Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

That Gawker regularly vent their unsophisticated spleen on Katie Roiphe may be thought a reason to read her books. Much of the other invective that streams towards Roiphe appears to be a result of her mid-90’s polemics on campus rape.

I don’t know if this was the case during those debates, but Roiphe does seem courageous enough to argue against the grain in In Praise of Messy Lives, though in this case her target is conventional marriage and parenthood, and what, if any, putative advantages a nuclear family confers on a child compared to single parenthood (roughly half of all first children in the US are born to unwed mothers). Ropihe’s arguments are eloquent and convincing, but rarely stray beyond the confines of a narrow bourgeois demographic.

In Praise of Messy Lives also includes some entertaining pieces of literary criticism including a contentious defence of the US literary old-guard’s (Roth, Updike etc.) depiction of sex, compared to its vapid portrayal by the following generation (DFW, Franzen etc.) My favourite of these essays is the study of the depth of Joan Didion’s influence on later American women writers. Apart from a feeble essay on Jane Austen, Roiphe fails to acknowledge any writing outside the US, but this insularity that blights American literature is far from isolated to Roiphe.

For a flavour of Roiphe’s style I can recommend this superb article: Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. There also a good NYT review of these essays.

Brian Dillon’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”

Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room is the first in Cabinet’s 24-Hour  Book series.

Dillon’s book explores the scenography and architecture of writing itself. Inspired in part by Georges Perec’s short fragment in Species of Spaces on Antonello da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his study, Dillon’s text is both a personal reflection on the theatrics of the study, the library, and the office, and a historical consideration of such writerly paraphernalia as Proust’s bed, Nabokov’s index cards, and Philip Roth’s moustache.

Cabinet is now my only magazine subscription. Apart from Cabinet my media consumption is entirely online, in one form or another. You never know what you will be reading about when Cabinet shows up. (With a subscription you also get access to the archives.) I’m not on commission here, just pushing you toward the good stuff. I used to have a dozen subscriptions to publications, not only literary journals, but found that they were sitting unread while I caught up with Twitter and my RSS feed. I get more reliable literary criticism from Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters and Michelle Bailat Jones than I got once from more mainstream publications.

Striking red cover and bold title apart, the production quality of I Am Sitting in a Room is crap. I’m not easy on my books; I scribble on them and bend their spines. In this case, the pages started to fall out before I got ten pages in.

That aside, the book is short, seventy-odd pages, and comprises Brian Dillon, who I’ve intended to read for ages, writing about writer’s routines and the places where writers go to write. Autobiographical in part, also a study of writers including  Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Joan Didion, accompanied with photographs of writer’s studies. That’s my summary, though you may prefer Cabinet’s version above.

Dillon’s keeps a blog, mostly used to cross-post pieces that have appeared in other places, and is on Twitter. I also came across this absorbing piece, drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, that Dillon wrote for Frieze, as much about the state of criticism as about taste. I’m very interested at the moment in Bourdieu for his ideas on taste, the nature of patriarchy and, intrigued by a conversation with Rim, his views on the origin and death and decadence of philosophy. Here’s a taster of Dillon’s article:

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.

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 Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.

Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).

Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature,  attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.

Mostly Bellow, Some Roth

Saul Bellow disappeared off the edge of my literary radar. Perhaps he caught the tailwind of my growing disenchantment with the novels of Philip Roth. Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant essay on Saul Bellow, in his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism, has reinvigorated a neglected passion. This year sees the publication of a collection of Bellow’s letters and a third volume of The Library of America series. Both of which I look forward to reading.

The essay on Bellow recalls that unique tone of voice, that combines “the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.” He goes on to say:

Bellow has been described as a great realist; as a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; as a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging of the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him.

“Just as,” continues Josipovici, “according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

What I’ve termed my disenchantment with Philip Roth is, I hope, merely a phase. I can only endorse the suggestion of starting to read Roth with The Ghost Writer, an exceptional novel. The Library of America recently issued a sixth volume in the Roth series, and a new novel is due.

Bloom on Castorp

Harold Bloom writing of one of my favourite novels Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

When I was a boy, first reading fiercely, some sixty years ago, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain was widely received as a work of modern fiction almost comparable to Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Bloom’s comparison recalls Nabokov’s disdain for central European modernism in an argument with Edmund Wilson, “How could you name that quack Mann in one breath with P. and J.?” Nabokov considered Mann one of those “puffed-up writers” that traded in “great ideas,” risking, of course, the criticism often made against Nabokov that in avoiding great ideas he was “all style and no substance. [Paragraph added November 2014.]

Bloom continues:

. . . I urge the reader not to refuse the pleasures of identification with favourite characters, any more than authors have been able to resist such pleasures. There are limits to my urging: Cervantes is not Don Quixote, Tolstoy (who loved her) is not Anna Karenina, and Philip Roth is not “Philip Roth (either of them!) in Operation Shylock.

And:

Why read? Because you can know, intimately, only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.

Less Chance Than Choice

My custom when deciding what to read next is to follow fiction with non-fiction. That way, characters stay where they’re supposed to. If I read two novels back-to-back, Beckett’s Celia from Murphy is liable to slip into the inn in Bernhard’s Frost.

That custom aside, serendipity and randomness determine my reading. A reference in Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory will resolve Thomas Bernhard’s Frost as my next fictional encounter. Meeting both a surgeon and an artist called Strauch in Frost may suggest Kennedy’s A Brief History of Disease Science and Medicine or Flux’s Matisse biography as subsequent non-fiction.

Frequently when viewed from a distance, a structure emerges within the apparent serendipity. Thomas Bernhard is an obvious choice after Beckett. The dark humour and repetition; the soaring, beautiful use of language make them seem natural bedfellows. More deliberate choice comes from sweeping, passionate obsessions that follow a new discovery. Discovering Philip Roth, Nabokov and Flaubert for the first time concentrated my reading for months to a single author. This compulsion to read everything by a much loved writer is still present but I am able to pace myself differently.

Salter: Precious and Exotic

James Salter’s Light Years juxtaposes several infinitely malleable themes. The oldest, in the tradition of Madame Bovary, dissects the flawed diamond that is the institution of marriage, and examines the inherent loss of freedom. The marriage is set within the politically and culturally empowering decades of the sixties and seventies. The individuals within the marriage are New York Jewish intellectuals, at once familiar and known to readers of Roth, Ozick and Bellow. This combination, in the hands of a talented observer and writer, is a precious and exotic combination.

My Reading Years

My insatiable appetite for reading was borne from scarcity. Growing up in the Far East, the local bookshop thrived off the sale of potboilers: Arthur Hailey, Wilbur Smith, Ed McBain. Thirty years ago, the latter two writers formed a significant part of my early reading consumption.

During my years of formal education, my taste evolved into science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson followed. Discovering Dostoyvsky and Kafka in my late teens changed my literary landscape. Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis were jump leads that accelerated my reading. Throughout my twenties I read omnivorously, with an insistence to finish every book I started: Proust, Nietzsche, Sartre, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant.

Entering my thirties, bruised after a disastrous first marriage, I motored at a more sedate pace. Enthusiasms during this period are a source of blushes today: Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and John Updike. Eventually I drifted away from reading fiction, partly as a consequence of a heavy Masters reading list. Instead I read economics, history, travel, biographies and architecture.

Today, having crossed decisively into my forties, my taste for reading fiction is revived. My inclination though is resolved to read better, to spend time only on what is, or might be, worthwhile. I drift easily from essays, diaries, biographies back to fiction. I reread little, putting this off for another time. My hunger for the unread is intense. As I read I create myself.