Some notes on style drift

15 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

A consequence of this taking so long, aside from a certain loss of momentum around the holidays, is a perceptible shift in style that I’ve been thinking about recently.

The original literal wine list was supposed to be shorter, in general, and snappier; more along Thunder Mountain Chardonnay lines. In my head I’d always pictured an imaginary audience of my Midwestern countrymen (& relatives), who look for something on a wine list that reads like Frog’s Leap Merlot—varietally labelled, an eye-catching cute brand name (and by the way I’m throwing no shade at Frog’s Leap, it’s a pioneer of organics in Napa, I’m just saying)rather than, say, Vieux Château Certan Pomerol, which, what even is the grape? how do I pronounce this? fancy foreign things are suspicious they have the ring of the gilded and meretricious to them

(By the way, I say ‘Midwest’ not to indulge in regional stereotyping but because a) I’m from there, and I’ve see this play out, and b) in a market like New York, people have been cultivating east-facing Francophilia in their fine dining for decades and there’s a lot more aspirational ‘I know what Pomerol is’ going on.)

So initially some rules in my head that I’ve since thrown out were: don’t literalize international grape varieties (keep it chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc); Americanize all first names (Cathy & Peter “Cabernet Franc” for Catherine et Pierre Breton); be happy with cool-sounding nonsense (Jurassic Cream, which does sound awesome, mostly because dinosaurs).

Against that would be what I’ll call the Atlas of True Names tendency, baroque sonorous Tolkeinisms (Pearls of the White Mountain, Valley of the Moon) that reach their peak with chenin rendered as the Plant of the Place of the People of the Place. Which still delights me.

As it got longer, though, and especially after I started writing little notes to keep track of all of the snap decisions I was making & the sources I was using (notes that may interest most people more than the ostensible project itself), things…changed. One thing I noticed myself doing was editorializing a little bit more. The last name Lafarge, literally “The Forge”, is a metonymic surname for blacksmith, so I rendered it Man from the Forge. For some reason I decided in the moment to render the Meursault vineyard Les Perrières, literally “The Quarry”, into the more explanatory So Much Limestone It’s Like A Quarry. Rather than call pinot noir “Black Pinecone”, it gets the longer notation, Cone-Shaped Clusters, Black.

I’m pretty sure at the outset of all of this I said specifically this wasn’t supposed to be an educational gloss. And it probably still isn’t! But I think I just got bored with the idea of stringing a bunch of nonsense words together. When it works, it works, but when it doesn’t… Barley Field Great Renown “Pinecone” Moon Valley is nobody’s idea of a good time.

If you had asked me when I started doing this whether I was planning to basically reenact the entire discourse in translation around the benefits and limits of literalism I would not have said yes, but here we are, learning the lesson the hard way.


Strawberry jam

9 April 2016

Click a link on Twitter to a 1986 Paris Review interview of Robertson Davies. Interviewer, the editor & publisher Elisabeth Sifton, says by way of warming up to a question:

“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said.”

You jot down the last bit, which has a nice ring to it, you think to yourself, this way—

Mary McCarthy: “You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina

—and then you wonder what she actually wrote, because you have a brain disease contracted via freelance fact-checking work, and all of that yields the following quick dive into a rabbit-hole:

First comes from Mary McCarthy’s “Fact in Fiction”, published as an essay in the Partisan Review as a “paraphrase of a talk or talks given to Polish, Yugoslav, and British audiences” in early 1960. (Later collected in On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961). It goes like this:

“And the novel, like newspaper boiler plate, contains not only a miscellany of odd facts but household hints and how-to-do-it instructions (you can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina, and how to reap a field and hunt ducks).”

This is the punchline, kind of, to a loping series of examples of the way novels fold in fact, turning from papermaking in Balzac and tuberculosis in The Magic Mountain to the hotel business in Dreiser, whaling in Moby-Dick, etc.

“In newspaper jargon, you might call all this the boiler plate of the novel —durable informative matter set up in stereotype and sold to country newspapers as filler to eke out a scarcity of local news, i.e. of ‘plot.'”

People in the early ’60s had a tendency to use it in the ledes of book reviews (here’s Joan Didion who I think? is reviewing John O’Hara’s debut novel in 1960 for the National Review):

“Mary McCarthy observed not long ago that it is possible to learn from Anna Karenina a recipe for strawberry jam. It is possible to learn from Appointment in Samarra not only the details of a method of suicide but the name of a good hatter (Julian English wore none but Herbert Johnson hats); it is possible to learn from Miss McCarthy’s own stories any number of interesting and useful things, such as how to get free lemonade in an Automat or why it is unwise to go about on trains with safety pins in one’s underwear.”


McCarthy publishes The Group, the novel that would make her career and undo her, three years later, in 1963, and as you’d imagine a few reviewers trot it out unkindly (also, note the prim editorializing: “love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term” oh wicked burn Thomas Rogers of Commentary

In “Fact and Fiction,” one of her recent essays, Miss McCarthy points out that there are large chunks of informative matter in most great novels; for example, one can learn how to reap a field and make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps one can. But in Anna Karenina, when Levin reaps wheat with his peasants, what is uppermost is the moral meaning of the action. […] In contrast, Miss McCarthy’s technical and informative matter exists more or less for its own sake. She gathers her facts from domestic life, but the facts often become denatured in the process, so that when she describes such matters as nursing or love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term—she is very clear and specific, but discouraging.

Misattribution takes a while but is, in the end, inevitable. Julian Mitchell, the English playwright, turns it into a floating piece of folk wisdom in a 1976 issue of Radio Times: 

“It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”

This is the one that tends to pop up on food blogs.

That eventually mutates into this cameo at the end of a 2013 essay about memoirs in the LA Review of Books: 

“The playwright and critic Julian Marks once quipped, “It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”

(As far as I can tell, Julian Marks doesn’t exist—at least not in the conventional sense of writing plays & literary criticism, or of making quips. But, and I mean this at least twenty-percent seriously, maybe misremembering the name of someone else quoting from memory is appropriate in an essay about memoir?)

Forty-six years after her review of John O’Hara, Joan Didion’s recalls to The Guardian: 

“I remember reading a Mary McCarthy essay on how novels were bourgeois learning experiences,” she says, “and how you could learn to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Well, I’m not sure you can, but somehow I found that a very arresting thing to say. It kind of stuck in my head when I was learning to write.”

As it turns out, finally, you can’t learn how to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina, because the scene itself is about making raspberry jam:

“…jam was being made there according to a method new to Agafya Mikhailovna, without the addition of water. Kitty was introducing this new method which they used at home. Agafya Mikhailovna, who had been in charge of it before, and who considered that nothing done in the Levins’ hose could be bad, had put water in the strawberry and wild strawberry jam all the same, insisting that it could not be done otherwise; she had been caught at it, and now raspberry jam was being made in front of everyone, and Agafya Mikhailovna had to be brought to believe that jam without water could turn out well.

“Agafya Mikhailovna, with a flushed and upset face, her hair tousled, her thin arms bared to the elbows, rocked the basin in circular movements over the rbazier and stared gloomily at the raspberry jam, wishing with all her heart that it would thicken before it was cooked through.”

This goes on for a little while.

Does it work? Elizabeth Bishop says so. From a letter, dated June 15th, 1961 from Rio de Janeiro, she writes to Robert Lowell:

“I think Mary’s novels are awfully good, too, don’t you? It’s funny. Before I saw the first one I was telling Lota how wonderful Anna Karenina is—how it even tells you how to make raspberry jam, and I went and made raspberry jam from our wild raspberries just that way—excellent—and then Mary makes the same remark.”


One last thing. The Paris Review interviewer finishes the question she started:

“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly?”

Davies responds:

“Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t.”

Not working

17 May 2010

But the interesting thing is how easy it is not to work. Yes, writing is a necessity and often a pleasure, but at the same time, it can be a great burden and a terrible struggle. In my own case, I certainly don’t walk into my room and sit down at my desk feeling like a boxer ready to go ten rounds with Joe Louis. I tiptoe in. I procrastinate. I delay. I take care of little business that I don’t have to do at that moment. I come in sideways, kind of sliding through the door. I don’t burst into the saloon with my six-shooter ready. If I did, I’d probably shoot myself in the foot.

— Paul Auster, interviewed by Jonathan Lethem in The Believer (February ’05).


It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own — all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four — this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning — I just try to write.

— John McPhee, interviewed in this spring’s Paris Review.

— Peter Handke, The Weight of the World, p. 16

Joaquín Font, El Reposo Mental Health Clinic, Camino Desierto de los Leones, on the outskirts of Mexico City DF, January 1977:

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we’ll soon see. Let’s take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you’re calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That’s how I see it. I hope I’m not offending anyone. Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain, (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my opinion), or, for that matter, Les Misérables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. Furthermore, desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or later they’re exhausted! Why? It’s obvious! One can’t live one’s whole life in desperation. In the end the body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insufferable, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably, he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured! And then, as part of the regenerative process, he returns slowly — as if wrapped in swaddling clothes, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives — he returns, as I was saying, to a literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what’s called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from adolescence to adulthood. And by that I don’t mean that once someone has become a cool-headed reader he know longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if their good or decent or recommended by a friend. But ultimately they bore him! Ultimately, that literature of resentment, full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs, doesn’t pierce the heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does. I told them so. I warned them. I showed them the technically perfect page. I alerted them to the dangers. Don’t exhaust the vein! Humility! Seek oneself, lose oneself in strange lands! But with a guiding line, with breadcrumbs or white pebbles! And yet I was mad, driven mad by them, by my daughters, by Laura Damián, and so they didn’t listen.

The Savage Detectives, Bolaño (p. 184-85).

In vain I searched for a way to piece this particular monologue out, but I’m not smart enough to thread my way through the layered ironies here & not confident that excerpting would do anything but misrepresent it. I’m left in a welter of confusion — half wanting to nod my head in simple assent, half wondering how straight to take something that, for starters, calls the project of Bolaño’s misspelled alter ego a terrible mistake & is a paeon to the virtues of cool-headed detachment narrated from a mental asylum — and that becomes, as it goes along, more & more agitated itself, less & less cool-headed. Eating its own tail.

It reminded me, in a way — probably because I read it yesterday — of Andrew Seal’s years-old piece about regret & avid readership, and of the reactions to Salinger’s death, and the presumed audience for Catcher in the Rye. Can we assume, for instance, that Belaño is or isn’t trying to write a literature of desperation? (Garcia Madero, our narrator for the first howevermany pages of the novel, being a prime example of a desperate reader, although the novel is full of them, & full of people too who reach a point in their lives where they’re no longer really reading or writing poetry anymore.) Can we point to a kind of fantasy of the disinterested spectator, uncoupled from deprivation or investment, the sort of person only moved by a ‘technically perfect page?

SH: Why do you think people are interested in art?

DH: I think they want to touch the source of something, you know? It doesn’t make people better. It doesn’t make them happier. It doesn’t make them smarter, and you can’t teach people to do it or like it. So who knows?

Believer interview with Dave Hickey

It comes down to, I think, whether literature is redemptive — does it cure us? (“The desperate reader . . . ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably, he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured!”) And if it doesn’t make us better or happier, what does? — and does that destroy our capacity for literature? — or for an identification which Joaquín Font calls an ‘absurd or regrettable complicity,’ which is to say, a visceral, personalized response instead of a considered one.

A multivocal novel, I called SD a couple days ago, sure: voices, choruses of them, unharmonized. And we could say that the author himself is effaced, the fiction speaks on its own, except of course that Bolaño is well-known to have a stake in this, a definite extratextual point of view, a history that can be mapped onto the novel.

Jeeze, folks, I don’t know. I’ve waded into this now, it’s too late to stop, but I’m over my head. All I can do is place things on the table next to each other & see if you can make more sense of it than me. Fill my mouth with the words of others. As, for instance, Gabriel Josipovici on the Psalms, via the Space:

‘It is as if simply opening your mouth, giving utterance to your voice, releases something in you; as if finding words to express your total despair and the sense you feel of being shut up, unable to come forth, of having been rejected by the whole world, God included, makes the water return to the desert, makes life return to the one who was dead. The fact that the Psalm in Jonah is embedded in a narrative allows us to verify the truth of this, for no sooner has Jonah finished speaking than ‘the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.’ [10] Of course it is important that Jonah and the ‘I’ of the other psalms on this topic cry out to God; but in a sense they only do so because God is the one who will always be prepared to listen. Simply giving voice, I would suggest, finding words for your anguish, is what in the first instance, makes it possible to overcome that anguish.’

—  Gabriel Josipovici, “Singing a New Song.”


9 March 2010

Radiografía de pájaro, Graciela Iturbide (Oaxaca, 1999). Via Rare Autumn.

Finishing a novel, I wrote recently in the comments at zunguzungu, is a kind of amnesia. While you’re reading a novel as broad & multivocal as The Savage Detectives, you live inside of it for a while, a limitless & unexplored territory that seems to persist in an eternal present, you inhabit its digressions and its vagrancies even when you’re not reading it. Integral maybe to the experience of reading a novel, or novels of this type, is the inability to finish it in one sitting, so that you keep on reading it, keep on being in the middle of it, even while you put it down, when you sleep, when you wake up in the morning. Your sense of the novel’s scope is tied to the subjective feeling of working through it over a period of time.

And the things you notice while you’re in the middle of a novel like this are different, off-centered, tied to that feeling of living inside of it. When you write about it, not having finished, it’s from the inside out.

I’ve always read too fast — rushed through books, gulped them down half-chewed. I finished Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, for example, in two marathon sessions at the bar at Trident Booksellers last August a week before I left the States. When I finished I ordered fried chicken & waffles — one last Stateside meal, to celebrate . . . — & the server gave me a bottle of Sam Adams on the house. I’ve been noticing this feeling — this writing about novels from the inside out — more recently, since I started reading in Spanish, having to pick my way through carefully. Learning, because it’s so much harder, how to pay attention.

En fin: I borrowed The Savage Detectives in Barcelona, & bought Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in a bookstore next to the Museu d’Art Contemporani to preoccupy me in English, and over the last week & a half I’ve been living inside these two multivocal novels one after the other. Now I’m finished, & there it is — amnesia, looking back from the outside, suddenly out among the welter of critical response, feeling redundant, feeling the imperative to sum up. Harder still — both of them end in a kind of silence, in insufficiencies of language, ideograms, a literal kind of being left speechless.

All I wanted to do instead — and it’s taken me all of four paragraphs to get around & back to it — is try a kind of archeology, go back through my notes & write from the inside of the novel again, although as you can see it’s doomed from the start.

“One night he called me and recited a poem by Richard Belfer. One night I called him, from Los Angeles, and told him I was sleeping with the theater director Francisco Segura, aka La Vieja Segura, who was at least twenty years older than me. How exciting, said Ernesto. La Vieja must be an intelligent man. He’s talented, not intelligent, I said. What’s the difference? he said. I sat there thinking how to answer and he waited for me to speak and for a few seconds neither of us said anything.”

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño (p. 262).

This stab in passing at a distinction between intelligence & talent — touched on & put to the side, we’re already moving past it — is exactly the thing I mean, something I jotted down in the moment. It’s, perhaps, a useful one, and certainly a wonderful way of damning with faint praise. Although maybe it’s just another formulation of the artist/critic or unconscious/conscious divide, the difference between being able to create something arresting & being able to explain it.

Also, maybe (we’re already pulling back), there’s  something about the voice Bolaño is using, a kind of flat, condensed retrospect. Everything is being told to us from a remove — from removes, here Calle Colima in Mexico City, April 1979 — emotional extremes placed next to each other & recollected at a distance, multiple absences at the center that we circle around, as if the novel, like Catch-22, were a kind of spiral. Very little poetry actually reprinted between the pages, although scads of poets, (giant recited lists of them, like Homer’s catalogue of ships — I can no longer read Octavio Paz’s name after a book blurb without smiling),  & people reading poems to each other, & people writing poems we never see. (The place of the poems we do see, as a kind of revelation? Too much heavy lifting for this piece. Maybe next time.)

The Graciela Iturbide photograph, above, I found after trying to remember it (inaccurately, in some ways, inevitably) in this piece from about a month ago. More bits & pieces from the novel to come, although I have to mail the book itself to Barcelona tomorrow, so soon all I’ll have will be the traces left over in my notebook.

Dreaming cities

23 February 2010

Espalanade de les Invalides, Paris, 1900. (Via the Brooklyn Museum’s Goodyear Archival Collection).

— ‘How can millions of people, their homes & streets, be unreal?’
— ‘Very easily. A big city must be like a dream.’

Jean Rhys, Wide Saragosso Sea

Paging through my commonplace book, finding fragments, loose spools of twine, nails, ticket stubs of prose. One of these is a paragraph from Jerome Charyn’s The Green Lantern: A Romance of Stalinist Russia, although what I really want to be excerpting here is something from Paradise Man, which I read before I started copying things out:

“He knew it would come like a fairy tale. No knocks on the door in the middle of the night, though he could hear the shpions hidden between the two thicknesses of walls. Were they discussing The Green Lantern, or only mocking a doomed colonel of the NKVD? He was too much of a hero to drag out of a restaurant or a café like the Oktobr. His superior at the seventh department called, asked him to report to the Lubyanka in his uniform.”

What I always loved about Charyn, or what I remember loving about his work, what beguiled me, is his evocation of a city as an interconnected spectacle, an organism, a stage whose players are long known to each other. Everyone has a history & a part, & it’s the stage that matters. The city isn’t a backdrop for atomized postmoderns to wander through, it’s a coherent whole, mutually constituted, incarnated through the simultaneous opening in the morning of a hundred thousand newspapers. (Or — if that’s too bourgeois to describe Charyn, who memorialized the scraping, two-bit city, the neighborhood guys — the kind of place made of barshop chatter, cop bars, second-string beat reporters.)

Narratives of community, urban narrative distinct from the sort of urban narrative writers make when they come to Brooklyn in their 20s because you can lose yourself & be anonymous. Everyone knows everyone, knew them before the story began; there are multitudes waiting in the wings (Charyn’s prose is characterized by nicknames that verge on mythic epithets, by a murmuring, anonymous plural chorus of gossip & the word on the street). I said I wanted to have Paradise Man on hand because of course Charyn did this best & longest with New York, but he manages the same trick with the theatre scene in Stalinist Moscow (Green Lantern).

Am I explaining well? I’m not sure. I got a feeling like this last November in Paris, walking around the cemetery of Père Lachaise — I don’t mean putting my lips on Oscar Wilde’s tomb to join the hundreds of fresh prints of lipstick (just like they say — covered top to bottom in kisses, really truly, mottled pink-purple-red, even though it’d rained the night before), or watching people crowd around Jim Morrison’s little grave & take endless pictures of the nothing that was there and the nothing that wasn’t. I mean when you wander the endless city blocks of this shadow city, this necropolis, the tombs lined up in various states of disrepair along named avenues & alleyways, some of the doors kicked in, & read the anonymous luminaries, the bishops & administrators & uncanonized authors & rich families, the people who a hundred years ago were important, however briefly, to the workings of that city when Haussman was demolishing medieval buildings  & widening boulevards to make it harder for workers to put up barricades made of paving-stones, easier to move troops (1), & the money was pouring in & those beautiful monuments were being erected. You get this sense of a vast multitude of people devoting themselves to an idea, to the City-as-dream, where your role is affirmed & acknowledged by institutions.

I’m thinking, then, of narratives of collective urbanity, as opposed to suburban narratives of isolated individuals or warring couples, or maybe even of postmodern isolationist urbanity, where newspapers are never opened simultaneously & people live in digital pods connected by invisible & farflung glowing threads. Charyn can’t be the only one, although when I first read him (I was maybe 18?) it tasted very different to me. The Wire, sure.

Maybe, too, the Mexico City of longhaired poets & cafés in Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which I stole (in English) from a friend of mine in Barcelona. She has made me promise to mail it back to her within the week, & I’m only 150 pages or so into it, so I’m not making an argument just yet. I want to say something — it’s on the tip of my tongue — about the death of newspapers & the death of the City being the same thing, that maybe the feeling like I get reading Charyn in New York or mausoleums in Paris doesn’t correspond to anything that still exists, but I can’t wade into this without shorting a mass of generalizations, all of them loaded.


31 January 2010

So I’m still thinking about Dave Hickey’s response to the question, “Do you think humor’s a very important element of art?”:

DH: It would be if anybody could take a joke! Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree.

On my new humorlessness, or:
How reading too much Borges doesn’t make you
into Borges, it makes you into Pierre Menard.

Somewhere along the line — I’m no longer sure when or how — I think I came to lose my sense of humor — or rather, my ability to write funny. This is what I used to do, how I used to define myself as a writer (I’m talking like, 13 years old). I wrote jokes, I made people laugh, this gave me a sense of purpose. I felt like I had an audience. I always wrote for someone else. I’ve always defined myself, like Didion or DeLillo, by how I could work through a sentence. And somewhere along the line, I stopped being  funny. Maybe this had to do with me feeling like I was ‘growing up’ — I think there’s probably a linear correlation you could draw between the humor sieving out of my work & me self-defining as an artist with the A capitalized. I don’t know. These days, when I write — let’s say, in a blog comment — I suddenly feel like I’m overdressed, wearing a too-tight rounded collar, earnest & boring, talking somebody’s ear off at a friend of a friends’ cocktail party, sweaty-palmed & too eager to make an impression. Picture those Spanish scholastics assembling elaborate systems of inquiry to determine the composition of the Throne of God or the ranks of the angels. All of the actual professors I know are funnier & more self-effacing than me, so the problem can’t be academic knowledge as such — it’s not as though, properly, you come to read Serious fiction and Borges causes you to Put Away Childish Things.

Probably part of this is that when I write I overdetermine my prose (“…a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish….”) — I’m not good at committing myself to mistakes, or wandering lines of inquiry. I don’t tend to go on & on; I underwrite instead. Most of rewriting for me is prying open my placid sentences & trying to inject some life into them, & most of what I write on my blog is first-draft stuff anyway, & so I sound more serious & self-important than I mean to.

On being funny, or:
How to satirize a world that
bombs the moon for water.

Me aside, though, the rest of this is all tied up with the question of satire in a postmodern world, or the degree of engagement, or the extent to which you allow yourself to be earnest about something. I’m kind of thinking about typing this quotation out from an interview with Rebecca Solnit & taping it above my desk at home:

The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics?

What bedevils me, I’m tying to say, is the question of how one goes about making this stuff, where stuff is some value of work — fiction, performance, gallery art whatever — that engages with the world in a meaningful way & doesn’t dodge out. To set out to do something like that is maybe the wrong way to go about it (that is, you don’t sit down to write an Important Novel) — but somewhere along the line, maybe while you’re revising, you have to acknowledge a certain amount of ambition or earnestness, and this acknowledgment is inherently ridiculous. It is kind of silly, in either a despairing existential way — all’s dust — or a hardheaded, pragmatic way — how many people read literary fiction? — or in a purely formal way — here you are, sitting in a room & inventing people who talk to each other & worrying about whether they’re speaking correctly, and it all reminds me a little of that Vonnegut line about reviewers expressing rage & loathing for a novel being preposterous, “like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

The worrying thing for me is how to make it, which is sometimes superseded or confused by the usual preoccupation of, say, a literary review, which is usually more along the lines of, how do we judge this? Having critical training is nice, I guess, if you’re going to make something, but it’s not necessarily helpful while you’re working on draft no. 1.

How do you make this stuff? How funny can you be in these Times? — and I think by that I don’t mean, in these Serious, Serious times where we are presented by Serious issues, but rather in a climate where the thing to do is to be distantly ironic about everything —  because who knows what will happen next?

I mean, I did my high school senior thesis on satire, which I think is what started me getting earnest in the first place, because while satire may be funny, it’s funny in an earnest kind of way, it takes itself seriously enough to aim itself like a weapon, and how, for instance, do you satirize a world that bombs the moon for water? (this is scrawled in my notebook).

This is the problem, because even though Seriousness is probably a form of infectious stupidity, sure, ok (& look at the infectiousness of the Seriousness that’s driven us braying into all sorts of hysterics & barbarities, where not demonstrating the appropriate level of Seriousness disqualifies you from the debate) — but Funny can be an easy way out too.

Now that I think about it, that’s more or less the preoccupation of this essay by Chris Bachelder, which once you get past the table counting the number of exclamation points in Upton Sinclair’s OIL! is actually about the difficulty of satire & the ridiculousness of being earnest & the way you go about trying to negotiate a middle path, the difference being that it’s by someone who kept trying to be a comic writer, whereas I’m rearranging myself from the other end.

I’ll let Bachelder define the crux for me:

I guess one of the things I’m arguing here is that in wanting to engage the world but in reacting against the sincere, naïve, programmatic Novel of Exclamation Points, today’s satirists in fact often end up writing Novels of Wry Gags that are just as superficial, tendentious, and programmatic as a Sinclair novel. We’re no doubt funnier than the muckrakers. We’re more laid-back and resigned to global capitalism. For exclamation points substitute winks. We’re less politically astute and more comically and culturally astute. Despite a 180-degree tonal shift (and with notable exceptions), we really haven’t moved the political novel forward. The beginning of The Jungle is really good (remember? It’s the wedding party—a truly jubilant scene despite the fact (or perhaps because) the participants cannot afford it). The end of The Jungle (the socialist pamphlet part) is almost unreadably bad. It can certainly make you want to flee. But the danger is fleeing from one dead end to another dead end. Doctorow again, speaking of the politically sentimental writers of his childhood: “When it’s all toted up, it may turn out that we’ve written as badly in our time as they did in theirs.”

So. The problem is how to be ambivalent while holding convictions, or how to be earnest without being humorless, or how to be funny without being trite. And I’m writing this, I suppose, out of the feeling that — probably out of a Napoleon complex of short-statured blog readership — I’ve written here in an imperious, over-detached tone at odds with my actual cultural standing, & not done a good job of being inclusive, humorous & self-aware while I grandstand. I don’t think I got around to explaining this, but yes, I know keeping a blog that purports to really like analog things is kind of ridiculous, given, you know, that it’s a blog.

Tomorrow I’ll be back to writing about Basque, which I don’t speak, & local politics, which are hard to understand, & I hope you’re as interested as I am to try to make sense of it all, even though I acknowledge I’m not the best person to be doing the sense-making.

Constraint, ii

26 January 2010

For those of you who were interested the last time I wrote about Javier Marías’ reading at New Haven & the constraint (at least that’s what I called it) that he employs, here’s another account of the same event by Andrew Seal at Blogophia Literaria:

Finally, he [Marías] offered an interesting account of how he writes. After a page is finished—I don’t believe he said “perfected,” but he could have, not because he was less than humble, but because that would be an appropriate verb for his writing—he will not add new material or subtract anything from it to restructure the shape of the narrative. He says he will make continuity corrections (switching a Thursday to a Tuesday), but he doesn’t change what he has written if doing so might make things more convenient for the novel at a later stage; if Marías didn’t think of it the first time, he has to write his way around it at the point in the narrative when it becomes necessary to do so. If it might help, for instance, that a character knew something 20 pages earlier than when Marías thought about it, all the worse for the character—and for Marías—he described this method as “suicidal!” He sticks to this principle, he says, because he wants to parallel the conditions of knowledge in real life. Not knowing something when you’re twenty has actual consequences, no matter how much you might wish you had known that thing now that you’re thirty.

I’d wished before I could have been there to ask Marías in more detail, but a stereoscopic report of the answers he gave is the next best thing. It’s fascinating to see two people give such different accounts of the same thing — I know I’m reinventing the Rashomon wheel here, but still.

Seal doesn’t mention the typewriter, which honestly was the first thing that caught my eye in Crowley’s version, but his account is a nice answer to my nagging skepticism over what had before sounded to me a little like a Kerouackian scroll, writing without revision. I wrote before that the essential unit of Marías prose was the long, baroque, redoubled sentence; later I emended that to the paragraph; but now, knowing that he ‘perfects’ or ‘finishes’ a page & then moves on, it’s easier to read the long paragraphs as ‘pages,’ & the effect of the way he writes that I keep trying to describe is the same, a kind of working-out or working-through of a thing, turning it around & around in hand & reconsidering it & then setting it down & moving on to the next. And I still think the typewriter is an especially good vehicle for this kind of writing, the way the sentences are set down immovably & you have to work out what you want to say before diving into them.

All of this, at any rate, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago that turned to the idea of writing in darkness. A couple of lines from a letter Diderot wrote always come to my mind —

“This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . .. not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

— Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

— but also got me thinking about Nicholson Baker, who told the Wall Street Journal that he writes essentially the same way that his protagonist writes in A Box of Matches, at 4 a.m. on an old laptop with the background black & the letters dark blue, the screen lowered so that it’s grazing the tops of his knuckles, staring into a fire; darkness writing. For The Anthologist, though, he’d recorded a few hundred hours of tape narrating as the titular poetry anthologist & then transcribed it, to try to get the voice right.

Method of composition leaves its mark on writing — whether we write it out in longhand, whether we assemble on notecards, whether we dictate or record our own voices or type out & refuse to change pages once they’ve been perfected. I remember reading once, years ago, Walker Evans’ introduction to an edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that talked about James Agee’s ‘night writing’ . . . ah. Here it is, from google books:

Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the result shows this; some sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter (p. 34) is particularly night-permeated.

— “Forward,” p. vi

You could make method a kind of performance art, define in advance a method of composition for each novel, suited or at odds with the project, to capturing the voice or produce something different from what you’d written before. Dictate one novel via telephone, assemble the other out of napkins, type the third on Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, bought at auction, write the fourth with nothing but a quill pen, the fifth into your second language & then retranslated. I don’t know if constraints of writing method are the same as constraints as in Georges Perec — but aren’t the rituals of our national writers, reported on wide-eyed by journalists in the Wall Street Journal, already performative?

(Speaking of that article, headlined — really? — “How to Write a Great Novel,” here’s Margaret Atwood treating the question with the appropriate level of seriousness:

“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot,” Margaret Atwood says when asked where her ideas come from. When questioned about whether she’s ever used that approach, she adds, “No. I don’t have to.”)