wondered.  There is a feeling that a year from now, it won’t even be a question or a choice but a foregone conclusion — you’ll need an iphone like you need, say, a refrigerator.

I did find my phone, so it’s all okay for now.  But a year from now… well, let’s just say that I do hope Charles Simic is still writing for NYRB.

 

 

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