Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Western Canon: A Beginner's Guide

So you want to read the canon of classic 'Western' literature. Good for you. Reading the canon, voluntarily immersing oneself in its excellence, is an act almost noble in a time and place that bestows the mantle of genius upon Spielberg, Swift and Jobs (Sounds like a really bad law firm, doesn't it? Check out their ad in the yellow pages under S for 'shysters' (then check out the etymology of 'shyster')). But the canon is an enormous, daunting thing, too huge (cue Bernie Sanders: "YUUUUUUGE!") for one lifetime. Even the seemingly exhaustive lists in the back of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (those too-famous lists that Bloom compiled hurriedly off his hyperliterate head's top and has since wearily disowned) aren't quite exhaustive enough, as they omit some obviously canonical writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac) and were too early to capture Sebald, Bolano and the great late phase of Philip Roth. A reader beginning her or his exploration of the canon requires something more graspable, more human-sized: a list of, say, about 30 absolutely essential books that will both provide a basic sense of the shape of the whole canon and build a solid foundation for future reading. Here are my suggestions for the cinderblocks in that foundation. You, of course, can and will begin reading anywhere. This is where I would begin.


Homer, The Iliad. Western literature begins in the middle of a war story. Gorier than a Schwarzenegger flick and as sublime as the greatest Rembrandts, the blind bard's warsong begins, as Philip Roth has said, with an argument over a girl, and it doesn't end until we've seen the savagery from both sides and floated godlike above it all on the wings of Homer's song. This shining chant of blood and death, of peace and grief, echoes down the centuries like the siren song of war that still holds us enthralled. The Iliad is the first great statement of that Joycean nightmare from which we have still not awakened.


Homer, The Odyssey. All wars will end, eventually. Even America's current, Homericly murderous, neo-Alexandrian adventures will end, eventually (although the Iraq and Afghan wars have already lasted longer that the Trojan one). And after the war comes the long homecoming. If the Iliad is the foundational bright and shining Apollonian tragedy of European literature, the Odyssey is all Dionysus, a dark chthonic poem of horror and enchantment from  the witchy depths of the pagan imagination. In its pages lie the seeds of multiple genres: romance, fantasy, horror, the picaresque, even the 20th-century avant-garde novel by way of Joyce's Ulysses, the Rosetta Stone of Modernism.


Aristophanes, The Complete Plays. Here is the birth of Western comedy. Aristophanes is outrageous, bawdy, vulgar, rude, crude, lewd, and his characters are often royally screwed. The grandfather of all social satirists, the godfather of all comic novelists, Aristophanes revels and rails and ribaldly delights in the big bag of foibles we call the human race. Begin with Lysistrata, his ever-relevant antiwar comedy, and read your way outward. My favorites are Clouds, Wasps and Birds.


Sophocles, The Complete Plays. Comedy and tragedy were intimately linked in the Greek theater. Every tragic trilogy was epilogued with an outrageously comic, phallic, scatological satyr play (only one of which, Euripides' Cyclops, has survived the censorship of the intervening centuries). One might get the true flavor of Greek performance by reading Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy and then a play by Aristophanes (Philip Roth comically imitates this ancient form in his trilogy and satirical epilogue, Zuckerman Bound). If Aeschylus represents the morning of tragedy and Euripides its decadent early evening, Sophocles is the genre's high noon, its prime, its blood meridian. He's the absolutely essential tragedian.


Plato, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus. Plato wrote many other dialogues, but these six form the core of his thought and contain the best of his art. For Plato was also a great poet and would have banned himself from his ideal state. The first three dialogues narrate the trial and death of Socrates, the Republic is the clearest adumbration of the philosophy we call Platonic, the Symposium is a brilliant Aristophanic discourse on sex and love, and the Phaedrus proves that if we read Plato well enough, Derrida becomes redundant.


Ovid, Metamorphoses. Wild, wise, wonderful Ovid--wilder than wise and more wonderful than either--is one of the half-dozen or so most influential poets in European history, and that greatness rests almost entirely in the Metamorphoses, his epic reimagining of Greek and Roman mythology that formatively influenced Dante, Shakespeare, Titian, Bernini, and countless artists in all media to the present day.


Petronius, The Satyricon. Outrageous, decadent, raunchy, pansexual, and always good dirty fun, this marvel-filled surviving fragment of a much longer comic-satirical picaresque from the reign of Nero can be read today as the first and most influential novel ever written. Like the book of Genesis, it's brief, but it contains the creation of the comic world. The 'Trimalchio's Dinner' episode is unforgettable.


Dante, The Divine Comedy. As a rule, I'm steering clear of translation controversies in this list by not recommending any (you can choose your own), but with Dante I break this rule to recommend Allen Mandelbaum's translation of the three volumes. It's a gorgeous work of English-language poetry, and the Bantam paperback editions print the Italian text on facing pages for those who wish to hear the original music. These three volumes are my candidate for the greatest poem ever written. Follow Dante down into the circles of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and into the Heaven of medieval outer space--it's European literature's greatest ride.


Boccaccio, The Decameron. And after the extraterrestrial exaltations of Dantean dreaming, what better corrective than the earthly exaltations of the Boccaccian body? A collection of 100 short stories framed as tales told by refugees from an epidemic, the Decameron is a tour d'horizon of the actual medieval mind--as opposed to the 'Mind' imagined and dubiously embodied by theological philosophers. The stories are fabulously (in every sense of the word) raw, raunchy, and sometimes blindingly funny. If Dante was the aesthetic Plato of the medieval Italian peninsula, Boccaccio was its Petronius.


Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Skipping a couple more centuries, we find ourselves in Renaissance France during the Mannerist 1500s. Here we can lose ourselves inside the seriously twisted comic mind of the bon medicin Francois Rabelais. Written over many years, G and P is an uneven work, and I've always found the first two books superior to the others, but as a foundational work of Western satire, setting the stage for everyone from Swift to Joyce to Calvino and Pynchon and Rushdie, it's a fun and funny, occasionally dazzling must-read.


Montaigne, Essays. Harold Bloom hyperbolically credited Shakespeare with the invention of the human; however, as professor Bloom well knows, Shakespeare's great humanistic teacher was the inventor of the personal essay, Michel de Montaigne. Most readers dip into Montaigne, taking the essays at random (this has been my practice), but it's also possible to read the complete essays as kind of novel, the narrative of a single man's intellectual journey from classical Stoicism through renaissance Skepticism to the powerful, life-embracing Humanism of the later essays. One might say that Montaigne begins believing that to philosophize is to learn how to die and ends knowing that the true goal of all thinking is to learn how to live.


Shakespeare, The Complete Works. A favorite bit of Shakespeareana: the story goes that a few decades after the Bard's death, a librarian at Oxford casually disposed of the library's copy of the First Folio, reasoning that the Bodleian's limited shelf space should not be cluttered by a big book of trashy playscripts. During the centuries of his life, Shakespeare was not yet Shakespeare; he only started to become Shakespeare about a century after his death, and he didn't become the Shakespeare we worship today until the 19th century. So what was/is so special about Shakespeare? The mind demonstrated in these plays and poems is more capacious, more lively, more witty, broader and deeper than any you will ever meet--in life or on the page. He invents the most amazing metaphors with astonishing facility, and he turns phrases on a mental lathe of absolutely flawless design. If you need a god, worship Shakespeare.


