Motives for writing (William H. Gass)

Very frequently the writer’s aim is to take apart the world where you have very little control, and replace it with language over which you can have some control. Destroy and then repair. I once wrote a passage in which I had the narrator say, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But there are many motives for writing. Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base. If you can transform your particular baseness into something beautiful, that’s about the best you can make of your own obnoxious nature.

From a 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.

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Willam H. Gass’s definition of “a character”

A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy—other characters—which the words in a book flow toward and come out of. A white whale is a character; mountains in Under the Volcano are characters. Ideas can become characters. Some of the most famous characters in the history of fiction are in that great novel called philosophy. There’s free will and determinism. There’s substance and accident. They have been characters in the history of philosophy from the beginning, and I find them fascinating. Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.

 

Now why would one adopt such awkward language—why not just talk about character in the traditional sense? The advantage is that you avoid the tendency as a reader to psychologize and fill the work with things that aren’t there. The work is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect. That, of course, includes the meanings, the sounds, and all the rest. When people ask, “How are you building character?” they sometimes think you’re going around peering at people to decide how you’re going to render something. That isn’t a literary activity. It may be interesting, but the literary activity is constructing a linguistic source on the page

From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. (See also: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

There were too many details

no plot, lousy tales, and distant characters.

Gnerally, I am extremely open-minded about other cultures,

Don’t buy this unless you need it for some reason out of your control.

DOES THIS GUY EVEN KNOW WHAT THE FUDGE HE IS TALKING ABOUT!

I read two chapters and quit It was horrible, and I say BAH!!!!!!!!!BAH!!!!!!!and a BOOOOOOOO!!!!!

This is one of those “politically correct” books they force you to read in school, in hope of “broadening our horizons” and “opening our minds.”

The main character had a lot of mental problems, including violence, chauvinism, and overambition to become the ‘model citizen’ of his tribe. I had no sympathy for him, neither should you.

Throught the book the auther keeps bringing in new charecters that have almost the identicle spelling of another and it gets very confusing

While Chinua Achebe claims to be an African freedom activist, her(? I can never figure out these new-fangled names) style of writing is stereotypical of the reactionary Brench and their quest to retain Africa.

The author seems to have some sort of infatuation with yams, because the entire book revolves around idiotic descriptions of yams and characters struggling with their declining yam output.

I found this story went no where, there were no real accomplishments done by the main character, his could have check in to an asylum for a year, dealt with his tribal issues, what he missed out on as a kid, came back to his tribe and really made a difference with his people. Instead, we just see some ones life that just gets worse.

This story could have been told in about 20 pages, but streches out into a full book that finally makes a point in the very last pages. Achebe’s work needs some fine tuning.

Why coudln’t they just at least change the names you could at least pronoucne it, ne ways if you plan on reading it, your want lots of time, so u can understand it.

“THINGS FALL APART” IS LIKE ABOUT A GUY WHO GROWS YAMS AND BEATS HIS FAMILY, AND IT JUST TALKS ABOUT THAT THE WHOLE TIME ITS A TERRIBLE HORRIBLE BOOK!

Almost nothing happens for the first 100 pages except we find out that he has three wives and he beats his kids. GREAT, That took 100 pages to say!!

If your looking for a good novel about African people by an African writer, it’s not here. Try Toni Morrison.

Anyone with sense would be rooting for the imperialists by the end of this book.

the writer is only famous because he is a minority.

the story have no point at all.

It draged on and on.

It was like reading a quick obituary.

the names are way too hard to pronounce.

All you never wanted to know about yams… and other such things

This book is way too confusing for the average reader (I am an honors student) and even the more advanced reader would find difficulty reading this book.

Better by far to have young atudents enjoy ayn rand tom woods and john allison milton friedman and peter schiff adn be poastive free neterpirse and successful.

the only thing you’ll enjoy is saying Okwonko over and over again

This makes Africa look worse, not better….

No one cared about Okonkwo’s yams!

How DARE we let children read this book.

it just SUXED

In retrospect, the story lived up to it’s name.

“I know of two kinds of writers” — Jorge Luis Borges

I know of two kinds of writers: those whose central preoccupation is a verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed as “Byzantine” or praised as “pure artists.” The latter, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets “profound,” “human,” or “profoundly human,” and the flattering vituperative “savage.” The former is Swinburne or Mallarme; the latter, Celine or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained Gongora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoevsky…Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last that is until the tremendous appearance of Faulkner.

From Borges’ 1937 review of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!. Originally published in the Argentine magazine El Hogar, part of Borges’ “The Literary Life” column. Republished in Selected Non-Fictions.

