Monday, October 31, 2011

Tony Burgess' Ravenna Gets

Appropriate that I picked up Tony Burgess' 2010 vignette collection Ravenna Gets today. Horror ain't my thing, but literary horror sounded more intriguing. Thoughtful literature is to horror as is erotica to porn. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

The plot: the townsfolk from Ravenna, Ontario kill the residents of neighbouring Collingwood.

Why? Well, there are a lot of possible reasons, but it's all conjecture.

Perhaps Burgess is making a satirical swipe at the entire horror genre where an "ah-ha!" psychological explanation will be tied like a tourniquet on the book's (or movie's) last pages and scenes.

Perhaps there's a clue in basic power trade-offs where one "picks up on this. Weakness." (p. 70.). But, no. The story subverts that. The one who, in the above quote, feels momentarily empowered is, seconds later, killed.

Perhaps it's a simple dream, or wish-fulfillment, and the murderers can be seen as liberating angels: "It's that he knew that when she left he would want to die." (p. 62). The victims are in one sense as depressing in their mundane lead-ins as is the (later) sudden received violence. But no, again. The victims at times are about to kill others, as well, and (in the collection's final brief chapter with the previously innocent primary character) sometimes succeed.

Perhaps this is Burgess' take on the Mad Max psycho-scenario where marauding bands of (literally) hungry thugs get their kicks in an eat-or-be-eaten energy-depleted world. But ... no, again. There is no hint that food or gas or heat or a basic level of economic activity is missing.

Perhaps the intriguing third paragraph on page 85 (I won't reveal it here) joins aesthetics, dream imagery, creation, and implication in a brave symbolic necessity. But that's doubtful because the story bursts out of its bounds and violently binds imagination with its non-symbolic realization.

What, then? Perhaps Burgess is making the scariest (and most responsible) statement of all, far scarier than the paper blood gushing out of stabbed hearts and perforated heads: there is no reason for a lot of the violence, which is also an everyday feature of our non-fictive world. (The first, above "perhaps", then, is partly correct.) As someone wisely noted in a vicious world only a breath away in the chasms of history: a staple of violence is its banality. And Burgess has accomplished much in this collection in that he has had to surmount the structural and aesthetic difficulties attendant in the (mostly stupid) horror genre. The writing, in other words, is what saves Ravenna Gets from the shotgun pump book dump. That, and its aforementioned anti-message. One example from page 66: "Sprinklers toss party rice across lawns and bent crosses like plague graves hold yellow leaves and hot tomato sacs."


Like last year, I'll be posting, shortly, mini-reviews here of some books that made this year's Gov-Gen poetry longlist. That should continue into early December.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Life as a Book Juror

The Telegraph just published an article by one of the jurors of The Man Booker prize in which it was revealed that the readers had to finish 138 books in seven months. That's two books every three days. Since the average novel clocks in at 250 pages or so, that's 166 pages a day. Every day. If one is otherwise busy for a time -- meaning, if one has a life -- and can't manage to read the 166 requisite pages, that means 332 pages the next day, or 190 pages every day for the next week. These are the people who're entrusted to make fine distinctions, thoughtful ones, about what they're reading, and to weigh those distinctions against the other 137 books in creating a detailed evaluative list.

(I work, socialize, write, etc, the same, I imagine, as the other jurors on this, and other, prize commitee(s); I manage to read about 40-60 pages a day, but then I don't skim, and I often reread what I've just experienced, as well as pausing, out of pleasure or confusion.)

Or one could just read five pages and pitch it in the "out" tray if the beginning isn't catchy. Or if it's from a publisher one's had mediocre experiences with. (The extension to this is Saul Bellow's remark on "The New York Review Of Each Other's Books.") Or if the jacket copy mentions zombies or grief-stricken daughters of alcoholic rural retirees. Or if one chances upon a great novel not on the list during those seven months.

