Thursday, September 27, 2007

 

Roth, biography, Updike

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Hermione Lee chats with Philip Roth about Exit Ghost. (Here, by the way, is J. Hoberman's positive review of the book from The Village Voice.) The piece is a straight Q-and-A, and I suspect that it was conducted via email--or that Roth was allowed to edit his responses after the fact. I don't know how else to account for the canned atmosphere of the whole exchange. In his final comment, Roth actually admits to having "plucked" some of the sentences from a preface he wrote to a limited edition of The Human Stain. So much for spontaneity. Couldn't he have submitted to an actual conversation, not unlike the human encounter captured in this old photo from a Newark luncheonette? Still, there was at least one intriguing moment. Discussing Zuckerman's contempt for the aspiring biographer Richard Kliman in Exit Ghost, Lee asks: "What is the source of Zuckerman's animus against biography?" Roth concludes his answer this way:
As for the novelist's animus against biography--there is none. The animus is against the kind of biography that Zuckerman believes Kliman to be writing, and his assessment is grounded in what he judges to be the highly dubious evidence that Kliman presents of Lonoff's "secret history." It would be as wrongheaded to read into the presentation of Kliman an attack on the genre of biography as to read, say, my presentation of Portnoy as an attack on the practice of masturbation. I count myself a friend of both.
No argument there. It's worth bearing in mind that Roth was conversing with an eminent biographer. Perhaps it would have been awkward to dismiss the entire profession as a pack of pathetic ambulance chasers. But a passage in Exit Ghost suggests a powerful kinship--an identification, really--between Roth's efforts as a novelist and the biographer's pursuit of that Holy Grail, his subject's "covert brand of baseness." Pondering his own, posthumous role as grist for the biographical mill, Zuckerman describes his future Boswell in oddly familiar terms:
An astonishing thing it is, too, that one's prowess and achievement, such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition. The man in control of the words, the man making up stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight.
You could argue that Zuckerman is being sarcastic, idealizing Kliman for comic effect. But I don't buy it. Updike, meanwhile, airs his distaste for the biographical enterprise in one of the opening essays of Due Considerations. He writes:
Claire Bloom, the ex-wife of Philip Roth, portrays him as having been, as their marriage rapidly unravelled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive. Paul Theroux, finding himself snubbed by his friend and mentor of thirty years, recounts all he can remember about V.S. Naipaul, including a host of racist, misogynistic, cruel, and vain remarks made in their--Naipaul must have thought--private conversations. Joyce Maynard fascinatingly recalls, as part of her rather arduous self-development, her affair with J.D. Salinger and thus lifts the curtain on the most celebrated privacy in America. Salinger is revealed as a food crank, a keen student of homeopathic medicine, a Reichian, a fan of old movies and present-day television, a man full of scornful opinions and rather creepily fond of very young girls. Maynard describes her inability to have genital sex with him and his insistence on her providing oral sex instead; she quotes, with more pertinence than perhaps she realizes, Salinger's saying, "It's a goddamn embarrassment, publishing. The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down."
The relish of this passage, with its collateral damage to Bloom, Theroux, and Maynard, is unmistakable. To give Updike his due, he does consider these books part of a specialized genre: the "Judas biography," which is essentially an exercise in lip-smacking betrayal. But even a more decorous approach strikes him as a violation--a raid on his personal Fort Knox. "A fiction writer's life is his treasure, his ore, his savings account, his jungle gym.... As long as I am alive," he writes, "I don't want somebody else playing on my jungle gym--disturbing my children, quizzing my ex-wife, bugging my present wife, seeking for Judases among my friends, rummaging through yellowing old clippings, and quoting in extenso bad reviews I would rather forget." The experience-as-treasure metaphor is perhaps long in the tooth, but the jungle gym is a delightful touch. I picture the author hanging upside down, smiling, his famously sculpted and insubordinate hair resisting the tug of gravity. His face is pink. His car keys have fallen out of his pocket, along with some nickels and dimes. In his head, he's composing a long piece on Margaret Fuller, and you know it's going to be good.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

