Monday, January 26, 2015

Five (or More!) Books You Shouldn't Read This Year!

19-5-27* was the combination of my Master Lock in high school--19 Surefire Secrets! 5 Must Do Stretches! 27 Shortcuts To Staying in Shape! No thank you,  I don't subscribe, but I do love the predictable covers of self-help magazines. Oodles of lists on how to achieve fitness, sexual allure, and great abs (it really is all about one's abs, isn't it?). Be honest: did you even know what an ab was the first time you saw this dipthong in print? The writers' mags are just as bad. Recently I saw "22 Ways to Develop a Character" with an exclamation point; tough to imagine Henry James reading that article. Then there's the intriguing possibility of Foreign Affairs using the same technique to grab your short-term newstand attention: "16 Ways to Win Back the Eastern Ukraine!" or "The 22 Top Republican Fantasies About Benghazi!" Lots of traction there. Or the staid Economist: "Jamie Diamond's Top Ten Ties Worn When Testifying Before The House Banking Committee!"

Dear Reader: it irks me that Talented Reader doesn't have a catchy cover with lots of numbers and fake advice to arouse your interest. What do we offer you but idiosyncratic reviews of books, mostly without plot descriptions (and books mostly without plots)? We're yearning for bigger sales, an income stream, six-pack abs. So here we go: but not, of course, with any positive advice about improving your health, diet, exercise regime, or even your literary life. No, we'll take the low road and instead of pushing you toward five books that you MUST READ! this year in order to be happy, sexy, and slender, we'll suggest five plus books that you should avoid, books that you have been told are worth your time but which are--take our word for it--a waste.

--All poetry by John Ashbery. And while we're at it, any article, book, or statement by Helen Vendler on JA or any other poet. Or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books (I've cancelled my subscriptions) those paeans to Ashberyism. The Ashbery industry is one of the great literary scams of this or any other era. Think Robert Service, hallucinating.

--Don't bother reading the Michael Chabon novel you were planning to read, whichever one it might have been (aside from Wonder Boys). My guess, which is worthless, is that the likeable and competent Mr. Chabon yearned for NYT bestseller success and renounced his literary passion after the publication of Wonder Boys. All that has followed this amusing second book has been unlikeable--meandering plot-thick stories about loveable eccentrics (Kavalier and Klay, Yiddish Policemen, Telegraph Hill) whose adventures have a comic-book quality and little that is sustaining. I loathe loveable eccentrics.

--Admit it, you promised yourself that this would be the year you read ALL of Norman Rush. I've recently recovered from NRism--months of slogging through Mating and Mortals, and even, god help me, Subtle Bodies. Don't do it. Halfway through Mortals (which is Mating and therefore confusing) it occurred to me that I hate all novels about White People in Africa, almost all novels about adultery, and most novels that confuse personal anomie with the great crimes of imperialism. Read Achebe instead.

--That copy of Portrait of a Lady gathering dust on your bedside table? Or, god help you, The Golden Bowl? Or some novel or other by G. Eliot or Dickens or Thackeray (Vanity Fair!) that you "just can't get into"? Just let it go. Ego te absolvo. Not all of us are cut out for Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit (e.g. me). My old friend Trustman read all of Dickens, every last word, while walking her dog. Can you imagine the strength of character this took? Admit it: you're weak, you'll never have a six-pack, killer thighs, or finish Middlemarch. Be like me. Join a Recovering from Victorian Novels group. They're everywhere--check the Yellow Pages. Or read Lydia Davis while detoxing. You're basically a good person.

--To wrap up, I'll offer broad advice for the book-lorn that has helped me:

Instead of Murakami, read Oe
Instead of The Brothers Karamazov read The Idiot
Instead of War and Peace (that swollen clunker) read Anna K (really, it's all right, sort of like admitting you don't really like whole wheat bread)
Instead of Eliot and Pound read Hart Crane
Instead of all those tedious and over-hyped Javier Marias novels read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. In fact, go Portuguese this year. Try Antunes' Fado Alexandrino.
Try Henry Roth instead of Philip, Richard Yates instead of Junot Diaz, Perec in place of Le Clezio, Jean Strouse's brilliant biography of Alice James instead of yet another book about George Washington or T. Jefferson, and by all means read all of Kawabata Yasunari. "Twenty-Seven Things I Learned About Life From Reading Snow Country" is a cover story you won't ever see, but that's the way it goes.

And, by the way, the notion of "training easy and running fast" is utter nonsense. Ask Dennis Kimetto, whose face you will never see in "Runners World. "

*How fun to begin a sentence with a numeral!

