New Fiction is Psychic Occupation
Fiction—or more generally, longform narrative text—has long been the handyman of culture, serving whatever functions are most urgently needed at a historical moment. The Greek oral tradition, famously, functioned in part to preserve cultural histories and customs—hence the sprawling lists of names and figures, or lengthy descriptions of hospitality, in Homer. Arabic maqamas synthesized and preserved the collected wisdom of the medieval Iberian peninsula through proverbs and fables. Victorian novels provided an escapist entertainment for members of the aristocracy, while the Bible, Quran, and Mahābhārata operated as normative unifiers.
We no longer need literature to provide heavily plotted absorption: drug-like escapism, the loss of ego, more easily come from other mediums. Likewise, our encyclopedias, our etiquette guides, our microfiche handle our cultural history just fine. Television, film, non-fiction, and the Internet spent the 20th century eating away at literature’s territory, and once again the discipline transforms from generalist to specialist. The best literature of the modern day does what only literature can do—allow readers to inhabit other minds, other worldviews, other consciousnesses. Continue reading
The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries has a 43-minute interview with Guy Davenport from 1992–the only recorded one on the internet (click “Access”).
From Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns
Michael Dirda review in The Washington Post
Hugh Kenner was to edit a Wiley Anthology of 20th Century Literature. He asked Guy Davenport for suggestions. Continue reading
ON FIRST REFORMED (Spoilers)
The form perfectly matches the content. And so, with First Reformed, Paul Schrader has done it, just as Henry Jaglom, another disciple of greater directors, was able to hit jackpot once with Deja Vu. William Gass said if tragedies weren’t tragic, no one would go to them, but these days if a serious film doesn’t “speak” to the issues of the day (how the issues of certain human beings are greater than others is a different discussion) it is pretty much DOA. First Reformed is concerned with everything we worry about today—including race, but in an offhand way—without blatantly stacking the deck, as a film like American Beauty does. It promises to be a tragedy and even though it turns out not to be, there is still catharsis in its last second Ordet-like save, and I don’t mean because some in the audience think the priest is dead and imagines being saved. “Nothing matters but the quality of affection,” Ezra Pound wrote in Canto LXXVI. What is the quality of affection in that swirling rapturous kissing between the priest and the pregnant widow? Carnality, like in Ordet? It might not matter if it proves affection is still possible. Continue reading
1948 New Directions Edition
READING THE CANTOS
I am not the only person in the United States reading The Cantos. I know because the internet tells me so. Another man is blogging The Cantos. He started in 2015—he’s up to LXVII, about fifty more to go. Elsewhere, The Cantos Project (“peer-reviewed by a board of scholars”), is seemingly the only active website dedicated to them, and has annotations up to XVI. I am neither impressed nor depressed by these on-line affairs. Nobody “likes” to read The Cantos and of the few called, many are passionate. The Cantos become an obsession because they are about large swathes of human history and its languages, subjects equally infinite. Guy Davenport avers, “I have seen students learn Chinese because of him, or take up mediaeval studies, learn Greek, Latin, music…” I expect others ardently caught up are similar to myself—undoubtedly most male, politically disenfranchised by both squirming sides, hunched over a haul of books, rueful at not being brought up in a French or Italian immersion school, and feeling fucked by standard stateside curriculum that left Latin in the dustbin. Continue reading
‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’ This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required. Continue reading
When Stanley Kubrick died on March 7, 1999, there was still a little over four months until Eyes Wide Shut’s release date, July 16. There is no basis to argue Kubrick wouldn’t have altered the film right up to that date and possibly even beyond as he did with 2001 and The Shining, films most similar to Eyes Wide Shut. Michael Herr says, “…there was looping to be done and the music wasn’t finished, lots of small technical fixes on color and sound, but it wasn’t ready to show…” Continue reading
TO LIVE TO READ TO LIVE
Gimmickry attached to the world of belles-lettres has me chagrined: not the book itself, but the buying of the book, the book trailer, the story “behind” the book, the “personality” who wrote the book. The latest iteration, where reading is concerned, revolves around the reputed mental health benefits of reading, it keeps your brain fit. This may be partially true, but to use it as reasoning to do something that doesn’t call us is underhanded, bullying. A true reader, a true human, doesn’t need to be sold on anything that is so fundamental. Continue reading
At an event I once hosted, I asked the assembled writers this question. Besides the “practical ordering of my reality” type of answer, there were also some surprises: one woman had been a classical singer, but failed, and needed to embark on something else having to do with language. One man said, I write to talk about what I read—equally unassuming. I began to think that it would be much more stimulating to know why certain writers wrote than to engage with anything they had written, especially fiction or poetry—two ultimate forms needing years of practice. It’s debatable who said, “Everyone has a book in them…” yet the second clause of that sentence, as uttered by Christopher Hitchens, is concretely dismissive of the first: “…but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Who would have thought there were so many writers, that oodles would have the calling—many thanks to the internet? Now there is no barrier to that fusty adage, but it might be better to say, Everyone has some opinions in them. Continue reading
Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.
THE SOUNDS OF SAM LIPSYTE
In the next few weeks we will hear that Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is funny, irreverent, sex-obsessed, witty, broken, indiscriminate, and wry. Listening is the key verb as concerns Lipsyte. In the best stories: “The Climber Room,” “Deniers,” “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” “Snacks,” “A Worm in Philly,” “Expressive,” “Ode to Oldcorn,” and “Nate’s Pain is Now,” readers reading to the little man or woman that controls their brains will hear in their heads a prose holding piteous subjects grandly animated with vibrant and uncanny sounds. These delightful noises are a bonus because they accompany such an unwonderful world—not necessarily an evil place, but a staging ground for the salacious and ignoble to have their way with the weaker of the species.