The King James Bible. Yeah, I know, a stone cold atheist like me telling you to read the fucking Bible...WTFIUWT?... Quite a lot, actually. A couple of paragraphs ago I called Rabelais 'uneven.' Well, the Hole-y Bible is uneven to the tenth power. In the language of the English Renaissance translators--which has decisively inflected the styles of artists from William Blake to Walt Whitman to Cormac McCarthy--the Bible contains passages of tremendous artistic power (the creation myth(s), Jacob wrestling with the angel, the Joseph narrative, the prose poetry of Ecclesiastes, some of the psalms, the parables and miracles of Jesus, that surreal kookball magnet the Book of Revelation, etc.), but these are interspersed with the mind-numbing legalism of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the gleeful celebrations of genocide and murder in the truly crazy books of Joshua and Judges; the endless, hectoring, redundant rants of the prophets (like being trapped inside a Trump rally), and much else that is eminently skippable. That said, the best stuff is an essential part of Western literature, and you can't call yourself literate if you haven't read at least the narrative parts of the KJV Bible. If you don't already own a good, readable copy, the recent Oxford World's Classics paperback published under the title The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha has the rare biblical virtues of being both portable and readable. It's this atheist's Bible of choice.


Cervantes, Don Quixote. The 20 years around 1600 were an astonishingly fecund time in European literature. While Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Middleton, et al were transforming English theater into a vehicle for poetic virtuosity and psychological penetration, Donne and Jonson were wittily perfecting English lyric poetry; and Shakespeare, in his spare moments, was producing the apotheosis of the English sonnet. At the same time, a team of translators was laboring at what would become the classic English Bible; and not so far away in Spain, which was also undergoing a theatrical renaissance, Miguel de Cervantes was inventing the novel. When the subject is art, sentences of the form "X is the first Y" are almost always highly dubious, but we can state with confidence that Don Quixote is the first modern novel. A brutally ironic, encyclopedic portrait of Cervantes' Spain, the Quixote's comic self-consciousness and critical spirit birthed the long line (and, I have argued, the main line) of the European novel, from Gulliver's Travels to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist to Tom Jones to Candide to Carroll's Alice books to Ulysses, The Master and Margarita, Lolita and The Satanic Verses, to Zadie Smith's White Teeth. And let us not forget Jorge Luis Borges, master of the Quixote...


Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings. Look for this Bantam Classics paperback that contains the complete Gulliver and all of the essential Swift. His work will remain relevant as long as human beings remain human. Swift was the first perfector of that quintessential Enlightenment literary form, the universal satire--a single, loose narrative into which the author throws absolutely anything he decides to skewer. Like all the best satirists, Swift had a beef with the entire world, so there was no shortage of material.


Voltaire, Candide. The other great universal satire of the Enlightenment, this one is the shortest and fastest book on my list. Voltaire's pace is so neckbreakingly rapid that you'll feel the g's pulling your cheeks back, and when you finish it, you'll have to read it again to see the things you missed. Bottom line: the world exists to drive us mad.


Goethe, Faust, Parts One and Two. Goethe's career is one of the hinges upon which Enlightenment classicism turns toward Romantic iconoclasm, and there's no more dramatic index of the change than the disjunction between the two parts of Faust. Part One is the classic melodramatic cautionary tale familiar from Marlowe and Gounod and countless mad scientist stories from Mary Shelley to Mel Brooks. But Part Two is something completely different: a Romantic fever dream from Camille Paglia's 'Chthonian swamp.' Faust, Part Two is what happens when a Broadway musical drops a dose of very powerful acid. It's dark and weird and quintessentially Romantic, and once read it will not be forgotten until dementia dims your brain.


Wordsworth, The Prelude. And now we arrive at a moment of textual decision. There are three distinct Preludes: a 30-page poem from 1799 and two book-length versions from 1805 and 1850. All three are in my Norton Critical Edition, but I'm most familiar with the late 1850 Prelude. This is the one I've read and re-read and come to see as a defining moment in the history not just of literature but of the modern self. It is Wordsworth's grand, autobiographical bildungsroman, a High Romantic self-song that sounds the theme of Romantic autobiography that echoes in Joyce and Proust and finds its commercial decadence in the current craze for memoirs. It's also a masterful nature poem and the English politico-philosophical poem par excellence.


Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. Austen brought Samuel Richardson's enormous but simplistic eighteenth-century novels of society and subjectivity into the nineteenth century, adding depth, wit, and a formidable prose voice. In so doing, she established the paradigm for 'serious' English fiction for the next 200 years (George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Gissing, James, Forster, Waugh, Powell, Murdoch, Byatt, Ishiguro). Mansfield Park is especially interesting for its susceptibility to a deconstructive reading that shows how the story's almost entirely unwritten context--imperialism, colonialism, militarism, slavery--impinge upon Austen's text. (The relevant critical reference here is Edward Said's masterpiece, Culture and Imperialism.)


Charles Dickens, Bleak House. Superficially one of Dickens's 'loose, baggy monsters,' this megalosaurus of a Victorian novel actually has an impressively tight form that can be visualized geometrically. Think of two cones joined at the base to form a continuous diamond shape in three dimensions: from its opening point, the first half of Bleak House steadily expands to define a 19th-century London world populated by characters from all classes; at the midway point, the narrative begins to contract, drawing its various strands together until a series of climactic collisions define its endpoint. Along the way, Dickens invents magic realism, satirizes the legal profession, and writes like the prose master his fans have always known him to be.


Herman Melville, Moby Dick. One of the two greatest novels ever written by an American (Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is the other). Melville's epistemological adventure story is one of those impossibly rich novels that you could spend your entire life re-reading. The encyclopedic abundance of meaning crammed between Melville's covers resists interpretive capture just as its title character resists human harpoons. And therein might lie a possible interpretive key: the facts and stories we compulsively marshal to interpret a meaningless world combine into their own cacophony of meaninglessness, like the Wagnerian song of the ocean on which we ride until the silence of white death drags us down. Moby Dick is a masterpiece of prose, a great adventure story, a brilliant intellectual novel, and, like America, it's darker than anyone knows.


Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education. Emma Bovary gets all the attention, but I'm forced to agree with Woody Allen's character in Manhattan: Sentimental Education is the Flaubert novel good enough to make life worth living. An unflinching, unforgiving novel of desire and disillusionment--erotic, artistic and political--in mid 19th-century Paris, it is one of the premier jewels of French literature, its multiple facets shimmering with a high aesthetic light. Sentimental Education is the exquisite Musee d'Orsay situated across a generational Seine from Balzac's overflowing Louvre of an oeuvre. It is not to be missed.


Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. A life that does not include a reading of War and Peace is not a life; it is an 80-year mistake. If Walter Scott invented the historical novel at the revolutionary beginning of the bourgeois century, Tolstoy brought it to artistic and intellectual maturity with this novel as enormous as the Eurasian landmass and almost as various--a novel set, incidentally, during the lifetime of Walter Scott. Voyna i Mir, to give it its more euphonious Russian title, is an apotheosis of the nineteenth-century novel, but reading it is less like reading Anna Karenina than like wandering from village to village in Tolstoy's Russia and listening to the tales told by the old. This is not a novel; this is life and death.


Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. This is the novel Kafka comes from. Franz K.'s Austro-Hungarian birth certificate was a clever forgery (Trump started that rumor; I'm ending it; you know what I mean...); Kafka was in fact the bastard child of Crime and Punishment and the tales of Gogol, born in St. Petersburg and raised by Russian steppenwolves. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky pushes past the nineteenth-century novel and invents the twentieth, writing a fiction that seems a paranoid hallucination fashioned from fever dreams, a novel that makes Gide at his most extreme seem positively quaint. Dusty Fyodor also here invents the modern criminal anti-hero. He called the character Raskolnikov; Vince Gilligan called him Walter White.


Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories. The Dostoevskian nightmare side of Kafka is best exemplified by his great novels, The Trial and The Castle, but his arguably more influential Gogolian side is found in the tales and parables collected here. For an unadulterated taste of the truly Kafkaesque, go directly to The Metamorphosis, then check out 'The Judgment,' 'In The Penal Colony,' 'The Hunger Artist,' 'The Bucket Rider,' both versions of 'The Hunter Gracchus,' and the very short pieces.


