Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Lucid Objects of Language

Education by Stone: Selected Poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto

The late Brazilian poet and diplomat, João Cabral de Melo Neto, was the leading voice of the post WWII Brazilian poets called the “Generation of ‘45”, a group whose work was best know for its austere and rigorous style. Known as “a poet of thingness”, João Cabral strove, in his poetry, for what has often been described as “a staunch formal righteousness” characterized by a rigid adherence to the description of images, actions, and things.

Here is a brief  sampling of his work:

The Table

The folded newspaper
on the simple table;
the tablecloth clean,
the dishes white

and fresh like bread.

The green-skinned orange:
your unfailing landscape,
your open air, the sun
of your beaches: bright

and fresh like bread.

The knife that sharpened
your spent pencil;
your first book
whose cover is white

and fresh like bread.

And the verse born
of your living morning,
of your finished dream:
still warm, light

and fresh like bread.


There’s a man dreaming
on a beach, another
who remembers dates.
There’s a man running away
from a tree, another missing
his boat or his hat.
There’s a man who’s a soldier,
another who acts like an airplane,
another who keeps forgetting
his time his mystery
his fear of the word veil.
And there’s yet another who,
stretched out like a ship, fell asleep.

 The Insomnia of Monsieur Teste

A lucidity which sees everything,
as if by lamp- or daylight,
and which, at nightfall, turns on
behind he eyelids of the tooth
of a sharp and skinless light,
extreme and serving for nothing:
a light so lucid it fools you
into thinking you can do everything.

The Nothing That Is

A sugarcane field is so vast
that all measures of it are vain.

It has the sea’s unending
wide-openness, defying

numbers and their ilk
to trap it in their assertions.

In the cane field one forgets
to measure anything at all,

for although it is populous,
its population is anonymous,

making it resemble a pregnancy
of nothingness, like the sea’s.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, January 26, 2019


Eye Contact, William Benton (essays on art)

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose (a novel)

During the decade that I spent living in Washington, D.C., I visited the National Gallery several times a month, and Thomas Eakins's "Biglin Brothers Racing" (1872) grew to be the painting that meant most to me. Eakins's composition feels perfect--the postures of John and Barney are balanced as each prepares to dip his oar back into the water, and the care with which Eakins composed the background, visible only upon close inspection of the original, made me feel as if, in viewing the picture, I had fallen back in time to that day in May 1872 when the Biglins raced Harry Coulter and Lewis Cavitt along the smooth surface of the Schuylkill River.  Eakins painted the pair numerous times, and his study of (nearly) nude human figures, a study that gave him the skill to reproduce the musculature in the arms and legs of the straining oarsmen, eventually cost him his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of of the Fine Arts.  I love Eakins's work, and, for reasons that are unclear to me, this painting in particular has been one that I have wanted to really and truly see.

We often look at pictures, but how often do we see them? We have to internalize the object, pull it off the wall and into our consciousness in the way that, from time to time, we pull a fictional character, or a poetic image, into ourselves, making it a part of the way we imagine the world. Most of the time I wander through museums reminding myself to pay careful attention; and then, in the Rembrandt room of the National Gallery, or in in front of the Kandinskys at the Guggenheim, or in the astonishing room that holds Monet's "Water Lily Pond" at the Art Institute, I don't have to remind myself at all, I become, as one must, fully attentive, present in my person in the way I always should be but almost never am.

Heather Rose's wonderful novel The Museum of Modern Love, which takes as its subject the famous Marina Abramovic piece The Artist is Present from 2010 (seen above), a performance work during which, for seventy-five days, Abramovic sat still and silent, inviting anyone who wished to sit opposite her and to immerse themselves in the commitment to truth that has defined Abramovic's work for decades. "Commitment to truth?" As Rose makes plain in her evocation of the performance as experienced through a cross-section of (fictional and real) individuals, it was indeed the "truth" that Abramovic was seeking, that is, the unmediated experience of looking into the eyes of another human being, without preconceptions, without judgement, outside of language, politics, and even time (those who sat could sit for as long as they liked; over 1500 people participated and three-quarters of million visited the gallery space where Abramovic sat).  Rose, a Tasmanian novelist, beautifully recreates the effect on the viewer of the raw experience of another's presence.  The central character, a musician whose own art has failed him, whose wife is dying, and whose daughter thinks him unfeeling, finds in Abramovic's stoic sitting a restoration of the values that had slipped from his grasp.