During the opening wedding reception, the yawning father (NJ) takes his son (Yang-Yang) for food he wants to eat.
How often do two people who have been watching a film look upon each other breathless and transfixed at the end? I had seen Yi Yi, Edward Yang’s 1999 film, but as is often true with any pleasure, I had to share the experience with someone and so a week after seeing it I played the DVD for a friend. For a second time I was crushed, weeping at many of the same scenes, yet finding different shadings in the various plots and subplots. It’s the story of birth and death in an extended family, but it is much more.
The film is set in Taipei, and its opening piano music set over a wedding reception makes one think it may be a Taiwanese Terms of Endearment. To some extent this is true, but people coming into this film won’t be overwhelmed by the star power of the American film, though a few of Yi Yi’s actors are famous in the East. If all the players are strangers and to some extent the culture (the island of Taiwan has a checkered history, being thrown back and forth between Chinese and Japanese rule), audience identification can be purer. If given, trust won’t be tainted by the accuracy of marketing to the right demographic. So who is Yi Yi aimed at? Yang’s film is directed to the humanists and to the people who have loved life and hated it—people who have tried to do their best and ever endeavor to know themselves better.
Time for a change?
Recently Lev Grossman explained how he chooses books to review. “I review books,” he proclaimed, “if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them; or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them.”
Scott Esposito appropriately enough questions how candid Grossman is being, pointing out that his sinecure at Time necessarily constrains Grossman to “a very limited range of choices.” As Scott reminds us, “in most cases he’s functioning as an adjunct of a publisher’s marketing department, essentially adding whatever institutional and personal authority he has to the marketing push for a book that has almost certainly been acclaimed 10 times over by ‘reviewers’ that are similarly empowered.”
Over at the Reading William Gass website, curated by Stephen Schenkenberg, a video has been unearthed of Gass talking in Paris about five years ago. He reads from The Tunnel for a short time–then excitedly talks about the sentence. It’s a marvel.
There is a great new Bookworm interview with Gass about Life Sentences.
At Word Patriots, Mark Seinfelt interviewed Gass twice: once about his new book and once about Stanley Elkin. There are also three shows dedicated to Paul West.
Finally, my essay at The Kenyon Review–“On Influence: Starting and Stopping Cracks“–takes some lines of Gass as a starting point for a meditation on writing and art. The first paragraph:
Why not stand up straight for art? Rainer Maria Rilke’s older lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé, cared greatly about his relation to words and made him improve his handwriting, urging the poet to take control of everything in his life before communing more with the muse. Soon Rilke purchased a stand up desk to improve his circulation while he wrote poems—by changing his methods, he changed what the methods produced. This might speak to a few things about influence and who we are willing to listen to (Andreas-Salomé, also a former lover of Nietzsche, was a distinguished psychoanalyst and writer), but undoubtedly, art is at least as much physical as emotional.
This is how they did it.
The Overlook Hotel is simply the best site about The Shining on the internet. There are dozens of never before seen photos from the making of the film (including how Nicholson was propped up frozen in the snow at the end), new posters, artwork, tattoos, copies of screenplays, anything you can think of. Lee Unkrich is the caretaker of the site and I salute him.
Just in case you need more ephemera on The Shining here is that little article On Newfound Footage.
As an artist limited by his circumstance in the warring, emaciated USSR throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Andrei Tarkovsky did well to establish himself as one of cinema’s greatest masters. In some sense, his works represent grand acts of imagination against the pressures of reality. Faced by an increasingly philistine world enveloped in the struggles of aggressive international politics and the constant threat of nuclear war, he felt it his duty as an artist to help reintroduce the poetic essence as a vital part of humanity. He imbued his cinema with an element of poetry that stuns the viewer both visually and emotionally, and with his vision as an artist he invented—as legendary Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman said—a new language. It is no surprise that Tarkovsky’s father was a much-loved Russian poet with nine collections of poetry. As evidenced in his film Stalker, where one of his father’s poems is recited near the threshold of The Room (a place where one’s innermost desire is alleged to be granted upon entering), Tarkovsky used his father’s poetry as a source of inspiration for his cinema. You could say that he found poetry to be one of the highest forms of art, and wanted to instill the essence of it in his films. But what is the essence of poetry? Some might say it’s intangible, or that it simply doesn’t exist. Others might say that the essence of poetry is its unique presentation of ideas. Tarkovsky would likely say, however, that it is the art form’s ability to inspire a state of rational and irrational bliss through language. Continue reading
Dalkey Archive Press has just reissused two of the most important texts of the past sixty years–William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and JR. Introductions are by William H. Gass and Rick Moody.
It has been quite a few months for Gertrude Stein. Since Kathy Bates’ appearance as her in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Dalkey Archive Press has experienced record sales of Stein’s “The Making of Americans,” a 925-page behemoth. The Seeing Gertrude Stein Exhibit has been in San Francisco and Washington DC and on Feb. 28th The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde opens at the Met in NYC. Now Yale University Press has just released Ida: A Novel and Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition. The history of the latter is fascinating:
On the set of Apocalypse Now:
COPPOLA: …Burt Reynolds.
BRANDO: Don’t say that name around me.
Embedding oneself in The Ambassadors by Henry James is like reading little else. Every time I take book in hand again, an unending endoscopy of my perceptions proceeds until I shut it. Take this section of beauty from a quarter of the way through. Strether, the main character, is talking to Madame de Vionnet—a woman who has some hold on Chad. This young man is the son of Mrs. Newsome. It is she who has dispatched Strether to Paris to see what is keeping her son there—she wants him to return to Massachusetts and take over the family business. Mrs. Newsome is also Strether’s love interest and it is probable he will marry her if he succeeds in getting her son back to the old USA: