Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Small Man Trapped In A Box, Says, YOUR GENIUS - wait for it - IS YOUR ERROR

But what about parody? In an interview with J. Alfred Appell (a name whose Nabokovishness a Russian teacher of mine once taught a whole class on), Vladimir Nabokov says, "Satire is a lesson. Parody is a game." The distinction may seem thin - good games always teach you something, after all - but I think I see his point. There is art that keeps you seated and art that invites you to get up, and for some reason parody seems to stand balanced like a sword between these two, with the potential to fall either way.

In Nab's underrated The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the eponymous hero's breakthrough book, The Prismatic Bezel, is described like this:

As often was the way with Sebastian Knight he used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion. J.L. Coleman has called it 'a clown developing wings, an angel mimicking a tumbler pigeon,' and the metaphor seems to me very apt. Based cunningly on a parody of certain tricks of the literary trade, The Prismatic Bevel soars skyward. With something akin to fanatical hate Sebastian Knight was ever hunting out the things which had once been fresh and bright but which were now worn to a thread, dead things among living ones; dead things shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud. The decayed idea might be in itself quite innocent and it may be argued that there is not much sin in continually exploiting this or that thoroughly woen subject or style if it still pleases and amuses. But for Sebastian Knight, the merest trifle, as, say, the adopted method of a detective story, became a bloated and malodorous corpse. He did not mind in the least 'penny dreadfuls' because he wasn't concerned with ordinary morals; what annoyed him invariably was the second rate, not the third or N-th rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral. But The Prismatic Bezel is not only a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale it is also a wicked imitation of many other things... (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight p. 90)

The parody that Nabokov describes Sebastian using - whose humor bends into a "springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion" - is one we see over and over again, both in Nab himself and in many other high-points of 20th century fiction (Flannery O'Connor, for example). For these writers, in order to be serious you have to first earn your reader's trust by showing him or her that you know how deeply unserious the majority of daily life is. The debatable assumption behind such a method - that more people experience their lives as absurd than tragic - feels like a natural product of a time in which ironically bitching actors are used to sell soda; but its origins go back much further than Nabokov. As literary critic Erich Auerbach describes in his book Mimesis, comedy and tragedy have always struggled against one another - to the point that, in classical literature, the concept of "realism" was itself held to be utterly comic and unserious:

In modern literature the technique of imitation can evolve a serious, problematic, and tragic conception of any character regardless of type and social standing, of any occurrence regardless of whether it be legendary, broadly political, or narrowly domestic; and in most cases it actually does so. Precisely that is completely impossible in antiquity...Everything commonly realistic, everything pertaining to everyday life, must not be treated on any level except the comic, which admits no problematic probing. A a result the boundaries of realism are narrow. (Mimesis, p.27)

For Auerbach, this division between serious-high and comic-low was a natural one in a world whose writers were almost exclusively upper class generals, politicians, statesman, or at least landholders. But with the rise of Christianity - a religon whose heroes come from all walks of life, including the working and peasant classes - this dynamic changes. Christ's speech both promises an inversion of earthly values in heaven (the rich will be poor and the meek inherit the earth, etc.) and demonstrates how this could happen in his stories, which treat their poor subjects with dignity. So a realm that was until that point seen as comic comes to be seen as secretly serious.

Parody is, in many ways, a literary version of this same switch. It attempts to find seriousness in places that have traditionally been seen as unserious: in genre-writing, for example, or television, or on the internet. A protean impulse, it has at its heart the democratic (and, dare I say it, Christian) idea that anything, no matter how unpromising it might appear, can be valuable - can be real - if it is loved.

Perhaps it is the hovering Paracletean Silverhawk in me (to borrow, sort of, a Michel Tournier formulation) that encourages me to set this loving parody up against the hateful parody practiced by Sebastian Knight. Maybe I'm wrong here - maybe the two emotions are not so easily separable, and the key to successful animation is the strength of feeling in the animator (take as an example of this the savage parodist Nathaniel West, or another favorite of mine, Flannery O'Connor). But then what about Nabokov himself? Is there any other writer of the twentieth century whose love for and fascination with his objects of fun is so obviously, inescapably sincere?