“I want to plant some object in the world” — William H. Gass

I want to plant some object in the world. Now it happens to be made of signs, which may lead people to think, because it’s made of signs, that it’s pointing somewhere. But actually I’ve gone down the road and collected all sorts of highway signs, made a piece of sculpture out of these things that says Chicago, 35,000 miles. What I hope, of course, is that people will come along, gather in front of the sculpture and take a look at it—consequently, forgetting Chicago. I want to add something to the world. Now, what kind of object? Old romantic that I am, I would like to add objects to the world worthy of love. I think that the things one loves, most particularly in other people, are quite beyond anything they communicate or merely “mean.” Planting those objects is a moral activity, I suppose. You certainly don’t want to add objects to the world that everybody will detest: “Another slug made by Bill Gass.” That’s likely to be their attitude, but you don’t hope for it. The next question is, why is it that one wants this thing loved? My particular aim is that it be loved because it is so beautiful in itself, something that exists simply to be experienced. So the beauty has to come first.

From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Reviewed

I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.

I’ve tried.

I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).

want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.

Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.

9780804166744When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).

There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).

What is the book about?

Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.

Okay, but:

What is the book about?

Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:

In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.

In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.

Now in 2011′s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.

That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!

What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).

Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.

But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.

An Ecology of World Literature (Book Acquired, 11.08.2014)

IMG_3909.JPGAn Ecology of World Literature by Alexander Beercroft just showed up in today’s mail. Publisher Verso’s blurb:

What constitutes a nation’s literature? How do literatures of different countries interact with one another? In this groundbreaking study, Alexander Beecroft develops a new way of thinking about world literature. Drawing on a series of examples and case studies, the book ranges from ancient epic to the contemporary fiction of Roberto Bolaño and Amitav Ghosh.

Moving across literary ecologies of varying sizes, from small societies to the planet as a whole, the environments in which literary texts are produced and circulated, An Ecology of World Literature places in dialogue scholarly perspectives on ancient and modern, western and non-western texts, navigating literary study into new and uncharted territory.

 

Does Borges believe in God?

Osvaldo Ferrari: Many people still ask whether Borges believes in God, because at times they feel he does and at times that he doesn’t.

Jorge Luis Borges: If God means something in us that strives for good, yes. If he’s thought of as an individual being, then no, I don’t believe. I believe in an ethical proposition, perhaps not in the universe but in each one of us. And if I could I would add, like Blake, an aesthetic and an intellectual proposition but with reference to individuals again. I’m not sure it would apply to the universe. I remember Tennyson’s line: “Nature red in tooth and claw.” He wrote that because so many people talked about a gentle Nature.

From Conversations Volume I, a newly-translated collections of radio discussions between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari. Read the rest of the excerpt at NYRB.

The Death of Don Quixote — Gustave Doré

So my other blog, Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote, has come to an end with the death of the Don.

I hate nature, because it is killing me (Thomas Bernhard)

I do not care for walks either, and have been a reluctant walker all my life. I have always disliked walking, but I am prepared to go for walks with friends, and this makes them think I am a keen walker, for there is an amazing theatricality about the way I walk. I am certainly not a keen walker, nor am I a nature lover or a nature expert. But when I am with friends I walk in such a way as to convince them I am a keen walker, a nature lover, and a nature expert. I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive—for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my own body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can. The truth is that I am a city dweller who can at best tolerate nature. It is only with reluctance that I live in the country, which on the whole I find hostile.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew.

“Pickman’s Model” — H.P. Lovecraft

“Pickman’s Model”