James Joyce, Ulysses. Don't try to read Ulysses 'cold.' First read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to orient yourself in Joyce's world. While first venturing into U., refer to Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses and Gifford and Seidman's Ulysses Annotated for additional tools you might need. I also found Richard Ellman's biography of Joyce (1982 revised edition) very useful when first attempting Ulysses. The novel is difficult because even a century later it's still so shockingly and defiantly new (the same can be said for Cubist painting), but multiple readings lessen the difficulty and increase the pleasure. The more you read Ulysses, the more you will appreciate what an impudent, rowdy, witty, obscene, beautiful, lively, lifelike, fantastical, carnivalistic joy it all is.


Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. I recommend the Modern Library Proust Six-Pack, a six-volume paperback boxed set of A la recherche du temps perdu in the most recent revision of the classic C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, an appropriately art nouveau masterpiece of English prose. Proust's incomparably beautiful and gargantuan novelistic meditation on time, memory, art, sexuality, obsession, politics, history, philosophy, etc. defies categorization and summary. Its locales range from the country retreats of the monied class to the salons of the aristocaracy to the gardens of the Champs Elysees to a gay brothel catering to decadent aesthetes with a taste for sado-masochism. To call it great is to underestimate it. The Recherche is not a novel you read; it's a work of art you live inside. Proust's time becomes your time, his vision becomes your eyes. Flow with him.


T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems. Directly influenced by Ulysses (which Eliot read chapter by chapter in literary magazines) and edited by a pre-fascist Ezra Pound (who reportedly excised Eliot's most egregiously anti-Semitic passages), The Waste Land is the premier poem of High Modernism. Eliot will show you fear in a handful of dust, hint about the awful daring of a moment's surrender, and bend genders and sexualities past the breaking point, all while winking knowingly at Wagner (speaking of artistic anti-Semites...) and Indian religion and the Fisher King. If you read the entire thing as an erotic poem, you probably won't go wrong.


Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions. The father of Latin American magic realism is the blind librarian of Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges. The  most impressive of Borges' fictions are the earlier ones, the stories from Fictions and The Aleph. Later Borges tends to revisit old obsessions and often turns predictable, but early tales like "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "Death and the Compass," "The Circular Ruins," "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Aleph," "The Secret Miracle" retain their shocking strangeness even after all these decades.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. William Kennedy, epicist of Albany and all-around kick-ass American writer, called this novel "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race." Personally, I'd substitute Shakespeare's plays and sonnets for Genesis in that sentence, but Kennedy's sentiment is sound. This is one of those artworks for which the world 'amazing' might have been coined. it's the great Colombian novel, a staggeringly gorgeous political novel (How many times have you heard the word 'gorgeous' and the phrase 'political novel' in the same sentence?), and exhibit A in the argument that one formula for magic realism is an alchemical synthesis of Kafka and Faulkner--preferably performed in a village named Macondo with laboratory equipment purchased from a band of traveling gypsies.


Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. Now that the fatwa is last century's news, we can return to The Satanic Verses and read it as a funny, highly-literary, comic novel rather than as an exercise of one's moral duty. Midnight's Children collected two Bookers with its irrepressible synthesis of Sterne, Fielding, Dickens and The Tin Drum, but I consider the controversial Verses a greater, riskier (obviously, given the Ultimate Bad Review laid down by an imam who never read it and wouldn't have understood it if he'd tried), and more original novel. Switching precursors from Grass to Bulgakov, Rushdie takes The Master and Margarita and Bloomianly revises it for Thatcher's London, substituting a narrative of the birth of Islam for the Christ narrative in Bulgakov's novel. The result is a rich, contrapuntal, multi-narrative extravaganza that speaks from and of its 1980s moment, but also seems almost prescient about matters of terrorism and religious extremism. And let's not forget that it's a very funny novel, and totally fucking weird.


W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz. We can debate the identity of the first great novelist of the 20th century (Conrad? James? Mann? Joyce?), but there can be little doubt that its last great novelist was W. G. Sebald. An extended and complex artistic meditation on themes from Adorno and Benjamin (a roundabout, critical theorist's way of saying 'themes from 20th-century European history'), Austerlitz is Sebald's most direct treatment of the theme that underlies so much of his work, that haunts that work like a half-remembered nightmare: the systemized murder by the Nazis of millions of Jews, Gypsies, leftists, sexual minorities, and other convenient scapegoats. And more than this, Austerlitz is a novel about the labyrinthine intellectual defenses we construct to protect ourselves from an unbearable reality--and about the necessity of breaking through those fortress walls, if only in imagination, and reading the writing scratched thereon.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Late for Bloomsday: Two More Thoughts on ULYSSES

There's a kind of 'wit of the staircase' that affects only Joyceans. It happens in late June when we recall, a week or so after the fact, something we meant to mention on Bloomsday. I've just had the experience twice in as many hours. First, back on the seizieme I should've wondered aloud why Joyce titled the novel Ulysses instead of the more philologically correct Odysseus. The true reasons are probably banal: Joyce's greater fluency in Latin relative to Greek; the historical privileging of Latin in Western European literature and education, which likely led Joyce to call the character 'Ulysses' from his early schooldays. But the decision for Latin, even if unconscious, resonates meaningfully with Joyce's intention to Buckishly Hellenize the Irish isle, to translate the events of the Odyssey into a language Catholic Dublin might understand. (And even as I type that thought, another occurs: In the bawdy Buck's mouth, the word 'Hellenize' would also punningly mean "to treat like Helen," that is, to take the island, fuck it up, and then fight a senseless war over it--which was exactly what the Irish were doing while Joyce was in Paris putting the finishing touches on his book.) Second, the "crustcrumbs" in the funeral carriage in 'Hades,' an enigma that even the seemingly exhaustive Ulysses Annotated passes without explication, are not the remnants of a picnic, as Mr. Power at first suggests. Rather, as Simon Dedalus and Martin Cunningham quickly perceive--and Bloom does not, hence the enigma--the passengers are sitting on crumbs of dried semen. Someone has used the carriage for a romantic rendezvous--or an equally alliterative hasty handjob--and forgotten to clean up afterward. Hence the Dedalean verdict, "it's the most natural thing in the world," a sentiment that blends perfectly with Bloom's memory-thought earlier on the same page, "Give us a touch, Poldy. God, I'm dying for it. How life begins." These seminal crumbs, like Bloom's memory, also sound one of the section's (and the novel's) master motifs, the presence of life in the midst of death.

Mario Vargas Llosa on the novel and the Inquisition

In the second of the lecture/essays collected in his 1991 book A Writer's Reality, Mario Vargas Llosa permits himself a "long parenthesis"(pages 23-25) on the early history of the novel in the western hemisphere. Here is the entirety of this marvelous digression:


As you probably know, the novel was forbidden in the Spanish colonies by the Inquisition. The Inquisitors considered this literary genre, the novel, to be as dangerous for the spiritual faith of the Indians as for the moral and political behavior of society, and, of course, they were absolutely right. We novelists must be grateful to the Spanish Inquisition for having discovered before any critic did the inevitable subversive nature of fiction. The prohibition included reading and publishing novels in the colonies. There was no way naturally to avoid a great number of novels being smuggled into our countries, and we know, for example, that the first copies of Don Quixote entered America hidden in barrels of wine. We can only dream with envy about what kind of experience it was in those times in Spanish America to read a novel--a sinful adventure in which in order to abandon yourself to an imaginary world you had to be prepared to face prison and humiliation.


Novels were not published in Spanish America until after the wars of independence. The first, El Periquillo Sarniento (The Itching Parrot), appeared in Mexico in 1816. Although for three centuries novels were abolished, the goal of the Inquisitors--a society free from the influence of fiction--was not achieved. They did not realize that the realm of fiction was larger and deeper than that of the novel. Nor could they imagine that the appetite for lies, that is, for escaping objective reality through illusions, was so powerful and so deeply rooted in the human spirit that, once the novel could not be used to satisfy it, all other disciplines and genres in which ideas could freely flow would be used as a substitute--history, religion, poetry, science, art, speeches, journalism, and the daily habits of the people. Thus by repressing and censuring the literary genre specifically invented to give the necessity of lying a place in the city, the Inquisitors achieved the exact opposite of their intentions.