In my last post, I worshipped the Menelaen sincerity Viktor Shklovsky demonstrates as he grapples Tolstoy in his book The Energy of Delusion. Writing like that is powered, not by clinical detachment, but by an impulse: the probing feeling-your-way-through-a-dark-room that we get so powerfully in writers from Sterne to Kafka to Bolano. The Russian sweater-maker Osip Mandelstam describes this impulse when he says that There is no syntax: there is a magnetized impulse, a longing for the stern of a ship, a longing for a forage of worms, a longing for an unpromulgated law, a longing for Florence. (Conversation about Dante, p.41) Which I think brings us closer to what really happens at the center of the Proetus myth. You remember this myth, of course. Menelaus (who the Coen brothers bring back to life as Governor Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel) is told by the shape-shifter's daughter that if he hangs on long enough, he will get his answer. Wrestling in ancient literature is usually a one-way affair. In the Greek version of the myth, the God changes. In the Biblical version, the human being (in the case I'm thinking of, Jacob) is the one who steps away from the battle altered. But strangely enough, when I imagine these battles, I see both shapes shifting. The angel, who after all is defeated, must finish the fight with at least a little food for thought, in the same way that, when I think of Menelaus grappling, the thing that really interests me is what's going on inside him. Maybe this is the novelist in me speaking: for if any image encapsulates writing a novel, for me, it is wrestling. The thing changes under your hand; but you change too, perhaps just as dramatically. In fact, you might go so far as to say that the writing changes because you change: because there is a consistently-different person writing it, in the same way that Menelaus who's already wrestled Proteus the Lion and Proteus the Pig has a different set of tools to tackle Proteus the Tree or Lake or Flea.

Cinema, which after all depends as a genre on many successful transformations (of places, people, objects), understands the palaien nature of transformation at least as well as literature. There is a wonderful moment late in the recent movie The Trip, when Steve Coogan tries to imitate his frenemy Rob Bryden's "Small Man Trapped in a Box" routine. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Coogan gives up. "I don't care about silly voices," he squeaks bitterly. The moment is touching - especially so since it comes towards the end of a movie that has, up to this point, succeeded precisely because of Coogan & Brydon's encyclopedic (dazzling, frightening) ability to mimic whatever they want. More than touching, actually: it seems real. (Ironically, and puzzlingly, Coogan's failure simultaneously feels like the most fictional moment in the movie, since after an hour and a half of watching him become everyone under the sun, I have absolutely no doubt that he could mimic the shit out of "Small Man Trapped in a Box").

Like impression, parody is often seen as a soft, or minor genre. It is, mostly - but only because most parody is unsuccessful: a daliance instead of a possession. Or I could approach the problem from the opposite direction by saying that impression is undervalued in literature because the greatest parodies don't look like parodies at all. Seen this (come to think of it, is quite Nabokovian) way, parody is not a minor literary form at all, but rather one of writing's most integral mechanisms. Nabokov parodies Joyce who parodies Sterne, in the same way that, say, Marilynne Robinson parodies Melville parodying Milton. In each case, the attempt to rewrite one's favorite book results in a completely different one - but the spirit, the "magnetized impulse" is ferried over, changed and, ultimately, enriched.

Seth's uncle Deano draws the moral from this story in his documentary on the 80s punk band Recklessness:

(I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just ty to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.)

Deano's idea inverts Harold Bloom's famous idea that strong art comes from an attempt to escape the art we love: no, Dean says, not escape, but imitate. To become what we love, which we can't no matter how many books we've read or not read. The Law of Identity rules on earth as it does everywhere else in the universe, thank God, since it's exactly the differences between ourselves and our idols that provoke us to mimic them in the first place.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Village Explaining

Talking this way, I risk earning that most famous literary pejorative: "village explainer". The epithet applies more easily to Americans than it does to writers from other countries, which seems mysterious to me. Why isn't Gombrowicz a village explianer? How do Milosz and Kundera and Brodsky escape the title, when their non-fiction writing is no more acute than Pound's was and in most cases much less? Is it something national, something inherently cranky in the American non-fictive voice? And if so, should I really try to avoid it?

But a question like this really is nothing more than a placeholder for a larger one, isn't it? Why am I doing this? Why am I waking up at four o'clock in the morning and engraving my "thoughts" (more like moods or weather patterns) onto the unruled palm-sized electronic notecard that blogger hands me? What do I get out of this? Fame? But surely you realize that I might be writing all this down on the back of a beer coaster for all the people who will ever read it? My own patient passage through the Vale of Soul-Making? As if Keats would have written a line without the promise of someone, somewhere waiting for him on the other side...

Bloggers are the New Crusoes. You remember the story? If you do, you don't, since the real book happens in the gorgeous, green-green valley between Crusoe's arrival and when Friday shows up. Not that I don't like Friday: I do, especially after reading the French anthropologist/aspiring-vampire Michel Tournier's translation of him. But his arrival transforms Crusoe's redolent solitude into a society, which means conflicts, motives, and, eventually at least, plot. The Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky titled his book on plot in Tolstoy "The Energy of Delusion", which as I understand it is meant to equate the conviction required for story-making with the kind of whipped-up and blinkered myopia we might find in someone wearing a sandwich board. Shklovsky's own book is frustratingly plotless: a whirlpool of lines that seem to be less arranged against their margin than clinging to it, like iron filings on a magnet or arrows from St. Sebastian's side. This is frustrating at first - but the further you read in the book, the more you come to see that Shklovsky is in fact attempting his own kind of literary mimesis: mimicking the peripatetic and searching adventure of Tolstoy's drafts (hundreds of them on AK - entire rewritings even!) in his own investigation. The result is an unending digression on literary creation, a fractal fable:

"I'll repeat what's important for me: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy said that he didn't know how to draw a circle; he had to close the line and then correct it.
He knew how to think by juxtaposing words, by awakening them, in a way.
When he wrote his major novels, he would begin with something plotted, i.e., something that was happening or had already happened, and sought the relationship between the incidental and the inevitable.
He studied the thoughts of a child and how cunning emerged at its first stages.
The so-called draft version is not an adaptation of a text to the norms, not sorting through gems, like jewelers do when making necklaces or crowns.
Drafts weigh the essence of events. The scenarios, which the hero of the work goes through, they should be called 'hypothetical circumstances.'
This is the analysis of how man was created, i.e., his sensation of the world, and how through the movements of scenarios, experimented and tested hundreds of times in fiction, the truth becomes clearer.
This work is like that of a captain who navigates by the stars and moon, using his chronometer to verify and make sure of their hypothetical place in the sky. The captain is testing the ship's course." (p. 134)

Shklovsky's dedication to the search ("The purpose of my search is art", he says) was so great that he scrapped the more recognizable generic forms ("The only genre that interests me is film itself" - Tarkovsky) for something ragged and messy-looking. His book is, at times, almost viscerally embarrassing. But failure or no, it is also something infinitely valuable: it is sincere. An outmoded and abused virtue these days, I know....but how striking! How amazing, to watch him flail and attempt and then finally hit on something that you know he simply could not have said in a 20-page letter to the academy. Why couldn't he have said it? Simple: because he couldn't have seen it. As he describes it being for Tolstoy, writing for Shklovsky is a sea-voyage - a discipline (or ecstacy) of perception, wherein the calcified generic modes must be stripped, Blake-style, from the organs of perception, so that the truth of the world (truth, which likes to hide) can be glimpsed and revealed.

Does this actually happen? I'm wondering. Whatever good news I have to bring, I'm bringing; but I'm wormy and skeptical, especially when it comes to the rhetoric of vision. Blogs, luckily, let you do this. You can backtrack and undermine, revising your own assertions as you go. What won't you get by doing this? Well, among other things, you will never write Anna Karenina. Make peace with that right now: stare yourself down in the mirror, sure in the knowledge that your beard will never dangle, nor your t-shirt stretch into the peasant blouse that you so sorely desire. Your eyes will go unhaunted by that revelation of ordinary life that is Levin and Kitty, or the romantic pyre of their dark, ridiculous shadows, Anna and Vronsky. Not for you.

I guess what I'm trying to figure out here (what a village-explainery sentence!) is: what am I writing? At the same time, I think I'm trying to forget that: forget "novel", forget "blogging", forget "Tolstoy". No wonder I feel the need to explain myself so much.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Our Eerie U Our Ray

Yesterday, I wrote that an urge towards mimesis - that is, towards a sort of free-hand copying of the world's things and procedures - is one of the main impulses of my writing. Is this true? Well, I think it's true, though of course there's a very real possibility that I really only like the idea of myself as a mimetic writer, and that all this blogging vs. fiction writing crap that I'm trying to build up is really just another way for me to justify and entomb myself - to make myself feel right and secure and padded with the sofa-cushions of Truth when really I am as wandering and peripatetic as everyone else.

Still, I guess I can at least say truthfully that I am deeply in love with the word "mimesis" and the process of art that it seems to represent. Mimesis. Something small and squeaky and therefore incredibly mouse-like about its sounds; come to think of it, something mouse-like about the entire word, with its unmissable M-ears, then the "eek!" as it's seen, followed by the scurried disappearance of that tail-like "sis"... And do you, dear reader, remember when words used to do that? When they seemed, not just evocative but actually alive on the page, like tiny penned animals? Maybe that, more than the Greek stamp of approval, is what I'm looking for: a return to the kind of relationship with words that I remember having as a kid, when every letter seemed like an animal flush with its own integral, mysterious life.

The connection between words and animals is something that any child whose ever stared longingly into the large, pony-sad eye of a lower case "a" can tell you about. Here is David Malouf, who is not a child, but who is Australian, describing Ovid describing a wild Eurasian boy he's adopted mimicking, first bird-call, and then man-call :

I have begun to understand him. In imitating birds, he is not, like our mimics, copying something that is outside him and revealing the accuracy of his ear or the virtuosity of his speech organs. He is being the bird. He is allowing it to speak out of him. So that in learning the sounds made by men he is making himself a man. Speech is the essential. I have hit at the very beginning on the one thing that will reveal to him of what kind he is. In making those buzzing sounds he discovers his throat. In intoning through his nostrils he realizes that he has a nose, and behind it, caverns where the sound reverberates. And so on for lips, tongue, teeth. As he builds up the whole range of sounds that we make, he is building up in his own head the image of head, checking and rechecking with his fingertips against my throat, my jaws, my lips, that he is made as I am, that he is a man.