Like Rose, the poet and art critic William Benton is attuned to the life-changing power of art.  Most everyone enjoys looking at pretty pictures, but thinking about what these pictures mean to us, how they change us, is a rare gift.  Among the best essays on art I have ever read is Benton's "Prodigies," a concise recognition of the role played by children's art in the Modernist movement.  I thought about these sentences of Benton's as I was thumbing through the images in Sandler's Art of the Postmodern Era: "In 'The Dance I,' 1909, the anatomical inaccuracy in Matisse's line has vivid equivalents in the markings of a six-year-old. That no six-year-old could perceive how a departure from precise rendering redistributes energy across the canvas in a way that gives an allover aspect to the composition is what makes art Art [!]. It bears repeating: perception, not dexterity."

True in painting, true also in poetry and fiction--perception, not dexterity or talent.  Benton offers us insights into the making and seeing of art in each of the twenty-nine short pieces collected in Eye Contact.  So much art criticism, taking a cue perhaps from the ex cathedra style of Clement Greenberg, fails to consider how and why art become Art for the average viewer.  Greenberg's pronouncement "Value judgments constitute the substance of aesthetic experience" seems wrong-headed to me.  Of course value judgements are an important part of our experience of art--what are we to bother looking at?--but the substance of aesthetic experience must also include questions about meaning, about our inner transformation in the presence of beauty (however defined), about what in the world art does for us, how it unsettles us--"unsettles" in the sense that Heather Rose asks this question in The Museum of Modern Love.

Here's Benton on the solitary female figures of Nathan Oliveria, a comment that quickly laid to rest my own inability to make sense of this painter: "Oliveria's women are other. Their native element is mind. They owe their lineage to the formative welter of male imagination. The central position they occupy on the canvas has less to do with existential space than with immanent singularity." This seems exactly right.  Not that it matters, but I want to see pictures--not "correctly"--but with the greatest possible insight, and Benton, in his brief essays on Knobelsdorf, Gordon Baldwin, and Oliveria (artists whose work I have seen), and on James McGarrell, Edmund E. Niemann, and Sidney Nolan (artists of whom I knew nothing of before Benton), allowed me to search their work with renewed confidence that I wasn't shortchanging either them or myself.

 Not only is Benton a perceptive critic of art, and, in particular, of artist of whom one might know little, he is also a fine poet, as evidenced by his sensitive transformations of images into words:

Tree Trunks Reflected in Water 

Standing in a row
at the edge of the river,

those trees are the men.
I'm the water. I mimic the way

they look and what they do
in the sliding wind.


I take on the mannerisms, voices,
even the thought processes of others.

I despise my skin and can't escape or fully occupy it.
An empty insufficiency

forces me to act. I pool slowly, all
surface stars and self doubt.


The row of trunks

in a single motion

rakes through my life.

Eye Contact is published by Fomite (58 Peru St., Burlington, VT, 05401)

The Museum of Modern Love is published by Algonquin

George Ovitt (1/25/2019)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

To Build a Road

Man As An End: A Defense of Humanism by Alberto Moravia

The only truly rational means is violence.

                                                                                Alberto Moravia

Now, more than ever before in my lifetime, it is money that is the nation’s Holy Writ, the people who manipulate it—the CEOs and CFOs, the brokers and accountants—our sages and savants. Indeed for many their reach, their vision, is oracular. Yet one needn’t be a prophet to understand that our adherence to this faith, this cult, has proven catastrophic in its impact on the environment, on our civic life, on our very understanding of what it means to be human.

While the base, reductive thinking of Wall Street was once restricted to the financial sector itself, to the hawking of stocks and bonds, to the humdrum vernacular of saving accounts and IRAs, it now has permeated every aspect of life in this country. Not only has this mercenary dogma redefined and subverted democratic governance, healthcare, publishing, sports, news, fashion, entertainment, policing, urban planning, public transportation, food systems, social services, national security, the military, water and land management, social media, the criminal justice system, and international relations, but it has even permeated the Arts and education, traditionally the bastions of civil, humanistic discourse.