Or one could just excuse oneself altogether from the masochistic ordeal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Carol Shields' Larry's Party

I'd read only one Carol Shields novel before recently finishing Larry's Party. Small Ceremonies, her first effort, struck me as blandly middle brow and middle class, and left no residue. Larry's Party had a more appealing tone of vulnerability, though the possibilities it promised were rarely realized. A two decade tour in the life of the eponymous protagonist, the novel achieves Shields' stated wish to honour ordinary lives as they actually play out, notwithstanding the supposed metafictional ploys. James Joyce had the talent to find gold from muddy, subjective banalities, but Larry's Party, like many other novels of "small ceremonies", disintegrated for long stretches, including entire chapters (Larry's Kid; Larry's Threads; Men Called Larry), when the faithful rendering of the daily grind was the aim. The let-down was significant because most of her characters -- especially her female leads and support cast -- were idiosyncratic, lively, occasionally surprising. Larry was another matter. A lifelong dreamer, passive schlub, and befuddled reactive naif, Larry nevertheless stays in his first job for twelve years, is promoted to head honcho, then pursues his passion to become a leading entrepreneur in a career held by twelve others worldwide. The discrepancy was difficult to square up. And the dreaming artist/maze creator link didn't work for me: Larry was presented not only as an imaginative dynamo, but as a persistent, organizational stickler.

There were three serious plot contradictions in the novel, the most important between the first reference to Larry's mother mistakenly mailing away for literature for a Flower School class instead of a Furnace School class to help a bewildered Larry get an idea for his first job, and a later explanation that Larry had always wanted to enroll in that school and work with flowers, even though earlier it was made clear Larry had no particular interest in even observing them, let alone thinking about them.

Several scenes were powerful, their emotional pacing and build-up excellent. I'm thinking here of the events leading to Larry's first divorce, and to the strange death of his mother's mother-in-law.

Two shortcomings ultimately pushed me face first into the overgrown shrubbery. Shields has been praised, in other quarters, for a fearless view into dysfunctional domesticity. Sex and love -- she'd reveal those fireworks in all their glory and disarray. So one begins the chapter entitled Larry's Penis with the hope of transgression, vulgar hilarity, heartbreak, tenderness, anything raw or divine. Instead, we're treated to a belaboured list of euphemisms for the poor appendage -- all played for one-toned schoolyard laughs -- as well as narrative flaccidity. "A few days later he was in her bed, sweetly, plumply, satisfyingly fucked." That's the complete one-sentence story of Larry's first encounter with his eventual first wife.

The second problem came to a head in the last chapter. Without giving away the plot resolution, I'll just say Larry's epiphany was unconvincing, both in its realization and in its build-up from his time with Beth and Charlotte. Any maturation in the separate lives of Larry and Dorrie have no bearing on a believable resurgence in their own present and future as a couple.

Two additional notes: Alex Ramon, in a career rehashing of Shields, praised her attention, detail, and skill with setting. He even concluded that she was the best purveyor of Winnipeg-situated storytelling. This speaks either to the paucity of Winnipeg-centric novelists, or the individual projections of Mr. Ramon. The only references to local detail in Larry's Party are to a new coffee shop, to Winnipeg being the windiest of cities, to an outlying community being upscale, and to several passing notations of heavy traffic. I found it an extremely generic novel in its situational manoeuvrings -- (the description of Chicago was likewise vacant) -- which lent credence to Stephen Henighan's assertion that Shields sees little difference between one place and another. (The text explicitly states this, though it's in the guise of a specific character.) I don't buy into Henighan's ideological certainties, but it's easy to see how a lack of regional specificity and strangeness plays into favourable market forces in the U.S.

