Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Gaddis, Abad, Knausgaard, and Others

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis
Recipes for Sad Women, by Hector Abad
My Struggle, Parts I and II by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Zane Grey, and others

I've hit the more-than-half-way point in William Gaddis's The Recognitions--I was encouraged to push on after sailing (minus a week of the doldrums mid-passage) through Carpenter's Gothic in just a few weeks.  Honestly, once you get acquainted with a handful of Gaddis quirks--like figuring out who is speaking and separating dialogue from third-person narrative--he mixes the two in his idiosyncratic paragraphs--reading Bill Gaddis becomes much easier.  I've been assisted in my comprehension of The Recognitions thanks to Steven Moore's "Gaddis Annotations"--on-line, free, and a very helpful labor of love.  I have mixed feelings about needing comprehensive annotations when I'm reading a book, but I have to admit that I understood almost nothing of Ulysses until I read it with Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated on my desk.  [e.g. "Boss Coker--Richard Coker (1843-1922)....12:196"].  If you decide to try The Recognitions--and I suggest you do--use Moore or else the Catholic Encyclopedia on-line--the first hundred pages are full of arcane reference to Catholic theology, martyology, and Spanish iconography.  I have (felix culpa) some passing familiarity with this material, but still needed annotations to make it through the first two chapters.  I also recommend a good volume of art history, (Janson will do), an encyclopedia (Gaddis used the famous Britannica, 12th ed. for much of his remarkable erudition), and of course the OED.  Reading Gaddis also has the advantage of making William Gass and Thomas Pynchon seem like walks in the park, and he opens up many of the secrets of the writings of David Markson (pictured below with Gaddis).  What is The Recognitions about?  Jacket copy mentions forgeries (in art and life), and I accept that, but on a deeper level I think Gaddis was after something more profound--I think he was debunking Western civilization, not any one part of it, but the entire history, structure, and all of the so-called rational aspirations of the thing--from the moment Socrates heard about his wisdom from the Oracle of Delphi to the commencement of the Cold War.  The whole thing, in Gaddis's view, was a sham.  And who could argue with him? David Foster Wallace, fond of footnotes, wrote a great novel, Infinite Jest, that was itself a footnote to Gaddis.

One of my pleasant discoveries of this past year was Hector Abad, whose memoir Oblivion I wrote about in the spring.  His slender book Recipes for Sad Women cheered me over the holidays, full as it is of easy irony and graceful wit.  The conceit of Recipes is simple: sad women need medicinal relief that can be supplied through the application of sympathetic magic.  Here's an example:

"You believe you loved him once upon a time. To put it a better way, you loved him.  But now, just thinking of him gives you shivers, disgust.  It was like loving a warrior in armour from which emerges, all of a sudden, the weak, slimy jelly of an abominable being....A sorceress of the high plains, a haughty bookish sorceress once gave me the recipe for dissolving the unpleasant memory of a bad past love affair.  To cancel that ignominious memory, it would seem, requires a return to savage rituals...You must acquire a slug, a snail without a shell...Place the slug on top of a pastel-coloured lined handkerchief and take a generous handful of finely ground salt, Throw the salt and watch how it begins to writhe and while squirming to dissolve into nothing. Don't watch anymore, tie the handkerchief closed and bury it twenty centimeters underground. With the slug dissolved in salt that disgusting memory will also fade." 

 Recipes for Sad Women can be read in a couple of hours--it's delightful and rich with deeper meanings about the losses that love brings and how, in the end, there is no way to cope with heartbreak, except, perhaps, by reading good books.

Speaking of sad women, that's Linda Knausgaard, long-suffering wife of Karl Uve, he of My Struggle, whose first two volumes I have just now finished reading, with considerable astonishment at my perseverance.  His ex-wife Tonje, and his current wife, Linda, come in for some brutal treatment at his hands--their physical attributes, their moods, and Linda's mental illness are all part of Karl Uve's story.  As a narcissist, he reduces the lives of other people to the forms of his perceptions; his empathy appears to be limited to himself and to his own tumultuous life.  At one point, when he is in love with Linda and she is not, it seems, in love with him, he cuts his face to ribbons with a piece of broken glass.  His "best" friend Geir (a real person, as is everyone in the two volumes) is used by Karl Uve as an informal confidant, drinking buddy, and perpetual ego-booster but never, it appears, as a friend (we hear nothing of Geir's life).  Karl Uve, let's face it, is not an attractive figure; he'd have done well as a character on "Friends"--he might be the brooding, self-flagellating nutcase from some obscure north European country, say, Norway, who shows up in the coffee shop, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and scowling at Jennifer Aniston.  And yet, dammit: there's something compelling about these books; there's quires of dullness to be sure, and a kind of madness that couldn't be further from the arcane richness of Gaddis or the relentless sanity of Abad, but when he's writing well--on the effect that poetry has on a person for example--Knausgaard is very good.  I'm not sure what I'll do in May when volume three is published; probably I will read it, just as I've watched nearly all of "Breaking Bad" despite my reservations. 

 I've just dipped into the third volume of Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Years of Insight, which is must reading for any Kafka-lover (and who isn't that?), and I want to commit to the other volumes (II is out; I is in the works) as well as promise myself that this year I will finish Joseph Frank's monumental Dostoyevsky.  And I also wanted to make a top-five list of non-fiction works that I read this past year, books that are worth a devoted fiction reader's attention: 

1)  James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.  Forget "My Twelve Years as a Slave." Read this great work of scholarship instead.

2) Kevin Jackson, Constellations of Genius: 1922, Modernism, Year One.  Worst book title ever, and a dubious thesis--modernism actually began in 1900 with Freud's Interpretation of Dreams--but a provocative book, full of fascinating anecdotes.  A little like Markson, with its brisk staccato of cultural histories.

3) Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy, Inc. The sequel to Alexis De Tocqueville's hopeful classic. The story of the destruction of American democracy.

4) Timothy Mitchell, Rule of the Experts. The history of neo-liberalism in Egypt.

5) Manning Marable, Malcolm X. I should have read this when it first came out. Not just a biography of Malcolm, but of the American underclass. 

As I get older I ask myself--will I ever finish Middlemarch? (No) Shall I read (one final time) The Brothers Karamazov? (Probably not).  How about Peter Nada's Parallel Stories? (I'll check with my doctor). And, will I ever read all of Balzac, Zola, Trollope, or Zane Grey? (no, no, no, and why not)?

Happy New Year!

Here's the Steven Moore annotations for Gaddis.

Gaddis is found in the Dalkey Archive.  Abad in a lovely little Pushkin Press edition.  Knausgaard in Vintage (England) and Zane Grey in many places and formats. Start with Riders of the Purple Sage.

George Ovitt, (1/3/14)

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