George Ovitt (1/26/15)

Monday, January 19, 2015

An Artist of the Green World

Marie NDiaye, Self-Portrait in Green

--Dedicated to Neal Tonken

Green with envy, green with inexperience, a green thumb, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, "the force that through the green fuse," "nature's first green is gold," greener on the other side, "eat your greens," greenbacks, The Greening of America, well-tended greens, the green room, given the green light, green around the gills (?): I could probably find lots more phrases on-line but won't waste the time looking. Green chile. The point is that greeness as a state of being (sometimes) implies life and vitality and renewal. Other times it doesn't, or does so in a way that is quite indirect. Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo was an early fascination of mine--he could coax life from the earth and a laugh from the Captain equally well. And though I now live in the brownest of states, I grew up in the Garden State, opulent shades of green for six months of the year back in the days when our planet still had seasons. But green has a bit of menace about it as well--the life that percolates at all times just below the surface of the earth and which is awakened around the time of the vernal equinox is a great mystery and more than a little overwhelming to consider. Green might be hope, but it is also power, menace, yearning, and death.  Jack's climb up the beanstalk; the kudzu that chokes all greens to brown; the sad inevitability of green's fading...this, though not green, is greenish:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather. 

Maria NDdiaye, the Senegalese-French winner of the Booker Prize, the precocious novelist-playwright who published her first book, Quant au riche avenir, when she was seventeen, is a stylist of grace whose special power lies in the realm of dense atmospherics achieved through minimalist portraits of her characters and vaguely sketched plots. Poetic language in the service of that which is obscure--this is surely the point of Self-Portrait in Green, a novella whose quiet and cumulative effects have little to do with the conventions of story-telling and as much to do with what is left unwritten as with what is written. Women dressed in green, or with green eyes, or who evoke that which is green--or, to be honest, who mostly suggest what isn't green at all but shades of gray and black, colors of mystery, uncertainty, and sadness. See Wallace Stevens.

Mia Weinberg's "Green Painting" depicts movement and density with a minimal palate and few breaks in the monochromatic field of color. The blot of red/brown at the top of the painting breaks apart the sequencing of shades of green--from near yellow to near black. A gradation not unlike the flow of linked stories in Self-Portrait in Green. The rising waters of the Garonne River introduce a note of menace; the first woman of green appears as an apparition visible only to Marie, the narrator. This woman, perhaps the ghost of another green woman, blends into a landscape of banana trees like a figure in a painting by Rousseau. "Is she waiting for me? Does she somehow resent not being seen..." Being seen, being known, is one of NDiaye's central themes, both in SPIG and in another of her books that I am reading, All My Friends. In the greenest of Self-Portrait's plots a complex triangle emerges--husband, wife, and the former lover of the husband. Something unspeakable happens to the wife--or does it? It isn't clear what is being seen and what is being imagined or dreamed. And the resonance of this event colors the other stories: the author's father marrying a green woman and then disappearing; the author's mother in two wholly different shades of green, one resplendent and the other fading to black. Other greens include the green eyes and green trousers green souls of women who are known to Marie or a part of Marie herself, her voice at times a drone, as monochromatic as the single hue of a drive through Provence in mid-summer.

But why green? Why a novel that examines the hues of this ambiguous color? Why color at all? One might think that color would matter extraordinarily to a woman of African descent who lives in a European country (NDiaye now resides with her husband and children in Berlin). Yet Self-Portrait isn't a political book, or a book about race; insofar as it is "topical" this is a book about gender, about a woman's invisibility, her despair (perhaps her suicide), her reinvention, her coming back to life season after season. Perhaps that's it, the greening of Marie--her rebirth and death and birth again. As the Green Knight allows himself to be decapitated to prove a point (Arthur's court isn't the paradigm of morality that it pretends to be), so too do the women who are shades of Marie NDiaye endure invisibility and worse in order to unmask the lies with which women live. Or perhaps not. This sounds sententious and false. The truth is that there is a puzzle at the heart of this small book that has eluded me. It's beautifully written but as opaque as the color that lies at its center.

Marie Ndiaye est aussi discrète. L'écriture de son œuvre, qui compte à ce jour huit romans, ne s'accompagne pas d'une intense présence sur la scène publique et médiatique. Elle se situe en retrait, presque à la marge, des différents champs littéraires : le champ littéraire français et les champs littéraires africains, tant ceux qui se construisent dans les pays africains que ceux qui s'élaborent en Europe. - See more at:

 Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, is published by Two Lines Press out of San Francisco. They also have published All My Friends and other titles translated from the French.