 

Odds and ends: Nabokov, Victoria's Secret, Bussel

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had been trawling through the short fiction in The Portable Nabokov. (This excellent paperback collection was originally published as Nabokov's Congeries--hats off to the marketing department at Penguin for wising up.) Anyway, I also dipped into the author's celebrated "Reply to My Critics." Defending his exact and sometimes unreadable translation of Eugene Onegin, Nabokov tackled a number of minor players, just to limber up. His real target, though, was Edmund Wilson, an old friend who had foolishly challenged Nabokov's grasp of the Russian language. Poor guy. Nabokov hits him high, he hits him low. There's the personal note: "Upon being challenged to read Evgeniy Onegin aloud, [Wilson] started to perform with great gusto, garbling every second word, and turning Pushkin's iambic line into a kind of spastic anapest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm and soon had us both in stitches." And there's the scholarly assault, raining down upon Wilson's head like lethal ordnance. There couldn't have been much left afterwards: a smoking crater, some cuff links, a pair of glasses. In the land of invective, this is still a major monument.

Which doesn't mean that Nabokov's defense of his sublime literalism was airtight. I was struck by one paragraph in particular, where he seems to have gone completely off the rails. Here we go:
I cannot understand why Mr. Wilson is puzzled by "dit" (Five: VIII: 13) which I chose instead of "ditty" to parallel "kit" instead of "kitty" in the next line, and which will now, I hope, enter or re-enter the language. Possibly, the masculine rhyme I needed here may have led me a little astray from the servile path of literalism (Pushkin has simply pesnya--"song"). But it is not incomprehensible; after all, anybody who knows what, say, "titty" means ("in nail-making the part that ejects the half-finished nail") can readily understand what "tit" means ("the part that ejects the finished nail").
I hardly know where to start. "Dit" seems like a needlessly precious substitute for "song," and I've never heard it used once in my life. But it's the second half of the paragraph where VN sounds like he's blown a gasket. Was he being saucy? Winking at the Playboy crowd? (See his letter to Hef of January 14, 1967: "I want to thank you warmly for the many kindnesses--the good wishes, the beautiful cigarette box, the album in which I was pleased to find myself represented, and the 500 doll. bonus.") It's a strange thing to see a writer with such an obsessive control of tone lose his bearings completely, even for the space of a few sentences.

On a (tenuously) similar note, here's an article about Victoria's Secret that I read in an old Barron's. The author, Michael Santoli, produced a remarkably smirk-free piece. But there was at least one priceless paragraph, full of the jargon and corporate cadences that have made George Saunders the writer he is today. Feast your eyes on this:
Comments to analysts by the division's CEO, Sharen Turney, in last quarter's earnings conference call were dishearteningly obscure. Discussing Secret Embrace, a hit bra line, Turney said that Limited's marketing message "was confusing the customer about, OK, is Secret Embrace a technology, is it a sub-brand?" And later: "We have done a lot of hindsighting and what we have also found out is that really the customer is not as much about the technology, but the technology is a driver to the benefit of the bra."
I couldn't have said it better myself. Finally, let me address a Huffington Post piece published yesterday by Rachel Kramer Bussel. The author, who writes the "Lusty Lady" column for the Village Voice and whose work has appeared in more than 80 naughty-sounding anthologies, takes her fellow writers to task for their feeble promotional efforts. Now, a genius for self-promotion never hurts. It was Whitman who reviewed Leaves of Grass under a variety of assumed names, then reproduced the blurbs on the jacket. (He also reprinted Emerson's praise, which he quoted without permission from a personal letter, on the spine of the book.) But some authors are simply not cut out for flogging the merchandise. Full disclosure: when Amazonia came out, I assured the publisher that I was willing to do anything to help sell the book, up to and including wearing that giant chicken suit in public. But now that I've gotten a glimpse of the competition, I realize that I didn't have a prayer. Here's Bussel:
I was recently faced with a surplus of books I'd ordered from my publisher and a small Brooklyn apartment, so I found a way to boost sales, make individual contact with readers and clear out some space by giving away a copy of my book Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z 2 with the purchase of one of my newest ones (He's on Top or She's on Top). I found that not only did this added incentive spur book sales, but also made me realize that "sales" aren't just about numbers, but about people, real people, who are buying my book and will read and react to it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