Finally, a word on the theme of Larry's Party. The "maze = life" analogies were too frequent and occasionally obvious -- "every classical maze contains at its heart a 'goal'. This is the prize, the final destination, what the puzzling, branching path is all about" -- but I liked them, nonetheless.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mark Carney, and Occupy Wall Street, Canadian Edition

I just caught the tail end of the disgustingly sane Peter Mansbridge interviewing Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (perfectly appropriate last name) on one of the media spin networks. Carney, in measured tones, with "papa knows best" slight smile -- condescension-lite -- actually said that Euro Central will need to print more than 1.5 trillion dollars. Guess who that inflation hurts, and guess who gets the money? It's obvious now that the Lloyd Blankfein/Jamie Dimon good cop/bad cop show spooked Carney after the latter publicly scolded Dimon for the Morgan Chase villain's first thumbscrew session. Round two, behind closed doors, must have been Carney's offer-you-can't-refuse moment.

For those going to the upcoming Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Canada, save a corner of your placard for JAIL THE BANKERS. And it ain't just Americans and Europeans who're corrupt to the core.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Michael Boughn's Gov-Gen Acceptance Speech?

"And then, of course, having the judges that bestow the prizes for literary excellence write the excellent introductions to your excellent book before they give you the prizes for your excellence—that too is literary excellence above and beyond the normal kind of excellence which is usually just kind of run of the mill. ...

We however, are here because we know better. Poetry is not about truth or beauty or, heaven forbid, making things out of words. It’s about getting the prize. It’s about being on the committee that gives out the prizes so you can make sure your friends and students get the prizes, because if they don’t get the prizes, then what the hell does that say about you?" -- Michael Boughn

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Ed Champion's Review of Ian McEwan's Saturday

I finished reading Saturday Sunday. That is, I finished Ian McEwan's post-Atonement novel, and then googled the above link to read, this morning, Edward Champion's review of it upon its release in 2005. I like Champion's style: good writing, provocative analysis, controversial ideas, allusive interest. But I didn't like this review. Here's a response to some of his words.

"There's a major anti-Iraq protest tying up traffic, serving more as an inconvenience for Perowne than a revelation of the fractious political circumstances around him." -- Champion

The reviewer, as is apparent from the rest of the piece, would have been more enlightened about McEwan's purposes if he'd spent a bit more time wondering how that protest tied in with the novel's larger issues.

"And there's a modest car accident the provides the linchpin for the novel's denouement." -- Champion

The modest car accident (typically wonderful set-piece by McEwan) provides the linchpin for the novel's climax and (in union with the novel's bigger theme, Perowne's conflicted and wise suspicion of his own set ideas) falling action in the operating theatre. The denouement is all about that narrator's conscience, the car accident becoming a faded spur to a resolution having much wider implications than his relationship with a mentally ill terroriser.

"But this time around, McEwan keeps his plot twists and character revelations to a minimum, throwing in a deus ex machina for good measure." -- Champion

It's true that the characterizations, outside of Harry Perowne, are limited, though still rendered with elegance and an individual flair. There's a good reason for that which I'll elaborate on later.

The deus ex machina may seem unconvincing, as the term suggests, but one of the novel's themes, a difficult one expertly handled, is how chance can operate to terrifying momentum and force in the most comfortable lives. Think on the odds, right at the novel's outset, as Perowne watches the flaming plane, of disaster when boarding a flight. Or the odds of Baxter's destruction encoded in that one renegade gene. Or of Perowne being waved through to the side street by the cop only to collide with Baxter and gang just after they spilled out from the bar. The home invasion, after those longshots, doesn't seem so implausible in those terms. It's against the same reasoning that damned Thomas Hardy's novels as being too coincidentally bare, inexpertly contrived so's to move the plot along its rickety tracks. In Hardy's case, there's a tragic arc so chilling that those critiques seem churlish and inapposite. Greater flukes happen everyday. And in Saturday, after establishing the theme, McEwan shows great restraint. A lesser novelist would have used the set-up as the perfect excuse to go the way of maudlin horror or metafictional gymnastics.

"In prioritizing consciousness instead of a series of events, McEwan has made himself more vulnerable to exposing his very few flaws." -- Champion

I saw it somewhat differently. The only notable flaw I found in the novel is that Perowne's consciousness violently stanched the flow of narrative shock.