George Ovitt (1/19/15)

Marie Ndiaye est aussi discrète. L'écriture de son œuvre, qui compte à ce jour huit romans, ne s'accompagne pas d'une intense présence sur la scène publique et médiatique. Elle se situe en retrait, presque à la marge, des différents champs littéraires : le champ littéraire français et les champs littéraires africains, tant ceux qui se construisent dans les pays africains que ceux qui s'élaborent en Europe. - See more at:


Monday, January 12, 2015

This Mutilated World


Without End by Adam Zagajewski

A collection of collections, Without End includes poems from various collections of Zagajewski’s poetry, including New Poems, Early Poems, Tremor, Canvas, and Mysticism For Beginners.

Here is a small sampling of what you’ll find:

Good Friday in the Tunnels of the Métro

Jews of various religions meet
In the tunnels of the Métro, rosary beads
Spilled from someone’s tender fingers.

Above them priests sleep after their Lenten supper,
Above them the pyramids of synagogues and churches
Stand like the rocks a glacier left behind.

I listened to the St. Matthew Passion,
Which transforms pain into beauty,
I read the Death Fugue by Celan
Transforming pain into beauty.

In the tunnels of the Métro no transformation of pain,
It is there, it persists and is keen.

Song of an Emigré

We come into being in alien cities.
We call them native but not for long.
We are allowed to admire their walls and spires.
From east to west we go, and in front of us
rolls the huge circle of flaming
sun through which, nimbly, as in a circus,
a tame lion jumps. In alien cities
we look at the work of Old Masters
and we recognize our faces in the old
paintings without surprise. We lived
before and we even knew suffering,
we lacked only words. At the Orthodox
church in Paris, the last White
gray-haired Russians pray to God, who
is centuries younger than they and equally
helpless. In alien cities we’ll
remain, like trees, like stones.

Try To Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish  yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland in 1945. Considered one of the “Generation of ‘68” or “New Wave” writers in Poland, he has written numerous collections of both poetry and prose. He lives in France.


                                               Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Nigerian Nightmares

Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole

Not a novella, nor a travel book, Every Day is for the Thief (EDT) is in fact a collection of brief yet poignant ruminations on the absurdities of modern Nigeria. But "absurdities" is wrong: what is the word one might use to describe a society so dysfunctional, so indifferent to the amenities of ordinary civil life? Every one is a thief: extortion and violence are chronic; poor people--the vast majority of Nigerians--are stoical in the face of absent public services (water, electricity, transportation), but then they have to be stoical since there is no government from which one might demand redress. The nameless narrator--a medical student from Brooklyn--whose life story appears to be Cole's own, visits Lagos, thinking of perhaps moving back to the country of his youth. There's not much by way scene setting, or character development, nor is there any plot aside from the daily shock of moving through a society that has its collective hand held out for a bribe, or which appears to be overseen by workers with narcolepsy (at the National Museum, the most depressing chapter in the book).

I couldn't help but think that the capitalist ideal is something like Cole's version of modern Lagos: a society based on naked self interest, a social fabric torn by extortion and bribery, indifference to the poor, a flow of wealth inexorably upward to the kleptocracy whose role it is to rule a people it despises.**

A phrase I hear often in Nigeria is idea l'a need. It means 'all we need is the general idea or concept.' People say this in different situations. It is a way of saying: that's good enough, there's no need to get bogged down in details. I hear it time and again. After the electrician installs an antenna and all we get is unclear reception of one station, CNN, instead of the thirty pristine stations we were promised, the reaction isn't that he has done an incomplete job. It is, rather, we'll make do, after all idea l'a need. Why bother with sharp reception when you can have snowy reception?

Resignation is rooted in cultural despair--what's the point of caring when there's no hope of a better life? I've seen something of this attitude in parts of Mexico and Central America and even among acquaintances of mine in poorer parts of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. "Take things as they come," or "Go along to get along" are variations on idea l'a need. What was difficult for me in reading EDT was making out the narrator's, Cole's, view of the matter: was he rueful, angry, detached, despairing? As you can see from the snippet above, the prose of the book is flat and plain--here's the way it is, Cole seems to say, believe it or not.

