Annotated List of Notable Books I Read This Year (in no particular order)

  • Speedboat & Pitch Dark, Renata Adler

2013 was a good year for Adler. Sure, it took a couple of years and NYRB re-publications, but her two wonderful novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark are finally being given the due they deserve. Adler’s prose is precision sharp, psychologically dense (& as a result quite real), and nothing really feels particularly dated in either book. Pitch Dark is arguably a bit better, but the bursts of Speedboat are more explosive & make it a better starting point.

  • Seiobo There Below, László Krasznahorkai

Krasznahorkai’s most recent book is, let’s be blunt, his greatest so far. And, in truth, it’s probably the greatest thing published in English this year. You think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. The man is a wizard, and he pulls off audacious, seemingly pretentious maneuvers like twenty-page sentences, such that you quickly lose sight of the audacity and find yourself instead wherever he damn well wants you. Beauty and horror never so much collide or come at odds in Krasznahorkai’s world, nor are they infused or resolved dialectically. They somehow interpenetrate the other in unbalanced, sometimes grotesque ways. Seiobo There Below repeatedly rehearses precisely how this looks, and I could not look away.

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“One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.”

The Dean of Cultural Affairs called a meeting of the representatives of our two departments on the question of jurisdiction in the Space on Film course, late one morning. Seven H. B. A.s ["Hours By Appointment"] attended this, because, not having thought or published anything in twenty years, and not having, like Professor Klein, careers near the mainstream of cultural life, they do not spend their lives entirely in idleness. They quarrel. . . .

Our branch of the university is accustomed anyway to jurisdictional disputes. Drama and Cinema grew out of a workshop that existed many years ago to remedy the accents of bright city girls, who could not afford college out of town. When such programs became unfashionable, the staff chose to become two faculties: Dramatistics, and Perspectives in Media. Within a year, the Media people chose to join the newer Department of Minority Groups and Social Change — which already offered History of Broadcasting 204, 301, and Seminar, and whose course on Prostitution, Causes and Origins, was being televised. The Dramatistics people felt they could not attract students, or budget allocations, on their own. They added Film. Our department changed its name, and became what it is now. Our Drama people are trying to take over the English Department’s course Creative Writing 101; Playwriting A. The English Literature people are beleaguered on another side. For twenty years, they have had The Brothers Karamazov (translated, abridged). The Department of Russian Literature, which teaches all its courses in translation now, wants Dostoevski back.

The Drama people have designs in other fields: Ibsen and Strindberg, in particular — which seems reasonable enough, since all the texts are plays. Ibsen and Strindberg, however, belong, with Swinburne, to the Department of Germanistics and Philology. Between 1938 and 1949, all German courses were unpopular. The German Literature people simply seized Ibsen and Strindberg — and by some misunderstanding, which was noticed too late, got Swinburne as well. There were no Drama people, or any other sort of people, at that time, to compete. Chekhov, meanwhile, for reasons that, I am afraid, are clear, is taught in the Classics Department (Greek 209C). The operative principle appears to be that if any thing or person mentioned in another department could conceivably be mentioned in your own, you have at least an argument to seize the course. One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.

– Renata Adler, Speedboat

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Teaching literature: Any thoughts?

I was very focused on literature in high school and college and intended to study literature in graduate school, so I’m excited to be able to reactivate all that in my teaching this semester. At the same time, I’m conscious that I’ve done relatively minimal teaching of literature thus far — while the Bible obviously includes significant narrative and poetry, and while I’ve taught Paradise Lost and sections of the Inferno in my devil seminar, I’ve never done a straight-up literature class. So I thought I’d give my thoughts going into it and ask if any of our more literary readers had suggestions.

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Fun fact about Marx

I learned something new from Anna Kornbluh’s article on reading Capital as a Victorian novel:

Long before he aspired to the critique of political economy, the young Marx fluently pursued charming stylizations, conducting numerous “Early Literary Experiments,” including love poems, “Wild Songs,” and a “Book of Verse.” And indeed, rather like enacting a kind of phylogeny of that ontogenetic generic experimentation which culminates in the novel as such, his experiments ultimately amounted to Scorpion and Felix, A Humoristic Novel (1837). Marx’s novel is a Tristram Shandy-ish pursuit of deferred origins, told self-reflexively in the present tense by a first-person narrator. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Robert Walser’s “The Battle of Sempach”

Robert Walser’s short story “The Battle of Sempach” was written in 1908 about a Swiss rebellion in 1386 and addresses the collision course of history pertinent even today in 2011.

It begins on a day not like today for many of us: an oppressively hot day. Dusty, there; perhaps merely feeling and tasting of dust, here. A day made of or even for death, the question hanging of whose. Theirs, the noblemen of money & class whose imposition on the lives of others is assumed as a given? or those to whom they so indolently impose themselves? There is a war, but they, the nobleman are not wont to regard it as such.