Paraphrased by Malouf (via his made-up Ovid), the process of mimicry transforms into something more than a game; but it is important to notice that there are actually two types of mimesis described here. In one - the kind practiced "by our [Roman, civilized] mimics" -the movement occurs from the outside in and so exerts only "accuracy" and "virtuosity": valuable skills, sure, but not exactly ground-breaking. The child's form of mimicry, on the other hand, is a sort of studied possession. It, too, is virtuosic - but it employs its virtuosity as a tool in its search for a deeper, essential identification with what it's trying to imitate. The point is not to "pass": the point (or dream, maybe) is to imaginatively enter another being, and then to speak, for as long as you can, from within that being. So the child becomes a man in the same way that he becomes a bird: imaginatively, meaning (in Malouf's formulation, at least) for real.

Writing it, I see it: mimesis as art is a door, an imaginative tunnel from the self into the world and then back again (loaded with riches). To borrow a phrase from the non-Maloufian Ovid (or at least, Arthur Golding's version of him), it's a "translation of bodies", in which the mimic's powers of observation, control and - perhaps most importantly - imaginative generosity are all used to ferry the spirit of his subject from one set of (temporal, linguistic, physical) circumstances into another.

In this way, the Child's mimesis resembles another sort of translation - the kind that I'm ostensibly more familiar with but really just as baffled by. In his wonderful study Translating Neruda, the essayist/translator John Felstiner describes it in terms that we might happily juxtapose with Malouf's:

To get from the poet's voice into another language and into a translator's own voice is the business of translation. It depends on a moment-by-moment shuttle between voices, for what translating comes down to is listening - listening now to what the poet's voice said, now to one's own voice as it finds what to say.

At first, superficial glance, Felstiner's description of literary translation sounds a little like the "copying of something outside" that Ovid attributes to his Roman contemporaries - but this doesn't do justice to the book in which we find the quotation. Translating Neruda is, as Felstiner himself says, an anatomy. It includes, not only Felstiner's wonderful translation of Paplo Neruda's "Alturas De Macchu Picchu", but also a 200-page description of the history and poetics that Felstiner studied in order to make the translation. Part biography, part ars poetica (or ars translatica...sorry, I couldn't stop myself), it is really a long, fascinating digression on, and demonstration of, translation's unique mode of "listening". It admits - as the Malouf quote perhaps does not - that even the most possessed and imaginative mimicry has limits. Two voices can never be the same, and this is both limit and opportunity, since it takes translation out of the goopy, table-floating realm of pseudo-literary seance, and puts it squarely where it belongs: in the house of art. John Felstiner is not Pablo Neruda, as "Heights of Macchu Picchu" is not "Alturas De Macchu Picchu", and to claim any differently is to paradoxically impoverish translation's possibilities. We try to copy, and fail to do so perfectly - but in our failure, we create something entirely new in both languages.

As an art built on the admission of limitation that is typically swept under the rug in other genres, translation gives us a unique place from which to consider literary success. It makes us understand what we can't do while at the same time exciting us by the possibility of what we can. As the Irish taxonomist Paul Muldoon says in his introduction to The Faber Book of Beasts, "It seems that in poetry, as in life, animals bring out the best in us. We are most human in the presence of animals, most humble, and it is only out of humility, out of uncertainty, out of ignorance, that the greatest art may be made."

Are Australians naturally humble? As someone who grew up (at least partially) on an island only a few hundred miles to their north, I am tempted to say "not especially". But then there is way that fat man/bard Les Murray becomes, not just a bat, but batness:

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening's a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O'er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row wry - aura our orrery,
our eerie u our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear our aery Yahweh.

This is taken from the sequence of poem/translations titled Presence: Translations from the Natural World. It is itself a paraphrase: in the book, the bat-speak is the part in italics, and that "u" in the second to last line should be an umlaut, which I can't seem to get blogger to write. Do these changes make a difference? Without a doubt. In my version, it is Murray's voice that is flying italicized through the air, and the bats' that comes to a stop as if jerked. This seems like an unfortunate confusion of effects - although who knows, maybe the stillness of the sonar is meant to suggest the platonic perfection of their voice, their true voices. And now it is "our eerie you": an address - to Yahweh? The reader? The ambiguity seems important, though I miss that umlaut and its ludicrously-small hat.

