Thursday, May 18, 2006
Just the facts
I know Dubravka carries the ID of a saucy jokester sometimes, but that last bit bothers me. I reviewed Thank You For Not Reading and actually mentioned those NYT reviews, as they hammered home her point. It's a little disheartening to hear that her handle on those details was less solid than I assumed it to be.I believe the author was having some rhetorical fun here. She did admit to getting the language in my Brodsky review wrong, since she didn't have a copy of the Book Review in front of her while she was composing the essay. But I don't think she would defend for even a millesecond the proposition that the facts don't matter. And her main point--that the editors gave Ivana Trump a 21-gun salute and greeted Brodsky's book with a popgun blast (from a nice popgun, I would maintain)--remains valid.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Farewell to Stanley Kunitz
When his boat snapped loose
from its moorings, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, whose mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Get your red hots!
That said, a couple of Kelly's points stuck in my craw. First: we are about to enter a second age of mechanical reproduction, in which the copies themselves are universally available and therefore worthless. "As copies have been dethroned," Kelly writes, "the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are." Oh, great. And what are writers supposed to do? Well, you can give away your work for nothing and peddle souvenirs, snacks, beverages, and t-shirts on the profitable periphery of literature. As Kelly puts it: authors and artists "can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions--in short, all the many values that cannot be copied." Please, let's think about this for a moment. What's happening is that the work of the imagination is being devalued: writing a novel is essentially on par with writing a rubber check. What's valuable is squeezing the ancillary rights out of your creation. I'm particularly excited about the scarcity of attention--just think, it was there all along and I never made a nickel from it!
Yes, I'm griping. You could even say I'm whining. But it's not just because Kelly is celebrating the slow death of my livelihood: it's because I still think of reading as an intensely personal activity, whereas for Kelly, it resembles a giant game of Twister:
When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.I don't want every book to vanish into the slurry of the universal library. I don't want Carl to annotate my favorite novels. And he'd better keep his hands off my scrimshaw collection, too.
Friday, May 12, 2006
Brief Encounter: Dubravka Ugresic
Dubravka Ugresic: Other people have noted the essayistic tone. Well, the novel is all about language. The narrator is an educated person, she's a teacher of literature--she's supposed to know how to be articulate. But she bears the trauma of war, and her language is fundamentally an invalid language. In many places she says: I feel like I am a student in a Croatian language course. She's appalled by how formulaic her sentences are.
James Marcus: But does that change as the novel progresses?
Ugresic: Yes, it does. The language gets richer. And then she starts dreaming: there are some surreal passages in there, and at one point she finishes a chapter inside the novel of an 18th-century Croatian author. I don't know if you remember, it's very kitschy language--
Marcus: I do recall that.
Ugresic: As the language gets richer, she becomes more free. And finally she has this realization about immigrants: they express themselves by sound rather than language. They like to shout, to scream.
Marcus: Like the two little boys who assault her with the toy knife, and then let loose with a weird, almost metaphysical howling.
Ugresic: Or adults with firecrackers. That's in the novel as well.
Marcus: Was this concept of evolving language (and also, in a sense, devolving language) present from the beginning?
Ugresic: It's hard to say. But at one point the narrator suggests that when you are traumatized, there are two possible reactions. Either you're authentically silent about it, or you talk about it, but in a mechanical way.
Marcus: Let's move on to what you call Yugonostalgia: the yearning for a country and culture that have vanished into the maw of history. Are you as afflicted with this yearning as your characters?
Ugresic: Yes, I am. I've written about it elsewhere, in The Culture of Lies. The problem is that once Croatia become independent, the old, Yugoslav reality was prohibited. It is so difficult to imagine. It is like your worst nightmare. These people had to build their new identity very quickly, and from scratch, and they had to find some explanation for the war. So: "We killed in the name of our country," or, "We killed in the name of our identity." The trouble is, the Croats had only one short period of independence. That was during the Second World War, when they were a Nazi puppet state. But once they broke away in the early Nineties, they had to justify fifty years of Yugoslavism, and they behaved like bad film directors--they simply edited out everything from 1944 to 1991!
Marcus: That's a pretty dramatic splice.
