A review of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad

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Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901 by Ilya Repin

Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.

Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.

In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—

It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.

Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.

The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—

That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.

Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].

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A quick note on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog

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I surprised myself by picking up and rapidly reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 Soviet satire The Heart of a Dog this week. I read Michael Glenny’s translation (Harcourt Brace, 1968) at a quick clip, finding the novel propulsive and zany. I didn’t know anything about the plot beforehand, which I think helped me to enjoy the novel all the more. I liked The Heart of a Dog more than Bulgakov’s posthumously-published classic, The Master and Margarita. I had a rough idea of Master’s plot, whereas my ignorance of the events in The Heart of a Dog allowed me to ride along its zany track without loaded expectations. Perhaps this first paragraph is a way of saying: The Heart of a Dog is a quick, fun, funny read, probably better read without too much foregrounding.

A bit of foregrounding—not too much—The Heart of a Dog begins with the sad howl of a street mutt in Moscow. We’ll first get to know this dog as Sharikand then later Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. Sharik opens the novel: “Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The line is prescient and ironic: Our pup will, in time, be reborn as a human. The basic plot of The Heart of a Dog is a riff on Frankenstein. Eminent surgeon (and vocal critic of the Communist Party) Dr. Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky finds the poor beast and restores him to the fattest health. Dr. Phil’s scheme though is a bit nefarious though. The not-quite-mad scientist, securing a thief’s corpse, trepans his poor dog’s skull and inserts the rogue’s pituitary gland. He then transplants the human’s testicles into the dog. Hormones and testes turn Sharik into a terrible shape-shifting speechifying brute, a mannerless boor who cannot be trained and who will not abstain from vodka. In time, Sharik (in the guise of Poligraf Poligrafovich) makes Dr. Phil’s life hell, leading the brief novel to its zany climax.

As with The Master and Margarita, I’m sure there was a lot that I missed in The Heart of a Dog. Undoubtedly, some of Bulgakov’s allusive jokes and jabs couldn’t land on my ignorant skull. What did come through though was a mean-but-fun satirical streak, a howling and yapping and biting at power, groupthink, philistinism, and hypocrisy. I liked the book.

I’ve just now (after having written that paragraph) gone back and read Michael Glenny’s April 1968 introduction to the novel (I always skip prefaces and intros). His final paragraph is far finer analysis than I can muster—but I can share it with you:

Like all the best satire, The Heart of a Dog can be read and relished in several ways: On one level it is a comic story of splendid absurdity; it also pokes fun at the discomforts, shortages, and anomalies of life in the Moscow of the twenties. But it has more profound meanings. It is a fierce parable about the Russian Revolution. The “dog” of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries—treated, in fact, like animals instead of human beings. The weird surgeon, a specialist in rejuvenation (for “rejuvenation” read “revolution”), is the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps of Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation that he performs in order to transform the dog into the simulacrum of a human being is the revolution itself. In the story this modern Frankenstein is so appalled by the unredeemable beastliness of the creature he has conjured up that he reverses the process and turns his “new man” back into a dog. With this ending Bulgakov implies that he would like to see the whole ghastly experiment of the Revolution canceled out; unfortunately, successful revolutionaries, even when they realize their mistake, cannot reverse history by a stroke of the pen as an artist can with his fictional creatures. The bitter message is that the Russian intelligentsia, which made the Revolution, is hence-forth doomed to live with—and eventually be ruled by—the crude, unstable, and potentially brutal race of hominids—homo sovieticus—which it has called into being. Bulgakov saw the Revolution as a hideously misguided attempt to achieve the impossible—to change humankind. Man is brutish by nature, and “Soviet man,” he warns, is little more than a lout who has been led to believe he is the very pinnacle of creation. The results of giving power to such men will be disastrous; in fact, Stalin’s terror was carried out ten years later by exactly the sort of callous, brutal cretins that Bulgakov satirizes in this grimly prophetic story.

A trailer for the film adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama

This is the first trailer for Lucrecia Martel’s film adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama.

Tribes. They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born (From Coover’s Huck Out West)

“Palling around with injuns, Huck, is right down dangersome. You can’t trust ’em. Remember what happened to them poor emigrants we met when we first come out here. You’ll get your throat slit before you know it. And it ain’t right. There’s a war on.”“We made the war, not them,” I says, recollecting what Dan Harper said. “We been bullying in and taking away everything they s’posed was their’n. They’re only just defending theirselves.”