"He is a passive observer. One might argue that he isn't a particularly lucid one." -- Champion

Huh? Observation by definition is passive, but only in that it can precede action. Effective action is usually precipitated by shrewd, even pitiless, observation. Think of the connections with Perowne's highly successful neurosurgery career. As for "lucid", yes, Perowne is presented as having a dreamy nature. The opening scene at the window shows this to mesmerising effect. But he's only dreamy in patches. He recovers quickly, as in the conversation with the woman he's just met in surgery (who would become his wife). Perowne's more complex than Champion's thumbnail-ridge sketches would indicate.

"He keeps to himself, relegating his social life to squash games with co-workers and dreamy morning booty calls with his wife." -- Champion

This is conveniently reductive. The novel spans one day in his life. It's a very active day, at that. Champion even misses some of the events of the day. How about his trip to visit his senile mother? Family, of course, but it's a social visit. Or his social visit to watch his son play the new blues tune? Outside of this day, he also runs marathons, follows up with patients with proactive, non-professionally motivated interest, and may have other social avenues not disclosed outside the time constraints of the novel. And since Champion brought up the "booty calls" -- disgusting term for a fearless depiction of loving sex between he and Rosalind, especially the second coupling near the book's close -- that means all family union can be included. Perowne's the opposite of "keeping to himself" with his family; he needs frequent and meaningful congress with his wife and son, and is overjoyed with daughter Daisy's visit. He neglects father-in-law John, but that's because of personality conflicts, not intimacy issues. Even here, the denouement brings a touching, believeable resolution.

"He's a neurosurgeon close to 50 who barely stirs in the operating theater, concentrating exclusively on the surgery at hand. He complains of other people going "nowhere without a soundtrack," yet insists on Barber's "Adagio for Strings" to be played over and over during the final stages of an operation." -- Champion

His complaints of the young have everything to do with a lack of concentration. He's most alive when under supreme concentration: making love, and operating. The text makes it clear that Perowne is completely focussed on the long brain operation. He loses track of the specific musical development in Barber's piece, yet at the same time is infused with its mood. This is perhaps complex for some to understand; I don't find it to be so. The people "going nowhere without a soundtrack" are in no way alike. Their music is a distraction. If they were to turn it off, they would have to actually observe -- you know, that "passive" stuff that Champion denigrates. They would have to find something to be passionate about in total concentration.

"With the character so married to his work and so casually misanthropic." -- Champion

This is the most cynically egregious statement in the review. First, he's not married to his work. He's passionately, faithfully married to his wife of twenty-five years. He loves his work, but also loves his family. Despite my previous statements, he doesn't have a magpie's fascination or involvement with the world. But when you're digging two deep wells, there's not a lot of time left over.

Misanthropic? A surgeon who talks with great sympathy of his patients post-op, and with care of those patients with his surgeon-friend Jay. Who feels guilt in two instances over his conduct after seeing the plane in flames, and turning the tables on Baxter in the street, and where no misanthropic spirit held. Christ, he operated on the disturbed man who, an hour before, had threatened to kill his entire family.

"Perowne may serve as an apt persona for McEwan himself. In expressing middle age so strenuously, Saturday might serve as a rhetorical novel for whether McEwan believes his work holds any relevance for people under the age of 40. That's an odd idea coming from a novelist who has repeatedly demonstrated his universal relevance." -- Champion

Or he may just be examining the binding similarities between young and old, accomplished and mentally shattered, an emigrant from Iraq and one England born. Proof? The tender conversation between the doctor and the fourteen year old who wants to be a neurosurgeon after she's been operated on by Perowne; the conversation between Perowne and the man who reveals to him the pervasive reality of terror under Saddam Hussein's rule, and how even the torturers were to varying degrees exempt from blame seeing as how their own lives were on the line from supervisors themselves marked by higher-ups in a never-ending chain of fear and confusion; and the brilliant depiction of the similarity between Perowne and Baxter with the theme of stupid pride, Perowne and Jay becoming ever more testy in their squash game (wonderful heart-accelerating section of the novel), and Baxter becoming infuriated, upon reflection, with loss of face to Nigel and the other friend in the alley when with Perowne. Nothing to do with age; everything to do with more universal concepts of human make-up and shortcoming.

