Reading The Cantos


1948 New Directions Edition


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

Object Fiction?

In “Collaborating with Surveillance: Wolfgang Hilbig’s East German Fiction” (see below), Angela Woodward highlights, among other things, Hilbig’s tendency in his fiction to privilege objects over persons:

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Yi Yi: The Best Film You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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.

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“I don’t know why we live…but I believe we can go on living for the reason that life is the most valuable thing we know anything about”

From Letters of Note:

In July of 1883, the novelist Henry James received an emotional letter from Grace Norton — a good friend and fellow writer who, following a death in the family, had recently become depressed and was desperate for direction. James’s beautiful response can be seen below. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest letters of advice I’ve ever had the fortune to read.

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Report from the Middle of The Ambassadors by Henry James

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:

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Putting the Parts Together

There are several ways to read the title of David Lodge’s novel about H.G. Wells, A Man of Parts. Lodge himself directs us to two readings in an epithet taken from Collins English Dictionary:

Parts PLURAL NOUN 1. Personal abilities or talents: a man of many parts. 2. short for private parts.

Both of these readings are clearly sustained throughout the novel. Wells is clearly a man of talents, which are varied if not always compatible. He is also a man driven by his private parts, a priapic adventurer whose sexual conquests often undid much of what his talents might have achieved. But having read much by and about Wells over the last few years, I am inclined to a third reading: that he was a man in parts, a man whose life was in bits that in a sense even he could not put together. He was not whole. Continue reading

A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: The Tree of Life

[By now it was late. The three stars were dimpling the sky. The baby raccoon was crying for its milk (I’d taken in an orphan the week before). But Jeremy and I weren’t finished yet discussing the movies we’d just watched.]

A D: You had a rather serious reaction to this one, Jeremy. Were you crying afterward?

Jeremy: Yes. Crying because I realized how much of my life I had wasted watching movies. What George Lucas did for his own franchise with the prequels, Malick did for all of cinema with The Tree of Life.


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Joy to the Reader When Reading Gass’s The Tunnel

How can I contain myself? (But perhaps the question is: how could Gass both contain and not contain himself to have done what he did?) Having had The Tunnel to go back to every morning was like having the one you love next to you, to be transfixed and freshened, to be, as that worthy words man said, surprised by joy and impatient as the wind. (First post on approaching The Tunnel)

In the end (and there can’t be an end to such a work that reverberates on itself and the whole of literature, philosophy, and history), Gass’s explication of Kohler’s consciousness is all tongue, all logos, but a logos of the highest order. Is there pity and terror? Is there sentimentality? Many monsters have their sweet side and though some have called Kohler a monster, I would just call him a guy who tells the truth of his story, no matter the lies of old age one tells to lessen the pains of the past. At the center of his thoughts is the idea of the fascism of the heart, with Kohler himself as the case study.  He gives us his life in many slices of pie (sugar and sweets, such as ice cream and cake abound in the book). He also heaps us with shit, with the staged, and with something surfacely sentimental, but wholly human:

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For Your Consideration IV – Gass/Stein/Music

“Why hadn’t I known long before reading Stein–was I such a dunce?–that the art was in the music–it was Joyce’s music, it was James’s music, it was Faulkner’s music; without the music, words fell to earth in prosy pieces; without the music, there was only comprehension, and comprehension may have been analysis, may have been interpretation, may have been philosophy, but it wasn’t art; art was the mind carried to conclusions ahead of any understanding by the music–the order, release, and sounding of the meaning. Not just because of a little alliteration, the pitter-patter of metrical feet, a repetition like a chant, or rhyme concealed the way Poe’s letter was–in plain view–but because of complex conceptual relations made audible.” (128)

– William H. Gass, from “Three Lives” in A Temple of Texts

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For Your Consideration III – Birthday Wishes to Henry James

Henry (left) and brother William

In the essay “In the Cage” (from Fiction and the Figures of Life), William Gass speaks about the fourth volume of Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James. Gass is not too impressed by how Edel reads James but I am once again smitten by Gass and his understanding of James (I would hope for him to expand on these thoughts and put together a Reading James volume to go alongside with his Reading Rilke). But let us revel in this summation of James’s art:

…his moral anger is directed at all those who infringe human freedom, who make pawns of people, who feast on the poor, the naive, or the powerless, who use love to use…and in those sentences which mark the movement of his mind, his steady shift of position and deepening of view, we ourselves can complain of being caught–caged–victimized. His sentences have such complex insides, they amaze, and we wonder if they have either end or purpose; if we shall ever emerge. The object we sought to have explained seems obscured by the explanation; it is no longer a scene we see, it is a sentence we experience. (174)

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Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: On “The Bailbondsman”

If you’ve been following along with us here at Big Other, you know that in January we read and discussed Tom McCarthy’s C (more here and here), followed that up with Mary Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy (more here, here, and here) and Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (more here, here, here, and here), in February and March, respectively. We’re reading and discussing Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures in April, and I hope you’ll consider joining us as we look at the book’s collection of three novellas.