The result is that now virtually every significant decision in the country is made (or at least highly influenced) by some man or woman with an MBA. Time and again their decisions are sold to us (for now everything is sold) as logical, rational (meaning tested, scientific, objective), as justly, even supremely, pragmatic. Just ask these ‘experts’, these mystagogues; they will show you the numbers on the page.

Of course to treat something—anything—‘objectively’, is to abstract it, deform it, to exempt it from the messy realm of human affairs, so as to make it manipulable, so as to make it useful, profitable. Look around you: nearly everything these days has been reduced to a ‘science’, a technique, a method to be mastered and exploited by rational means. A scam, a pyramid scheme, this ubiquitous corporate gospel is the ultimate realpolitik.  

If neo-capitalism (or anti-humanism) was a concern to Moravia in 1963, when he compiled this book, it (like the state of the environment today) is now a matter of despair. His warning is plain:

So we must have no illusions. We shall have an ever larger number of cheap, well-made consumer goods; our life will become more and more comfortable; and out arts, even the most demanding and difficult ones, indeed those especially, will become more and more accessible to the masses; and at the same time we shall feel more and more that at the heart of this prosperity lies nothingness or a fetishism which, like all fetishisms, is an end in itself and cannot be put to the service of man.

In his first essay, “Man As An End”, he goes further to say:

Since then [in Bismark’s Germany] the strides made by Machiavellianism have been triumphant, like a headlong, irresistible river that swells and increases in power thanks to the very obstacles it overcomes on its way. Machiavellianism now seems inevitable, it is taken for granted and seems to have no alternative. In the field of pure thought it appears invincible, and it is the ineluctable center towards which all roads in politics seem to lead… The only result of the universal and indiscriminate practice of Machiavellianism in modern times has been to provoke the two biggest wars in history and to bring infinite suffering and immense destruction on mankind.

Arguably the most powerful part of this book for me appears in his first and aforementioned essay, “Man As An End”, an essay and introduction in which Moravia, by way of an example, describes two approaches to building a road. The first, a method employed since the beginning of time, involves nothing less than an exhaustive study of the land and peoples through which the new road would pass. As the road is meant to serve them, such an approach makes sense. It follows that central to this approach must be the careful consideration of the landscape itself, the hills and mountains, the streams and rivers, the fishes and mammals and plants. What’s more, the planners must get to know the people who reside there, their farms and villages, their hunting and fishing grounds, their churches and temples and shrines. They must devote months, even years, to familiarizing themselves with the local customs and traditions, living closely with the locals, as one of their own. Only in this way will the planners know if the construction of the road makes sense, if it will enrich rather than impoverish the locals’ lives. 

Of course you know the other way. Trump and his kind have made of virtue of it. Writes Moravia:

The second way is just the opposite and consists in building the road without bothering about the obstacles. In this case my road will cut across the farm land, span the river at its widest point, flatten the homesteads. I shall hack down mills, oil presses, chapels and workshops, fill in the wells, eliminate the sports ground. Furthermore I shall dynamite hundreds of thousands of cubic rock and dry up hundreds of thousands of square yards of marshland.

Nothing binds me to build the road in one way or the other. The law is on my side. There is a decree of my government whose execution is guaranteed by force. I can do whatever I want: I can even kill the inhabitants down to the last man and destroy all the farms and farmland… It is enough to say that I want to build a road.

In the first scenario the people and the environment are considered the end itself, the very reason for the road, if the road is to be built at all, while in the second the people and the environment are resources, tools, things, but the means to an end that has little or nothing do with them. 

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Some Books I Enjoyed in 2018

I love winters in my state (you'd hate them, so don't get any ideas).  And few things are as enjoyable as going for a long walk in the snow and returning home to a pile of good books, tea or bourbon (depending), Schubert's "Winterreise," and forgetting for a few hours the turmoil of the world.  

By the way, there's a very nice accounting of Schubert's great song cycle on a blog entitled "The Conversation" and posted by Jeanell Carrigan of the University of Sydney.  Here's a stanza from my favorite of the songs, Der Lindenbaum, one that reminds me of my own walks in the windy cold:

Die kalten Winde bliesen
mir grad ins Angesicht;
der Hut flog mir vom Kopfe,
ich wendete mich nicht.

[The cold wind blew
directly into my face; 
my hat flew from my head--
I  did not turn back]

Russell Platt, writing in the New Yorker, expresses perfectly the wonder of these simple songs:

"The seeming simplicity of 'Winterreise'—a piece that is constantly reinterpreted in performance, not held in sonic amber—is of a richer and more ambiguous type: it grows and changes over the years, just as the mind and body of the person who first encounters it. Its story, of a doomed lover who wanders aimlessly around the town where his former girlfriend lives, is both intimate and epic, literal and metaphorical. It’s a whole world, not just a neighborhood, or a village rectory."

"Not held in sonic amber:" I first heard the version of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau in college.  As Platt understands, the songs grow on you, and with you--their melancholy, their simplicity.  Half a century later I still love D F-D's version, but have been increasingly drawn  to Ian Bostridge's interpretation. Give them a listen one of these cold nights.  


As for the books: not "the best" books of the year since my reading habits are eccentric and reflect the time I have to read (often not much), my shifting tastes and interests, and where each book leads me.  Also, most of the books I liked best weren't published this year, so as a guide to what's new this list is useless. But these ten, in no special order, were the books that meant most to me, that I thought about for the longest time.  

--Lily King: Euphoria (novel, published in 2014): Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson in an erotic tangle in New Guinea. Ms. King is smart as all get out, and inventive, and this is a really splendid book.

--Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd (novel, also 2014): A young women living in Harlem working on a translation of the (fictional) Mexican poet Geoffrey Owen; surreal, deeply literary, poetic. I'd bring up Savage Detectives, but won't. Ms. Luiselli has also written a wonderful book on the border "crisis"--Tell Me How It Ends, An Essay in Forty Questions.

Elif Bautman: The Idiot (novel, 2017): Picaresque story of young Harvard student besotted with both Dostoevsky and a young man from Hungary (whom she has never met). A completely enjoyable and witty book. Bautman's essays, collected in The Possessed are also a delight. I've handed this book to several high school students who are not ordinarily readers. And they read it!

David W. Blight: Frederick Douglass (biography, 2018): Definitive life of one of America's most important figures.  Full of interesting and previously unreported details (not all of them flattering) about Douglass's long and complex life. Blight writes like Bernard DeVoto or Richard Hofstadter--history as compelling narrative.

David Baker: Never Ending Birds (poetry, 2009): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Baker was new to me and I spent several enjoyable days with his books (there's ten or more).  This was my favorite. 

Gerald Murnane: Barley Patch (novel?, 2011): Peter Nash has gotten me started on Murnane, the eccentric Australian unclassifiable writer of books about (among other things) not writing. How often do you find a writer who has no predecessors? I'm finishing up The Plains at the moment--it is quite extraordinarily strange.

Mathias Enard: Compass (novel, 2017): I haven't yet read Zone (a long, one sentence novel), but I loved Compass. Parts of the novel record the narrator's (he's a musicologist) attendance at a very odd international conference and reminded me of Rachel Cusk's Kudos. Central to Enard's writing is the "zone" of Europe that links West to East; much of Compass is about a European's experiences of Istanbul, Tehran, points east. Also music, opium, and obscure poets play a key role in Compass, all of which makes his book delightful. He also reminds me of Teju Cole and Open City--erudite and deeply engaging. 

Robert Kuttner: Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism (economics, politics, history, 2018): Hands down the best of many books about what threatens all of us right now. Kuttner gives us the history of a lost, mostly humane capitalism then shows how the New and Fair Deals were dismantled piece by piece beginning in the late 1960's.  This is a sad story that has been told many times, but Kuttner tells it in more detail, and more compellingly than anyone I've read. You'll want to underline the entire book.

Deborah Eisenberg: All Around Atlantis (short stories): Eisenberg came to my attention this year with the publication of Your Duck is My Duck, her most recent collection (there are seven). I started with her 1997 volume ('cause it was cheap) and loved every story.  Aside from the craftsmanship, the delicacy of feeling matched with deeply troubling undercurrents of madness and violence (think Alice Munro meets Joan Didion), I really like how Eisenberg surprises me in every story.  It's "now where is this unpromising premise going?" And go it does.  If you haven't tried this writer, please do.