We are still victims in Latin America of what we could call the revenge of the novel. We still have great difficulty in our countries in differentiating between fiction and reality. We are traditionally accustomed to mixing them in such a way that this is probably one of the reasons why we are so impractical and inept in political matters, for instance. But some good also came from this novelization of our whole life. Books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortazar's short stories, and Roa Bastos's novels would not have been possible otherwise. The tradition from which this kind of literature sprang, in which we are exposed to a world totally reconstructed and subverted by fantasy, started without doubt in those chronicles of the conquest and discovery that I read and annotated under the guidance of Porras Barrenechea.


One might spend a long book--or an entire scholarly career--unpacking the many ideas Vargas Llosa crams into these three parenthetical paragraphs, ideas ranging from now-commonplace and highly arguable generalizations to provocative social-historical insights, but I find myself drawn to that wonderful image of Don Quixote, the seminal--and for some, such as Garcia Marquez, the ultimate--European novel arriving in the western hemisphere as contraband, a dangerous drug that alters people's minds. The novel arrived on our landmass the way cocaine and heroin sneak in today: smuggled in shipping containers like the Greek's smack in season two of The Wire. And in a very important way, the greatest novels have never ceased to be outlaws on our side of the world. These original literary illegal aliens have continued to break laws and blow minds, and the entire world is richer for them. All the rude, unruly bastard children of those original stowaway Quixotes are the vertebrae supporting the body of our hemispherical canon: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, Borges' Collected Fictions, Gravity's Rainbow, Terra Nostra--fictions that tried to redefine fiction. All this from a few copies of Quixote stuffed like the Duke of Clarence into a butt of Renaissance wine. Jesus only turned water into wine; those 17th-century book smugglers turned wine into literature, a much better trick.

A Henry James Stick-Up Note

A few years after the West was won, notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James were joined on their nefarious trail by their East Coast cousins, Henry and William. No record survives of pioneering psychologist William James's youthful criminal activities, but a document recently acquired by the Harry Ransom Center (for a hairy ransom in unmarked bills) sheds a small amount of light on prose master Henry James's heretofore unknown career as a frontier bank robber. Written in James's hand on a tattered, heavily creased and suspiciously stained napkin from Delmonico's, it reads:


Given--and it is, assuredly, a situation for which I offer my most profuse and elaborate, indeed positively Byzantine, apologies--that my right palm caresses the unfortunately named handle piece of an unmentionable product of the Smith and Wesson manufactory, and that the aforesaid object is, as the gauche are wont to say, 'aimed' in the general direction of your cranial compartment, it would behoove you to transfer, posthaste, the entirety of the foldable and numismatical contents of the drawer devant vous into the conveniently provided burlap receptacle accompanying this overhasty communication, said receptacle's dark maw hungrily gaping as though consciously, not to say avidly, desiring the cold comfort of coin.


To date, researchers have found no further documentary evidence related to this episode in James's life, so the entire affair will likely remain, like the interpretation of The Turn of the Screw, shrouded in the multiple mummycloths of mystery.

A Simple Wish

Here's hoping that a year from now, after the fact-free sound and fury of all the too-tall tales told by Trump, I might click on my insomniac TV at four o'clock one morning and hear the unmistakable voice of Donald J. Trump, defeated and disgraced, reduced to starring in late night infomercials hawking his new line of "Make America Grate Again" Trump Cheese Graters: "These are the world's greatest graters in the history of the universe, I guarantee it. They grate Parmesan like you will not believe. They grate Swiss, they grate American--I love grating American--they grate pepper jack, they grate so great... You will not believe how great they grate. It'll make your head spin. And if you order now, in addition to the grater I'll throw in for free one of these beautiful "Make America Grate Again" baseball caps. People love these caps, let me tell you. Oh, people really love these caps. Many people have said to me--many, many people, thousands--they've said to me, 'Donald, where did you get the idea for those caps?' Well, I'm a great businessman, first, and I have this really good brain, and we had boxes and boxes of these caps after the, you know..the thing, the, the... the Hillary winning thing, the, you know...after that I had one great idea: cheese graters. So I called a friend in Indonesia and he arranged for a factory of waddyacallem, street urchins, yes, five year-olds, four year-olds, the best, the best street urchins in all of Indonesia, and my friend--now I don't know if he actually used a cattle prod...there were stories, but that's neither here nor there--his employees very cost-effectively switched the letters around on my surplus hats, and voila, a new business. This is just the way my brain works, I can't explain it...But I'll throw in one of these beautiful caps for free with your grater and an additional charge of $5.99. Isn't this the most lovely thing you've ever seen on a human head? Here, here, let me put this cap on my African-American. Where's my African-American?..."

Dispatches author Michael Herr dead at 76

Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, the brutal and beautiful Vietnam War narrative that stands as the most artistically impressive book yet written about the American way of war, has died at 76. It is perversely appropriate, given Herr's status as a pillar of countercultural New Journalism, that a Washington Post headline writer flubbed the obit header ("Vietnam War reporter Michael Herr, who helped write ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ dies at 76") by failing to lead with Dispatches. However impressive and culturally significant his contributions to the two named films, Herr deserves to be remembered--and, more importantly, repeatedly reread--as the author of Dispatches, a masterpiece of American prose that combines Esquire-style literary journalism, Beat Generation cool, jazz hipster improvisation, and psychedelic rock n roll surrealism to produce a book that was not just about but of the American war in Vietnam. He wrote the war in its own language--analogous to the way Jimi Hendrix in "Machine Gun" and the Woodstock "Star-Spangled Banner" evoked the war by appropriating its sounds--and found in that language, from the laconism of long-range reconnaissance soldiers to the endless bitching of grunts to the terribly realized fantasies of a John Wayne-addled generation, a ferocious American polyphony that belied the monologic government/corporate/media 'official story' of the war. Dispatches is war reporting as high art (at least as high as Hemingway's and Malaparte's); it fuses politics and prose poetry better than any American book since All The King's Men; there's probably not a writer alive who doesn't read it with envy.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gregory Rabassa, 1922-2016

Word comes this Bloomsday of the death earlier this week of Gregory Rabassa, the dean of American translators. This spectral presence on our literary scene, who so beautifully ghosted into English Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Autumn of the Patriarch, Cortazar's Hopscotch, Antonio Lobo Antunes' Fado Alexandrino, Jose Lezama Lima's Paradiso, and so many other novels of Latin America and Iberia, is also remembered in a Washington Post obituary as the son of a Cuban immigrant father and an American-born mother, as a member of the OSS during World War Two, and as a lifelong university teacher of Spanish and Portuguese literature. Gabo once paid him the highest compliment any translator can receive, saying that Rabassa's English version of Cien anos de soledad was superior to the original Spanish. Gregory Rabassa was 94.