"Other critics have made comparisons between Saturday and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." -- Champion

Fascinating for English profs, perhaps, but the details Champion provides don't apply directly to Saturday. Woolf's novel is extremely subjective, the world (as I remember Mrs Dalloway from many years ago) only existing as a dream extension of the narrator's interiority. McEwan shifts between the inner and outer with equal concern and force.

"Such is the curse of tying a novel so explicitly to one man's consciousness: the important details that Perowne catastrophically ignores are also ignored in the text. McEwan might have had a better novel had he dared to think outside of Perowne's taut box." -- Champion

Champion again reveals his misunderstanding. McEwan concentrated on Perowne's consciousness because he wanted to make a point about how ideas solidify, and how they can perhaps unravel or loosen with luck, grace, and persistent observational courage.

"Baxter himself drives a BMW, also an expensive car. Is there a correlation between these two men? Absolutely. Yet while Perowne's past is muddled with a passive swagger (he's described as being pitiless several times), McEwan shies away from comparing these two, preferring instead to keep Baxter's description confined to Perowne's speculations and their respective identities separate from each other." -- Champion

I've just described how McEwan joins the two in the theme of pride. But Baxter's impetus is described through action. Narrative action is often more revealing of character, certainly more poetically and dramatically so. There is no need to go into Baxter's consciousness. And how would that work, anyway? Not every author has the talent of Faulkner describing Benjy from within. And here it's not necessary. Baxter's frequent shifts in emotion show how his fevered mind operates.

"Why, for example, does McEwan spend so much time chronicling a banal political dialogue between Perowne and his daughter on whether the United Kingdom should get involved with Iraq? Does he want to memorialize the kind of hollow cocktail party banter that shows no sign of abating four years after September 11?" -- Champion

Firstly, McEwan began the novel in 2002. 9/11 was a hot topic, not a rehash, "cocktail party banter". (And how would this disparaging description apply? Daisy and Perowne get into the argument reluctantly on the latter's part, and the scene is there to show the greater theme of ideas in self-examination, how ideas are often provisional, and how fate, that oddsmaker again, can explain why many people hold the opinions they do, as in Perowne's encounter with the Iraqi emigrant.) Also, the conversation is anything but hollow. It may not be scintillating political discourse, but it's intelligent, and represents vividly how both sides on the Iraq war thought about that (then) impending decision. The novel is set just before the bombing, remember, not in 2005.

Champion then throws in a few faint bouquets in an attempt to avoid his own characterization of
"bitter book critics or outright lunatics [who] may be pining for a scabrous takedown", but it's clear, at least to this Saturday lover, that the reviewer missed living in this particular day by several years.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tomas Transtromer

Good to see Tomas Transtromer finally get the nod for the Nobel. Also enjoyable to read some of the predictable reactions to a poet winning the award: ("who?").

For any English-language readers unfamiliar with his work, and who are stumbling on this post when googling "Transtromer Nobel", there are plenty of translations. I don't have any particular favourites. Most anyone except that musical butcher Robert Bly would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Americans, and the Nobel Prize for Lit (Part Two)

(cont'd from last post)

"The critical establishment was split on the award to Toni Morrison, but the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her “visionary force, [which] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” " -- Nazaryan

The quote within the above quote is only part of the story of what makes (or, more precisely, what can make) for a great body of work. Yes, Morrison doesn't flinch when tackling her ambitious material. But, again, this is a literary prize, not a politically correct tour of the immoral and criminal forces in America's past. But of course Salon is going to leap on this. Nazaryan's article is notable for its jejune thesis and lit-absent focus.