Morten Stoksnes: Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean (adventure? craziness? nature? 2018): The most unlikely pleasure of the year.  Not sure why I even picked it up, but once I started, I couldn't stop. Shark-lore, unpronounceable names of fjords, colorful characters (it made me happy just to know that men do undertake adventures that don't involve Sherpas and oxygen tanks). And who doesn't love a book with sharks?

And the classics that I reread this year: The Trial, Don Quixote (in Edith Grossman's new translation), Eichmann in Jerusalem (it really is a classic), Culture and Anarchy (not as much, but the nostalgia for lost culture is heartwarming), Within a Budding Grove (it gets better and better), and George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the book that made me first enjoy reading literary criticism. 

Books I didn't finish for various reasons: Ali Smith's Autumn; Middlemarch (again!); Jenny Epenbeck's Go, Went, Gone (a book I should have loved, but didn't); Louis Guilloux's Blood Dark (I will try again in 2019 to finish this masterpiece); David Harvey's Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic (I forget the rest; the only David Harvey I haven't penetrated).  Oh, and once again this year I failed to finish (I got to page 46) a science fiction novel (The Fifth Season).

Peace friends, and good reading in the New Year....

George Ovitt (12/18/2018)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Woman Alone

Stillpoint (a novel)

I apologize for this bit of self-promotion, but my excellent publishers at Fomite--Marc Estrin and Donna Bister--are among the many small literary presses that lack the resources of the corporate and amalgamated publishers.  They are Bosque Brewery (my local favorite) to MillerCoors--so I have to do a little advertising for myself.

This is my first published novel--not the first I've written, but the first that felt finished enough and decent enough to publish.  Is it any good? Honestly, I have no idea.

Like my collaborator Peter Nash, I prefer a certain type of book, one out of the mainstream of plot-driven, irony-riven, arch and hip books that largely comprise today's literary scene.  In general, just as a matter of taste, I am more likely to be spending my reading time with Gerald Murnane, Juan Jose Saer, Italo Sveno, Thomas Bernhard, Kenzaburo Oe, and Fernando Pessoa (all recent reads) than with Times bestsellers. 

I say this so that, should you try my novel, you won't be too disappointed.  It's a quiet little book that examines a single day in the life of a widowed woman in her seventies as she goes about doing the work she loves--translating the poetry of Leopardi--remembering her past, dealing with solitude, reflecting on a life well-lived. 

Here's a bit of it, and thanks for your patience:

“I am unyielding,” Elle spoke to the ravens mingled with crows that were coaxing sunflower seeds from the feeder she’d put up for the finches. Fra poco in me quell’ultimo/Dolore anco fu spento.  Elle smiles at this idea. No, the pain never dies, but dolore is so lovely, dolorosa, she can’t resist jotting this on the paper as well. The thought of Simon offering to carry the cross made her weep even now. Can you imagine it? No one holds a chair for you any longer, but this man took the cross. She had stood once in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, walked the Via Dolorosa, imagined the procession to Golgotha, or tried to—at certain times the mind simply shuts down, focuses on the trivial rather than on what is, in truth, too momentous to imagine. At Auschwitz it was the same thing; standing in Birkenau she had closed her eyes with the secular reverence required—no tears would come, though she had wanted, upon entering beneath the notorious gate—“Arbeit macht frei”—to summon tears, to faint under the weight of history’s cruelty, instead she couldn’t shake the chilling lines from Dante, “Through me you pass into the City of woe/Through me you pass into eternal pain,” nor could she resist imagining the Florentine poet and his guide crossing to Dis, even while silently reciting the verses to herself, intoning them like a prayer. Elle felt guilty and somehow unhinged—how could she let herself be so distracted? Must she be dithering with poems even here? And then, within the walls of the crematorium, she offered a prayer for the dead, Kaddish, but it was no good, the images of gas and fire, the smell of death, the cries of the dying, all leaked away in the dusty light that struck the floor, the odor of dirt and cement, the weight of her living body on a blazing hot day. Sufficient reverence, Elle thought, was impossible. All she had at her disposal were gestures. She crossed herself—when had she last done that—and hoped that would suffice. Dolorosa.
George Ovitt (12/16/2018)