 

December Boys, Nels Cline, Roth

Just a few odds and ends today. I posted my review of December Boys over at NewsQuake (which now resides at Propeller rather than Netscape.) Most of the attention generated by this film has to do with its nominal star, Daniel Radcliffe: how would he fare as a non-magical teenager, sneaking furtive cigarettes and poring over skin magazines? He does okay, I suppose, with a big Adam's apple and knobby elbows and the same look of wincing alienation we always got from Harry Potter when the other Hogwarts kids treated him like shit. Here's a salient paragraph:
Directing his first feature, Rod Hardy goes easy on the wistful reaction shots, and wisely leans on the weatherbeaten landscape, with its golden dunes and lunar crags overlooking the water. There's an air of timelessness, which can be confusing. When crusty Father Scully (Frank Gallacher) drives the boys to the shore, for example, his car looks like a Depression-era jalopy. So it's something of a shock to hear Norman Greenbaum's 1969 hit "Spirit in the Sky" blasting out of a tiny record player--and to recall that the same song was just used in the considerably less gossamer Knocked Up. In an age devoted to the dutiful gross-out, December Boys is perhaps too proper, too satisfied with its sepia-toned sweetness. For better or worse, though, it's the kind of movie you could bring home to meet your sister.
I also posted a piece about the recent Nels Cline CD, Draw Breath, a couple of weeks ago. I began this way:
Born and bred in Los Angeles, the 51-year-old Nels Cline is probably the best guitarist you've never heard of. In musical circles, he's been steadily building a reputation since the 1980s, when he began recording with Julius Hemphill, Vinny Golia, and Tim Berne. Like these bushwhacking artists, Cline has tended to dwell in the jazz hinterlands, where harmonic complexity meets pure noise. Yet he has also consorted with such diverse figures as Charlie Haden, Willie Nelson, and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. And all along, Cline has released a string of solo projects, of which the latest is Draw Breath.
These days, Cline is probably most visible as Wilco's lead guitarist. A case of chicken pox apparently laid him low toward the end of the summer, but he's now back on the circuit and playing up a storm, aided by this superbly geeky array of pedals and stompboxes:


Yes, of course, it was geeky of me to reproduce that photo. Moving right along: I see that Philip Roth's Exit Ghost has gotten a couple of stinging reviews. In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Carlin Romano writes:
As the umpteenth recycling of Roth's obsessions, Exit Ghost will doubtless draw Roth admirers to explore and celebrate it, connecting all the new dots to previous Zuckerman lore as if they were painting a portrait of literature itself. Less enamored readers may conclude that to the extent Roth possesses an imagination, it's an insufferable one.
This is benign stuff, however, in comparison with Christopher Hitchens's takedown in The Atlantic. Strange: both critics seem especially vexed by Zuckerman's relationship to Roth, viewing the character less as an epistemological hand puppet and more as a simple alias the author can don when he hits on yet another 23-year-old at a party. Here's the Hitch, pulling no punches:
As with Exit Ghost's immediate predecessor, Everyman, one gets an ever-stronger impression that Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give him something to masturbate about.
Having written my own review of Exit Ghost for Newsday, I'll keep my thoughts to myself until that piece appears on September 30.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

 

CJR Panel: The Case of the Vanishing Book Review

As we all know, there has been some sharp disagreement about the state of the old-fashioned book review: depending on who you talk to, it's either shaky, moribund, or in the advanced stages of rigor mortis. This has become the topic that launched a thousand panels (and I speak as an occasional participant.) But the discussion earlier this evening, which the Columbia Journalism Review sponsored at its Upper Broadway stomping grounds, was well worth attending--there was more ardor, more eloquence, and even some blood in the water.