What I wanted to know as I read the book was what a fellow Nigerian would think of this description of his country. I can't imagine a white European or American selling a novel to Random House at whose center was such a dismal portrayal of an African nation--there would have to be mitigating circumstances; irony, or a focus on political failure (blame the institutions rather than the people--the liberal's escape from responsibility), but be sure to preserve some sense of the noble spirit of the long-suffering population. And the guilt would have to be rooted in European colonialism. Teju Cole make no such charges or adjustments. He is unsparing in his condemnation of his countrymen:

Nigeria's disconnection from reality is neatly exemplified in three claims to fame the country has recently revieved in the world media. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world. Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people, and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied fro third from the bottom out of the 159 countries surveyed in the corruption perception index. Religion, corruption, happiness. Why, if so religious, so little concern for the ethical life or human rights? Why if so happy, such weariness and stifled suffering? (142)

Helon Habila, the Nigerian author of Oil on Water, wrote a review of EDT for The Guardian which offered no deep objections to the pessimism displayed by Cole.

"Cole is searching for what he describes, using an image from Tomas Tranströmer, as a "spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces … " Sometimes one wonders if the narrator is looking hard enough, or in the right places. One wishes, sometimes, that the storyteller would take a detour from the well-trodden middle-class avenues, the museums and art centres, and shine his prospector's torchlight on the backstreets and hovels and tenement houses written about elsewhere by Ben Okri and Cyprian Ekwensi. Lagos is a city that stirs up ambitions not only in the writer, but also in the reader. And one feels that this writer will be back with more on this exhausting, but still unexhausted city."

What is the city of the future? Is is New York, an unaffordable Disneyland of consumption, or Lagos, a teeming and disintegrating metropolis of the poor and desperate?

It's difficult to judge Every Day is for the Thief by ordinary literary standards. The book hardly seems to contain any of the attributes of fiction. Taken with Open City, Cole's first, rather more traditional novel, EDT is a coming-of-age story; an account of awakening to the world. I can't point to any real "pleasures" in reading EDT, but only to the sobering facts of the how things have become in the greater world--the world of the majority. Remember the illusion of "flatness"? We were all to saved by computers, according to Thomas Friedman. Well, guess what? In Nigeria computers are used to scam credulous Westerners out of their money. Welcome to the Revolution, the flattened world of the dream merchants.

The way the world is turning now, Lagos will be our collective future--crowded, polluted, corrupt, and ungovernable. Not so much a fiction, but a blueprint, a prophecy, a nightmare come true. Cole isn't our Tolstoy--he's our Jeremiah.

**See Jeff Madrick, Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World, just published by Knopf.

George Ovitt (1/4/15)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Playful Pen and Melancholy Ink

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

"For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place." So begins this brilliantly odd, expressly modernist Brazilian novel, first published in serial form—and to great acclaim—in the 1880's. It is the tale of an unheroic, unremarkable, now perfectly dead man, a wealthy bachelor named Brás Cubas, who, in the bantering, satirical, narratively intrusive style of Sterne and Thackeray and deMaistre (and clearly foreshadowing Proust), guides the reader on a quixotic and retrospective journey through his remarkably Oblomovian life, a life distinguished less by action, by deed, than by a host of hair-brained theories and plans, including the desire to invent and market a balm for all of the melancholy in the world.  

This novel is really about the particular perspective from which it is told, a distinctly privileged point of view, the tale told through the eyes of an indolent, irreverent, facetious, and very lively dead man, "an extremely uncommon form of autobiography, written from beyond the grave, with all the advantages of perfect hindsight."  Thanks to this unique perspective, the narrator, Brás Cubas, is free to write and express himself with impunity, with little regard for the probity, scruples, and good faith that mar the artistry and candor of so many a writer today.  Joseph Conrad, a near contemporary of Machado de Assis, famously declared, with regard to his novella Heart of Darkness, opening the door to the modernist novel itself, that the writer "writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader." And so it is, too, with The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a novel that demands that the reader play "an active, creative, and critical role." If you are a fan of such wry, self-conscious, and richly digressive novels as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, and Voyage Around My Room you will delight in this wondrous tale. 
Here is one more little taste:

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, who was born and died in Rio de Janeiro, 1839-1908, was a poet, novelist and short story writer who is often described as the father of Brazilian literature. He was of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry.  Among his other best known works, are Epitaph of a Small Winner, Philosopher or Dog?, and Dom Casmurro. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. 

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky began to compose Nativity poems in 1962--one at each year's end. They are collected by FSG in a nice little stocking-stuffer-sized book. Since they are Brodsky poems they are intelligent and deeply felt. My favorite is this one, from 1971. Some of the lines are absolutely perfect--"a sort of goodwill touched with grace."  Happy holidays to all of our readers around the world.

December 24, 1971

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halva, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, cones of paper,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by snow.

And the bearers of gifts, unassuming,
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet Her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Had Herod but known the stronger he seemed,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
Every year this constant relation
is the basic machinery of Christmas.

