Thursday, October 19, 2017

Cheap effects

At the LRB, Adam Mars-Jones on Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel and literary career more generally:
Right up to the structurally equivalent point in The Stranger’s Child (2011) – that is, over the course of four substantial novels and a good chunk of the fifth – fragmentation played little part in Hollinghurst’s fictional world. Discontinuity was what his style existed to banish or perhaps redeem. His achievement was to find a way of writing that could accommodate promiscuous sex, the experience of watching Scarface and the use of Ecstasy on the same plane as evocations of Whistler’s brushwork, Henry James’s prose or Frank Lloyd Wright’s way with a building. This was a sensibility that seemed not to recognise a separation between high and low, past and present, glory and disgrace.
. Thursday is really my "weekend" - I need to make up ground and actually write my overdue essay on the footnote, but it is a very tempting idea just to spend the day reading Hollinghurst's latest and the new Philip Pullman installment....

Friday, July 28, 2017

Gibbonian meditations

On reading Gibbon in the time of Trump.

"Kept from myself"

Walter Benjamin to Gretel Adorno, April/May 1940, on the text that would later be published as "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "As for your question about my notes, which were probably made following the conversation under the horse-chestnut trees, I wrote these at a time when such things occupied me. The war and the constellation that brought it about led me to take down a few thoughts which I can say that I have kept with me, indeed kept from myself, for nigh on twenty years. This is also why I have barely afforded even you more than fleeting glances at them. The conversation under the horse-chestnut trees was a breach in those twenty years. Even today, I am handing them to you more as a bouquet of whispering grasses, gathered on reflective walks, than a collection of theses. The text you are to receive is, in more ways than one, a reduction."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This situation

Walter Benjamin, from "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century": "Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it--as Hegel already noticed--by cunning. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled."

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Ruthless storytelling

If you know me, you know that it is relatively rare for me to feel of a new work of criticism that I MUST READ IT RIGHT NOW - I am more likely to say that about the new Lee Child novel. But it does occasionally happen, and has happened happily just now in the form of voracious consumption of Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. I can't say that I share Joe's politics, but I love his account of criticism and its tug-of-war with scholarship over the twentieth century: this is a fascinating, highly readable and often very funny book, essential I think for anyone working in Anglophone literary studies. I'm definitely thinking of adding it at the end of my MA seminar syllabus, if I ever teach that course again, not least for the ruthlessness and delicacy with which he "close reads" the style of other critics. And look at this comment, in a close reading of some sentences by George Levine in which North detects "the more disturbing tones of the underlying sensibility . . . a sensibility to which equality itself has something of the taste of a necessary evil. It is this underlying sensibility that the rhetorics of critical thinking and diversity, properly executed, are usually able to manage and conceal. I note that critiques offered at the level of sensibility are sometimes read as ad hominem attacks, and I certainly do not offer mine in that sense" -- hahaha, must borrow a version of that gesture to use myself, as I am a strong believer in the value of sensibility as an indicator of motives and values, and have often been shot down in meetings on exactly the ad hominem charge!

Things I would ask Joe about if I were a respondent to the book on a panel (but am too lazy to write out properly): (a) What about Barthes? He supports the story, in some sense (think of his criticism veering much more strongly to Michelet and to photographs and drawings rather than to literary work more traditionally conceived), but it seems hard to explain how Sedgwick and Miller stand out so much without at least a nod to the joyful playful contributions of RB; (b) Principled neglect of institutional histories, expansion of higher education and the probable contraction of some of its more luxurious US franchises? (c) What about Maggie Nelson and The Argonauts? Surprising lack of mention of the extent to which arts must supplement both criticism and scholarship in the kind of political project he imagines (this may have something to do with the oddity of T. S. Eliot). Again, instititional contexts, job market, jobs moving to teaching writing and often creative writing - surely there is some hope in that realm along the lines he discerns here.

The artist moved to despair


Fuseli, "The artist moved to despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins" (1778-79) (via)

From Catherine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City: “The nature of the artist’s despair remains open. Is it provoked by the impossibility of emulating the greatness of the past, still overwhelming even in ruins? By the knowledge that even the greatest works of art will decay? Or is it rather caused by the unassuageable longing for a closer contact with the long vanished dead? These ruins, though of vast stature, are yet human in form; the artist stretches out his hand to touch flesh that turns out to be cold, unresponsive stone” (15).

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"The night is for the dead"

Hilary Mantel on why she became a historical novelist (this is A Place of Greater Safety, her novel of Robespierre, which I remember reading at the recommendation of my brilliant teacher Simon Schama circa 1993):
I wasn’t after quick results. I was prepared to look at all the material I could find, even though I knew it would take years, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the gaps, the erasures, the silences where there should have been evidence.

These erasures and silences made me into a novelist, but at first I found them simply disconcerting. I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.