Murray's humbly-audacious translations are what I'm talking about. Reading them, I feel the same way as I did when I was four years old, leafing through my still favorite book, I'm as Quick as a Cricket. Through it's simple and inexhaustible magic, I transformed into animal after animal, simply by uttering those two words: "as a". The miracle of metaphor, which I found to my stunned amazement was portable and could open anything. Armed with it, I could not just wander, but inhabit the world, snuggling down into its nooks or soaring through its spaces. And with each transformation I wrote another line in what I come to see now was a riddle. I am you and you and you, which adds up, at the end of the day, to I am this, I am this, I am this, until inevitably we arrive at the question that all poems ask, the underquestion: What am I?

Writing, like translating, is riddling. Books are riddles with as many solutions as readers. In 1072, the Bishop of Exeter died, bequeathing to the Cathedral library the Codex Exoniensis (Exeter Book) that we can only hope gave him so much joy, thought, and consolation while he was alive. Here are two of its riddles, which most subsequent commentators agree are really separate versions with the same answer. Brilliantly translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland:

I stretch beyond the bounds of the world,
I'm smaller than a worm, outstrip the sun,
I shine more brightly than the moon. The swelling seas,
the fair face of the earth and all the green fields,
are within my clasp. I cover the depths,
and plunge beneath hell; I ascend above heaven,
highland of renown; I reach beyond
the boundaries of the land of blessed angels.
I fill far and wide all the corners of the earth
and the ocean streams. Say what my name is.


On the way a miracle: water become bone.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Earwig Art

The relative "storylessness" of blogging is, to me at least, simultaneously one of its most terrifying and attractive features. In order to understand this, please put yourself for a moment in the shoes of a young man with literary dreams. How do you begin to pursue those dreams? More importantly, how do you articulate what the realization of those dreams would look like to you, were it to happen?

The simple answer to both these questions is probably quite similar to the one you'd give a young person pursuing any other type of achievement: you model your life after your heroes as best you can and then hope, wish, pray that your own talents fit or perhaps refit the world. For a fiction writer, at least as I have understood it, such a mimesis basically boils down to an apprenticeship spent accumulating notice, then the big breakthrough (novel), then, ahem, the rest of your life, which is both a continual trial and a sort of Swiss dale, over whose daisy-covered fields you twirl like James Franco in a habit.

Fair enough - but then what about blogging? Compared with such a solid, straightforward, though admittedly quite trying quest (for, as Rilke says, an artist is "In love with the difficult") it looks decidedly shaggy. Young and unofficial, it compares to the larger career-narrative the way waitressing or a summer hiking would - that is, as a diversion from, but also preparation for, something much more serious. People who spend too much time at it might enjoy themselves for a while, but their self-indulgence may put them at risk for that most dire of conditions, Unpaid Eccentricity. They may find their energies diverted, into tide pools that, while comfortable, will eventually force those same energies to adopt their own stunted proportions.

In describing the problem this way - as a choice between embracing one's plot or punking out (as my most aggressively-narrative teacher wrote in the margins of one of my stories) - I am of course being stinkingly American, which both means something and doesn't since these days anyone can become American by brushing their teeth. I am describing the plot lines of countless movies and books, which is both completely natural and also strange, since who says my life is ever going to look anything like what I've seen or read? But then how do I not think this? How do I somehow step outside the story I've been writing around myself without trading my status as hero for a bit part that asks me only to deliver my catchphrase once an episode and then leave, so that the real drama can proceed without me?

Blogging vehemently refuses to answer these questions, which is one of the things I find most appealing about it. There's no story to it yet; and because there's no story, there's nothing to distract me from the actual moment and act of writing. The sweet spot seems so much closer, my face so much closer to the page. Ridiculous, given that there's no page for my nose to be close to... but there it is. The world outside the story, before the story, nameless, which is to say utterly able to call names out of us. In David Malouf's beautiful novel An Imaginary Life, which I finished last night as lightning stepped around Portland like a giant looking for his dropped glasses, Ovid (imagined Ovid, real Ovid) imagines this state:

The earth, now that I am about to leave it, seems so close at last...Round the base of these roots, seeking refuge amongst them as in a forest, finding food, are the smaller creatures - wood lice, ants, earwigs, earthworms, beetles, another world and another order of existence, crowded and busy about its endless process of creation and survival and death.

For me, Malouf here is describing the world beyond stories, or rather (as he perfectly intuits), the world beneath them. This is the world I need - not "want", but really need, since why would I open my mouth (which I am of course not really doing, any more than I'm putting my face close to a printed page) if not to name even the smallest part of it? Mimesis, which entails both imitation and, beneath that, attention, praise, generosity, remains the whole fucking point, no matter what the medium. Organs are useful insofar as they facilitate our part in that process, bringing us closer, not just to the literal earth, but to the shared and personal ground of lived experience.

But can novels still do that? Can blogging?


Images: Publicity still for Circle in the Square production of Ovid's Metamorphoses; Publicity photo from New Platz's production of same; Poster for Whistler in the Dark's adaptation of Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid

Saturday, August 27, 2011


My models for blogging are: the Polish genius/disruptor Witold Gombrowicz and the French philosopher/guru Emile-August Chernier, who wrote under the ungooglable pen name Alain.