This they celebrate now everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star yet awhile,
but a sort of goodwill touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery to no one:
but the signs are confusing, men’s hearts may
find it hard to acknowledge the stranger.

But the draft through the doorway will part
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stand revealed,
and the Christ-child and Spirit that’s Holy
will be sensed in the soul without shame;
a glance skyward will show it—the star.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Ten Favorite Books of 2014

Our mountains look roughly like this at the moment--a couple of brief dustings of snow this past week, altostratus and stratocumulus clouds against an otherwise clear sky, cold, but not too. No, please don't move here--believe me, you wouldn't like it. But even from my first-floor study window, through the now-bare elms and cottonwoods, I can see the gray-blue-oranage beginning to mass on the summit--it's quite lovely, though an acquired taste.

Today was also the day that the Times published its "Ten Best Books of 2014" list, an event I look forward to so as to receive some guidance in my last minute holiday shopping.  If you don't bother with the Times, you may not know that the paper has three full-time book critics--Janet Maslin (the light stuff), Dwight Garner (likely to review a book that, if you read this blog, you might enjoy reading yourself), and  Michiko Kakutani (in charge of championing Establishment books, thereby insuring that the Times never strays from the acceptable literary mainstream). Gore Vidal called what the Times does "book chat." If you want literary criticism, read James Wood. The Times preserves, at all costs, the middle-brow in literature (the upper middle brow), so what you won't find in their "best" list (why not just call it "ten books worth reading" or "ten of the better books"?) would be anything from Eastern Europe, plotless, genuinely political, or genuinely difficult. Which is fine, but in some ways also a shame since a review in the newspaper of record bestows credibility and sales on lesser-known publishers (not to mention their writers) and would go a long way toward keeping diversity alive in publishing. But, for the most part, the three reviewers stick to the big New York houses and their authors.They perform a service, but given about 300 reviews a year, not as much of a service as one might hope.

I admit I haven't read too many of the Times books this year. Four, to be exact. Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Volume III; Foreign Gods (see below); Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Ben Lerner's 10:04, and about 50 pages of  Redeployment by Phil Klay. No way was I going to read Robert M. Gates Duty: Memoirs of the Secretary at War since you pretty much know it will have all the credibility of a Kissinger memoir. Garner's list was the best one since he included Hermione Lee's new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and Teju Cole's Every Day is For the Thief (which I plan to read soon).  Ms. Maslin has included one book about hackers, one book about Wall Street, and one book about a feisty furniture manufacturer--we're not talking belles lettres here.  Kakutani, in keeping with her portfolio, got stuck with Gates, or maybe chose it, and mostly stuck to books put out by Knopf and Random House, two great publishers who have become incredibly conservative in their lists.  Farrar is now the best source of good books outside of the independent publishers, and they haven't compromised on the quality of their product either; I just purchased Leopardi's 2500-page Zibaldone from them and it is a gorgeous book. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the Times' list is full of fine books, but why is there no novel by the Nobel Prize winner? Only one book of poetry? No history, philosophy, or political writing? Kolbert's book is brave, well-written, and timely--but hers is the only one on the list that tackles any questions of real substance.

Who am I to talk? Hell, I don't even live in Brooklyn! Look at all I've left out! And my list isn't entirely of books published this year. This list-making fetish is becoming idiotic. Everybody is making lists--The 100 Top Sushi Bars in Des Moines!--what's the point? On the other hand, it was a pleasure to have spent two hours thinking back over the many fine books I was able to read this year. Pulling them off the shelf, remembering the joy I had reading them, piling them up and trying to decide which ones had meant the most to me. Choosing wasn't easy, and by the time I had decided on my ten the sun was setting and the mountains had disappeared.

In no particular order:

1--Thomas Bernhard: Extinction: His final novel and his most representative. My favorite Bernhard is whichever one I am reading at the moment (Frost).  A plot summary? Are you kidding? Don't read page 47 of the Vintage edition with coffee in your mouth, as I did, ruining a nice book and nearly choking with merriment.  Bernhard-induced laughter is like no other. The only writer who never fails to cheer me up.

2--Giacomo Leopardi: Canti, beautifully translated by Jonathan Galassi (Farrar Straus Giroux): Italy's second greatest poet and the finest of the Romantic poets, period. (Book critics need to be sure of themselves).