Bloomsday 2016

Like the calendar's notional circle, like the Earth on its imaginary axis, like the bottomless Bloomsday glass of Guinness we drank until we puked again like Christians, our bloody phantastical time has Vicoed around again to Thursday the sixteenth of June, day and date of fictional No-Man Leopold Bloom's nevertaken journey. This Bloomsday the thunkthunkthunderumble of a morning storm appropriately accompanies the halting Tourettic tapping of my fingertips on the computer keyboard (a sound very like the cane of a drunken blindman barging into the bar of the Ormond Hotel and demanding satisfaction from that strawhatted rake flirting with the bronze and gold he has never seen--a scene Joyce inexplicably left out of Ulysses...), and in a cameraflash of sunshine between thunderheads the pine tree at my window glistens bejeweled with water droplets clinging to the tips of dark green needles and twinkling like tiny stars, and this image Prousts me back to Sandymount Strand twelve years ago when I spent a sunny Sunday morning like Stephen Dedalus walking along the beach and ruminating and watching the lovely seaside girls and scrawling impressions in my pocket notebook. I remember sitting on the rocks as the tide rolled in and watching as reflected sunlight fired off a thousand small explosions of blinding brightness on the rippled mirror of sea between Sandymount and Dun Laoghaire and thinking that this was my natural fireworks display. No need for Gerty's drawers and the masturbatory Roman candles of Mister Bloom. This mile of yellow fire sparking off the sea was ecstasy enough for the day... And now, a decade and a brace of years later, unProusting it, back here under the rolling clouds and flashing sun of a muggy Midwestern Thursday, I page through my two much-thumbed copies of Ulysses (a Gabler and good one--I remain sentimentally attached to the first Ulysses I ever bought and read, a 1990 Vintage International paperback of the standard Random House edition), I reach down my hardshelled Wake from the high shelf where it sleeps overhead, I dig out my copy of Edna O'Brien's little book on Joyce and Ellmann's Ulysses on the Liffey, and I flip through memories and marginalia in search of things I hope I haven't said before. Here are the comings of my goings, a few wordy ejaculations inspired by the Big Book of Bloom, aka Virag's Volume:


1. The internal and external voices of Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan in "Telemachus" constitute a dual parody of tragic and comic consciousness. The sunny and tripping Buck exemplifies comic consciousness taken to an extreme of expulsiveness; he is entirely external, possessing no interior monologue and immediately voicing whatever passing notion po(o)ps into his mind, no matter how cruelly callous or mawkishly sentimental the never-great notion. In a less comic character, this would be hypocrisy and cynicism (a Trump-like speaking from multiple sides of the mouth), but the Buck is not merely a comic character; he is comedy, pure comedy, unadulterated with even so much as a touch of seriousness. He's the Whitmanic, Wildean, Dionysian comic life force of "Telemachus," constantly contradicting himself and then contradicting his contradictions, remaining unreadable and unknowable not because of his silent and unplumbable depths, but because his comic shallowness embraces everything with an equally onionskin-thin insouciance. Contrast his loose-bowelled, lighter-than-hydrogen, comic sense of life with that exemplified by Stephen Dedalus, the tragic, black-clad Hamlet of Joyce's opening chapter. In his initial characterization of Stephen, Joyce seems to strike every possible tragic note (death, grief, mourning, silence, blackness, stasis, fear, anxiety, even Gothic horror...); the author does everything short of nailing an ancient Greek mask to Stephen's perpetually dour mug. And this excess, this rhetorical over-the-topness, signals Joyce's parodic intention: Stephen is not merely a tragic character; he is tragic consciousness personified--the comic Buck's dialectical opposite and twin. Where Mulligan is a glass of Guinness that perpetually runneth verbally over, Dedalus tends toward laconism, his few enigmatic deadpan statements always requiring interpretation and cutting more ways than a Ginsu knife. Likewise, while Mulligan is granted no interior monologue, Stephen is given a poetically rich thoughtstream that overflows like Malachi's mouth--but much more solemnly, and as silently as prayer. Where Mulligan trips through life in the sunny key of C, Dedalus trudges along in a darker minor mode. The point of this dichotomy, I think (my mind stepping warily over the line marked 'intentional fallacy'), is not to encourage the reader to choose one worldview over the other, but to recognize that both Stephen and Malachi are, to adapt the Buck's phrase, "impossible persons." Pleasant in small doses, their personalities would curdle faster than old milk if we were forced into their company for an extended period of time. It wouldn't take us long to gag on them and spit them out. Both of these young men are--for the duration of this chapter, anyway--hollow men, stuffed men, their headpieces filled with the rotting straw of hidebound comic and tragic traditions; and Joyce is the unseen man in the Anonymous mask conducting them, and us, through this weird, walpurgisnachtian Guy Fawkes Day parade.


2. Turning a few pages to the end of "Nestor," consider queasy-making Deasy's nauseating, chapter-penultimating cough: "A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm." The schoolmaster's anti-Semitic laughter here terminates in what is surely one of the most appropriately sickening descriptions of a cough in all of Western literature. That ball of coughlaughter (think of a hairball coughed up by the Blooms' housecat) leaps like projectile vomit from Deasy's throat and then drags itself back down to dirty earth with a mucoid rattle. As Henry James might have said, "Yuck!" But it's also important to notice that Joyce's sentence, unlike Deasy's sentiment, doesn't solely sicken; even here we find great formal beauty and an abundance of metaphorical meaning. Note the weird internal slant-rhyming of 'coughball' and 'laughter,' the way the first letter of 'laughter' alliterates into 'leaped,' the way the sentence pauses without punctuation in a natural caesura after 'throat' (this little touch is the mark of a master prose stylist; a lesser writer--meaning just about every other writer of the past hundred years--would've signaled the caesura with a comma; Joyce is confident enough to let the words do the work), the way the doubled consonants in 'dragging' and 'rattling' and the other hard consonants in the second half of the sentence onomatopoetically imitate the sound their words describe. And notice also the perfect little metaphor Joyce constructs with these dissonantly musical words: Deasy's laughter, in a move worthy of the greatest metaphysical poets, becomes the ball-and-chain of anti-Semitic prejudice in which he has imprisoned his mind. And just in case your mind isn't already sufficiently blown, remind yourself that Joyce crams all of this into a single 16-word sentence that consists of 12 one-syllable words and 4 of two syllables. That's why reading Ulysses is a lifetime job.

3.
Philip Roth,
At it Again...
Early in "Proteus," Stephen briefly recalls, in a typically multivocal passage of Joycean interior monologue, a scene from his not-long-ago horny adolescence: "On the top of the Howth tram alone crying: naked women! What about that, eh? What about what? What else were they invented for?" (The they refers both to the trams and, more comically, to the fantasized pneumatic nudes of the teenage male imagination.) Philip Roth seems to obliquely remember this little passage in his strongly Joycean novel Sabbath's Theater where a character confesses to masturbating in a library restroom and Mickey Sabbath replies, "Everybody masturbates in libraries. That's what they're for." Exactly, Joyce might've replied to his Jewish-American literary child, What else were libraries invented for?


4. The thick web of subtle cross-references that almost-invisibly tapestries Ulysses together shines out with emerald brightness near the beginning of "Calypso" when Bloom likens his cat's eyes to "green stones," a phrase that shoots its filament backwards to Haines's cigarette case in "Telemachus," silver with a green stone set into it, an imperialist image of Ireland encased in a silver, British-ruled sea. The green in the cat's eyes is also explicitly linked to her 'greed' for milk and food, yet an other link to Haines, the avid English appropriator of Irish things--and drinker, in the first chapter, of Irish milk...and shooter of imaginary cats...and.... This could go on forever.


5. Who's getting it up?
Blazes Boylan, most assuredly; Bloom at the beach this evening while scoping Gerty's fireworky upskirt show; Stephen, probably, in the late morning on the Sandymount rocks (a fine place to rock one's rocks off); the patrons of Bella Cohen's Nighttown brothel (most of them, anyway); most of male Dublin, certainly, in the privacy of their fantasizing minds... One Dubliner surely not getting it up is crazy Denis Breen, recent recipient of a postcard containing two initials--"U.P." Some critics think the postcard reads, "U.P. up," but when Leopold Bloom is shown the card he reads only the two initials; the word up is pronounced by Mrs. Breen and probably not written on the card. A little ambiguity remains, but not much. A greater ambiguity inheres in the interpretation of the initials, for Joyce leaves them entirely enigmatic. The two-letter text seems to be an idle, nonsensical joke meant to drive a madman to further madness. The little postcard thus becomes a preemptive critical caricature of the big book that contains it; the postcard represents the Ulysses constructed by its least perceptive readers: a text consisting entirely of enigmatical nonsense, fodder for fools, pseudointellectual twaddle, a book no one could ever possibly understand. Readers who know these charges and prove them wrong with every rereading can find comfort in the fact that Joyce saw the reaction coming and satirized those poor readers in the very book they misunderstood. The nonplussed, the stymied, the angrily frustrated, the mistrustful of Modernism, the self-righteous puritans, the censors--Joyce drew a bead on them all in the figure of Denis Breen, an outraged madman seeking to file a lawsuit over a text he mistakenly thinks he understands.


