In the midst of Dutch hinterlands, while not preoccupied with feeding daisies to lambs, I wrote a review of a book on a very French affair – between a woman in her fifties and a man 30 years her junior. Read my take on Le jeune homme by Annie Ernaux here.
Paris life these days: while not reviewing, reading; while not reading, writing. Add to the mix long walks, hours of loitering in the parks, and dinners – the well-received apologies to the 15k-steps-exhausted body.
+ Visited Estonia for a weekend to attend my sister’s birthday party and fetched my reviewer’s copy of the collection of 19 short stories by Estonian writers, “Eesti novell 2022.”
+ Took a train to London on June 20th to visit the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition at Tate Modern and the Young Artists Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Also, visited the LRB Bookstore and MagCulture, returning with my suitcase 5kg heavier with books n’ magazines. The latter includes N+1, The White Review, Snow Lit Review, The Ambit Magazine, and The Europen Review of Books (it’s the 1st issue, very exciting!).
Books read this month:
- The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing, 4/5
- Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, 4/5
- Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow, 5/5
- “Eesti novell 2022” by various authors, 4/5
- Praxis by Fay Weldon, 3/5
Best of short stories read this month
- “The Pull” by Lidia Yuknavitch via LitHub, link
- “The Great Awake” by Julia Armfield, link, here’s one more via Granta
- “The Chicken” by RZ Baschir, via The White Review, link
- “Pleasant Glen” by Emma Cline, via The Paris Review, link
- “Descent” by Harriet Clark, via The Paris Review, link
Three fave novels from “Eesti novell 2022” short story collection:
- Katrin Tegova “Armastus pärast”
- Andrei Ivanov “Katkine mängusõdur”
- Loone Ots “Minu suhe saatanaga“
On view: Royal Academy of Arts Summer exhibition
The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing, 4/5
I happened across the book as I’m reviewing an Estonian re-edition for Sirp, a cultural weekly. So, I read Lessing in translation which felt like a blasphemy, especially as her long-winding sentences are not easy to interpret into a language so much inherently ascetic in nature than English.
But the story itself – of London in the 60s and its disillusioned, dreamy young and the 80s they’ll find themselves living in, some in newly-independent African countries – had many touchpoints with Estonia and its post-Soviet history.
The novel which is the third volume of Lessing’s autobiography beautifully depicts the intergenerational relationships between people who lived through both World Wars and those that spent their childhood in cushioned safety. A clash of generations, ideologies, and ethics is bound to explode. The book also called to mind Annie Ernaux’s The Years and Viivi Luik’s “Seitmes rahukevad.” I suppose I’d recommend Lessing’s book, but not over the two other novels.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, 4/5
Gliding my flippant eye over the bookstalls at the LRB Bookstore in London’s all-too-busy central district, I lifted Our Wives Under the Sea by one of the young contemporaries, Julia Armfield. I didn’t buy the book which is also Armfield’s debut novel but decided it safer to make the first encounter through her collection of short stories Salt Slow.
Armfield’s stories toy around with the bodily, gothic, and grotesque. Their magical realism and uncanny events are threaded together by poetic, fast-flowing prose that can at times bear too heavy for the protagonists’ frivolous sensibilities. But some points must be given to Armfield for the originality (and sickness) of her ideas and the courage to put them on paper.
A girl losing teeth and the skin rubbing off her body while her mother tells her stories of her grandmother, stating “she was a late bloomer.” She goes to the prom and dances with a boy who is into her, her body meanwhile falling apart under the dress. The story is called Mantis, so make your own assumption about the punch line.
Or another one about Sleeps coming out of people’s bodies and accompanying them like mischievous pets through their now sleep-deprived existence. Or a story about a stepsister who happens to be a wolf. No two stories can be accused of similarity or borrowing from each other. After reading Salt Slow, I feel like giving a chance to Armsfield’s novel, too.
Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow, 5/5
In one of his revering reviews of Bellow’s oeuvre, Martin Amis noted that somehow by mistake the letter “O” in the name must have gotten exchanged with “A.” Humbold’s Gift is the most soulful and intellectually potent novel by Bellow I have read thus far.
A trademark of Bellow’s mature-career works, this novel too centers around an intellectual protagonist. This time, we follow the ordeals of the recognized writer and playwright Charlie Citrine. Like a ghost of his former self, he is pulled around helter-skelter in Chicago’s social circles, both by friends and foes and a litany of characters hard to place. What little money the divorce proceedings and angling friends haven’t managed to suck out of the fortune he made at the pinnacle of his now-defunct career, Citrine now spends on his luxury-hungry foxy girlfriend.
But his head isn’t set on money. Instead, Citrine’s mind is preoccupied with the memory of his late friend and famous poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. What little mental space is left untouched by these contemplations, he dedicates to studying the works of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian esotericist and anthroposophist.
As always, Bellow’s mastery as a philosopher, stylist, and comedian blesses every single page. Unlike Citrine’s young girlfriend who used his musings as a backdrop to her own contrivances, I found the novel’s winding events and intellectual digressions utterly gratifying.