3--Reiner Stach: Kafka: The Years of Insight: I read an above average number of literary biographies, and this one, the second of a three-volume life of the consummate modernist, is as engaging, well-written, and as worthy of its subject as any I've ever read. It was translated by Shelly Frisch who is extraordinary and deserves to have her picture here--it was published by Princeton, the fine press that also did the Joseph Frank biography of Dostoevsky, which many readers consider the finest literary biography ever written. I also read that one (abridged) this past year, but preferred Stach's Kafka by the slimmest of margins.

4--Charles Wright: Bye-and-Bye: Selected Later Poems (Farrar Straus Giroux): poignant, lyrical, deeply felt, rich in expression, moving...our new poet laureate, the one job in government through which one might truly make a positive difference to people. I've been carrying this book everywhere for four months.

5--Geoff Dyer: Out of Sheer Rage (Vintage): Dyer's take on D.H. Lawrence. Only Dyer could make the maudlin, self-regarding, utterly tedious Lawrence interesting--but Dyer can make anything interesting. Actually OOSR is more of a book about Dyer, which is just as well. Not new, but who cares? Really good.

6--Drago Jancar: Joyce's Pupil (Brandon): Twelve stories of love, death, and chaos by the Slovenian master. My favorite stories of the year.

7--Arnon Grunberg: Tirza (Open Letter): Strange doings in Amsterdam and Africa--utterly compelling as a study of the degeneration of an ordinary man who finds himself--as we all do--in an insane world.

8--Ben Lerner: 10:04 (Faber and Faber): I just finished Lerner's new novel last week. He thinks of himself primarily as a poet, but I have tried (twice) to read Angle of Yaw and gotten nowhere. But as a novelist Lerner has real genius. This is a book that is difficult to categorize and therefore even better. Definitely give this one a look.

9--Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (Penguin): translated by Dick Davis. Persian love poems with a remarkably informative introduction by the translator. "However old, incapable/And heart sick I may be, /The moment I recall your face/My youth's restored to me..." Not a new book, but for me an untried poet and an utterly fresh reading experience.

10--Penelope Fitzgerald: The Blue Flower (Mariner): I've just reread Fitzgerald's novel of the German poet Novalis. Reading about the Lee biography of the eccentric, productive, unclassifiable Fitzgerald made me want to go back to this book after many years. A great odd-ball novel. There are parts of this book that are literally unlike anything that's every been written by anyone. Do read it!

May I have two runners up? Thomas Pikkety's Capital which would be on this list if I had been able to read the entire book but I pooped out in the middle. It's extraordinary, but mostly over my head. Antonio Machado's poetry in two different translations. I loved The Landscare of Castille as translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney (White Pine Press), and I wanted to note how much I am enjoying both Foreign Gods by Okey Ndibe and Monica Maristain's Bolano: A Biography in Conversations (Melville House). I hope to write more about these books when I finish them.

Meanwhile, happy reading at the end of the year, and I wish you great reading in the New Year.

George Ovitt (12/19/14)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Krishna in Malgudi

The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan

                                              To see a world in a grain of sand
                                              And a heaven in a wild flower,
                                              Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
                                              And eternity in an hour.

                 William Blake

The fictitious South Indian town of Malgudi, where most of R.K. Narayan’s novels and short stories are set, is matched in scope and poignancy perhaps only by Faulkner’s ‘apocryphal’ Yoknapatawpha County. Like Faulkner’s re-imaginary county in rural Mississippi, “a veritable universe, replete with its own geography, history, and interrelated narratives,” Narayan’s Malgudi teems with variety and connections, the characters as diverse, familiar, and surprising (in their curious insularity) as one would expect to find in the world at large. Such is Narayan’s (and Faulkner’s) gift as a writer, his ability to see the universe in a single grain of sand. And as in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County the stakes in Malgudi are as high, as momentous, as tinged by divinity and fate, as they are simple, archetypal, mundane.

Yet, whereas Faulkner’s world, for all its universality, is often almost unremittingly bleak, its inhabitants scorched and scarred by ignorance, poverty, racism, and violence, Narayan’s Malgudi is a gentler, subtler, more Chekhovian place, defined at heart by a miniaturist’s blend of tragedy and humor, by the rich if “extraordinary ordinariness” of human experience. Living cheek-and-jowl in the town we find a heartbroken student, a submissive housewife, a self-professed financial expert, a conscientious sign-painter, a printer, a vendor of sweets, a taxidermist, and a convict-turned-sadhu who, after serving his sentence in prison, takes up residence in an abandoned temple at the edge of town. Finally, there is Krishna, the subject of Narayan’s 1945 novel, The English Teacher

A modest, unassuming instructor of English literature (Milton, Carlyle, and Shakespeare) at the college he’d attended as a student, Krishna, a new husband and father, finds himself vaguely dissatisfied with his life. He wonders:

What was wrong with me? I couldn’t say, some sort of vague disaffection, a self-rebellion I might call it. The feeling again and again came upon me that as I was nearing thirty I should cease to live like a cow (perhaps, a cow, with justice, might feel hurt at the comparison), eating working in a manner of speaking, walking, talking, etc.—all done to perfection, I was sure, but always leaving behind a sense of something missing.

