Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

In those moments when we step out of time, dissolved in a book or piece of music, where are we? First-person fiction is a form of voyeurism, surreptitious participation in a scene in which we have no presence. Reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers I am invisibly present, pressed against protagonist Reno’s back as she weaves her Moto Valera motorcycle through New York traffic, almost able to observe through her eyes, almost able to think her thoughts. Almost because first-person fiction offers up this fantasy of being able to access another’s interior. This is one reason I read fiction. The very best fiction, and The Flamethrowers fits this description, promises this sort of access, with its characters, more real in many ways than those passing me on the train as I read. This is one of those stories, told so well that in years to come its scenes and characters will become part of my pool memories, hazily recollected like those parties where we observed and participated through a haze of alcohol or drugs.

My Moto Valera was vintage, a Benelli 750 Sei, an angular, ugly beast of a motorcycle. I have an urge to find one again, to ride, like Reno, across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Salt Flats

Salt Flats

Saul Bellow’s Hunger for the Universal

At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed on non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.

From Christopher Hitchens’s review (2007) of two Library of America collections of Bellow’s fiction. In Arguably this easy is entitled Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator (pages 62-63).

Though I’d agree with the central premise of McEwan’s position, I’d couple Bellow and Philip Roth as heirs to European classicism.

The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai

‘I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star’. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

A decaying Hungarian town is reluctant host to a visiting circus offering the spectacle of ‘the biggest whale in the world.’ The circus’ arrival, accompanied by a gang of refractory hoodlums, catalyzes the town’s entropy and sparks a single, violent night of vandalism and murder.

The travelling circus is dominated by an enigmatic ‘Prince of darkness’ who foments the night of savagery. In a town characterised by its feckless or drunken civic leaders, emerges the indomitable Mrs. Eszter, who deserves to  be remembered as one of literary history’s most unscrupulous villains, with plans to ‘spring-clean’ and restore pride to the degenerate town. Mrs. Eszter, in her cunning, recalls Stendhal’s brilliant Duchess Sanseverina. Beauvoir said of Stendhal,”[He] never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character”.

Though the Prince and Mrs. Eszter, adversaries only in appearance, accelerate the story’s events, it is the misanthropic Mr. Eszter and his slow-witted disciple that are the main protagonists of Krasznahorkai’s story. Mr. Eszter withdraws to his drawing room, apparently in search of musical purity, but in fact to turn away from the dissolution of the town and its people.

The world, as Eszter established, consisted merely of ‘an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn’; its various concerns were incompatible and it was too full of noises of banging, screeching and crowing, noises that were simply, the discordant and refracted sounds of struggle, and that this was all there was to the world if we but realised it. But his ‘fellow human beings’, who also happened to find themselves in this draughty uninsulated barracks and could on no account bear their exclusion from some notion of a distant state of sweetness and light, were condemned to burn for ever in a fever of anticipation, waiting for something they couldn’t even begin to define, hoping for it despite the fact that all evidence, which every day continued to accumulate, pointed against its very existence, thereby demonstrating the utter pointlessness of their waiting.

Punctuating Mr. Eszter’s solitariness, Valuska, thought of as the town-idiot, delivers his freshly laundered clothes and meals. Valuska becomes embroiled with the gang of hoodlums and their orgy of violence; his subsequent disappearance awakens Mr. Eszter from his self-absorption.

I’ve seen Krasznahorkai’s style (first two sentences here) likened to Thomas Bernhard’s, although I am reading both in translation, but the similarities seem superficial. There is less humour in Krasznahorkai, at least in The Melancholy of Resistance, more ominousness, with the phantasmagorical terrain familiar to Kafka and Walser. Comparison to either of those writers may be puffery on the basis of a single book, but The Melancholy of Resistance is sublime.

James Wood writes, “His demanding novel “The Melancholy of Resistance” is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. The pleasure of the book flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness”. My disagreement with Wood is that the novel is demanding; as László Krasznahorkai explains: “You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too”.

Krasnahorkai has written six novels, only two are in English translation (all translated so far by George Szirtes); I’ll be reading War & War soon, followed in March by Satantango.

Book Shelves #1

Biblioklept intends a series of posts during 2012 about his bookshelves, and has kicked the project off from his nightstand.

As such, a final note on movement: I will move “outward” from this nightstand, photographing any place where books are set. I will photograph every kind of book in this house in its natural habitat; this includes children’s books and cookbooks, but does not include personal photograph albums, instruction manuals, or anything else of that nature. I plan to do 53 total book shelf posts, including this one (there are 53 Sundays in 2012).

My hope is that readers will respond to these posts by sharing their own bookshelving habits.

I love the idea and have decided to take up Biblioklept’s challenge to share my own book shelving habits. Using my iPhone I will photograph all the places in the house where books rest, carrying the project through moving to a new house in the spring.

My first photograph is of the stack that sits on my antique oak desk, beside my left-hand speaker. The size of this stack varies greatly depending on what I am reading at a given time. My photographs will move outward from my desk.

I’m rereading (for a third time) James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a chapter at a time. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and Alice Oswald’s Memorial are recent acquisitions that have yet to be shelved. I’m slowly reading László Krasznahorkai’s intoxicating The Melancholy of Resistance.