And it would be a blasphemy to recommend a Bellow novel without quoting from it.
“Don’t kid yourself, kings are the most sublime sick. Manic Depressive heroes pull Mankind into their cycles and carry everybody away.”
“Ninety per cent of life is a nightmare, do you think I am going to get it rounded up to hundred per cent?”
On a girlfriend:
“Think of an El Greco beauty raising her eyes to heaven. Then substitute sex for heaven. That’s Renata’s pious look.”
On another girlfriend sleeping:
“But in a few minutes I heard what I expected to hear – her night voice. It was low hoarse and deep almost mannish. She moaned. She spoke broken words. She did this almost every night. The voice expressed her terror of this strange place, the earth, and of this strange state, being. Laboring and groaning she tried to get out of it. This was the primordial Demmie beneath the farmer’s daughter beneath the teacher beneath the elegant Main Line horsewoman, Latinist, accomplished cocktail-sipper in black chiffon, with the upturned nose, this fashionable conversationalist. Thoughtful, I listened to this. I let her go on awhile, trying to comprehend. I pitied her and loved her But then I put an end to it. I kissed her. She knew who it was. She pressed her toes to mu shins and her me with powerful female arms. She cried “I love you” in the same deep voice, but here eyes were still shut blind. I think she never actually woke up.”
Praxis by Fay Weldon, 3/5
I have lost track of how I came upon this book but it certainly happened in a way that made me break its second-hand edition’s spine with great expectations. The novel is about Praxis, a girl born, illegitimately, in Brighton. We meet first meet her sitting on the beach in a world post-WWI, at age five.
The book spins the reader around the full spiral of Praxis’ miserable yet eventful life – there’s prostitution and incest, children (both wished-for and unexpected) and husbands betrayed. The protagonists’ name – in Latin, praxis means “practice, exercise, action” – delivers on its promise.
The fact that the main narrative, told in the third person, is interrupted with brief chapters of life-wise commentary of the first-person Praxis, offers both playful anticipation and grim foresight. It is a boldly feminist book, considering it was published in 1978. Yet the deus ex machina playing puppet theatre with all the novel’s multifarious characters is almost too daring. Too often, the witticisms sounded too wise, the moments of emancipation flighty and lightminded, the misfortunate events unrealistic in their overwrought irony. All in all, a book I didn’t particularly enjoy.
Essays, reviews, poems:
#Poem | “Bob Ross Paints Your Portrait” by Terrance Hayes, via The Paris Review, link
Today we’re going to get to work on the details
of your expression. And believe it or not,
the only colors we’re going to use will be
blacker than most blacks. We’ll use a black canvas
and just a single finger instead of a brush.
So let’s take and dab the tip of a pointer finger
into the black like so. And now we’re going to cover
everything between jawbone and temple,
cheek and nostril, on both sides of the mouth, in black.
Soon the darkness stands back from you a little.
Can you feel yourself emerge
as you fall backward?
Wait till you hear what I’ve got planned
for next week: Is who hurt you equal to who you hurt?
Is who loves you equal to who you love?
We’ll start right there and move
in the direction of desire. But right now,
let’s begin working on your shadows.
#Interview #Literature | Interview with Sigrid Nunez, via The Paris Review, link
Do you agree with the epigraph you use in The Friend, from Nicholson Baker’s Paris Review interview—“The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?”
I do. Think of Camus’s statement that there is actually only one philosophical question—whether or not to commit suicide. Of course, it would never occur to some people to ponder such a question, but when you’re writing and thinking about human experience and the meaning of life, it’s unavoidable.
Have there been times when you were tempted to give up writing?
No, but the late nineties were full of disappointment and failure. […]
People often ask me how I could have lived all those years as I did, so precariously. Meaning putting all my hopes in a literary career, never having a job to fall back on, and not having a family. If writing didn’t work out, what kind of life would I have? I sometimes think about how my father had a gambling problem—thankfully it was not out of control, but it was real—and I wonder whether I inherited that. Because it really was a big gamble I was taking, and I suppose losing would have been terrible. Some people might call it optimism, but I’ve never been an optimistic person. I just refused to give up because I really, really wanted to write.
One thing about gamblers is that they do not need to have confidence in order to keep going. They get off on thinking, I’m going to win this. And denial was also a part of it. As that shrink I was with used to say, denial is very useful. Without denial, you’d never be able to keep your head down and do the work.
