Reviews and riffs of February-May, 2016 (and an unrelated stag)

Hey, wow. Haven’t done one of these in a while.


I reread William Gaddis’s big big novel J R, writing

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).


I also read and wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History, a scary little primer that argues mass species extinction is

…the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole…capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.

My reading of Extinction—and hence my writing about it—is/was inextricably bound up in a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 eco-fable 1997 , Mononoke-hime. (The film’s title is usually rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think Spirit-Monster Wolfchild is a more fitting translation). I also linked the book to Gilgamesh and Easter. And I used this gif:

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I wrote a post about listening to audiobook versions of “difficult novels,” taking my lead and license from this big quote from William H. Gass’s essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.


99 reasons I didn’t read your novel.


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I reviewed Mahendra Singh’s marvelous satire American Candide. Far better than my measly review is a long interview I did with Singh, who is just a damn genius. I’m most grateful for the final exchange of our review, which was not really a part of the official q & a type thing we were doing—rather, I was bemoaning my ability to write anything lately, and Mahendra offered me the following, which I edited into the interview:

The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.


Prince died.

I wrote about him in a Three Books post.

The three books had nothing to do with Prince.


Despite some fascinating images, I was not impressed by Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise. I concluded that,

While the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.


And I wrote about Ferrante, Knausgaard, and their good/bad/ironic book covers.


Here’s that promised stag (by Diego Velazquez):

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Three Books (On Ferrante, Knausgaard, irony, and covers good and bad)

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My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2013. Cover design by Charlotte Strick and Bill Zindel, with cover art by Bill Zindel.

I couldn’t really get past page 80 of My Struggle, but I like Zindel’s zany design for the first volume enough to hold on to it. Kinda reminds me of those Vintage Contemporaries I so adore.

A lot of people didn’t like the design though, and FS&G didn’t end up publishing the rest of Zindel’s designs, which would’ve looked pretty neat as a complete set. As literary critic Scott Esposito put it at the time “the market has spoken, and it hates the original paperback.”

Instead, FS&G went with variations on this—

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My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2014. Cover design by Charlotte Strick; photograph by Andreas Eikseth Nygjerd.

Look at our boy Knausgaard, smokin’ away! This cover is boring but not Bad, which makes it far less interesting than the Bad Knausgaard cover which is actually very Good. The Book 2 cover (and subsequent covers in the series) are safe and “stylish”—and when I write “stylish,” I use it in the way many writers use it—thoughtlessly, blankly—stylish as a word that points vaguely to the idea of style, the zeitgeistiness of style. Etc. (Again—I encourage you to check out Zindel’s vision for the whole series).

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteEnglish translation by Ann Goldstein. Fifteenth printing, Europa Editions, 2015. Book design by Emanuele Ragnisco; cover photo by Anthony Boccaccio.

My Brilliant Friend is brilliant, my friend.

Its cover is awful, and the subsequent covers in the so-called Neapolitan Novels quartet are somehow worse.

A good friend who’s never steered me wrong with a reading recommendation told me to read Ferrante last year, but I didn’t—it wasn’t the hype that put me off (although the hype put me off), but the covers. I finally acquiesced to an audiobook version, and after getting a few chapters in, wanted the text. So I caved.

But my god, the cover—why?

The publisher and art director(s) claim that the Ferrante covers are bad on purpose.

An article in Quartz that I found simply by googling “Ferrante covers awful” yields this nugget:

…Sandro Ferri, Europa Editions’ publisher, says the covers were not an accident of too many cooks in the design kitchen, but rather a conscious choice. Writes Ferri in an email to Quartz, “The ‘vulgarity’ is our intention. We don’t want to make the typical ‘literary’ cover designed for an audience of ultra-sophisticated readers. … Ferrante’s novels are a mix of popular literature and highbrow, intellectual writing. We want to communicate this though our covers as well.”

