Saunders & Gogol

I’m reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in The Rain where the celebrated author and fiction writing teacher takes us through stories by Chekhov, Tugenev, Tolstoy and Gogol and I have to admit that for days I’ve been dying to get to his discussion of Gogol’s story “The Nose” because Saunders’ fiction — inventive and absurd, reminds me much more of Gogol than the other writers. I almost wish he’d included Dosoevski’s “The Double” in the mix, for the same reasons.

One thing that occurs is that the master missed a slight detail in his discussion of “The Nose.” In the story, a social-climbing collegiate assessor named Kovalyov wakes to find that his nose has left his face in the night. The Nose then gallivants around the city, earning itself professional and social promotions until it is eventually caught by the police and returned to its owner, where it only reluctantly and after some time, rejoins his face. We’re left to imagine how the nose accomplished this. It seems, as times, to have arms, legs and a face and to be human sized and at other times it’s an ordinary nose. There’s a dreamlike quality to the narrative but an insistence by the narrator that though the story is strange and, well, doesn’t pass the smell test, that things like this happen to people all the time.

This is part of Saunders’ thesis as well — that the state of confusion and absurdity Gogol describes is really closer to the psychological state of our individual interactions with reality than the more objective renderings of Gogol’s contemporaries. We also get this sense readifn Kafka or (some of) Phillip Roth and of reading Saunders.

So, here’s the tiny thing I think Saunders missed: Kovayov goes to the newspaper to take out an advertisement offering a reward for the return of his proboscis. The newspaper clerk refuses on the grounds that such an odd notice might ruin the reputaton of the paper. The clerk also explains:

“A civil servant came in, just as you have, bringing a note, was billed two rubles seventy-three kopecks, and all the advertisement consisted of was that a black-coated poodle had run away. Doesn’t seem to amount to much, does it now? But it turned out to be a libel. This so-called poodle was treasurer of I don’t recall what institution.”

It’s just a bit of internal logic in Gogol that Saunders didn’t remark on but that I think backs up the contention of Gogol’s narrator — strange things happen.

This is a fabulous book. It really gets you reading the stories closely.

Reading Update, March 1

It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.

My shelf right now is:

A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.

I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.

The novel that next seems to be calling from my shelf is Ling Ma’s Severance, and also the latest from George Saunders. The book that I don’t own that’s calling to me is that new biography of Tom Stoppard.

The nonfiction book I’d like most to write about is Millennium by Jacques Attali. It was published in the early 1990s but very accurately predicted the thirty years that followed.

I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Unique, New York.

The Evolution of a Joke Over 70 Years

From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, 1920:

“It was one of the great liverystableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans wants to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

From Speed the Play, by David Ives, 1989:

“David Mamet knows that Americans don’t like to pay for parking. So he keeps his plays short.”

A Course on Kafka’s “The Trial”

I just completed Professor Richard T. Stock’s online course about Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and if you’re a fan of podcasts and literature, I highly recommend it. Professor Stock takes you through the book chapter by chapter, with a plot summary and analysis of each. It’s an enriching reading experience (and a great reread).

I won’t spoil the course, but I was surprised that Professor Stock does not read the story the way I do at all. To me, “The Trial” is an allegory for life. As Woody Allen quipped in “Love and Death,” all people are ultimately sentenced to death for crimes they never committed. Like Jospeh K., we are all subjects to a capital punishment heariing where the best we can hope is to push back the inevitable sentence. Or, as Allen put it:

“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.”

“Wheat. I’m dead and they’re talking about wheat.”

Joseph K.’s last thoughts are that he’s executed “like a dog.” This seems to be the condition of life. We are all sentenced for execution and the best we can hope, as Joseph K. is urged over and over, is to fight to prolong the trial, not to seek its end.

A Kid Posts About Kubrick

“Why is Kubrick trending?” I wonder, and fall right into one of Twitter’s traps, despite having watched The Social Dilemma just two short days ago. I click, thinking maybe some undiscovered work has emerged or somebody has found yet another clever way to link Dr. Strangelove to current events. Instead I get this:

The Twitter takes were harsh and cutting. There are the jokes about Kubrick somehow not living up to his potential, there are the screen grabs that prove that most of Kubrick’s output was an outright criticism of toxic masculinity, there are screen grabs of other headlines by Mendelsohn that reveal, to put it kindly, immature tastes.

Which got me thinking, he must be young. I found his bio on ScreenRant and for sure he is new at this and developing his style there and at CBR.com, putting out a mix of serviceable listicles and criticism. He seems to be enjoying himself.

“Jon Mendelsohn is a graduate of Ithaca College with a degree in film. Currently a writer for both CBR and Screen Rant, Jon is also a filmmaker and lover of anything and everything pop culture. When not writing or binge-watching Netflix, Jon loves to travel and find all the hottest foodie spots.”

He’s just out of school. He’s making films, thinking about films, talking about films and writing about them. He’s also coming up in an age where living wages for writing is rare, where the internet demands quantity over quality and where the traditional and vital relationships between editors and young writers is hard to come by.

Put another way, how many editors saved me from my own piss-poor, just out of school takes? Mendelsohn is trying to make his way through the world with some productive grit and creativity. The temptation to earn internet clout by citing Kubrick’s “toxic masculinity” as his artistic Achilles’ heel may be intense.