6. Seen from a different angle, the UP postcard might be the crux of a postmodern reading of Ulysses. The letters U and P figure prominently in Joyce's text, being respectively the first letter of its title and the first letter of its third and final section. In the Random House edition, the title page U and the first letter of each section--S, M and P--are printed as gargantuan full-page initials, so a text reading UP might be interpreted as a partial acrostic signifying the book itself. The text is uninterpretable by characters in the book precisely because they are inside the very book it signifies. They can no more understand its meaning than a fish can understand wetness. Only sad, mad Denis Breen has caught a glimpse of the truth, an inkling that his reality is all ink. The postcard comes as a confirming clue that he and all the others are merely puppets in a Joycean show, and this knowledge has made him Nabokovianly mad.... Okay, I admit I'm pushing the text here, but this interpretation is almost supported by the text...that tantalizing almost...Like Stephen Dedalus, I'm almosting it.


7. One crucial difference between Finnegans Wake and most of Ulysses is that in the Wake the music of language is as important as--and often more important than--any obvious referential meaning. Language in the Wake tends toward the abstraction of music. This literary development is strongly paralleled in paint a decade later by the abstract expressionists (Hoffman, Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Guston, Mitchell, Krasner), for whom the music of color and gesture became more important than representational content.


8. Three great and useful coinages mined from the midden that is Finnegans Wake: melomap, a musical representation of the world (i.e., the Wake itself, or any symphony or tone poem of Mahlerian ambition); twitterlitter, both the perfect description of the rhetorical stylings of Donald Trump and a juste Joycean mot for the socially networked 2010s; and on page 42 Joyce names the real author of the first five books of the Bible, Anonymoses, another lovely little portmanteau we could unpack for hours.


9. In Ulysses on the Liffey, Richard Ellmann pornographically interprets the slangy ending of the "Oxen of the Sun" episode as a vast linguistic cumshot, "a series of random ejaculations, a spray of words in all directions." A page later, he tropes the ending as a "placental outpouring," an "afterbirth as well as an ejaculative spray..." So the ending is both alpha and omega, the vice-versing beginning and end of the fetal development Joyce claimed as the episode's guiding structural metaphor.


10. Here's a triplet of quotes to keep in mind while reading in and about and around James A. Joyce of Dublin, Trieste, Zurich, Paris, and a six-feet-by-two in the Swiss earth with his toes to the daisies:


Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity. For Joyce, people were becoming more remote and would eventually be specters. He was not the only one. Flaubert's mother thought that her son's love of words had hardened his heart and all who met Joyce found that though he could be humorous, he lacked warmth. -- Edna O'Brien, James Joyce


Those who produce important artworks are not demigods but fallible, often neurotic and damaged, individuals. -- Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (This same passage is quoted, from an earlier translation, as an epigraph to Geoff Dyer's surprisingly good But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz)


Never confuse a genius with a saint. -- Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes


Even today, a century after Marcel Proust initially conceived his great roman  fleuve as a refutation of Sainte-Beuve's moralistic biographical criticism, we too often remain in thrall to the notion that a great artist must also be an exemplary human being. We would all be much more comfortable if Pound had not been a fascist, if Yeats had not written marching songs for the Irish fascist movement, if Picasso had been more gentlemanly toward the women in his life, if Van Gogh had not been self-pityingly self-destructive, if Michelangelo had not been such a whiny little bitch, if Rembrandt hadn't arranged to have his inconvenient mistress conveniently imprisoned, if so many painters hadn't painted so beautifully for so many monarchs who enjoyed burning so many of their fellow human beings alive... Yes, art would be an altogether more pleasant subject if we didn't have to reckon with the fucked-up lives of its creators; but since the artist's life is context, and context is meaning, we're as stuck with their fucked-up lives as they were. Joyceans can take some comfort in the knowledge that their novelist was, compared to most other transformational artistic geniuses, a fairly decent guy. He had his faults. and biographers have exhaustively chronicled them, but he seems in general to have led an ethically unshabby life. And for an artistic genius in a society that derides both art and genius, unshabbiness is in itself a notable accomplishment.


Happy Bloomsday!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Scatological Politics, 2016: Know Your Enema

"...the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily who would be the envy of any novelist." -- Philip Roth, "Writing American Fiction," 1961 (collected in Roth's Reading Myself and Others)


The current American political situation is best expressed in scatological terms. The Republican Party attempted to use Ted Cruz as a laxative to hasten the evacuation of Donald J. Trump from its distended bowel. Unfortunately, that Texas-size rectal suppository quickly liquefied and dribbled sticky buttjuice out of the Greedy Old Party's inflamed anus.  So the future of our country and the world now depends on American voters using Hillary Clinton as an enema to flush Donald Trump from our political system. Even Jesus wouldn't counsel us to love our enema, but we must plan to use it on election day. For as Norman Mailer told us decades ago in one of his most ridiculous sex scenes,


"...there was canny, hard-packed evil in that butt, that I knew." (Mailer, An American Dream)


Old Norman's ass-evil has a name, and it rhymes with Ronald Slump.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

From Theodore Roethke: A Poem for These Times

Theodore Roethke, good American poet with a name that tries to anagram itself before stuttering to a stop halfway through, published more than 50 years ago in his best book (The Far Field, 1964) a near perfect poem for our and every dark, depressive time.



In a Dark Time
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;   
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,   
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!   
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.   
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,   
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,   
And in broad day the midnight come again!   
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,   
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.   
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,   
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.   
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,   
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.




Personally, I can say that Roethke has me until he gets all Goddy in the last lines. Big Ted's 'God,' however, might be best understood as the godhead of Emerson, that old transcendentalist Oversoul, rather than the hateful superego of wizened Pat Robertson's sad, psychopathic projections. (I contend that Robertson hates Bill Clinton for one overpowering and supersecret reason: Bubba Bill is Dorian Gray and Pat is the portrait.) Roethke, in those rare moments when he was out of his cups, might have agreed with Wallace Stevens and Ludwig Feuerbach that "God and the imagination are one"--or One, if we must be Platonic about it. (The god stuff never bothered me in John Donne or George Herbert, but in a modern metaphysical poem, it grates, striking a historically dissonant, archaic note--like a Gregorian chant suddenly swelling into the midst of Berg's Wozzeck.)

What I've Been Hearing

It's darker than dark in America as we stare down the brain-stained barrels of our first fascist presidency. One election, just one, now stands between Donald Trump and the Oval Office. (After typing that sentence, I pause, shake my head, and laugh mirthlessly; it's time again to remember Philip Roth's great insight, written many decades ago, about the reality of America outrunning the imaginations of its novelists. Of our major writers, only Nathanael West might have written the tale of Trump--and called it An Ice-Cold Billion.) And judging from recent polls, the weather in Ohio one day in the first week of November may decide whether our next president is a competent centrist technocrat too comfortable in her corporatism or an unhinged cynical asshole pretending to be a right-wing nutjob. If Stephen Dedalus were here and not perpetually trapped in the glowing amber of Joyce's prose, he might remark laconically that the American present is a nightmare from which we all deserve to awake.