News of Gombrowicz first reached me while I was living in Prague, a city riddled with both expatriates (which Gombro was) and shitty writers (which he was not). In such a city, it is easier than you'd think for an American to get a library card, and to check out, using said card, the British edition of Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, and then to read in this small, tattered, but ridiculously-well-argued book that the Joyce-Mann-Proust triumvirate that he has worshipped for so long is in fact a distant second string to the real giants of the period, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and Witold Gombrowicz. The American, of course, has never heard of any of these writers before. But Americans being Americans and shitty writers being shitty writers, he of course believes every word of it.

Ten years and numerous investigations later, Gombrowicz's thought has utterly infected me. Viruses, like most great organisms, do their work in the dark; but the success of Gombro's prose has less to do with outright force than with its unique combination of speed and sharpness. This is especially true in the Diaries, which, were I a real writer, I would mention in an interview as "my War and Peace" (causing the same puzzled excitement in Shitty Young America that, say, Philip Roth did in me, when he called Celine "my Proust"). Written during his impromptu exile in Argentine, they are among the great blogging ur-texts: a rancid epic of inflation, mutilation, and change (which, despite his desires to, Gombro really does not: this is simultaneously the work's great victory and its tragedy). And it all plays out in that wonderful, hiding-under-the-sofa level of mundanity that blogs are so fascinated with. Comparing the book with Tolstoy may seem flippant: it is. It is ludicrously irresponsible. But put a page of the Diaries next to the last chapter of Anna Karenina, and then stare at them with all the intensity you'd give to the Magic Eye poster in a TGIFridays's bathroom. After five minutes, you will start to get very bored - but then, after fifteen or twenty minutes the candy-colored waters will part, and the Unicorn of Meaning leap from the wall to gouge your eye out.

Gombro's genius was to be so vituperously witty about himself and the world that he eventually broke them both. In pictures he looks like what he was: a grouchy and effete old perv. But this is also not what he was - for the real Gombrowicz is not in these pictures at all, at least not visibly. The real Gombrowicz is sitting in a tiny cockpit at the top of the picture-Gombrowicz's head, moving his arms and legs via an elaborate system of levers when he has to, but mostly just sitting there in disgusted awe. Yes, there is awe in Gombrowicz, that most romantic of romantic Polish intellectuals. But he will not settle. So, like a particular strain of idealist that can be found everywhere (even in America), he spends most of his time telling the world and himself how incredibly much they fail to measure up.

Going from Gombrowicz to Alain is like deciding to switch parents with your best friend. There is the fear, the flush of encounter, the relief at feeling valued, hopeful, optimistic... and then, of course, the mysterious realization that these new parents are actually a lot like your old ones. A populist, a Marxist (though seen through his eyes Marx resembles the Brothers Grimm much more than Goethe or Schiller), Alain wrote almost exclusively in a single form, which he called the propos. As Richard Pevear explains it in his introduction to The Gods:

The word basically means a conversation, a talk. These miniature essays make up a large part of [Alain's] work; between 1903 and 1936 he wrote over five thousand of them, an average of one every two and a half days...The nature of the propos grew out of the unusual working conditions Alain set himself: to fill two pages, at one sitting, with no revisions. In fact, he would not erase a sentence once it was put down; he would make his thought follow the words. In a note written in 1908, he compared the propos to the stretto in a fugue, the abbreviated repetition of subjects, which come together 'as if they were passing through a ring. The material crowds in, and it has to line up, and pass through, and be quick. That is my acrobatic stunt, as well as i can describe it; I have succeeded perhaps one time in six, which is a lot...'

The state of concentration that he describes here as being necessary for the writing of the propos links Alain's writing to more physical and improvisational modes of creation: dance, for example, or the guitar solo, or drawing. The mad British sculptor/painter/novelist Michael Ayrton describes the last of these beautifully: "The process of drawing is before all else the process of putting the visual intelligence into action, the very mechanics of taking visual thought." In a similar way, Alain's propos seem less written to me than sky-written, performed. Despite their density I read them quickly, before they dissolve, and then mull over them for hours.

This conception of writing as a physical, improvisational, and above all risky act is what makes Alain so important for me. Most of the fiction I've tried to write over the last decade has been the result of enormous effort - not concentration, necessarily, but effort. But as anyone who's ever been a long-distance athlete can tell you, time spent at a task does not immediately translate into time well spent (and then just there, I had to rewrite that sentence). Too often while writing fiction - while writing any prose, really, except those pieces that I can somehow convince myself are "not important" - I put my head down and push, with the same blinkered tenacity that I used to show when I volunteered for the most difficult events during a high school swim meet. Why did I do this? Why especially when my thighs at fourteen were things of beauty, and my breaststroke (the most delicate, dance-like and furious of the competitive strokes) an unbeatable knife-stab into perfectly-parting waters? But breaststroke was also the slowest stroke and therefore a notorious haven for malingerers. Even the name was pansified. So I gave it up, exchanging what I still hold would have been a meteoric career for four years of a frustrated attempt to succeed at something that I just - wasn't - good at.