Ugresic: Look, I realize the terrain is very small. I mean, who cares about Croatia? Three or four million people, that's all. But for me, it was so interesting, because I saw how you can train human beings to think differently within a year: they all change. It is a chemical reaction, as if you dipped people into some kind of acid and pulled them out again.
Marcus: With a new personality.
Ugresic: Exactly. Now they claim they saw what they didn't see, they claim to remember what they can't possibly remember, and they forget what they're even lying about. So everything is gone. Foods, for example: overnight you could no longer find a kebab in a restaurant. Why? Because kebab was considered a Serbian dish.
Marcus: So it's banished from the menu.
Ugresic: Right. Every product that had a logo or label from Belgrade--gone! Book burnings. Ethnic cleansing at the library. A new language. My poor mother had a favorite television program, and suddenly it's gone.
Marcus: So you lose everything. And the worst part is that you're supposed to pretend that it was never there in the first place.
Ugresic: The worst part is that you have this phantom pain.
Marcus: Do you go back very frequently?
Ugresic: Oh, yes. I still have family there.
Marcus: And do your trips back cause that sense of nostalgia to modulate?
Ugresic: Bit by bit, they're letting the Yugoslav era back in. But not very much. And do you know what? All that fantastic art, that subversive art, that existed during the Communist era in Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and so forth—all of that is gone. Because people associate it with Communism, even though it was anti-Communist. People are so stupid.
Marcus: I went to see Orhan Pamuk kick off the festival the other night. And one of the things he talked about in his speech was the way in which the Turkish dissidents of a generation ago are now the strident nationalists of today. It reminded of a passage in The Ministry of Pain, where you write: "Perhaps that now defunct country had in fact been inhabited exclusively by victims and victimizers. Victims and victimizers who periodically changed places."
Ugresic: Well, of course this behavior is not exclusive to my country. But Croatia is a good example, you know, because it's small, it's approachable, it's like a village--
Marcus: You can see the whole picture at once.
Ugresic: That's right.
Marcus: Let me move on to the issue of translation. Has Michael Henry Heim translated all of your books?
Ugresic: Unfortunately not.
Marcus: Do you work very closely with him on the translations?
Ugresic: I don't. He's a unique person--first of all, he speaks so many languages. Second, he's an educated person, so when you mention Lili Brik in your novel, he knows exactly who that was. Michael is simply overeducated. He's fantastic.
Marcus: When I interviewed Czeslaw Milosz a few years ago, I asked whether he had ever considered transforming himself into an English-language poet. His answer: "I believe that by changing language we change our personality, and I wanted to remain faithful to the tradition in which I grew up." Could you imagine ever writing in a language other than Croatian?
Ugresic: You know what? If I were younger, I would immediately, without hesitation, switch to writing in English. But at this point, my English would be terribly blunt--for practical reasons, I don't have time to get involved in writing in a new language. So I'm sticking with Croatian, because it's my mother tongue.
Marcus: So in your daily life you speak Dutch and English?
Ugresic: No. My Dutch is almost nonexistent.
Marcus: How long have you lived in Amsterdam?
Ugresic: I've lived in Amsterdam for a long time, but in fact I haven't arrived yet. [Laughs] I'm all the time somewhere else. I went to language class when I first moved there, but then I was in the States for six months, and by the time I returned, I had forgotten everything.
Marcus: It’s interesting to compare the playful postmodernism of Lend Me Your Character or Thank You For Not Reading with the more melancholic voice of The Ministry of Pain. Is this an evolution of style?
Ugresic: Well, the chronology is confusing. Because Thank You For Not Reading is a newer book, and one of my older books, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, is in a darker vein.
Marcus: So we're really talking about an alternation of moods.
Ugresic: Yes. But there's another thing. I belong to that group of writers whose books are all different. I myself am bored by writing all the time the same thing. You have such writers, and some of them are very good, but it is basically one book.
Marcus: One last question, which is actually a confession. In Thank You For Not Reading, you acerbically note that the New York Times Book Review rolled out the red carpet for Ivana Trump when she published a novel: "I wouldn't have noticed it if Joseph Brodsky hadn't received in the very same issue an unjustly malicious review of his latest book Watermark. One reviewer vilified Brodsky for his language 'jammed with metaphors,' and the other praised Ivana for her analytical intelligence." Well, I was the guy who wrote the Brodsky review. It wasn't really that negative!