Awash in these foul waters, I'm remembering Roethke: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see..." And the ear, Big Ted, let's not forget the ear beginning to hear. Lately I've been listening to Bessie Smith, Amalia Rodriguez, Carminho, Cecil Taylor, Milton Babbitt, and Elliot Carter. That's the queen of American blues, two Portuguese fado singers,a great jagged mad jazzer, and a pair of American Modernists. They all come to remind me that there's a better America and a better world out there. Grab it before it goes.








Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Digging THE TUNNEL; or, I Enter a Sentence by William H. Gass

Chuck Close, Alex, 1987. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio


When I think of William Gass's The Tunnel, I'm reminded of the gigantic portrait heads painted by Chuck Close, photo-realistic faces magnified far beyond human scale and composed of a grid of hundreds or thousands of miniature squares, each of which Close considers a separate abstract painting. At a distance these painted cells fuse to a recognizable likeness (as in his portrait of Alex Katz, above), but as we move closer to the canvas the image pixelates, becomes staticky, begins to melt into its materials (the exact opposite of Impressionist painting's 'mixing of the brushstrokes in the eye'). Close up, a Close isn't representational at all; it's a flat grid of colorful miniature De Kooningesque abstractions. At their best these tiny paintings can be as fascinating and labyrinthine as the illuminations in the Book of Kells.


The sentences in The Tunnel work in a similar way: beautiful and elaborate in themselves, they sum to a portrait of the repulsive William Frederick Kohler and his unfortunate chairy-flavored life. And just as I prefer the close view of Close, to stand a foot away from the enormous canvas and craze-out on the candy-colored components, when I tunnel into Gass's Tunnel, I dig it for those blood diamond sentences. For this Tunnel is less a novel than an old South African mine: dark, dangerous and bad to know. If we spend too much time there, Gass will breathe blackness into our lungs, pelt us with gemstone sentences, growl at us to get our asses off his fucking lawn unless we want to meet his fat evil buddy Kohler, the Man in the Basement--and we surer than shit don't want that, do we now?


The sentences are the thing. Enter the Tunnel anywhere and dig for its diamonds; you'll find some soon enough. The Tunnel seems at times a programmatic justification of the sentence-privileging theory of fiction adumbrated in many of Gass's essays, the idea that vividly realized characters, gripping stories, complex plots, are less important than the material textures and sonic structure of the sentences that con them into being. (That sentence verbed on a seems because reality comes contra: Gass's essays might more likely have been attempts to clarify his artistic practice during the long dark decades of (de)composition; the ideas might have been inspired by Tunneltripping rather than the Tunnel dug to justify them: it's a chicken-and-egg, dick-and-pussy kind of problem.) Like most critical theorizing that bears directly on a writer's own work, this is excellent description (of that work) but poor prescription for anyone else's. As critical doctrine it's fine as long as you spend your career writing only about Omensetter's Luck, The Tunnel and Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife; when  you branch out to Dog Soldiers or Dhalgren you might encounter difficulties. For the duration of this post, though, I'm writing about The Tunnel and taking Gass's sentences seriously. I want to climb inside one and have a butcher's around.


I won't be entering this lovely little number


I let the spoon sink slowly through my soup until I saw it shimmering beneath the surface of the broth like the dappled shadow of a swimmer. (p.13)


although its lyricism is positively Proustian; it's four or five bars of wordy music; listen to those s's and oo's sinking slowly down the side of this bowl-shaped sentence to touch bottom where we see it shimmering for a second until it fishtails back up into Cheever-y life. Lovely. Luscious. It epiphanizes the ordinary like a detail from Vermeer. It's a sentence like a Chardin.


Nor will I be passing through the portal of this miniature prose poem


Did he secrete his role in reality like a shell, and later become the snail, as one imagines Rilke did it, going from pose to poet, or did he begin as a sound and then exude some sweet pink conch to lie in like the sea's ear? (p.20)


even though it compresses an entire ontological theory of artistic subjectivity between its capital D from Rilke's Picasso elegy and its question mark curling like the ear's soft shell. The he here is ostensibly Andre Gide, but because Kohler always and only writes about himself (that's his prison and disease) the fatso fascist is me-mirroring once again, reflecting on the role of writing in the creation of his shabby self. The dead giveaway is the final image of that "sweet pink" cunt of a conch, an object of desire more operative for Kohler than for way-gay Andre.


Nor, unfortunately, will I be barging into the brutality of this dark dirge


These days the darkness that lies under the mind like the cool shade of a stream bottom yields our only safety, for to rush to the light is to Gloucester-out the eyes, bedazzled by death, to go over the top at someone else's whistle and war shout, to fume up and fizz fast, die dirty, die young. (p.69)


though I'm attracted to its contrarian anti-Platonism and love the verbing of Gloucester, where Gass pulls a trope on the old fool better than the trick Edgar played at Dover. And I must forgo, for now, pointing out the unbroken line this sentence draws from Plato's cave to the trenches of World War One to suggest that idealism is always eager to slaughter itself and that the Romantic coolness under the mind surely 'lies' in both senses of the word. For if The Tunnel argues anything, it's that there is no safety in the mind. Consciousness is our torment and torturer. To borrow a phrase from a great early essay by Gass, it's "the price we pay for being brained instead of finned." (A fishy image there too, dontcha know...)


No, none of those. Instead, I've chosen to enter this little labyrinth and pray I don't become meat for a minotaur as I thread my way through:


If we were leaves, Herschel, I sort of said, and there were only one wind, why then we might predict the path of our blowing; but we live in a world of whirling air just as Anaximenes concluded, a world of whiffs, puffs, breaths, zephyrs, breezes, hurricanes, monsoons, and mistrals; and if they all died away suddenly, and we were Sargasso'd in a sea of circumstance, then one small draft through a winter window might drive us at our destiny like a nail. (p.37)


We enter this sentence on the tiptoes of a two-letter conditional and ride two smooth, alliterative w's into the subjunctive tense where we immediately metamorphose into counterfactual leaves. So many leaves: leaves of paper (the fertile white earth of Kohler's barren world, so the noun puns the subjunctive into a counter-counterfactual (we are leaves, of course) until we get dizzy and fall onto leaves of grass:), Whitman's multiply meaningful leaves, Milton's leaves at Vallombrosa, Homer's soldiers falling like leaves... oh yes, Big Bad Bill has uncondomed the Western Canon and now with one word he's blowing its balls all over our faces. Gass here partakes of the classic image of leaves that Harold Bloom traced through the length of Western literature in A Map of Misreading and The Breaking of the Vessels, and although the image retains the elegiac force of its canonical usages (this sentence comes hard upon a shockingly pornographic depiction of a Nazi mass grave), Kohler self-protectively twists the trope away from its funereal implications (leaves like fallen bodies) and turns it into an image of life. If he could similarly Lazarus those six million Jews back to life, at least some  of his pathetic problems would be solved--but that's the tragic difference between rhetoric and reality. To Herschel, his Jewish colleague and imaginary interlocutor, he sibilantly sort of speaks in a snaky, Miltonic hiss and sends us leaves flying along an arrow-straight breeze of long o's and w's (hear that one wind in the vowels?) until we blow against the semicoloned wall of our own 'blowing.' A small and decidedly unerotic but clunks like a bad transmission as the sentence shifts us into another world, a world of whirling that begins with our familiar alliterative w's then nearly chokes us on the chicken bone of an obscure pre-Socratic philosopher's disruptively Greek name (Gass the prof here goosing Gass the pomo as both peep from under Kohler's pasteboard mask and the levels of textual illusion threaten for a split second to fall away and show us Fat Willie at his desk), but not to worry: all is well, and all manner of thing will be well here in Happy Kohlerland. Canonical Kohler comes rushing to his own rescue with Ulysses' Aeolian bag in his arms and a Homeric, Virgilian, Dantean, Rabelaisian, Burtonian, Miltonic, Whitmanic, Joyceanly ironic miniature musical catalogue of winds. O the Gassman gases wonderfully well for the length of a line, from that first tentative whiff until the mistral slams somewhat abruptly into that second semicolonic wall. A repetition of and before and after the final wind carries us smoothly over the semicolon (transforming it silently from wall to hurdle) and into a looking glass world where the the winds Kohler so professionally whistled up now die suddenly, leaving us stuck like the albatrossed mariner on a deathly, dropless sea. The only possible deliverance from here is a destiny indistinguishable from death that announces itself with the small, deadly d of a draft that chills and kills. The w's of our first wind return through a winter window, but they're quickly drowned out by the steady, staccato hammering of those closing words, every single syllable and clicking consonant hitting us like the hammer that magically transforms us from female leaf to phallic coffin nail at the full stop that can only mean death.