"You struggle through “Beloved,” but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before." -- Nazaryan

Yes. The struggle and the understanding: it's too bad Morrison's writing doesn't match her compassion.

"Can you honestly say that about Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys”?" -- Nazaryan

I haven't read it, but I wasn't aware that this single book was the cause of forty years of previous neglect of the Nobel towards American writing.

"Of the Americans thought to be on the long list, only Pynchon has written a big novel of big ideas — but it’s been 38 years since “Gravity’s Rainbow,” " -- Nazaryan

If the commitee were contemporarily consistent, this should boost Pynchon's chances. Actually, Pynchon's attitude towards his native land should warm the Nobel panel, and it's no surprise the odds on Pynchon are the shortest of any of this year's American roster. But I think the reason Pynchon has been overlooked for the award since the 70s is quite simple. They probably figure, and quite rightly, that Pynchon would embarass them by not showing. The Swedes may hate American culture, but I wouldn't doubt that even they watched Marlon Brando's stand-in at the Academy Awards many moons ago.

But now we get to the heart of the darkness. Notice that Nazaryan can't form his own argument, but has to lean heavily on David Foster Wallace:

"Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”" -- Nazaryan

I'd read the Wallace denunciation some time ago. It has a degree of merit, but the trouble is that in aceing the frustrating scope of much fiction of the last forty years, it leaves out much else and misunderstands the greater concerns and ambitions of those authors.

Literature is supposed to hold up a mirror, not just in front of the supposedly narcissistic author/narrator, but for the reader and to society writ large. If Updike's protagonists can't see past their noses (or dicks), did it ever occur to Wallace (or Engdahl or Nazaryan) that Updike is making a serious point about Boomer selfishness and entitlement, about insularity and obsession? Even bringing up global misery in acknowledgement would serve to briefly trade in the microscope for the telescope, thereby breaking the pond-gaze dream.

"Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior." -- Nazaryan

Now this is either disingenuous or naive. It's also dead wrong. First, Nazaryan calls these writers "great". How does that help his argument? Second, and I can't believe I'm defending creative writing programs, there's a lot of wisdom in writing about what one knows. O'Connor and Faulkner stuck to the South, Hemingway carried his persona around with him no matter what the subject. And two of those "claustophobic" writers won the Nobel. Especially for writing students just getting their feet wet, it's a good idea to not come out of the gate with a one thousand page techno-thriller-fantasy-romance anchor about the gritty realities of a Kashmir teen seeking refuge throughout Continental Europe while participating in local protests, trying to avoid being kidnapped by mysterious plutocrats, taking a sidetrip to Tibet for an ambiguous encounter with a Mahayana adept, and agonizing over the economic lures and spiritual dilemmas of selling Russian weapons to Iranian proxies, not to mention impregnating a Chinese student in Poland during a spring thaw where chemically-laden birds circle the docks in a repeating symbolic gift for the amazed protagonist.

That can all wait for the second book, at which point the creative writing programs can no longer be blamed. Of course, if career advancement is the only goal, as it is for so many, teachers-writers-prize dispensers-job procurers will be aped no matter what the prevailing aesthetic. In Canada, at least, the novelistic equivalent of the scene that Nazaryan depicts is quite different. A lot of multicultural nods and entanglements, though (often) not a lot of depth or enlightenment or energetic writing.

"Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards." -- Nazaryan

Just because an author inhabits the skin of another race or sex or species or inanimate object doesn't make this a daring success. One still has to be sold on the pronouncements, the relationships, the conclusions, and it has to again (and often) be said, the writing. I haven't read any of Styron, but I have read enough "progressive" lit to know that that approach is damnably difficult to pull off. As for the "vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty", I don't know what he's talking about. There are many American authors detailing the "big stuff" in their works.