Hiding Out in Lisbon

Like a Fading Shadow (a novel), Antonio Munoz Molina 

Munoz Molina read Hampton Sides Hellhound on His Trail--the history of James Earl Ray's pursuit and murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, after conducting a great deal more research, he produced a remarkable novel, Like a Fading Shadow.  Molina uses the fact of Ray's brief stay in Lisbon to create a detailed documentary account of Ray's life from 1967, when he first began to track King across the United States, until his capture in London in June, 1968, two months after the assassination.

James Earl Ray lived in a fantasy world.  To say he was paranoid is to understate the case--his daily life both before and after the assassination of Dr. King followed a pattern familiar to us from reading the life stories of his peers--Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Jr.--men who belonged to nothing but their fantasies, loners and losers, men who fixated on individuals whose existence either undermined or justified their own. Chapman thought he was Holden Caulfield, Hinckley lived (still does apparently) to impress Jodie Foster, Oswald developed an obsessive hatred for the racist ex-general Edwin Walker. None of these men, and certainly none of their deeds, were "banal." Hannah Arendt's point in developing the concept of the "banality of evil" in her book on the Eichmann trial was not to diminish the horror of murder or the evil of murderers but to remind us that evil is committed by men who are, in most respects, not unlike ourselves, ordinary persons whose lives are anonymous, even boring, up until the moment they commit their crimes. I remember how surprised I was when I read about Mark David Chapman--a nobody--and how Hinckley's psychotic fixation on a young movie actress reprised what was normal in American culture--love of celebrity and admiration for fame. 

Molina brilliantly captures the banality of James Earl Ray's inner life and the ceaseless turmoil of his outer life.  The nondescript man in black glasses and a musty suit wanders the streets of Lisbon, lies in bed in his cheap room, rehearses his lines and tries out new identities, watches his meager cash supplies dwindle, thinks of everything except the murder that propelled his escape from the United State. Molina is utterly convincing as Ray's voice, almost as his alter ego.

Molina approaches Ray's story obliquely, through the device of a fictional memoir.  The author--clearly Molina himself--travels to Lisbon to reinvent himself as a writer; it was in Lisbon, thirty years before, the the author found  inspiration for his first book (A Winter in Lisbon).  Molina layers his three stories--of himself in the present, of James Early Ray's brief stay in Lisbon, and of his own earlier visit to Portugal--in such a way that eerie parallels emerge.  All three strands of the story explore questions of truth-telling, of personal identity, and the cost of isolation. Most striking is the way in which Molina uses the idea of disguise, of hidden identities, in exploring both his own and Ray's story.  Ray, after all, was a pathological liar, a story-teller and shape-shifter of considerable skills, so much so that he was able, for a time, to convince the King family that he was innocent of the killing at the Lorraine Motel.  It takes little imagination to see that what Molina is doing in part is questioning the mechanisms of the novel itself, interrogating the idea of finding truth in falsehood, or perhaps asking if it is possible to create a literary form whose truth can be perceived through its disguises.

George Ovitt (12/16/2018)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reading As Eavesdropping

                                                                                                                                                                     Gerald Murnane

In recent years I’ve come to more fully appreciate the fact that reading literature is an exercise in eavesdropping—between characters and others, between characters and themselves, a convention certainly well-known to most avid readers. Yet to my mind the literature I so love is even more so a conversation between writers themselves, from country to country, culture to culture, generation to generation, a discussion to which, if we are attentive, we can listen, as through a keyhole or a crack in a door.

                                                                                                                                    Javier Marías

In their writing, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov chatted restlessly with Shakespeare; Virginia Woolf with Leo Tolstoy; Gabriel García Marquez and Toni Morrison with William Faulkner; Marcel Proust with John Ruskin, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens; David Foster Wallace with Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo; Jane Austen with Lord Byron and Anne Radcliffe; Haruki Murakami with Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Joan Didion with the great and inimitable Joseph Conrad. Even the case of a writer actively despising the work of another writer is part of the conversation, as when Nabokov said of Hemingway: “As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early 40’s, something about bells, balls and bulls, and I loathed it.”