Ugresic: [Laughs] Well, I didn't have the review in front of me when I wrote the essay! But even it was not true, that doesn't matter--it was possible, it was believable. And it gets more believable all the time.
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Win, lose, or drawl
It's hard to pin down exactly when my Bruce Springsteen problem began. As a teenager I worshipped the guy, and still recall a blistering 1977 show at Manhattan's Palladium as one of the high points of my musical education. I stuck with him for a long time after that, savoring the prairie minimalism of Nebraska and his first real tussle with married life, Tunnel of Love. Yet sometime in the late Nineties, he began to bug me. There wasn't any specific moment of disenchantment. In 1997, however, Nicholas Davidoff profiled Springsteen for The New York Times Magazine, and there's a telling passage in there that has lingered in my mind ever since I first read it.You can read the rest here.
Davidoff is discussing his subject's manner of speech, and describes his accent this way: "There is a Jersey-Pennsylvania lilt to some of his inflections--he says 'hill-larrvus' for 'hilarious'--and, at times, a hint of an Alabama drawl may slip in. (His childhood neighbor was a transplanted Southern truck driver.)" Now, Davidoff is a smart man, about life in general and music in particular (his profile of Johnny Cash in In the Country of Country is one of the best I've ever read.) But in this case he was either too polite or too gullible. When a son of Freehold, New Jersey, starts talking like a drunken Jethro Bodine, it's not because the guy next door was from Alabama. It's called affectation, and much of the time, it's been a toxic additive for Springsteen's art.
Monday, May 08, 2006
My own two cents
Philip Roth's creations tend to travel in schools. Here we have the Zuckerman books, here the Kepesh books, and over there the Roth books--the most slippery and scintillating of the bunch. Yet his new novel seems to have wriggled free of these taxonomic confines. The protagonist of Everyman is nameless. He also emerges from the straitjacket of family life with none of the Houdini-like exertions so typical of his fictional cousins. Can Roth really be starting from scratch?You can read the rest here.
Not exactly. Sometimes, you see, size does matter--and the slender heft of Everyman, combined with its funereal jacket, should have been an immediate tip-off. What we have here is a companion piece to The Dying Animal, which Roth published in 2001. In that similarly proportioned novel, mortality brings David Kepesh to his knees without actually killing him. In this one, the hero dies--no spoiler, since he's being buried in the very first scene. And what really interests Roth this time around is the depersonalization of death. The closer we get to the grave, the more we each shed our singularity and turn into--well, into Everyman, a creature of flesh and blood and diminishing spirit.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Romano on PEN, Banville on Roth
Star turns by such global celebrities such as outgoing president Salman Rushdie vied for attention with modest appearances by such non-household names as Bulgaria's great poet, Lyobomir Levchev ("I speak English only after second bottle"). Yet many of the issues most crucial to the visiting writers emerged not in star turns, but at the many themed panels, some large enough to require a scorecard, some so linguistically varied they guaranteed a headache to anyone besides Kofi Annan.
On other fronts, I just got around to reading John Banville's review of Everyman in the Guardian, and although I regard him highly as a critic, this is one silly performance. One paragraph in particular rankled:
It might be claimed that the overall flatness of style in Everyman is the mark of a master disdaining mere technique, but that will not quite do. Our lives are a shimmer of nuances between the two fixed poles of birth and death. That flash which is our being-here, brief though it be, is infinitely complex, made up of poses, self-delusions, fleeting epiphanies, false starts and falser finishes--nothing in life finishes save life itself--all generated from the premise that the self is a self and not merely a persona, a congeries of selves. Literary art cannot hope to express that complexity, but it can, by the power of style, which is the imagination in action, set up a parallel complexity which, as by magic, gives a sufficiently convincing illusion of lifelikeness. "In literature," Henry James declares, "we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it." All of Everyman could be contained within a few pages of late James.This is transparently the recipe for a John Banville novel--the infinite nuances, the atomized perceptions--and the biggest boner a critic can commit is the insistence that all writers should do what he does. It's embarrassing. So is Banville's attempt to beat Roth with the stick of James's late style. No other writer has leaned so heavily on style and so lightly on actual knowledge of the world: James writes about sex, money, power, and marriage as if he'd read about them in a book--worse, in one of his own books. I speak as a fan, but one who prefers the moving minimalism of Everyman to the syntactical swamps of The Golden Bowl.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
PEN Panel: You Say You Want a Revolution?
