Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist (1810)

Michael-Kohlhaas-320x373Von Kleist is an author I’ve often heard referenced — in particular I remember that Rilke’s Duino elegy about the harlequins owes Von Kleist some kind of debt I forget — but had never read. Thanks to the good people at Melville House Publishing and their lovely editions of novellas like this one, I’ve at last been inspired.

This is a relentless little story which quite nicely maps onto a lot of contemporary issues and quandaries. Here’s the question in a nutshell: To what extent is it acceptable to commit injustices in the course of seeking redress for injustices? You could ask this of the prisoners of Guantanamo, and you could ask it too of Michael Kohlhaas.

Kohlhaas, a prosperous citizen, is done wrong by a nobleman, who seizes two of Kohlhaas’s horses under the guise of some bogus regulations. When Kohlhaas tries to pursue redress through legal channels, the nobleman’s friends in high places see to it that the petitions are squashed. Then Kohlhaas, enraged — one must imagine him played by Klaus Kinski at this point — takes matters into his own hands, terrorizing the countryside in an effort to force the ruling classes to make him whole.  From here events swirl into ever-tightening circles of moral hazard and illogic, where it is increasingly difficult to say who is in the right, or what “right” might even be. The funhouse claustrophobia and panic reminded me strongly of Kafka’s The Trial, and I was not surprised to find out with a little research on Wikipedia that this novella was a favorite of Franz’s.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

11869272There’s the subject, and then there’s the form. The subject of this book exhausts and depresses me. It’s about a few residents of a slum in Mumbai and the various social and political factors that impede them from improving their lot in life. Their situation is terrible. They lack adequate water, sanitation, and food. They subsist by scavenging in the garbage. The institutions that ought to serve and aid them — police, government, courts, schools, charities — in fact do them more harm than good, exploiting their labor and extorting their meager resources. It’s terrible, but not terribly surprising; we know full well that situations like this exist all over the world.

 

What is surprising is the form of Boo’s book. It’s not a study or a history; it’s a story. There are no statistics or interviews with experts or extended analyses of causes and effects. Boo spent years in this one relatively small slum, interviewing and re-interviewing the same residents, and tracking the particular setbacks and advances they made in their individual lives. The questions of how or whether these particular examples might be used inductively to fuel broader conclusions about poverty in general is not here entertained or answered.

 

The effect, for me, was disorienting in two ways. First, because the book follows the narrative arcs described by the lives of persons, those persons felt like characters to me, rather than humans. Second, their stories seemed radically decontextualized. I wanted to know more about what was going on in the city around them, the slums around them. I wanted to know more about the history of the country, the political situation, and so forth. At the same time, I realize that my sense of having no context is analogous to the contextless-ness of the slum dwellers themselves, who have few means of understanding what’s going on in the world outside the slum.

 

This is a good book but a strange one. I am having a hard time assessing the nature of my reaction. I guess another way to put it is that I wanted Bertolt Brecht to have written it. It needs a dash of the alienation effect, so as to ensure that I don’t think of humans as characters or vice-versa.

Stoner, John Williams (1965)

ImageThis novel has been recommended to me by a number of  friends over the years. One of these was so passionate about the book that she claimed to have purchased a case of copies from the publisher to hand out to people; my copy is the one I accepted from her with gratitude and amusement. I have a feeling there’s a kind of genre for this book, the pellucid, perfect, one-offs which seem absolutely seminal to those who have read them, but which retain an aura of being somehow unknown, or under-known — Housekeeping, The Ginger Man, A Confederacy of Dunces, Mrs. Bridge . . . I don’t know, I’m probably making no sense.

Here’s Stoner: Son of a dirt farmer in late 19c Missouri is sent to the new university in Columbia to learn agriculture. Instead he falls in love with literature. This is the signal moment in the book from which all else follows, and it requires a leap of faith, because our hero seems to have not an iota of self-consciousness, indolence, or voluptuousness, all of which I thought were required in order to give one’s life over to literature. Stoner has a one-dimensional loveless marriage to an inexplicably depressed woman, a one-dimensional forty-year antagonism with his department chair, a one-dimensional love affair with a graduate student, a one-dimensional fondness for his one-dimensional daughter, and then dies of cancer. It’s not very exciting. In fact the plot is unimaginably dull. None of the characters, Stoner included, has any psychological depth — or at least none is revealed to us — and none of them do anything remotely interesting or surprising.

So what’s the attraction? I think the book has two potential audiences. Sentimentalists may enjoy the story of a man who never really understood a thing about himself, the world, or anyone else, but maintained a stalwart dignity from cradle to grave. Writers will be fascinated by the writing. The prose here is transparent in a way I can’t figure out how to describe. I don’t feel like I’m reading when I read it, and I don’t know how Williams does that. There are occasional infinitesimal gestures of lyricism at moments of extremity — sex and death — but by and large the prose has the solidity, gravity, and smoothness of granite. I can’t say I loved this book; on the contrary, it stirred perhaps no emotion at all. But I can see why a prose stylist like my friend would buy it by the case to hand out to students and writer friends, as a specimen.