Here, it would be appropriate to switch things up a bit. Why are American poets neglected in Nazaryan's article? Robert Lowell kicked off in 1977, but his greatest work was done by 1962. Transatlantic, steeped in European history, contemporary, politically engaged, Lowell is often stupidly pegged as a confessional, as if he had no more scope than an Olds (Sharon, not the car Nazaryan previously disparaged). He should have been a slam dunk for the award in his lifetime, but of course the panel who couldn't salute James Joyce knows a thing or two about merit. (That damn Irishman, picking scabs off that tiny island. What can a slum garreteer in Paris possibly enjoy from such a puny focus?)

The rest of the article is high-toned boilerplate, sermonizing vagaries with all the right adjectives. But I'll just note two snippets that caught my eye (one of them up-text):

"What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?"


"And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal." -- Nazaryan

What does universal mean, here? That the favoured Euros create a tale wherein a disenfranchised minority crosses a border, is subjected to the indifferent or menacing fates of a political elite the protagonist can't understand or defeat, which then gives lease for the author to vent or prophesy from an elevated third-person stoop on Truth and Beauty? And isn't that just as conformist as any narcissistic moaning in a small room? And what makes those authors automatically exempt from charges of narcissism? The Lebanese-Canadian Rawi Hage wrote an excellent novel based on his boyhood experiences in his blighted homeland, but how many Nobel Laureates wrote from the study, from historical and folkloric knowledge, the same as any American removed from the "action"? Some, if not most of them, are steeped in conscience, and are sincere. Last year's winner comes to mind. But they're writing from a protected position, and are espousing points of view (many of them) which have been accepted now for decades. Important? Often. Transgressive and daring? Not so much, unless you're talking about aesthetics. But aesthetics are political, too.

The argument breaks down, though, fundamentally. Roth, used as a punching bag in the piece (and its related quotes) because he's often cited as the most deserving American yet to win the Nobel, was talking deftly and intelligently about class differences and hatred as far back as Goodbye, Columbus. And the war of the sexes isn't universal? Other authors' narratives have spanned (for example) California to Indiana to New York in one work, a more complex socio-economic reality than books about poor maids in Jamaica brutalized by men, the women then travelling to England to become poor maids brutalized by men.

Click on the Lit Nobel winners of the past ten years or so, and note how the plaudits are framed. You'd think they were winning the awards for sociology exams.

P.S. , and edit:

I forgot to mention that Nazaryan is a Russian emigre teacher living in New York who is publishing his first novel about a Russian emigre in New York. But perhaps this is just an Oulipian experiment, the straightjacket he's putting himself in (perhaps?) an ironic comment on narcissism. Or is anything universal just because you've crossed an ocean by plane?

Americans, and the Nobel Prize for Lit

As literary prizes, with their attendant controversies, go, I've always been more interested in the Nobel than in our national, annual bluster-in-beer-mug versions. The politics are messier, the judgements more fascinating, the aesthetic conclusions more grandiose and self-serving (if that's possible).

Here's most of the record, from Alexander Nazaryan at Salon (itself a one-note ideological internet rag), with my responses.

"[T]he literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.” --Nazaryan

Nazaryan uses Engdahl's quote as a springboard for identical views. But let's first investigate Engdahl. The permanent secretary for the literary prize with the biggest cachet (though no longer with the biggest cash) not only misrepresents American literature (however much of it he -- and by extension, the 16 member panel -- reads), he also flunked Contemporary History 101. Here's Engdahl, in words Nazaryan fails to quote:

"Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death."

Got that? In America, as the Soviet media were and are fond of reporting -- in eras of Andropov or Putin, Gorbachev or Brezhnev -- not only are the citizenry, urban or rural, fearful dupes locked in apartments constantly obsessing over impending criminal surges while trying to grow tomato plants through the light from cracked windows, the thugs have successfully breached the walls. Or, as the more balanced "political" section of Salon would no doubt update it, the stooges of the oligarchy/new world order.

Back to Nazaryan. He cedes several points to those American publishers, writers, and critics who rightly took Engdahl to task for his incredibly presumptuous views.

"It’s true that the Academy, like any body of judges, has made some ill-informed decisions. And they’ve not done themselves any favors with some George W. Bush-era selections that plainly had more to do with politics than literature.