by

H. P. Lovecraft

You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot—plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this. Why don’t you laugh at Oliver’s grandfather, who won’t ride in a motor? If I don’t like that damned subway, it’s my own business; and we got here more quickly anyhow in the taxi. We’d have had to walk up the hill from Park Street if we’d taken the car.
     I know I’m more nervous than I was when you saw me last year, but you don’t need to hold a clinic over it. There’s plenty of reason, God knows, and I fancy I’m lucky to be sane at all. Why the third degree? You didn’t use to be so inquisitive.
     Well, if you must hear it, I don’t know why you shouldn’t. Maybe you ought to, anyhow, for you kept writing me like a grieved parent when you heard I’d begun to cut the Art Club and keep away from Pickman. Now that he’s disappeared I go around to the club once in a while, but my nerves aren’t what they were.
     No, I don’t know what’s become of Pickman, and I don’t like to guess. You might have surmised I had some inside information when I dropped him—and that’s why I don’t want to think where he’s gone. Let the police find what they can—it won’t be much, judging from the fact that they don’t know yet of the old North End place he hired under the name of Peters. I’m not sure that I could find it again myself—not that I’d ever try, even in broad daylight! Yes, I do know, or am afraid I know, why he maintained it. I’m coming to that. And I think you’ll understand before I’m through why I don’t tell the police. They would ask me to guide them, but I couldn’t go back there even if I knew the way. There was something there—and now I can’t use the subway or (and you may as well have your laugh at this, too) go down into cellars any more.
     I should think you’d have known I didn’t drop Pickman for the same silly reasons that fussy old women like Dr. Reid or Joe Minot or Bosworth did. Morbid art doesn’t shock me, and when a man has the genius Pickman had I feel it an honour to know him, no matter what direction his work takes. Boston never had a greater painter than Richard Upton Pickman. I said it at first and I say it still, and I never swerved an inch, either, when he shewed that “Ghoul Feeding”. That, you remember, was when Minot cut him.
     You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
     Don’t ask me what it is they see. You know, in ordinary art, there’s all the difference in the world between the vital, breathing things drawn from Nature or models and the artificial truck that commercial small fry reel off in a bare studio by rule. Well, I should say that the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in. Anyhow, he manages to turn out results that differ from the pretender’s mince-pie dreams in just about the same way that the life painter’s results differ from the concoctions of a correspondence-school cartoonist. If I had ever seen what Pickman saw—but no! Here, let’s have a drink before we get any deeper. Gad, I wouldn’t be alive if I’d ever seen what that man—if he was a man—saw!
     You recall that Pickman’s forte was faces. I don’t believe anybody since Goya could put so much of sheer hell into a set of features or a twist of expression. And before Goya you have to go back to the mediaeval chaps who did the gargoyles and chimaeras on Notre Dame and Mont Saint-Michel. They believed all sorts of things—and maybe they saw all sorts of things, too, for the Middle Ages had some curious phases. I remember your asking Pickman yourself once, the year before you went away, wherever in thunder he got such ideas and visions. Wasn’t that a nasty laugh he gave you? It was partly because of that laugh that Reid dropped him. Reid, you know, had just taken up comparative pathology, and was full of pompous “inside stuff” about the biological or evolutionary significance of this or that mental or physical symptom. He said Pickman repelled him more and more every day, and almost frightened him toward the last—that the fellow’s features and expression were slowly developing in a way he didn’t like; in a way that wasn’t human. He had a lot of talk about diet, and said Pickman must be abnormal and eccentric to the last degree. I suppose you told Reid, if you and he had any correspondence over it, that he’d let Pickman’s paintings get on his nerves or harrow up his imagination. I know I told him that myself—then. Read More

Flannery O’Connor’s Kiss of Death

During these travels, I met a professor at the University of Georgia. She suggested that I pay a visit to a local woman who had had her first book published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, where I was now a sales agent in the education branch. The professor believed that this author would enjoy meeting me because of her affiliation with the publishing firm. Weakened as she was by her disease, lupus, she wasn’t in contact with many people, so it would be nice to receive a visit from outside. A few years back, her father had died from the same disease, but the doctors had told her not to worry.
 
I was driven to her home outside the town of Milledgeville, Georgia. The farm was situated in the middle of a pretty deserted landscape consisting of a few villages, fields, and some woods. When I arrived, I saw a two-story farmhouse, which turned out to be from the middle of the 1800s.
 
Then Flannery’s mother, Regina, appeared in the doorway. Flannery herself couldn’t make it to the entrance because of her crutches. The mother was happy to receive a visitor for her daughter, since they lived in quite a lonesome place, but she made it clear that I shouldn’t expect to stay the night. Once I started visiting Flannery regularly, I could tell that Regina didn’t like my visits, even though she was quite polite. She perceived me as a threat, afraid that Flannery might settle down with me in Denmark.

In the new issue of AsymptoteKlaus Rothstein offers Erik Langkjær’s fascinating account of meeting—and kissing!—Flannery O’Connor. (Langkjær is the narrator of the section). Continue reading at Asymptote to get to the kissing.

Our books (Edgar Allan Poe)

Our books—the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We pored together over such works as the “Ververt et Chartreuse” of Gresset; the “Belphegor” of Machiavelli; the “Heaven and Hell” of Swedenborg; the “Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm” by Holberg; the “Chiromancy” of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the “Journey into the Blue Distance” of Tieck; and the “City of the Sun” of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the “Directorium Inquisitorium,” by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and Œgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliæ Mortuorum Secundum Chorum Ecclesiæ Maguntinæ.

From “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe.

An idiom characterizes a society (Flannery O’Connor)

An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character. You can’t cut characters off from their society and say much about them as individuals. You can’t say anything meaningful about the mystery of a personality unless you put that personality in a believable and significant social context. And the best way to do this is through the character’s own language. When the old lady in one of Andrew Lytle’s stories says contemptuously that she has a mule that is older than Birmingham, we get in that one sentence a sense of a society and its history. A great deal of the Southern writer’s work is done for him before he begins, because our history lives in our talk. In one of Eudora Welty’s stories a character says, ‘Where I come from, we use fox for yard dogs and owls for chickens, but we sing true.’ Now there is a whole book in that one sentence; and when the people of your section can talk like that, and you ignore it, you’re just not taking advantage of what`s yours. The sound of our talk is too definite to be discarded with impunity, and if the writer tries to get rid of it, he is liable to destroy the better part of his creative power.

From Flannery O’Connor’s lecture “Writing Short Stories.” Republished in Mystery and Manners.