And in a Slate interview, EE co-founder/publisher Sandra Ozzola again asserts that the decision for tacky covers was, um, purposeful:

From the time of our first conversation with Elena Ferrante about her intention to write this novel, we knew the book’s title and that it would be the story of a long friendship between women—and that it would conclude with a scene of a very vulgar Neapolitan wedding. The wedding and Elena’s impression of it … is an extremely important moment in the book. That’s why I intentionally searched for a photo that was “kitsch.” This design choice continued in the subsequent books, because vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena wants to distance herself from.

If we take a book’s cover to be where the book “begins,” where we first start to read the text, then EE’s awful kitschy crappy ugly covers signal postmodern irony—a joke on perception, the marketplace, high-low aesthetics, etc. The covers work as a kind of metatextual critique, then, as Ozzola seems to suggest above—a critique that relies on the reader’s understanding of the novel’s central character’s aesthetic viewpoint.

Well so then: Are the covers indeed ironic critiques of book-cover-aesthetics? Are we to take these covers as pop art parodies of books that traffic in romantic aspirations, that are, like, marketed to women?

Or are these covers simply designed to appeal to the very market that they would claim to ironically mock?

The have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too postmodern answer to these questions is, of course, “Yes.”

To fully appreciate the aesthetic irony of the Ferrante novels of course requires reading the Ferrante novels. And undoubtedly, many people are put off reading these books because of the covers. So much so that Ferrante’s novels got new covers for their Australian release. The new covers were designed by W.H. Chong:

Mr Chong told The New Daily it can be dangerous to try irony on a book’s cover – especially if the joke isn’t clear to readers.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly otherwise the recipient doesn’t realise the irony,” Mr Chong said.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly” — okay, sure. But the finest satire never announces itself as such.

Chong’s new covers feature simple black-and-white photographs, and they have received praise. But in a sense, the Australian covers seem, at least to me, to echo those Knausgaard updates—safe, boring even. But I’d much rather be seen reading one of those, than, say, the original EE edition of The Story of the Lost Child, which has maybe the worst cover I’ve ever seen.

Europa Editions’ forthcoming Ferrante collection, Frantumaglia, has a great cover, by the way.

Karl Ove Knaussgard/Christa Wolf (Books Acquired, 8.11.2014)

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Came back to work for the fall semester and these were in my mailbox.

I like the older, zanier, less-austere FS&G paperback covers of the Knausgaard better.

An Excerpt From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle II: A Man in Love

She fell into a pit that autumn. And she reached out for me. I didn’t understand what was happening. But it was so claustrophobic that I turned away from her, tried to maintain a distance, which she tried to close.

I went to Venice, wrote in a flat my publishing house had at its disposal, Linda was supposed to follow and stay for just under a week, then I would work for a few more days and return. She was so black, she was so heavy, kept saying I didn’t love her, I didn’t really love her, I didn’t want her, I didn’t really want her, this wasn’t working, it would never work, I didn’t want it to, I didn’t want her.

“But I do!” I said as we walked in the autumn chill in Murano with eyes hidden behind sunglasses. However, when she said I didn’t really love her, I didn’t really want to be with her, I wanted to be alone all the time, on my own, it became a little truer.

Where did her despair come from?

Had I brought it with me?

Was I cold?

Did I only think of myself?

I no longer knew what it would be like when my working day was over and I went to her place. Would she be happy, would it be a nice evening? Would she be angry about something, if for example we no longer made love every night, and so I didn’t love her as much as before? Would we sit in bed watching TV? Go for a walk to Långholmen? And once there, would I be devoured by her demands to have all of me, making me keep her at a distance and have thoughts shooting to and for in my brain that this had to come to an end, it wasn’t working, thus rendering any conversation or attempts to get closer impossible, which of course she noticed and took as proof of her main thesis, that I didn’t want her?

Continue reading “An Excerpt From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle II: A Man in Love”

“…a pipe that springs a leak” (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

Laura Sanders. "Faye Taking A Breath."
Laura Sanders. “Faye Taking A Breath.”

 

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

Reading, rereading, trying to read

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Bolaño/Knausgaard (Books Acquired, 12.04.2013)

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