In 2005, British playwright Harold Pinter fulminated during his Nobel lecture about “the crimes of the United States” with all the embarrassing authority of a college freshman who just discovered Howard Zinn. In 2007, the prize was given to South African novelist Doris Lessing, who called 9/11 “neither as terrible nor extraordinary as [Americans] think.” " -- Nazaryan

Those Bush-era decisions weren't anomalous. The Nobel lit commitee has always viewed the prize through an ideological prism: Eurocentric, and, in the last forty years, multicultural. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. But be up front about it. The Nobel for scribes is a stamp for Euro-centred cross-culture. Even this subset of a subset, though, (World Prize?) is contaminated. I'll get to that after going through the rest of the body of quotation.

"That only fed the vitriol directed at Stockholm, --" -- Nazaryan

A credit. Certainly no Stockholm Syndrome, then.

"obscuring a valid point about American letters: We’ve become an Oldsmobile in a world yearning for a Prius. Our paint is flaking. Nobody wants our clunkers." -- Nazaryan

First off, poor analogy. Today's Prius will be tomorrow's whole 'nother form, let alone genre. Worthy literature is about the long haul. Second, it's wrong. Many American authors are readily translated into Euro languages. It's true that Americans do a piss-poor job of seeking out and reversing the transaction, but the legacy of European culture doesn't automatically equal Oxford dons' noses scoring ceiling-grooves and painterly Parisian bohemians scoffing at the boorish American man of letters.

"Stockholm has been trying to tell us this for a long while, and we would do well to listen." -- Nazaryan

What does this even mean? That American authors should shape and alter their visions to accord with Nobel commitee whims and dictates?

"Between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male. Between 2000 and 2009, three women won the prize, as well as five non-Europeans. They have given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists. An American-born male hasn’t won since John Steinbeck in 1962. The last white American male to win the prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987 — and though he wrote in English, his poetic training and intellectual sensibility are purely those of the Soviet √©migr√© he was. Saul Bellow was born in Canada." -- Nazaryan

Like an accomplished sophist, an ideological hack, Nazaryan throws up this data without context or elaboration, then shifts tack so that the lack of winners somehow becomes a self-evident damnation. There is no argument here. Americans have been virtually shut out because of ideological -- and yes, baldly political reasons, certainly not aesthetic, moral, or (to directly counter the commitee's claims) comprehensive ones. (And Bellow, though born in Canada, was thoroughly American, having moved there at seven, and possessing the sensibility and peculiar concerns of an American.)

"But if we don’t win yet again, we are at fault. America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th." -- Nazaryan

I earlier stated that Nazaryan obviously flunked History 101. But he also seems to get the bulk of his current affairs information from the mag he's writing for.

Yes, American authors need to aspire to their teleprompter-regurgitating leader (who doesn't pen the words on the scroll, who needs ghost-writers for his aubiography, whose contribution to putative literature were two poems in an undergrad mimeo, and whose policies vis-a-vis the hated Bush II have only been notable for an entrenchment then amplification of the status quo). Hey, but he sure talks smooth, awright!

"One who is not stuck in the Cold War" -- Nazaryan

Are American authors to be blamed for the glacial, reactionary pace of the commitee's judgements? And isn't that supremely ironic in light of this quote? Pinter's and Lessing's anti-Americanism played a part in their wins as even Nazaryan states, but they also copped the award for a body of work which scaled the uppermost Alps forty or more years ago. And at that time .... well, there was a Cold War.

"or the gun-slinging West" -- Nazaryan

Other than Cormac McCarthy's highly-regarded Western, the genre has been deader'n a rattler lacerated by a cactus in a cyclone. Or is Nazaryan's fixation with Bush reappearing?

"or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark" -- Nazaryan

Yes, because that's all Roth writes about. And because mono-racial and tightly geographic novels can't transcend their "narrow" confines.

(Part Two, and final, tomorrow.)