Fear. But one of the great ironies (or necessities) of Alain's writing is that, effortless though it may seem, it is obsessed with work. The Gods - still my favorite blog, even more so than the Diaries - is a hymn to disillusion: a reverse and antidote to Gombrowicz's Polish escapism. For Alain, the point is not to escape, since anywhere we escape to will just be the same thing. We carry our problem - our "soul error" as Alain's great predecessor Montaigne put it - inside us. It is a misunderstanding (shades again of Tolstoy and that secret Tolstoyan, Ludwig Wittgenstein), which means that we can correct it. There are no paradises, no edens since Eden. As soon as we accept that nothing comes into being without work, we can begin to remedy our situation ourselves, in the world. Putting it this way unfortunately makes Alain sound like an Australian trying to sell blenders - but this is not philosophy. Or rather, it is philosophy in the same way that Alain's propos are writing: philosophy as action.

Alain's legacy, for me, is intensity: of style, of voice, of ambition. His famous students included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Weil. His first sentences are impossible composites of equation and fairy tale: "A child is first carried or wheeled around." "Violence is everywhere under the peacefulness of the fields." "The Gods are moments of man." "Ulysses, on Calypso's beach, thinks of the smoke above his roof in Ithaca, and wants to die." "We always have to eat." Impossible not to read the sentences that follow them - which is, I realize, one of the things he has in common with Witold Gombrowicz.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Weft and Whale

For those people who, like me, spend their vacations eating pizza and thinking about Bible stories, I have good news: I know why Jonah slept.

I’ve been thinking about this moment for years, ever since I 1) started working in a hospital (whale-like institution), and 2) got about 300 note-cards into a retelling of the Book of Jonah, which I was trying to write in a single, cetological sentence.

I started the project as a sort of antidote against the writerly constipation that I’ve been suffering from ever since graduating from my MFA program: a crippling and uncomfortable perfectionism, in which I get really excited about ideas and even begin executing them, until about twenty pages in, when I for some reason go back and start revising what I’ve already written with the obsessive scrupulosity of a man locking himself into smaller and smaller rooms of his house. Chapter, paragraph, sentence…The last step of this imprisonment (which proceeds with a cunning that I can only call diabolic) is of course the single word, which I repeat like a five-year-old who has just discovered that even the most familiar name dissolves if he says it enough. And no, I haven't really figured out how to deal with this.

In the Jonah project's case, the word I got locked in was “asleep”, from the story’s fifth verse. God sends his storm:

“And the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god; and they cast forth wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it unto them. But Jonah was gone down into the innermost parts of the ship, and he lay, and was fast asleep.”

To me, Jonah’s nap is the key mystery of this extremely mysterious book: a knot that defies psychologizing and allegorizing alike. How could he sleep? Was he faking it? Was he stupid? And what does it mean that he slept? How does it fit in with his subsequent admission, and acceptance of himself as preacher; the famous whale-dive; the frustrating gourd-blight after the prophecy has been delivered (and for those of you who don’t remember this part of the story, as I didn’t, take a look: you’ll be surprised at where it goes).

My previous attempts to understand Jonah’s sleep never really worked…but this past weekend, an explanation came to me that both slides into place and turns, revealing that what I had taken to be the tale's “movement” was really only my eyes sliding over its intricate facade. The explanation is this: Jonah is beloved.

Beloved. A precious word in the Old Testament (though to be fair, I have no idea if it ever appears in it), which is after all a book (or collection of books) about fathers and sons, both God the Father and his human sons, and the individual fathers and sons of the stories themselves. In so many of these, we see a struggle or rather two struggles: the son’s for his father’s blessing, and the father’s for his son’s obedience. There are tricks and schemes on both sides, but never any backtracking. Once the blessing is given, it’s given, and the plot moves on, relegating the non-blessed to the margins of their more favored siblings’ story. Occasionally they resurface Ishmael-like with their own stories. More often they just disappear.

In the midst of this generational scrabble, the beloveds appear with their strange insouciance. Jacob, Joseph, Abel, Jonah: the pretty ones, the charmers, at whose feet the world seems to throw itself. We love these characters – more importantly, God loves these characters. His favor flows to them like water running downhill.

So now imagine you were one of these beloveds, sleeping as the storm buffeted… Would you be afraid? Or would you perhaps, like Jonah, eye the whole thing kind of sleepily, like an only child being yelled at by his grandparents? Oh yes, you’ll punish me. Sure. But then where will your love go? Who will be your hero? Give me my toys.