#Bookreview #Literature | Moshfegh Is Praying for Us – Andrea Long Chu reviewing Ottessa Moshfeg’s latest controversial book Lapvona, via Vulture, link
There’s no shortage of reviews of Lapvona, Moshfeg’s grimy and revulsive new novel set in a fictional Middle-age village. But Andrea Long Chu really gets to the bottom of things. She writes:
“Moshfegh’s latest piece of shit is her new novel, Lapvona, a dark medieval farce about a woebegone hamlet in quasi-historical Eastern Europe. In the village of Lapvona, shit is everywhere: in the air, in the earth, splattered onto clothes, and crusted onto bodies. “Lapvona dirt is good dirt,” the villagers tell each other, referring to the fecundity of the local soil, but when drought strikes, they will resort to eating dried-out cakes of animal dung as well as the dirt itself. Meanwhile, at the manor on the hill, servants fertilize the lord’s vegetables with fecal matter from the lord’s chamber pots and feed the lord’s livestock hay grown in his own ordure. The lord himself, a pervert with no interest in governing, makes his servant girl catch shit-stained grapes in her mouth and present her rump for sniffing. “Cabbage, and something a bit worse than that. Shit, I guess,” he discerns. His priest offers the less vulgar term excrement. “Excrement,” the lord ponders. “Is that like sacrament?””
“Moshfegh dirt is good dirt. But the author of Lapvona is not an iconoclast; she is a nun. Behind the carefully cultivated persona of arrogant genius, past the disgusting pleasures of her fiction and bland heresies of her politics, wedged just above her not inconsiderable talent, there sits a small, hardened lump of piety. She may truly be a great American novelist one day, if only she learns to be less important. Until then, Moshfegh remains a servant of the highest god there is: herself.”
Portrait of the Marxist as a Young Hegelian: Lukács’ Theory of the Novel, by David H. Miles via PMLA , Volume 94, 1979, link
Georg Lukács, the forefather of the modern literary theory, wrote Theory of the Novel in 1915, it appeared for the first time in English in 1971 and was an immediate hit. Rightly so.
This essay served as a helpful primer before attacking the full thing. Some ideas:
Lukács deplores the modern journey to the interior. He states that the route of epic narrative leads from paradise, our true home (Homer), along a “via dolorosa” to the “melancholy of adult state” (the novel). The gods of Mount Olympus are replaced by the inner demons of the modern psyche.
In Soul and Form, Lukács emphasized that dramatic tragedy “is the form of high points of existence” and that “the psychology of tragedy is a science of death-moments.
“German Romanticism drew a close connection between its theory of the novel and the concept of the Romantic, and rightly so, for the novel, like no other form, is the expression of a transcendental homelessness.” – Lukács, Theory of the Novel
Ut Pictura Theoria: Abstract Painting and the Repression of Language by W. J. T. Mitchell, link
An academic article discussing how the artists and the establishment surrounding abstract art obmitted literature and poetry from art-theoretical didactics. As Mitchell puts it: the classic Horatian maxim ut pictura poesis turned in modern art to ut pictura theoria.
Wolf, Turtle, Bear, Francis Gooding on the new translation of La Pensée sauvage by Claude Lévi-Strauss, via The LRB, link
An intelligible review of a complex book, teeming with information, fun facts, and witty language. The author introduces and concludes La Pensée sauvage beautifully: “It is the flawed keystone of a revolutionary anthropology that could never really be built, a firework of renegade Surrealism that imagined itself as a new science. Wild thought, indeed.”
“The word sauvage has been the cause of a lot of trouble when it comes to translating Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological masterwork. The first English translators went for ‘savage’, giving the book a real facepalm of a title: The Savage Mind. The original French has the primary sense of wild or untamed thought, but it also plays on the name of the flower – la pensée, pansy – whose image appeared on the cover. The connection was also made through the epigraph from Hamlet that Lévi-Strauss placed in a later edition: Ophelia’s ‘and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’ Both pun and quotation were gentle invocations of the book’s main theme: for Lévi-Strauss, human thought in all its complexity is as natural a thing as a wild flower, and La Pensée sauvage tried to show how its garden grows.”
“This concrete science, or ‘mythic thought’, ancient or contemporary, epitomises the kind of wild thinking Lévi-Strauss was looking for. Precise and minutely calibrated, it both describes the world and accounts for its structure, but rather than putting knowledge in service of a relentless progress, it is dedicated to the accommodation of change and the maintenance of conceptual balance.”
“At this point, we’re still only halfway through the first chapter, yet it’s here that Lévi-Strauss suddenly strikes out into deeper waters, and it quickly becomes hard to see the bottom. His discussion of the bricoleur is followed by several pages of dense analysis of one small detail in a 16th-century painting by François Clouet (in the course of which he also has cause to mention that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a ‘reduced-scale model’ of ‘the end of time’).”
Weeding in the Nude, Ange Mlinko on the diaries of Edna St Vincent Millay, via The LRB, link
An entertaining portrayal of the Post-WWI America’s preeminent poetess Millay who rose to fame while still in her twenties. She beat Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens for the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Thomas Hardy gave her the blurb of a lifetime when he said that the two greatest things about the United States were the skyscrapers and Edna St Vincent Millay.
In an unpublished poem called ‘E ST V M’ she described herself as follows:
Hair which she still devoutly trusts is red.
Colourless eyes, employing
A childish wonder
To which they have no statistic
A large mouth,
Asceticised by blasphemies.