Yet such conversations are not reserved for the great writers alone, but take place between all writers, every day, in every part of the world, whether their work has ever been published at all. For it is in conversation with other writers, especially with one’s favorite writers, that every writer finds her way. After many years of often dogged imitation of the work my own writer-heroes, of Proust, Woolf, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Gordimer, Abe, Oe, Oz, Bernhard, Sebald, Brink, Bellow, Lispector, Jelinek, Rulfo, Baldwin, Okri, Drndic, Niwa, Bolaños, Onetti, Soyinka, Benet, Krasnahorkai, Mahfouz, Saer, Énard, and Shalev, I have come to understand that my own writing is exactly and essentially that—a probing, restless conversation with other writers, a protracted, if de facto apprenticeship in language, character, subject, and form. For literally everything I have written I am indebted to the writers I love. 

                                                                                                                                                                    Nathalie Sarraute 

Presently I am at work on a novel that represents—more than anything I have written before—an explicit conversation with others writers, in this case with Gerald Murnane, Javier Marías, and Nathalie Sarraute. So intense is the conversation some days it is as if they are sitting here in the room with me, prodding me, joking, watching me work.
Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Woolf and the Great Subjective

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

No novel (aside from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu) has had a greater, more lasting influence on my thinking and writing than Woolf’s 1927 paean to the griefs and glories of the subjective mind. Beginning just before the onset of the Great War and ending a few years after the war has ended, the novel is composed of three discrete glimpses of the Ramseys, a cultured middle class English family passing their summers in a modest house on the rugged coast of Scotland. 

At the heart of the novel is the bright, maternal Mrs. Ramsey whose acute, nearly omnipotent perspective defines the first and longest section of the book, setting the mold and tone for everything to come. As Eudora Welty writes in her introduction: “From its beginning, the novel never departs from the subjective… The interior of its characters’ lives is where we experience everything.”

Whereas in most novels the internal, subjective world of its characters is balanced (if not checked) by the evidence of an objective, material world, in To the Lighthouse the realm of wars and cities and trains is all but effaced, overwhelmed, by the force and primacy of the characters’ thoughts and impressions, that is, by the essential modernist problem of seeing. Writes Welty: “Inside, in this novel’s multiple, time-affected view, is ever more boundless and more mysterious than Outside.”

Part of the brilliance and challenge of this novel is the way that the narrative perspective switches without warning, often without the aid of conventional cues, so that the reader is swept along on the turbid current of the various characters' feelings. It is just one of the ways that Woolf blurs the boundaries of the world we know (or thought we knew) in a manner that reminds me of those traditional Japanese houses designed with moveable walls to create the illusion that inside and outside are one. She strove, in writing this novel, and after hours of tracking her own restless thoughts, to simulate the way an individual actually thinks and sees, the way ‘reality’ itself is constructed—a billion times a day—in the depths of every human brain. 

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cheer Up!

Good Books for Hard Times

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Volume I (Thinking)

Lester J. Cappon (editor) The Adams-Jefferson Letters

Jim Crace, Being Dead

Don't despair.  Soon it will all be over.

Meanwhile, here is a book for the soul, a book for the mind, one to feed your nostalgia for bygone days, and one to cheer you up--at least you're not a corpse. I've been reading or rereading these books lately--an antidote to the news.

I can't think of a better book to feed one's soul than Huxley's classic collection of quotations, with extensive commentary, from the world's spiritual literature.  Published right after World War II, when, if anything, things were worse than they are now, Huxley's judicious anthology organizes the wisdom of the ages by topic from "That Thou Art" to "Contemplation."  All of the great figures are here, from William Law and Thomas Trahane to St. Catherine of Siena.  The best parts are those that Huxley writes himself, the links that make sense of the quotations, the reflections of a secular man on the world's religious traditions. Huxley, who saw so many things before anyone else (Soma! Mass Stupidity!), finds in the denominational squabbles of religion a great unifying message, the simple truth that if we will  let down our guard we can find meaning in the world. Huxley makes palpable for those of us who are routinely secular a spiritual sensibility that is comforting and non-dogmatic. His own modesty and life-long search for truth, the courage he displayed in looking inward, make Huxley the perfect guide to a philosophy that transcends the turbulence of the moment. Way better than self-help or "mindfulness" [when there's an app for it, it's phony] is the wisdom of genuine seekers and mystics and thinkers.