Beloveds, who have never experienced it, don’t believe in punishment: this is why Jonah sleeps so soundly. He has been chosen. A favorite, meaning someone who will never be hurt. A rich kid, a genius. No problems. And because no problems, no way forward. Watch the movies of Sophia Coppolla if you don’t believe in this last dynamic: the plotless anhedonia of someone born with every advantage. Moods and mood-pieces, into which God’s wrath, terrible at first, breaks like a ray of sunlight, convincing us for a while at least that we might actually die. So, alive at last, Jonah makes his confession from the Whale’s belly. Uncle, uncle, he shouts! I give up, show me the plot and I’ll join it! At which point God says, patiently, I don’t believe you, you haven’t suffered yet. You are faking even your confession…

Coming as it does at the very end of the Old Testament, the Book of Jonah belongs to the gigantic mishmash of folk-tale, commentary, genealogy, and prophecy that make up the bulk of that book after the Pentateuch. Read in the 21st century, by someone raised on Disney movies, it sounds very much like a “lost book”: a free-standing story that both waits for an ending and resists subsequent attempts to rope it to Christ’s happy ending. But I think it resists this. Stubborn and irresolvable, it sticks in the craw of the larger Biblical narrative while simultaneously seeming like a mini-allegory of the whole thing. To me, it is (again, like so many other Bible stories) a story about talent, and waste, and our inability to escape either of them.

Images: Albert Herbert's Jonah and the Whale, Jonah and the Whale Cake from, Jonah and the Whale balloon sculpture by Pastor Andrew Grosjean


Authority. Art is a simple but thrilling game played, not against, but with this antagonist: less arm-wrestle than hide-and-seek. There are two ways you can lose. The first is obvious. The eager ephebe falls in love with the works that have given him so much pleasure, and this makes him the worst of all lovers. In thrall, he can do nothing except repeat the last thing you said. The other fail is more subtle, less publicized, maybe more common. Student lights out for territory, looking for his own rules, then discovers to his dismay that rules, like all true things, do not belong to him – or at least not to him alone. Spinning in the wilderness he is like a boxer underwater: resistance nowhere, which means resistance everywhere. No way to figure out what’s good, which may sound trite but then think about it like this: No way to do that thing that art promises, to link your own self up to the larger matrix of humanity, being, whatever else you want to call it.

Pushkin, the newest author in the history of literature, was weirdly enough no innovator. People used to talk about this all the time. He collated, syncretized. He picked up the almost-completed crossword that generations of Russian writers had worked on before him and, through genius (which is to say, through something as close to chance as it was to destiny or “hard won skill”) saw what was missing. Child’s play! Or at least that’s how we imagine it. Experimenters deserve our love, praise, devotion, and study…but the greats do not experiment. (And perhaps this is the key to Mandelstam’s idea that the poem is already there, waiting to be found, like a rock on a beach?)

Thursday, August 18, 2011


It's been over a year since I posted on this blog, a year during which I've had plenty of reasons to post and even ideas about posts, but have nevertheless successfully prevented myself - with a 100% success rate - from posting a single word. Why?

Blogging to me is a form of failure: a rich and potential-filled form, sure, but still essentially what Seth Pollins wrote at the top of another now-defunct blog that he and I wrote together: a distraction, from writing and by writing. Meaning, a distraction from what's important (a shimmering and mirage-like "career" as a novelist, or poet, or travel writer, or whatever) by what is not (the mundane but richly present worlds of blogging, translation, review writing that seem to be constantly tapping me on the shoulder).

One of the funniest things about admitting this, of course, is that the writers I love the most were almost all dilettantes. In fact, one of my own favorite novels is Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, in which the idea of literary history as a series of straight-forward thumb-wrestles (Milton fights Shakespeare, Blake fights Milton, Ginsburg fights Blake), is replaced by an upside-down, inside-out labyrinth of evasions, twists, and chickening-outs. According to this history (or my version of it, anyway), even the most industrious writers tend to have a wide streak of spiritual loafing. They "face the facts", but selectively, and in a way that makes it possible for them to write something new and strange.

Their failure gives me hope, the thing with feathers. Writing is hard for me. Writing fiction (the thing I feel like I should be writing) is especially hard - a fact that I find particularly inconvenient, since, as a Mozartian prodigy of unheard-of potential, I really should be killing this shit on a daily basis. And the fact that I'm not makes me wonder. Why can't I do this? Why don't the words flow from my fingers with the sort of facility that would make the curious peruser of my drafts stop in wonder and raise his head, to mutter at my buxom Austrian wife, "Original manuscripts?.... But there's not a mark on them!"

Blogging is a form of failure: a discipline in it, actually. But then, as Mandelstam reminds us, "Salieri is worthy of respect and burning love. It is not his fault that he heard the music of algebra as loudly as that of living harmony."