Yes. That may be the only way to read The Tunnel, if you really want to read it. Grab at a sentence that dazzles you and inflate it like an Oldenburg, paint it like a Pollock, tease out its meanings until you make it your own.

Criticism as Art

Most critical writing today is bad, bad, bad.* And by 'bad' I mean bad. Not the kind of 'bad' Michael Jackson told us he was but the kind he really was: creepy middle-aged pedophile bad, your favorite uncle arrested for masturbating outside a playground fence bad, The Day the Clown Cried bad. That kind of bad... Several years ago when I was reading a lot of academic criticism, I eventually reached a point where after reading the first few sentences of an article (or sometimes only the title), I could predict with impressive accuracy exactly where the writer was going and how she would get there. A lesbian feminist reading of Willa Cather? I would think. Well, surely the critic will begin biographically with Lillian Faderman on nineteenth-century same-sex friendships and then bring in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on James for a bit of textual analysis to seal the deal. She will then end with an epigram from Adrienne Rich. If I could correctly guess this much after two sentences, why bother with the rest of the article? When I couldn't satisfactorily answer that question, I stopped reading the stuff.


When literary criticism ceased to be an arena for intellectual gamesmanship (Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling) or even brinkswomanship (Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer) and became a necessity of academic careerism, it rotted, then bloated, and eventually withered into predictable formulae, in much the same way that literary fiction, once synonymous with risk-taking experiment, has now academically hardened into an easily characterized genre.


That this sorry situation need not be, that we could have a literary criticism not only good but great, that criticism need not hold literature object-like at arm's length but can itself become art, can be as beautiful and provocative as a Modernist poem--these propositions can be easily proven with only a small amount of reading. Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael is a great example of criticism as art; likewise its precursor text, Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" is a masterpiece of prose, as is Walter Pater's Renaissance, as is John Ruskin's criticism (Ruskin, of course, being the eminent Victorian critic most likely to be arrested for masturbating outside a playground fence), as are Virginia Woolf's essays and the ironically Montaignesque meditations of William Gass and Gore Vidal. John Berger's essays point toward an art criticism that's as granite-hard and endlessly engaging as a great art object; Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence is as much Blakean prose poem as criticism of poetry; Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is an outrageous work of comic art, criticism in the spirit of a novel by Philip Roth or Erica Jong; Oscar Wilde left us a handful of critical essays that are originally and exemplarily artistic, and he should have lived to leave us more. Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New and Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era are works of art in different registers that can be easily seen as two divergent views of the same Modernism. We might also mention Salman Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands, Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic (AKA The Old, Weird America), Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Sontag's essays, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Walter Benjamin's essays and Arcades Project, even, at a straining, straining stretch, Derrida's Glas... The list is long--long enough to imply that the only reason criticism is so bad today is that critics lack the talent, courage and/or motivation to do it better.




*I speak of criticism, the academic kind, and not reviewing, which is as bad as it ever was.

Some Recommended Art Books

Here, in no particular order, are fifteen essential books to form the foundation of a great library on Euro-North African-Middle Eastern-Western Hemispheric art (that topic formerly and Eurocentrically called 'Western Art').


1. The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes. It's tough to choose just one book by the late, great Robert Hughes. American Visions is later and bigger, vaster than Nebraska; his Goya book and the collection Nothing If Not Critical are equally essential. These are all books that will teach you something new every time you re-read them.


2. Selected Essays by John Berger. The same is true of John Berger's wonderful essays, in which the text of art often becomes a pretext for investigating questions as deep as the meanings and meaninglessness of life. Berger is our time's heir to Ruskin and Pater.


3. The Renaissance by Walter Pater. The unholy bible of Aestheticism. Don't read The Renaissance for facts; much of Pater's scholarship has been discredited by subsequent research. Come here to bathe in the most beautiful critical prose in the language, to luxuriate in a sensibility that has the power to transform your own. 


4. The Art Criticism of John Ruskin (edited by Robert Herbert). Pater's equal in prose talent and opposite in virtually everything else, the ridiculously influential Mr. Ruskin composed beautiful, interminable prose poems on the paintings of Turner and Venetian Gothic architecture. Everyman's Library or the Modern Library needs to bring out complete multi-volume editions of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. Until they do (or more likely, since they won't), this old 'greatest hits' selection is a good bet.


5. The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin. Neither a work of criticism (although it contains many marvelous insights) nor an anthology (although it consists largely of an encyclopedic collection of quotations), this is a High Modernist, poetically structured work of critical theory that reads like a fragmented archaeological survey of Paris after the bomb that never fell. There is nothing remotely like it in the critical canon.


6. A Life of Picasso by John Richardson (3 volumes, 4th in progress). The 20th century's greatest artist, a titan who revolutionized not only painting, not only sculpture, but also pottery and graphic arts, richly deserves one of the greatest artist biographies ever written, and that is exactly the gift John Richardson is presenting to his old friend. Richardson has his likes and dislikes among Picasso's circles of friends, and he can be bitchy at times (witness his stinging treatment of Gertrude Stein), but none of that alters these facts: the first volume of this bio will change the way you think about Picasso, and the second is the best narrative history of Cubism ever written.


7. Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society by Robert L. Herbert. This is THE book on Impressionism. Herbert is a social historian with an artist's eye, his every interpretation grounded in the act of looking closely at paintings. This is refreshing in an age that thinks art interpretation should begin
(and even end) with readings in critical theory.


8. The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser (4 volumes). Read Hauser's four volumes and then visit a great art museum. You will have the uncanny experience of walking through Arnold Hauser's head. This is one of the last century's fundamental artworld texts.


9. A Humument by Tom Phillips. The book as work of art. Many years ago, London artist Tom Phillips (he painted the wonderful portrait of Iris Murdoch in the National Portrait Gallery, London) purchased a copy of a forgotten Victorian novel and proceeded to wonderfully deface it, turning each page into a small painting that includes fragments of the original text producing an effect of aleatoric poetry.


10. Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer. The most important 'artist's offspring memoir' since Jean Renoir's, this book is rich with invaluable insights into Guston and his art. The quotations from Guston's journals are a highpoint.


11. History of Art by H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson. This is the best introductory textbook for Western Art, a huge, beautifully illustrated survey of art from cave paintings to Cindy Sherman. The illustrations alone are worth the price.


12. The Nude by Kenneth Clark. A once groundbreaking book that has, over the years, become a victim of its own success--its original categories and distinctions so influential that they've become curatorial clich├ęs--Clark's Nude is still essential reading for anyone who wishes to look literately at paintings.


13. Letters on Cezanne by Rainer Maria Rilke. A great poet's raw reactions upon discovering a great painter. Picasso and Braque also attended this Cezanne exhibition, which decisively influenced Cubism.


14. Techniques of the Great Masters of Art by David A. Anfam, et al. This apparently little-known book is an invaluable reference for artists, art critics and art forgers. It tells in massively illustrated detail how artist's from Giotto to Lucien Freud created their paintings.


15. The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was a bootlicking Medici propagandist and he got just about every fact in his book wrong, but his capsule biographies remain delightful as works of art. Read this book as though it were written by Borges. It might have been.