The panel was moderated by CJR publisher Evan Cornog, an uncannily tall man who directed his first question at agent (and former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor) Steve Wasserman. What exactly was this crisis about, anyway? In a smart pinstripe suit, Wasserman prefaced his comments with a nod to the magazine, which had given him "the opportunity to natter on about this problem at great length" in its most recent issue. He presented a bouquet to books themselves, "simply the best information retrieval system" we have, and emphasized their cultural primacy: "Books tell us something about ourselves as a people. They tell us where we have been--and where we might be going."

In newspapers, however, these flourishing creatures are more and more confined to the "virtual ghetto" of the book section, or expunged entirely. Wasserman cautioned his audience against cheap nostalgia: "There was never a Golden Age of Book Reviewing.... It was always a sideshow, even at the newspapers that chose to support it." He proceeded to fire a few rounds at the usual suspects--corporate conglomeration, digitalization, knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, the loss of public confidence in traditional media. By now he had been speaking for quite a while. Hundreds of words had issued forth, perhaps thousands, which he enunciated with hardly a pause for breath. (Could he have somehow oxygenated himself before the panel?) But now Wasserman wrapped up with a final shot across the bow of our platform-happy culture. "I care very little about the means people will use to communicate with each other," he declared. "Content rules!"

Now Cornog turned to critic, novelist, and Elegant Variation blogger Mark Sarvas. Was the debate over how text was to be delivered a sterile one? Or would digital culture truly change the rules of the game? "Most people can predict what the blogger will say to that. I believe it will. I believe that train has already left the station," he replied. Sarvas, the only gentleman not wearing a coat and tie, realized that he was supposed to play the role of the rabble-rouser. Yet he endorsed almost everything Wasserman had written in his 10,000-word summa in the CJR.

On the other hand, he argued that newspapers were "dropping the ball when it comes to a synthesis between print and online." Sarvas was quick to distance himself from Web triumphalism. "I'm not a glassy-eyed proselytizer for the greatness of the Internet," he said, looking only a trifle glassy-eyed, as if he'd had one too many drops of Visine. "But I do see a generation that's completely comfortable getting its information from the Web."

Next up: Elizabeth Sifton, whose long and distinguished editorial career at Viking, Knopf, and FSG makes her a kind of gold standard for contemporary American publishing. Cornog asked her how nonfiction books fit into the ecosystem of the modern-day newspaper, and whether reviews have customarily driven the sales of such books. "Of course it's always helped to have good reviews from major publications," she allowed. "But what really drove sales was a hunger for some explanation about the anarchy of our public life."

Clearly the symbiosis between reviews and sales (assuming such a thing really exists) was of less interest to Sifton. What got her going was Wasserman's earlier riff about anti-intellectualism. "The problem of anti-intellectualism has been around for a long, long time," she noted. "Hostility to culture? Hostility to the life of the mind? This is an all-American tradition!" By now the audience was laughing. The comedy of cultural boobism had its built-in appeal, just as it did in Mencken's time. Yet Sifton had some bad news as well. Unlike Wasserman, she thought the book itself was heading straight for the dustbin of history. Books "were no longer central to print culture, and will never be again."

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Now the baton was passed to Carlin Romano. The Philadelphia Inquirer critic began with some kind words for Sifton, even threatening to make like a senator and cede her some of his minutes. But then the back-patting camaraderie went into a tailspin. "I had some problems with Steve's article," he said, zeroing in on the tension he saw between populism and elitism. "The problem isn't anti-intellectualism in American life. The problem is anti-Americanism in intellectual life." Wham! For Romano, Wasserman's article embodied the friction between big-city snobbishness and "the reading habits and enthusiasms of the rest of the country." Romano's own affinity for the vox pop was exactly why he cherished working at a newspaper, rather than in academia or a think tank. "I like working in a place that has to be everything to everyone.... You have to come down several notches, come down from high chairs, and talk to ordinary Americans in a language they can understand."