The Master of Petersburg, J. M. Coetzee (1994)

Coetzee Master of PetersburgNot my favorite of Coetzee and not his best, but a remarkable book, amazing to me not least simply because he manages to accomplish here such a complex braid of the historical, the personal, and the imaginary without losing his head. It’s nervy enough for a novelist to take up Dostoyevsky as a protagonist and presume to present the Master’s interiority. Coetzee goes a good deal further by transposing elements of his own relationship with his son onto Dostoyevsky’s with his. He further presumes to write in manner instantly recognizable as Russian-esque, as if he’s working on a kind of stylistic etude. Scenes oscillate between metaphysical speculation and intense sensory realism; the eternal questions of class, religion, and revolution are constantly in play; a chained dog in an alleyway or a battered white suit in a musty valise become occasions of terror and pity.

 

Coming to this straight from Pelevin’s Omon Ra, I’ll say a word about sentences. In Pelevin the sentences always seemed to be slipping through my fingers, never quite meaning what they seemed, often seeming to mean something other or more. What a contrast to Coetzee, whose sentences seem built stone by stone, every one a kind of temple with the aura of having always existed. I know such authority is a species of illusion, or worse, but the tiny fascist in me (almost everyone has one) does thrill to it.

Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin (1992)

omon raThis is a brilliant and heartbreaking little novel which I first read years ago and enjoyed just as much the second time around. Omon is a postwar Russian kid who dreams of transcending the banality of his circumstances by becoming a cosmonaut. The Soviet state is happy to help him do so, since his desire dovetails perfectly with the state’s desire to project an image of achievement and glory to the world. In the end it turns out all parties have been deluding themselves and each other; transcendence and glory turn out to be induced hallucinations. In the sacred profane tradition of Gogol, the story’s both tragic and comic, naturalistic and fabulous.

And to extend that last point, from a writerly point of view, I marvel at the way Pelevin segues seamlessly from the realistic to the absurd and back again, so that as a reader, you find yourself in a sort of hall of mirrors, where the unbelievable seems inevitable and the simplest explanation impossible. I wouldn’t know for sure, but it seems a perfect stylistic match for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain.

The Phoenix

phoenix“They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follows. The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible, that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry, then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first. So he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.”

Herodotus, people.

I haven’t kept up with the blog in about a year. I’ve been in mourning for a failed writing project and obsessed with photography. Like a beaten dog slinking back into the yard, I am slowly returning to the written word, and I resolve to keep up with my reading, viewing, and listening here in 2013.

Some scraps from the unpublished posts of 2012.

Open City, Teju Cole (2011) I’ve wondered what an American Sebald would sound like. Cole provides a useful and provocative redirection for the question. The ways Cole thinks through history, space, literature, memory, and tone are consistently provocative, but as in Sebald, the overall impression remains one of stillness. A deceptively simple novel. I want to read it again in a year.

I wanted to like HHhH more than I did; it seemed unnervingly slight, too playful. I enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was amateurish but affecting. I had to switch off a number of movies for intolerable violence, including Savages and Lawless. This is unusual for me; either the violence is getting worse or I’m getting less tolerant or both. In Moonrise Kingdom I saw Wes Anderson beginning to imitate himself and it made me sad. Cronenberg’s Freud movie was stupid; I don’t think Cronenberg has one single thing left to say and as such his attachment to Delillo’s Cosmopolis makes a great deal of sense. Almovodar’s The Skin I Live In was awesome and irresistible. That one I could go on about. The superficial level of the film being “about” identity politics — you could certainly lead a rousing discussion about the performance of gender in the film with a room full of students — but what really fascinates me is its crazy structure and pacing, like a 19th century generational novel crossed with TMZ.

Plus a bunch of other stuff I’m sure, but like I said, in 2012 I mostly spent my spare time watching photography how-to videos on YouTube and wondering if I’d ever write another word. I’m going to try to keep up this year. I’ll also post some photos from time to time, I think.

Bouvard and Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert (1881)

ImageBouvard and Pécuchet are copy clerks in Paris and good friends who enjoy discussing what seem to them serious ideas. When they come into a bit of money they retire to the country and proceed to indulge a series of obsessions: agronomy, archeology, literature, philosophy, religion, phrenology, pedagogy, sexuality, and so on. In each case they press on just enough to become a jack of the given trade but far from its master. Meanwhile their house crumbles around them. They are the types to become so engrossed discussing the nutritional composition of an ideal diet that they forget to eat their dinner. The book was unfinished when Flaubert died, but he left behind a plan which suggested that finally the two former copy clerks would choose to return to that pursuit. Instead of trying to implement all the ideas their scattershot reading had formerly led them to, they’d take the more direct route of pure recapitulation, simply compiling excerpts from pre-existing works into a compendium of received ideas. Just as Emma Bovary’s novels led her to mistake passion’s signs for passion, Bouvard and Pécuchet mistake the performance of erudition for knowledge.

Flaubert of course finds them fools. They know a great deal but understand nothing. They debate the merits of vegetarianism without noticing that they’re eating meat as they argue.

I confess to feeling a certain sympathy for them. Their struggle to ingest and be nourished by the overwhelming amount of information available to them reminds me of my own excitement and dread when I open my Google Reader feed, or contemplate the shelves of books I’ve yet to read. They may have seemed comic to Flaubert but they seem tragic to me.