At my feet sits a bin of notebooks, written mostly between 1997-2000. Some of those thoughts went into columns and reviews I wrote for Lies Magazine. I had column one devoted to politics and one to jazz and blues music. That I considered myself an authority on jazz and blues is now embarrassing to admit. Politics is for everybody, but jazz and blues? That takes deeper understanding and I didn’t have it then and don’t have it now. Really liking Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is not enough.

I’m always tempted to look in those notebooks but I know there’s embarrassment on top of embarrassment in there. Fortunately, they’re at my feet and not online. Even the stuff I put online, for publications or my old blog, seem not to have survived outside of the Wayback Machine, if they’re even there.

Young writers and critics and artists today are really operating without a net. They can publish on impulse and so their impulses have to be perfect. Hopefully, the day that a young John Mendelsohn tried to get a dead Stanley Kubrick to get over his hang-ups and realize his potential won’t be long remembered. If it is, let’s remember it for the risks young writers, thinkers and artists face these days. Mendelsohn has plenty of time to realize his potential and I’m sure he will, if he’s encouraged with care.

“The Beautiful and the Good”

Just plucked Allan Bloom’s 1968 translation of The Republic off the shelf and read his introduction, where he explains that he has attempted a meticulous word for word translation of Plato’s text, without inclusion of modern words, which he believes can only be deviant from any meaning that Plato intended.

His prime example of this is that he does not replace Plato’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” with something like “morality and values” or “discussing moral values,” or other such phrases popular in late 60s academia. Plato said “beauty” and he said “good,” and we should try to understand his meaning, Bloom argues.

Citing Nietzsche, Bloom argues that an attempt to do otherwise would turn our understanding of the Greek canon into a kind of archeological field where we have pre-populated the dig with artifacts of our own choosing.

What Bloom believes is controversial in 2020, but it strikes me as powerful: A careful reader with good intentions can understand the mind of somebody from a long ago culture with distinct social and economic conditions, even through the medium of a translator, if they commit themselves to the intellectual project.

Cover art
Seems like I’m here again…

There’s a lot that stands in the way of this kind of reading — the reader’s prejudices, the inability of the translator to overcome their own cultural biases and background no matter how hard they try, the inevitable gaps in our understanding about who Plato is, how he lived and what influenced him, would broadly define the chasm we must cross.

Bloom thinks it can be done and I think he has to be right, otherwise true scholarship and creative works that transcend autobiography would be impossible. This kind of careful, honest reading is a path towards empathy and a re-affirmation of the old, seemingly now abandoned belief that the old liberal arts education can serve as a pillar for the establishment of an open and civil society.

For some, this will seem a quaint notion at best and offensive at worst. People claiming objective and open study of canonical texts have intentionally or not, excluded entire cultures, diminished the roles of women and have called on the wisdom of ancients to justify the unjustifiable. For too many people, “civil society” has failed to function either civilly or socially.

But there are stakes here for human freedom. As Bloom points out, in The Republic described by Plato, society is protected by those who fight the wars. “There are no guardians above the guardians; the only guardian of the guardians is a proper education,” Bloom writes. Beyond just the guardians, Plato’s audience was a societal elite who would make decisions for everybody else. If you accept that such an elite cannot be eliminated, that it will always exist and propagate itself in one way or another, then the only way to control these people would be to educate them about the beautiful and the good and to hope that education will temper and inform their decision-making.

I wonder if our current crop of elites in the United States has been properly educated? It seems our President’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” is banal, gaudy and self-interested but that its alternative is technocratic to a fault.

Deep reading with an open mind, along with the belief that we can understand the minds of others, seems more necessary now than ever.

The Search for William Troy

William Troy was, says the editor of the only book of his collected lectures and essays, a towering critic of the 30s, 40s and 50s. He wrote many book and film reviews for The Nation, but no books of his own.

I’m reading the collection William Troy: Selected Essays slowly. It’s long out of print but very gettable. His style is expert and delightful. He’s fighting, at this point of history, for literature to be enjoyed and interpreted as art, rather than subjected to the sorts of inappropriate scientific methods that have since subjugated the critical appreciation of the creative arts to some mad quest to view everything within the context of the social and economic sciences, if not even to physics and chemistry.

You Can Find This on Abe Books!

Here he is on the growing popularity of Henry James:

“At a moment where loss of continuity is our gravest threat, when personality is everywhere at a discount, when all consequent values dissolve in general terror, it is probably no great wonder that more and more people are turning to Henry James.”

Troy celebrates clarity in art and it’s darned refreshing.

Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism

I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.

Forget Joe Biden, we need Voltaire.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism:

  1. Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
  2. Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
  3. “De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
  4. The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
  5. It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
  6. While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art.  While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
  7. Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything.  This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
  8. Don’t make lists of ten, they’re too predictable.

Remembering “The Banquet Years”

I’m writing something about a bookworm character who is remembering the books specifically given to him by teachers in high school and college. Among the list are: The Complete Works of Emerson, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, The Firebugs by Max Frisch, Strip Tease by Carl Hiassen, Side Effects by Woody Allen and this gem:

Published in 1955, Roger Shattuck’s vivid telling of the birth of French surrealism is a book I’ve read twice now and think about all the time. I remain sure that surrealism is the foundation of everything going on in the world today and not just in art, or even primarily in art, but in the communications of corporations and governments that are gleefully contradictory when they’re not completely free of information.

I highly recommend The Banquet Years. I may pick it up again soon.

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