Then one day he receives a letter from his father suggesting that the time has come, now that he is comfortably settled in his job in Malgudi, for him to become a proper husband and father by leaving the hostel where he has been staying and find a house of his own in which he and his wife and son can live. The thought alarms him: “God, what am I to do with a little child of seven months?” Little does he suspect how prophetic a question it is, as he soon finds himself a widower, devastated by the death of his newly beloved wife and raising his child on his own—all while working a full-time job. The story that ensues is a patient, truly poignant evocation of the redemptive power of grief and love, of the dazzling hazards of being human. 

R.K. Narayan He (with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand) is credited with pioneering the genre of Indian literature written in English. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Singh, Rohinton Mistry, etc.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, December 6, 2014

How We Might Think, and How We Do

A Different Bed Every Time: Stories

by Jac Jemc


Here's a little story about the History of Thinking. I'm pretty sure it's false, or at best partly true. But, as the madmen say these days, this story has heuristic value.

Imagine the first idea ever--an odd popping into consciousness of an image or of uninvited words. What to make of this phenomenon? The Greeks, who mostly set the terms of all our arguments (sidebar: imagine how different the world might be if instead of Greek rationality the West had been defined under the influence of the multi-layered animism of India or the pure dualism of Persia), decided that these ideas had to come from someplace else, had to be eternal, and had to reflect a permanent dichotomy between this world and another that was "more real." Plato worked all of this out in a way that was, if not plausible, at least comprehensible, and Aristotle tidied things up by diminishing the distance between what clearly is and what really is (a worry which paints one into a tight epistemological corner, for how is one to know how things really are except by using the very tools whose reliably we are trying to check in the first place? This is where mathematics came in handy, for only math could--it was claimed--attain a level of abstraction that would definitively show HTRA without the mess and fuss of the things themselves, and thereby dispense with the problem of using the exact same set of ideas to define those ideas; but then it turned out that math and its cousin logic were trapped in the same epistemological corner, as Godel showed, so that the very notion of "certainty" had to be thrown out, and irony, the knowing wink-wink of Western culture, was invited to sit on the throne once occupied by Truth, now as decapitated as the Kings and Queens who relished Reason for its perennial support of the status quo). Hegel finished off philosophy with a bang about as loud as Napoleon's cannons at Jena. It turned out, Herr Hegel argued, that there's no need to worry about where ideas come from or what role reason plays in our lives, or even to worry about how we think. Reason is all that exists. But not Plato's creative reason or Aristotle's analytical reason--no, Hegel's Reason is Consciousness Itself, the final irreducibility. We're bits of it, embodiments, coming slowly to self-recognition, creating reality rather than struggling to make it out....What Hegel did for us was--at long last--to finish off objectivity, to destroy the privileged position of the so-called "real world," and to make way for the individual human consciousness to become the orbit around which everything else rotated. Wordsworth's Prelude, Nietzsche's Will to Power, Proust's discovery that memory is meaning, Woolf's real-time substitution of impressions for the sort of coherence worshiped by "realists." After all, the great secret of Western thought, the elephant in the room, has been subjectivity; 2000 years of fiddle-faddle about "reason" was only a way to insure that power would lie with reason's guardians, the self-appointed truth-tellers, the dudes in bad suits with the little black box that somehow puts them in charge (they still are in charge, and they still tell us to "be reasonable"). Nietzsche, with his paradoxical and hyperbolic brilliance gave poetic voice to Hegel's turgid discoveries when Nietzsche revealed that Socrates, far from being the hero of the story (as Alan Bloom and the Canonists would have it), was actually the villain.  By substituting empty arguments for social truth, Socrates shifted Reason from the command of anyone willing to think and put it in the hands of the elite, the Guardians, and left the rest of us to wonder how we had become so confused by what is really so simple. I mean, honestly, does one need a thousand scholarly books to reveal the nature of justice? Or ten thousand to explain why human beings are moved by what is beautiful? Reason relishes the meta-; the thing to make us better and happier would be to put away abstractions for a while so that real live human beings can once again occupy history (thanks Herr Hegel). You can drop bombs on "terrorists" without a second thought--but what about dropping them on a person who has a family and a history, who has hopes and dreams in just the way that you, the drone operator, has a family and a history? Reason destroys context--that's what it's best at. But life is all context.