Plain American, as Marianne Moore once called it, which dogs and cats can read: who wouldn't mind seeing the book section written in such a style? Yet one man's scrupulous clarity is another's lunchbox literalism, and Wasserman was clearly itching to return fire. He had to wait while the moderator addressed a question to Peter Osnos, a longtime correspondent and editor at the Washington Post and most recently the founder of PublicAffairs Books. Like Romano (who once lived in his attic), he seemed to be batting for the populist team. Public radio, with its surprising outreach, was his model rather than the preachy pulpit of the book section. Indeed, if he were currently editing such a section, he "would not commission 800-word reviews. I would try to create a word-of-mouth community, arranging for interactive discussions. What are the books that people are reading, and why?"

Now it was Wasserman's turn. "When I hear the word elitism," he said, "I reach for my revolver." Romano: "That's quite a role model." Wasserman: "Well, I only reach for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays." Sifton: "That's what Dr. Goebbels did, too." We had reached an important threshold in any panel discussion: one participant had compared another to the Nazis. All in fun, you might say, but Wasserman kept up his attack, accusing Romano of reverse snobbery. What he was prescribing was "criticism as baby talk." And Osnos, too, was guilty of a category error. "Criticism is not a species of selling," Wasserman scolded him. "It's something entirely other."

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Back and forth it went, in a modified Wimbledon fashion: lob, smash, backhand. Finally the question shifted to whether the real distinction wasn't between good and bad writing, rather than mandarin and yahoo. Sifton cited a remark by the poet John Hollander, later codified as the Hollander Principle: "Most people are not very good at their jobs." To which was swiftly added Sifton's Law: "The audience for a first novel is 100 times the number of the friends of the author and publisher combined." Yet Sifton admitted that the Internet had screwed up all conventional wisdom about readership and potential reach. It was a brave new world out there--possibly a jungle, depending on your point of view and position on the food chain.

Now Osnos jumped back in: "My question is, what are we going to do about this situation?" With his gray hair and gold-rimmed glasses, he looked supremely respectable--at times, it appeared that Joseph Pulitzer himself was reaching out of his oil portrait to give Osnos a comradely squeeze on the shoulder. Yet his pragmatic talk brought out a hardboiled, Dennis-Farina-like note in his voice. "Who is the audience? Is it ten million? Twenty million? Fifty million?" He could have been talking about a plea bargain. Perhaps he was.

It was time for the Q-and-A session. Audience members lined up at the microphones. Sarvas, describing himself as "the young pup at this table," argued for a golden mean between Wassermanian gatekeeping and Romano-style populism. The climax: a 22-year-old Columbia student declared that nobody in his generation read any books, hence the very idea of reading a book review section was "an absurdity." In fact, he continued, he and his peers didn't even watch television, because every time they turned on the tube there was a story about Iraq. (What about Entourage?) Half the audience must have been wondering whether this guy was a plant: a cautionary figure in tennis shoes, a glimpse into the radiant future. Dude, if you’re reading this, text me right away and let us know you were kidding.

Monday, September 17, 2007

 

Lewycka

I forgot to mention that Newsday ran my review of Marina Lewycka's Strawberry Fields at the end of August. I began this way:
Marina Lewycka published her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, at the tender age of 59. This 2005 debut--an antic battle between English propriety and Slavic extroversion--went on to sell 750,000 copies worldwide. As a personal triumph, and a thumb in the eye of an increasingly market-driven publishing industry, this was good news indeed. But it left the author with one frightening prospect: sophomore slump. Would she be the latest sexagenarian to crumple under the heavy burden of overnight success?

On the basis of Strawberry Fields, the answer would be: mostly not. Readers of Lewycka's first book will find themselves on familiar terrain, complete with a pair of Ukrainian lovers. They are a long way from home, of course, earning pathetic wages on a Yorkshire strawberry farm. Yet the youthful Andriy Palenko and Irina Blazhkol might be said to represent the yin and yang (or is that the id and superego?) of the Ukrainian soul: the hard-bitten son of a coal miner, with a sentimental attachment to the Soviet era, and a professor's daughter, whose rosy picture of the West is derived from something called Let's Talk English!
I cannot tell a lie: the new book is not quite as good as its predecessor. With multiple nods to Chaucer, the author has opted for an ensemble approach, and the resulting narrative is a little too diffuse. And as I mention in the review itself, the fart jokes and malapropisms sometimes suggest a more genteel Borat (minus the ironic Jew-baiting). Still, Strawberry Fields has an appealing sweetness, and Lewycka confers upon her characters a gift surprisingly rare in contemporary fiction: dignity.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