Hasty sips of wine were taken, roast fowl consumed and the inedible bits spat out with a leisurely, light-hearted ease; after all, it wasn’t some serious, chivlarous war they were off to, but rather to inflict punishment, rape, commit bloody, scornful, theatrical deeds, that’s what each of them thought; and each could already see the mass of lopped-off heads that would bloody the meadow. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in literature, Robert Walser, There is a war, violence. Comments Off

Some Thoughts Upon Finishing The Pale King

I got around to finishing David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King this week. Upon finishing it, I found myself about as ambivalent coming out of the reading as I was going into it. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not in the camp, assuming such a camp exists, that doesn’t shine on the whole posthumous publication business. On the contrary, I’m pretty certain that this book would, in some form or another, probably exist eventually, and find nothing lamentable about its existence as such. Just as some of the book was published in magazines and the like prior to the Little, Brown, & Co. edition, I would be surprised if other sections would not have also seen the light of day in some form or other anyway; whereupon, over time, somebody would have the bright idea to take all the published and unpublished bits and put them all together. It would almost assuredly have looked different had it taken this editorial path toward publication, possibly very different, but The Pale King we would have. Read the rest of this entry »

A Kind-of Follow-Up Post Re: Investments

I’ve been meaning to post something about this for a couple of months, but kept putting it off until yesterday when I was engaged in an off-blog conversation about the engaging/frustrating/etc. comment thread accompanying Adam’s finance/retirement thread. There was an interesting dynamic at work in it and other similarly themed threads here and abroad in which there was a palpable defensiveness from the word go alongside a striking propensity to interpret even self-deprecation as rhetorically aggressive behavior. I don’t say that as a chastising administrator. I mention it now merely to flag the motivation for my remembrance of a post from HTMLGIANT a couple of months ago that I intended to mention then but didn’t. I waited so long, in fact, that for some reason the entire post has since been deleted–presumably, given the subject, the comment thread became malignant and had to be removed from the blog entirely, lest it take down the entire enterprise. Thank heavens for Google Reader! (The post in question was in reaction to the comment thread here, which is probably worth clicking if the following paragraph makes no sense to you.) Read the rest of this entry »

“I’m living in the future so the present is my past”

I’ve been somewhat obsessed by the work of Elias Canetti of late. I’ve written a little about his book Crowds & Power already, but have not said too much about his novel, Auto-da-Fé. Let me remedy that now.

Written in Vienna in 1935, Auto-da-Fé feels dated, other-worldly even, but not in a necessarily bad way. Perhaps it is best instead to say it feels like a fable, for that is what it effectively comes out as being. That is to say, it is a modernist fable: a skewering and embodying of high modernist sentiment. The novel’s protagonist, Peter Kien, the world’s leading sinologist and owner of a massive library subject to much envy and object of pride, fits the prototype of most modernist literature. For every action he takes–be it his writing of erudite papers on Confucius and Aristotle, his foolhardy marriage to his greedy housekeeper, “rescuing” books from their doom at the hands (& stomach) of an unseen pawnbroker, and even his incendiary actions in the novel’s climax–is more than offset by actions taken upon by him. Most notably is the physical and mental abuse Kien suffers throughout the novel. Indeed, each of the three acts–”A Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” & “The World in the Head”–highlights at least one new mode of assault & degradation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dumbest Thing Ever Said

I recently subscribed to the @ParisReview twitter feed, and have been marveling on a daily basis at how utterly banal some of the greatest writers of the English language can be. I don’t know that this is the intention of pulling select quotes from interviews and de-contextualizing them in a random tweet, but it is almost always the effect. I could make a list of my top 10 “favorites,” but I think only one will suffice, because it is perhaps the dumbest thing ever said.

In a state of mitigated exasperation

I don’t want to inundate you with quotes, but my desire will not stop me from doing so. For upon encountering the following two passages from, yes, William Gass’ The Tunnel, I realized his narrator was, in the course of describing a colleague, also describing many a participant in this digitized forum we call the theological blogosphere. Regular readers of our fair blog will get the gist of the jab. I suspect everyone else will not need their hand held either though.

“There may be some truth in what you say, Herschel says, with his customary Cream of Wheat agreement: mildness of a sort which could never cause a bilious blowup, bland as ordinary atmosphere and nearly as impalpable. I call him the hedgehog because he is such a believer in both sides. You have a point, he likes to say, he enjoys saying; there is more than a little merit in that, he declares, as if removing a pipe from his mouth (actually, Herschel never declares, or asserts, or avers–I do that; Governali avows and Planmantee affirms; they do that–Herschel assents, or suggests; he elaborates, or gently opines); yes, well, what you say seems, yes, well, plausible to me, upon my brief entertainment of it anyway, yes, at first glance a nice notion, on the face of it a pleasant guise; but will such an idea survive a long haul over stony ground, you think? the scrutiny of a dental pick? the footsteps of many a traveler across the same ground? and will it survive journalists and cameramen, you know? town meetings? picnics spread out abundantly open?”

“It is impossible—not to say, nettlesome—to carry on a debate with Herschel because he is invariably prepared to grant you your point . . . after he has blunted it. He is quick to applaud your overall attitude (for the most part, of course) (on the whole) (by and large) (in the main). Meanwhile, he has so effectively clouded the countryside that you can never perceive the defining edge of anything, or circumscribe an ordinary outline in order to locate its elbows or touch its tits. Blur, fuzz, smear: that’s what he does—his specialty. It’s not that . . . he hates distinctions, but rather that he makes too many, and lays them down on top of one another repeatedly like an angry scratch-out of lines. On the other hand, you can never come to an accord, either—sing harmony. Not with Good King Qualification, Handsome Prince Perhaps. Not with Mister Maybe. . . . Not with every idea developed as an endless polyhedron. No, you cannot quarrel with Herschel, yet the Hedgehog lets nothing pass. If thoughts wore ties, he’d always feel compelled, in his wifely way, to straighten them. So with Herschel one is habitually in a state of mitigated exasperation.”

Oh that last sentence especially. So delightful. It is tattooed in my brain now.

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