Everybody on the panel had participated in an actual revolution. In the case of Garzon, a magistrate, it was less a matter of violent upheaval than the slow-motion rebirth of Spanish civil society after the death of Franco. Hitchens himself had been on hand for many of these events, like a chain-smoking Zelig of world revolt. Speaking with unusual deference, he asked Michnik to begin the conversation.
A key figure in Solidarity and the editor of Poland's first independent newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, Michnik exuded a kind of pot-bellied decency. He spoke in Polish, with simultaneous translation by none other than John Gross: "Karl Marx used to say that revolution is the midwife of history--because the midwife can decide how the birth will take place." But every revolution, he asserted, is ultimately betrayed. In each case there are two phases: the first is beautiful, the second is ugly. For that reason, only unfinished revolutions are happy events. And what of the Polish revolt? "Solidarity was the only revolution I know of that simply wanted normality."
Hitchens, who had started revolving his glasses in the air to move things along, now addressed Belli: "The Nicaraguan revolution was the last one in recent memory to have a utopian or romantic character. So it's your turn, darling." She responded with some reminiscence: "I was five years old the first time I saw blood. I was going to buy some candy, and saw a big splash of blood on the wall. My nanny said the soldiers had killed a student. That splash stayed with me: it was a shock to my young mind." During the late 1970s, Belli joined the Sandinistas and shared in the exhilaration of toppling Somoza. "We had a revolution that triumphed in May 1979," she recalled. "That day I thought I had the privilege of seeing my dreams come true."
To some extent, of course, the Sandinista revolution fulfills Michnik's two-part scenario: communal joy followed by sharp disillusionment. After winning the presidency in 1984, Daniel Ortega promptly declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties, even as his government's economic programs alienated both urban and rural supporters. Clearly Hitchens wanted Belli to discuss this revolutionary hangover. Yet the poet refused to play ball. "I still think utopia is possible," she insisted. "I think the crisis in the world now is a crisis of the imagination." With a weary wave of his spectacles, the Hitch gave up, and turned to G.M. Tamas, who served in Hungary's parliament from 1989 to 1994.
"You've heard the witty, the moving," Tamas began. "Here comes the grim." He ran down the checklist of failed revolutions and scolded the vanguard for its Chatty Cathy tendencies: "Revolutionaries are loquacious. Revolutionaries talk a great deal." And what do they get for their troubles? In the case of the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956--who demanded no more than worker's councils and the hasty exit of Soviet troops--they got nothing. Then came the upheavals of 1989, which put Tamas and his peers in the driver's seat. "I had to realize that nostalgia and sadness--and hatred for the new order--was spreading."
Now it was time for Barzon to speak, also through a translator. A large, gravid man with silver hair, he patiently explained the role of the traditionally conservative judiciary in Spain's post-Franco transformation. Not being a man of letters, he felt no obligation to spice things up rhetorically, which led to some slow going. By the time he was through, it was getting late. Hitchens, not willing to simply note the hour, got fancy: "The tyranny of time is not one that can be abolished." Very true, comrades! Yet a few minutes remained for final statements and questions from the floor. (The moderator's instruction to audience members: "Be terse and, if possible, ironic.")
In response to one such question, Tamas spoke up: "Isn't it quite interesting that nowadays, the crushing majority of those dying for violent causes are dying for the same reasons people were dying 6,000 years ago? The progress is tremendous!"
Rusdie himself approached the microphone to ask about the oil-and-water rapport between the Church and revolution. Belli argued that liberation theology, once a real force in Latin American society, was basically dead. Tamas had a more elaborate answer. In Hungary, he explained, believers were in the minority, and a frequent butt of jokes. "People in general do not trust ideas of any kind," he said. "They do not trust protestations of innocence. I come from a skeptical country, you see--it would be a very good vacation spot for a Pole, or for a Texan."