With philosophy relegated to the task of sifting through ironies for the prettiest flowers (Richard Rorty was better at this than anyone: a Rorty essay leaves you shaking your head in wonder at the fact that not having a clue about anything could feel so satisfying), it has been left to poets and novelists to work out the meaning of subjectivity for those of us--a shrinking few!--who wouldn't mind having a glimpse if not of Truth, at least of someone's version of it, a version not narcissistically our own.

The empty boat on an endless sea.

So we come at last to the point, to Jac Jemc, who is a fine writer and who, like others written about in this blog, has heroically attempted, in a culture that has largely been willing to trade meaning for amusement, literature for commerce--in a culture where the newspaper of record and the New York Review of Books (how far we have fallen!) waste column inches on what can only be described as trash that panders to our worst instincts (no names!)--to tell us some truth. 

Here's a significant portion of the short-short story, "Roundabout the Bottom:"

Until now I have been desperate and young all my life. A whirlpool's spider webbing a ship, and I am on duty, receiving the distress signals. They light up in my brain with their ciphered knocking. I can only guess at what they're saying. I cheated on my Morse code tests. The water hikes itself up around them. Their noses goggle, filling with sea. The crumple deeper. The sunken six hundred struggle inside the ocean. I stay up all night thinking of ways to retrieve a ship from roundabout the bottom of the sea.....The possibilities keep splintering. My mind turns over and over like a weak ankle. The waves violin above them; a telescope can give me that sight. My marrow curdles with ignorance. I recognize my lack of reason, and the purge my apologies into the night air. I offer only my grief as recompense.

The Jemc story has as its center a consciousness, a first-person voice, and what this "I" most often notices are the incongruities of the world, its unpredictability, how you can occupy "a different bed every time." Let's say you trade places with your identical-twin--why not? She's married to a "rube with a medical degree." Various events lead to your being chopped into pieces by your sister's husband--the wrong sister!--but you're still alive enough to tell the story, and, here's the kicker, "you never cared about anything," even being drugged and dismembered, hell, you're bored by the whole thing. There's a joke here, a "No Exit" sort of joke about being in Limbo, but the real point has to do with there not being a point. It's the way life is: things happen to us, we can't help them happening, or prevent them from happening, or even say much of the time what we feel about them. Caring also can be a problem. It's what we've come to.  Everyday someone says to me, roughly, "I don't like the way things are going, but what can I do about it?" Jemc says something like this in many of her stories. We're not victims. Like the wrong sister, we made choices, and this different bed is where we've gotten as a result.

Jemc's prose is spare to be sure, but elegant: "When I was a child, people told me I had pearl eyes. I'd rub my sandy fingers in them, sure that was the only way to keep them smooth and beautiful." ("Marbles Loosed"). Or this from "Configuration," a story that feels like opening a door that might best have been left closed: "Lory has crinkled all of the wire hangers into a meaningless Venn diagram on the wall. Lory tries to wink and tit in some sort of meaningful way, but she is covered in flowers and downy hair, and it all feels like to much to be honest." That last clause clears up a lot about Jemc's writing: here, she seems to say, is what we see, and here is what we think about it, but something is not quite right. For so very long we were told that if things didn't feel quite right we had only to realign our reason, our "natural faculties" and we'd be okay. And if we had trouble doing this realigning, there was always a priest to prescribe prayer or a doctor to prescribe drugs. Some people could never get it, but we weren't obliged to take them seriously. But it's looking increasingly like none of us are getting it any longer, and though the priests and shrinks are doing their best, and the guys in the suits are bucking us up with the old lies (it was reason, of course, that made lying necessary and an art), we're more likely to figure things out by meditating on Jemc's story, and my favorite, "Half," a brilliant send-up of Solomonic wisdom.

We've a bit off-kilter, and where it was once possible to lay claim to reason as arbiter of the inscrutable, it has transpired that not only is reason likely to let us down, it may even have been the culprit, source of all confusion.  "We stick out like sore thumbs, or the old people do. Whichever it is, someone doesn't fit in." Lovely, especially since Jemc makes it clear that there is no "in" to fit into. The "in" has evaporated, along with good manners, literacy, and affordable coffee.

No need to be dour about it. We can still read.

George Ovitt (12/6/14)

A Different Bed Every Time is available from Dzanc Books. Jemc is also the author of My Only Wife.

Jemc has an amusing web site where she chronicles her rejections, here: