Read “The Dreadful Mucamas” by Lydia Davis

“The Dreadful Mucamas”

by

Lydia Davis

They are very rigid, stubborn women from Bolivia. They resist and sabotage whenever possible.

They came with the apartment. They were bargains because of Adela’s low IQ. She is a scatterbrain.

In the beginning, I said to them: I’m very happy that you can stay, and I am sure that we will get along very well.

This is an example of the problems we are having. It is a typical incident that has just taken place. I needed to cut a piece of thread and could not find my six-inch scissors. I accosted Adela and told her I could not find my scissors. She protested that she had not seen them. I went with her to the kitchen and asked Luisa if she would cut my thread. She asked me why I did not simply bite it off. I said I could not thread my needle if I bit it off. I asked her please to get some scissors and cut it off – now. She told Adela to look for the scissors of la Señora Brodie, and I followed her to the study to see where they were kept. She removed them from a box. At the same time I saw a long, untidy piece of twine attached to the box and asked her why she did not trim off the frayed end while she had the scissors. She shouted that it was impossible. The twine might be needed to tie up the box some time. I admit that I laughed. Then I took the scissors from her and cut it off myself. Adela shrieked. Her mother appeared behind her. I laughed again and now they both shrieked. Then they were quiet. Continue reading

Anti-paranoia (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Rain drips, soaking into the floor, and Slothrop perceives that he is losing his mind. If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long. Well right now Slothrop feels himself sliding onto the anti-paranoid part of his cycle, feels the whole city around him going back roofless, vulnerable, uncentered as he is, and only pasteboard images now of the Listening Enemy left between him and the wet sky.

Either They have put him here for a reason, or he’s just here. He isn’t sure that he wouldn’t, actually, rather have that reason…

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. The “pasteboard images” line recalls a favorite passage of Moby-Dick.

Africa 39, a compilation of new African writing, and Franzen’s Kraus Project (Books acquired, 3.04.2015)

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Got these as desk copies (as opposed to review copies) a few weeks ago. I’ve been picking through Africa 39 more or less at random, in between stretches of Gravity’s Rainbow. Hit or miss so far, as these affairs so often are. Here’s Margaret Busby, one of the panelists who helped compile the book (from The Guardian):

Africa39 is not an exercise constrained by labels, fashion and preconceived rules about genres, nor by what constitutes African writing. Twenty countries are represented by work created in a variety of African and European languages – Kiswahili, Igbo and Lingala as well as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Understandably, with the continuing debate about the validity of the “African writer” category, there are those who feel uncomfortable about participating in this venture (indeed, some have chosen to opt out).

Speaking of Gravity’s Rainbow (sort of), it shows up in Jonathan Franzen’s “translation” of Karl Kraus’s essays. I shouldn’t put translation in those suspicious quotation marks; he does translate—but the book he really wants to write is a memoir in footnotes. Maybe you read the excerpt Harper’s published a few years ago?

Michael Hoffman’s long review at NYRB is good. From that piece:

In the same hands done differently, The Kraus Project could have made an entertainment, an intellectual comedy, a bildungsroman about a clever and ambitious young man on a Fulbright in Germany for a couple of years in the early 1980s. The loneliness of abroad would have come into it, separation from a difficult unbookish family in the Midwest and a bookish difficult fiancée at Columbia; the poststructuralist intellectual fashions of the time; a little local color to evoke the bizarrely wonderful extraterritorial and microideological West Berlin of the cold war; what it felt like to be an American in Germany at the time of the Cruises and Pershings and the SS-20s (what price Germany then, not Austria, as what Kraus called a laboratory for destroying the world?); the overbearing influence of the one novel our hero packed in his suitcase full of French theory—it was Gravity’s Rainbow—and the dual terror exerted on him by Pynchon on the one hand and Harold Bloom on the other.

Such a book would somehow have delivered us to the improbable but finally inescapable conclusion that our young American could find no more apt or fruitful literary father for himself than “the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus.” The old curmudgeon took care to express his nolo in advance thus: “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.” As it happened, he also disdained fiction: not an ideal adopted father.

This rich web of circumstance is all present here (Franzen seems to remember everything, or at least to have kept records of everything), but it is packed away in the garrulous and seedy autobiographical footnotes, often going over many pages. Probably the main life of the book is in these. But there is something earnest and faithful and inflexible in Franzen that won’t let him turn away and ironize his former self—“my feeling [is] that I’m still the same person I was at twenty-two.”

… The entire unstable ensemble has something of the rackety allure of the Bremen Town Musicians, or, if you prefer, a new supergroup: the assiduous, dependable Paul Reitter holding things together on bass, the restrained Daniel Kehlmann good for the occasional off-beat tambourine flick (“But Heine is still wonderful, too”), and Franzen riffing and wailing away on free-form lead and clamorous vocals. The Kraus Project really is one of a kind—a strange, space-bending, Cubist, not un-simpatico book.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s Short Story Collections and Novels

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of various Flannery O’Connor short story collections and novels. To be clear, I’m a big O’Connor fanI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

I wanted to burn it.

I like happy endings.

100 per cent not for me.

I did not finish the book.

This story was agonizing.

I do not like the words used.

To me it was very depressing.

I really, truly hated this book.

The plot was as much a mystery.

They barely even seemed human.

I would not recommend this to anyone.

I had to force myself to finish this book.

I didn’t understand the characters at all.

Not only that, but I really didn’t like them either.

I would never have guessed that the author was female.

I didn’t understand, and I’m fairly certain that I never will.

I think this is the only book I’ve ever felt that I really hated.

One finds it impossible to symapthize or identify with them.

O;Connor is a gifted writer. However this book is dark in tone.

This story just stopped, no solutions to the problems involved.

I think it was a failing of the author to make the character believable.

After reading this book I really need some sunshine and happy voices.

Perhaps most disurbing is the brutal portrayal of violence against children.

Flannery O’Connor is the most depressing writer I have ever had the misfortune to read.

I can’t understand an author who could treat her characters with such callous disregard!

There is little here that resonates with my life’s experiences or my understanding of them.

I would not read this book again without a gun to my head, and I regret ever having picked it up. Continue reading

Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics (Italo Calvino)

Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed and individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics. Simply because of the solitary individualism of his work, the writer may happen to explore areas that no one has explored before, within himself or outside, and to make discoveries that sooner or later turn out to be vital areas of collective awareness.

 

This is still a very indirect, deliberate, and fortuitous use for literature. The writer follows his own road, and chance or social and psychological factors lead him to discover something that may become important for political and social action as well. It is the responsibility of the sociopolitical observer not to leave anything to chance, and to apply his own method to the business of literature in such a way as not to allow anything to escape him.

 

But there is also, I think, another sort of influence that literature can exert, perhaps not more direct but certainly more intentional on the part of the writer. This is the ability to impose patterns of language, of vision, imagination, mental effort, of the correlation of facts, and in short the creation (and by creation I mean selection and organization) of a model of values that is at the same time aesthetic and ethical, essential to any plan of action, especially in political life.

 

So it comes about that, having excluded political education from the functions of literature, I find myself stating that I do believe in a type of education by means of literature; a type of education they can yield results only if it is difficult and indirect, if it implies the arduous attainment of literary stringency.

 

Any results attained by literature, as long as it is stringent and rigorous, may be considered firm ground for all practical activities for anyone who aspires to the construction of a mental order solid and complex enough to contain the disorder of the world within itself; for anyone aiming to establish a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

There are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature (Italo Calvino)

In a word, what I think is that there are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature. The first is to claim that literature should voice a truth already possessed by politics; that is, to believe that the sum of political values is the primary thing, to which literature must simply adapt itself. This opinion implies a notion of literature as ornamental and superfluous, but it also implies a notion of politics as fixed and self-confident: an idea that would be catastrophic. I think that such a pedagogical function for politics could only be imagined at the level of bad literature and bad politics.

The other mistaken way is to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments, as the truth of the human language that politics tends to overlook, and that therefore has to be called to mind from time to time. This concept apparently leaves more room for literature, but in practice it assigns it the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naïve and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasures of freshness and spontaneity. Behind this way of thinking is the notion of a set of established values that literature is responsible for preserving, the classical and immobile idea of literature as the depository of a given truth. If it agrees to take on this role, literature confines itself to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression – a function that I believe does more harm than good.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

“The thought beneath so slight a film” — Emily Dickinson

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