I have been reading Hannah Arendt steadily, with great pleasure, since the spring. Her prose is lucid (in her third or fifth language, depending on whether or not you count her Latin and Greek), her ideas stimulating, her boldness as a thinker deeply in contrast to the timidity typical of today's "thought leaders." The fact that she read everything and somehow worked into a view of the world that was intensely political while at the same time profoundly philosophical make Arendt the perfect antidote to the mendacious times in which we live.  The Life of the Mind is my favorite of her books. It's informed by her studies with and of Heidegger, Jaspers, and others--Merleau-Ponty, Buber, Husserl--but also by her abiding interest in politics. Arendt's biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, informs us that Arendt, though trained in philosophy, preferred thinking and writing about the vita activa

Reading Arendt, enjoying her seriousness, the clarity of her thought, is like swimming in cool, clear water--revitalizing for the mind and the body.

Though they served on the committee of five that produced the Declaration of Independence and though both were patriots determined to sever America's ties with England, Adams and Jefferson were bitter political rivals for nearly two decades. After the War of 1812 they once again became colleagues (if not exactly friends: their temperaments were too different), and commenced a remarkable correspondence that ended only with their deaths, which famously occurred on the same day, July 4th, 1826.  Adams was a prickly gentleman, prone to express  his New England rectitude with a forcefulness that contrasted with Jefferson's more courtly manners. Adams was pro-British, a republican but not a democrat.  Jefferson, the paradoxical radical and egalitarian, the slave owner who believed passionately in the rights of man, seemed to Adams to be a dangerous leveler, a tool of French extremism and an enemy of rational (that is, Federalist) politics.  They attacked on another mercilessly; when Jefferson became Adams' Vice-President in 1796 he actively plotted an invasion of England with his French colleagues and founded, with James Madison, a newspaper whose specific purpose was the undermining of Federalist policies.  Partisan politics!  

Yet, with their gradual reconciliation--traceable in these remarkable letters--one  finds that the two men had more in common than they supposed, especially during the period after 1814 when America was nominally a one-party nation but, in fact, bitterly divided in terms of both domestic and foreign policy.  While in the 1790's the two quarrelled over the writings of Thomas Paine, in the eighteen-teens they exchange notes on their readings in history, philosophy, and science in the spirit of retired college professors. 

Listen to this: pious John Adams writing to Deist Thomas Jefferson (Nov. 4, 1816): "We now have, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa, and America?"

This thick volume, beautifully produced by The University of North Carolina Press, is full of such gems: "I cannot contemplate human Affairs, with laughing or crying. I choose to laugh. When people talk of the freedom of Writing Speaking, or Thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed." (John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1817).  Reading these letters takes one back, not necessarily to a better time in our history, but to a time when statesmen existed, when enemies could correspond with a sense of common purpose, and when those who led the country actually knew something beyond the limits of their own egos. 

The English author Jim Crace writes poetic novels that aren't like anything else you've ever read. The Gift of Stones, set in the neolithic age,  nonetheless manages to be a novel about storytelling and modernity.  In Quarantine, Crace recasts the story of Jesus's time in the wilderness as a fable about how ordinary life can cross paths with the miraculous and not even blink. And that's what Crace does in Being Dead as well.  Two corpses, husband and wife zoologists, occupy the center of this macabre but moving story of death and bereavement.  Crace works the details of Joseph's and Celice's life into what is primarily a story about being a corpse, a feast for insects and worms. I've read over some of the more forensic scenes several times both to get the willies and also to appreciate Crace's mastery of tone and style. His descriptions of the murdered pair--a long-married couple who go off to have sex in the dunes and are murdered for no good reason--decaying in the sun over the course of an interminable week, are medieval in their intense evocation of our dewy flesh. That writing about something so disturbing could bring so much pleasure proves once again that style and technique and talent can make beauty from any subject, however unlikely.

George Ovitt (10/3/2018)