 

Outside

I spent most of the summer cowering in my office and perspiring, but for one bright shining moment I did escape. With three robust men of the West, who get a lot more exercise than I do, I donned a 40-pound pack and climbed up to Hidden Lake, an opalescent beauty high in the Wallowa Mountains. The hike in was 8.2 miles. I was contemptuous of the so-called difficulty until the last mile or so, when the trail--consisting increasingly of dry creek beds full of melon-sized rocks--went straight uphill. I huffed, I puffed, I leaned against dozens of trailside fir trees, which deposited sap on the back of my new microfiber hiking shirt. Nature is no good. There's only one bird that I can identify: the Steller's Jay, with its festive black-and-blue crest and mania for mud-based construction. Shek, shek, shek is the distinctive call, which I didn't hear, since we didn't encounter any. On the second day, after we had made camp in a nice clearing above the lake, we went hiking. One of my companions took this video of me descending a steep scree. The rocks were friable little bastards, crumbling away under your feet, hence my fussy probing of the terrain. On the bright side, I didn't fall down.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

 

Ach, du lieber Augustin

According to an excerpt from Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, it was a family feud (at least in part) that put young Gustav Mahler on the path to musical greatness:
The family atmosphere was tense. Mahler recalled a time when he ran out of the house to escape an argument between his parents. On the street, he heard a barrel organ playing the tune, "Ach, du lieber Augustin." He told this story to Sigmund Freud, in 1910, during a psychoanalytic session that took the form of a four-hour walk. "From then on," Freud concluded, "the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was inextricably fixed in his mind."
Mine too. Now, the song in question is more than three centuries old. It originated during the Plague Years in Vienna, and recounts the vicissitudes of a drunk who has passed out on his way home and been mistakenly tossed on the corpse wagon. In a scene straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Augustin regains consciousness and insists that he's not dead yet. The shocked mortician bursts into song. Clearly Augustin is worse for the wear: "Rock ist weg, Stock ist weg / Augustin liegt im Dreck. / Ach, du lieber Augustin, / Alles ist hin!" Which is to say:
His coat is gone, cane is gone,
Swimming in filth.
O, my dear friend Augustin
All is kaput!
It gets funnier. Because the grubby lyrics (Dreck could just as easily be translated as "shit") went through the homogenizer, and eventually the same tune resurfaced as "The More We Get Together," which I sang back in nursery school. It's one of those melodies that early exposure burned into my brain, along with various commercials ("Wouldn't you really rather have a Buick?") and the tongue-in-cheek theme from Batman and most of the Beatles catalogue. This is the mulch of my musical consciousness, such as it is.

Which brings me back to square one. On January 24, 1969, the Beatles were recording at the newly completed Apple Studios at 3 Savile Row. The Fabs were not getting along, having nearly called it quits earlier the same month when the Let It Be film shoot got especially ugly. Now their spirits were a little lighter, and between serious bouts of rehearsal they raked through their own musical mulch, tossing off such oddities as "Hey Liley Liley Ho," "Balls To Your Partner," "I Fancy My Chances," "Diggin' My Potatoes"--and a quick snatch of "Ach, du lieber Augustin." The lyrics have changed again. "Balls to Mister Banglestein, Banglestein, Banglestein," sings McCartney, in a daft revision that I assumed was original. Wrong again. Apparently Anthony Burgess mentions it as well (I have no idea where). And the author of this MySpace blog seems not only familiar with the song but determined to reproduce the drunken scenario of the German original, thanks to "twenty-odd Shaeffers, PBRs, and cans of keg Natty Ice." It's a strange, concentric world. The more we get together, the happier we'll be. That's the theory, anyway.

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