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Reader Rage, Henry James Hate

Henry and Edith Wharton (seated) at the turn of the century. The man on the right is covering a sign that says, "Don't begrudge them their art."

To start, we have two simmering, searing proclamations:

In A Temple of Texts, William Gass quoted Arnold Bennett’s book, Literary Taste:

…your taste has to pass before the bar of the classics. That is the point, if you differ with a classic, it is you who are wrong, and not the book. (6)

In the comments section of a wonderful article, “Henry James and the Joys of Binge Reading,” by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard at The Millions; a person called Bill had this to say:

Thanks so much, Ward, for explaining why James isn’t really worth reading. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of all those other neurotic feedback-dodgers who write impossibly long sentences, like Faulkner and Woolf. These folks aren’t artists so much as mentally disturbed loners, incapable of engaging in the rich, healthy social contact that Flesch and his short, simple sentences give us. I plan to go to every bookstore now and throw away all the copies of James I can find, since it’s insane that this self-absorbed reader-hater is still in print. I can’t understand it: it’s almost as if bookstores are trying, doubtless because of their own neuroses, to create the illusion that there are people out there who like to read James. But of course that can’t be true, not with someone who suffered from a prolonged lack of feedback.

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“Liberature”: Some Thoughts About Julián Ríos

So, today, at the library, I was roaming around the stacks, and I noticed House of Ulysses, by Julián Ríos. Ever since swimming through some pages of Larva: A Midsummer Night’s Babel, I’ve wanted to read Ríos’s work, and by read I mean, read everything that’s out there by him. But, since I’ve decided read all of Henry James’s fiction (I just finished reading his first novel, Watch and Ward, today) not to mention my many other reading plans, I ended up, regretfully, not taking House of Ulysses home. I did, however, find this great, short interview with him, conducted by Mark Thwaite, at Dalkey Archive, which captures Ríos’s ebullient humor, his wordplay:

MT: There is a real jouissance to your work. Is the pleasure of the text partially an expression of the freedom you as a Spaniard felt in the early ’80s?

JR: Do as you like, a minimal maxim, an old favorite of mine, so exalting and at the same time so difficult as a Rabelesian rule. I hold the liberation theory that the best writers liberate the language from taboos, tattoos, cockatoos, repetitions, old fashion repressions and expressions, clichés, fetters, and so forth. For this reason I call it sometimes liberature for short, this liberating literature


Guest Post, by Gary Amdahl: A Sentence About a Sentence I Love

“He projected himself all day, in thought, straight over the bristling line of hard unconscious heads and into the other, the real, the waiting life; the life that, as soon as he had heard behind him the click of his great house-door, began for him, on the jolly corner, as beguilingly as the slow opening bars of some rich music follows the tap of the conductor’s wand.”
—From Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

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Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

A pleasant looking book.

[Update: As if this post weren’t long enough, there’s now a Part 2.]

On January 22, I read Shya Scanlon’s post “The Dull King”; on January 25 I read his second post “Cover Your Tracks.” Both were about reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Before that I’d heard of James Wood but hadn’t read anything by him; I knew some people liked him and some didn’t like him. I myself had no opinion about the guy. Nor did I have any real plan to read How Fiction Works. But still I posted a couple of comments on Shya’s posts, and Shya wrote back, and I wrote back, and before I knew it I’d written a very long comment that I turned into my own post, “Uncover Your Tracks.”

Then I thought what the hell and trudged through the snow to Columbia College. That was a fun trip; the library elevators weren’t working, and a security guard had to escort me up to the fifth floor. It felt like the normal world had gotten broken, and something exciting was taking place. I took that as a sign that I was on the right track. I went home right away and read the book from cover to cover….

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My Four Favorite New Books of 2009, #3: Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme

#1 | #2 | #4



Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin’s Press, 2009)

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