Because his thoughts can only be conjectured. Even if he was a diarist or a confessional writer, he might be self-censoring. But the wallpaper – someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and colour, and if I kept on pursuing it I might find out. Then – when my character comes home weary from a 24-hour debate in the National Convention and hurls his dispatch case into a corner, I would be able to look around at the room, through his eyes. When my book eventually came out, after many years, one snide critic – who was putting me in my place, as a woman writing about men doing serious politics – complained there was a lot in it about wallpaper. Believe me, I thought, hand on heart, that there was not nearly enough.

Closing tabs

Just a few, in preparation for travel to Cayman and I HOPE some writing (it has not been a productive month for me, due mostly I think to factors beyond my control but also to the fact that it is very difficult to sustain full-on sabbaticalage over the entire 18 months that you get if you have a full school year and both summers). More realistic will be to make a detailed but modest list of ALL THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE BY THE END OF AUGUST (including updating fall semester syllabi and making the new syllabus for my spring-semester course in Paris so that we can get it cleared with the Committee on Instruction and have course book information in advance of the relevant dates) and then proceed to tick them off as I can. But I will be happier if I write some Gibbon pages as well....

Madame Bovary's wedding cake. (I am surprised by the negative orientation towards this sort of patisserie, I am a wholehearted fan!)

On a related note, I am still meaning to stop in and get a look at this. I think I have missed my chance to see the ballet....

Favorite items at the Houghton Library.

Subway maps compared to their actual geography

Watch the movements of every refugee on earth since the year 2000

J.G. Ballard, "The Index"!

Michel Houellebecq is not easy to interview

"Bond, Michael Bond"

Many good tributes to the creator of Paddington Bear, but this old one from Pico Eyer is a good one (the NYT obituary was nice too):
Bond’s greatest moment is in describing how the attempt to make a live-action film about Paddington began with “a midget dressed up in a bearskin” (though a midget a mite too large). Given that “the person inside the skin couldn’t hear what was being said to him, let alone where he was going”, and given that, according to Bond, “midgets also tend to be temperamental” (especially when stuck inside a papier-mache head), it makes for a scene worthy of its hero – even before the man “who had invented an automatic lawn mower” is brought in to give the bear emotions, producing an artificial head whose eyes blink at different moments, generating an effect both sinister and salacious.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Life in water

Lidia Yuknavitch the lifelong swimmer. (Courtesy of Dave Lull.)

Sets of questions

Rebecca Solnit's life as a writer. Pull quote: "Lots of people want to be me now, but nobody wants to be me 20 years ago when I was living on $15,000 a year."

James, Jimmy, Jamie

Ed Pavlic's 2015 Boston Review piece on James Baldwin's letters to his brother David. Wish I could read the one about Just Above My Head and real-life family members!

Checking in

I am determined to reclaim the blog as a place where at the very least I log what I've been reading! Action prompted in particular by trying to download content from Facebook (I am just getting started on a short piece called "Reading Gibbon in the Time of Trump" and want to see which Decline and Fall bits I posted on which days - one of the ways in which Facebook is much inferior to the old-fashioned blog!) and remembering why it would have been better if I'd just posted those bits here. Also thinking quite a bit, around and after the two-year anniversary of my father's death, on the fact that it may not just have been social media that leached the energy away from my blogging vim; it was also very much the nature of my relationship with my father that we shared links and talked about bits we'd seen online, and my avoidance of the FT weekend magazine for instance seems part and parcel of the same phenomenon. Also, keeping so many tabs open is causing Chrome to fail - a tech guy at work showed me a good tool that lets you save a whole host of open tabs onto a single page of links, but really clearing tabs by posting what interested me would be a smarter way....

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Wrestling with angels

I see the last few posts here are mistakes, entries that should have gone to the other blog! Which I keep up very faithfully, only it is boring to read (insanely repetitive, as training must be!). Still overdue a light reading update and a year-end best post, I would like to keep the blog going to that extent but I've been too busy with other things: especially, finishing the Austen book (and juggling the other work commitments that you can only put on hold for so long). Leaving for the airport for Rome in a couple of hours, got some last bits of packing still to do and library books to return, but thought I'd blog a few sentences from J.D. Daniels' very good little book of essays The Correspondence. I think it may have been a mistake to include the two pieces originally written as short stories - they feel different and they don't work as well as the essays. But even so it's a great little volume. Here are a couple paragraphs I especially liked, for obvious reasons:
I took eight weeks off to squat and dead-lift heavy and eat everything that wans't nailed down, and I gained thirty-five pounds and had to buy new pants. Then I went back to sparring and I broke a guy's ribs. That was nice.

And then I did it all again, the way you find yourself eating dinner again the next night; the way you have sex, if you do, again; the way too much to drink was barely enough. It didn't end, it doesn't end, and if I knew what to say next, this wouldn't be the end.