The Hitch, perhaps unwilling to let the vox pop get in the last word, hijacked the panel with a final question. Which did they see as the most profound revolution: 1776 or 1789? Belli dodged again, merely asserting that the "women's revolution" will ultimately have the most sweeping effects. This elicited applause from approximately one half of the audience. Barzon declared that "you lose something in every revolution."
But Michnik, again with John Gross as his English mouthpiece, was more willing to play favorites. "I love all revolutions," he began. "And I am afraid of them all." He cited the Jacobin motto: "Be my brother or I will kill you." This would seem to favor the American Revolution, no? Michnik praised the Founding Fathers, who contrarily understood that human beings were fallible creatures. "I like the American Revolution. It was a proposition for people like myself: sinful, imperfect, who like to eat, and do not want to be an angel." Comrade, you've come to the right place.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
The Internet and its discontents
George Saunders began: "It's had a profound effect. Now I spend seven hours a day self-Googling." (Rim shot!) On a more serious note, he mentioned some left-leaning pieces he had written for Slate, and the instant responses these had provoked. He also suggested that the Internet had transformed the (imaginary) relationship between writers and their readers. "To the extent that you project your audience as a fiction writer, the Internet really has complicated that projection."
The next panelist, Syrian blogger and policy wonk Ammar Abduhlhamid, was considerably less grudging in his response. "The Internet has freed me," he stated. Yet he too had some doubts about his blog, which not only put an end to his existence as a bohemian man of letters but eventually became a thorn in the side of the Syrian government. "It dragged me away from a literary life. In that sense, the Internet freed me--but sometimes I curse it." This reservation seemed only partly due to his encounters with the state security services. In fact Abduhlhamid sounded fairly jolly about his multiple detentions. "One day the interrogator told me, 'You believe in this American democracy with its fucking and Guatemala.' I said, 'You mean Guantanamo, don’t you?' That was the day my blog got the most hits!"
Even Weisberg seemed a little puzzled by this Captain Blood-style insouciance. Hadn't the blogger been, well, scared? At this point Abduhlhamid noted that his mother was a famous Syrian movie star--always helpful in the local Lubyanka--and passed the baton to Susan Tifft, a professor of journalism and co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. For her students, she suggested, the Web was introducing some elementary confusion. "My students keep asking: who is a journalist? Is it okay to use Wikipedia when you write a paper?" Certainly, she conceded, the Internet was making the very definition of journalism much more fluid.
Asne Seierstad, the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and 101 Days: A Baghdad Journal, essentially took a pass on the question. In Afghanistan, the setting of her first book, 80% of the population is still illiterate: why fuss around with the Internet, she argued, when hardly anybody can read? Not much of an answer, I'm afraid. But Seierstad, a strong contender for Most Attractive PEN Panelist of 2006, obviously has some deeper discomfort with the information superhighway: "You can get plenty of information, but not so much knowledge."
Rebounding from this bad attitude, Carol Darr, who directs the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet, put in a plug for the Web as a formidable democratizing tool. Prior to the 2004 election, she asserted, the activist base for both parties was small: "You probably had 150,000 people in the entire country giving money and getting involved. Last time around, there were 7 to 10 million people"--and most of the credit for this spike goes to Internet campaigning.
At Weisberg's urging, the conversation returned to more bookish terrain, as he discussed the serial novel that Walter Kirn is currently writing for (speak of the devil) Slate. Were we witnessing the birth of a new literary form, written on the fly and published in a friction-free format that would have made Dickens's head spin? This got a skeptical response. "We need to think slowly at times," Abduhlhamid said. Saunders couched his objections in more personal terms: "I really know the difference between Draft One and Draft Fifty... To me, the biggest danger of the Internet is that we’ll be seduced by our first-draft charm.”
Now the dog pile began. "Much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is simply the assertion of opinion," Tifft said. She added: "We need standards of verifiability." Abduhlhamid upped the ante, pointing out that that Internet "can empower a lot of morons," and that it's hardly a repository of truth. Yet Saunders wound up the discussion by pleading for the advantages of an open-access culture. "A workable definition of democracy is everybody talking at once," he told the crowd, and singled out a putative benefit of the Internet that nobody can really argue against: a slow but steady "attrition of stupidity." You could do much worse.