“Well, from where they set, Huck, they got a point. But we ain’t them. We got to stick with our own tribe, even if they ARE all lunatics. If we don’t, we’ll end up crazier’n any of them. You remember that poor preacher up in Minnysota? Even if he was maybe right, his rebel notions was turning him plumb loco, and in the end they probably got him lynched by his own congregation. These lands is become our lands, that’s the story now, and it’s only got just one ending. There ain’t nothing them hoss-tiles can do about it, nor not you nuther.”

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Dialogue between Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from Robert Coover’s 2017 novel Huck Out West.

 

Three Books (or, My three favorite rereading experiences in 2016)

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I prefer rereading to reading. Rereading an old favorite can often offer comfort. A week or so after the US presidential election, I picked up Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth and reread its fourteen stories over a few mornings and afternoons. I’m not sure why, but somehow Bolaño’s sinister vibes and dark humor worked to alleviate my own post-election dread in some small measure. “Life is mysterious and vulgar,” after all, as one of his narrators points out. (I reviewed the book seven years ago).

I’m not really sure what impelled me to reread William Gaddis’s great grand gargantuan novel J R in 2016, but I found the experience incredibly rewarding—richer, sadder, funnier, more bitter. Most of J R is composed as unattributed dialogue, so one of the great challenges for a first reading is simply figuring out who is speaking to whom; additional readings help flesh out the narrative’s colors and tone. I wrote about rereading J R, noting

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).

This little note offers me an easy bridge to the reread that dominated the second half of 2016, a slow read of Gravity’s Rainbow. I finally read Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015—and then immediately reread it. Which is sort of like, y’know, actually reading it. To put it plainly, the only way to read Gravity’s Rainbow is to read it twice. Reading it a third time was fascinating—not just in seeing all the stuff I’d missed, but also in experiencing the novel’s radical coherence, its sublime plotting, its real depth—and most of all, Pynchon’s prose. Critics and commenters tend to foreground Pynchon’s humor and themes, perhaps overlooking his prowess as a sentence-shaper. I also had fun annotating sections of the novel, a project I’ll be continuing next year, when I read Gravity’s Rainbow again.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Leopard, Giusesspe Tomasi di Lampedusa

After a few years of false starts, I finally read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard this August. Then I read it again, immediately (It’s one of only two novels I can recall rereading right away—the other two were Blood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). The Leopard tells the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily, who witnesses the end of his era during the Risorgimento, the Italian reunification. Fabrizio is an enchanting character—by turns fiery and lascivious, intellectual and stoic—The Leopard takes us through his mind and through his times. He’s thoroughly complex, unknown even to himself, perhaps. The novel is impossibly rich, sad, electric, a meditation on death, sex, sensuality—pleasure and loss. More mood than plot, The Leopard glides on vibe, its action framed in rich set pieces—fancy balls and sumptuous dinners and games of pleasure in summer estates. But of course there is a plot—several strong plots, indeed (marriage plots and death plots, religious plots and political plots). Yet the narrative’s viewpoint characters keep the plots at bay, or mediate them, rather than propel them forward. Simply one of the better novels I’ve read in years, its final devastating images inked into my memory for as long as I have memory. (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, by the way).

Dhalgren, Samuel Delany

I think The Leopard initially landed on my radar a few years ago after someone somewhere (where?) described it as a cult novel. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) really is a cult novel. I’m about 200 pages into its 800 pages, and I’m ready to abandon the thing. Delany often evokes a fascinating vibe here, conjuring the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is isolated from the rest of America after some unnamed (and perhaps unknown) disaster—there are “scorpions,” gangs who hide in holographic projections of dragons and insects; there is a daily newspaper that comes out dated with a different year each day; there are two moons (maybe). And yet Delany spends more time dwelling on the mundane—I’ve just endured page after page of the novel’s central protagonist, Kid, clearing furniture out of an apartment. I’m not kidding—a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter deals with moving furniture. (Perhaps Delany’s nodding obliquely to Poe here?)Dhalgren strives toward metafiction, with the Kid’s attempts to become a poet, but his poetry is so bad, and Delany’s prose is, well, often very, very bad too. Like embarrassingly bad in that early seventies hippy dippy way. If ever a novel were screaming to have every third or second sentence cut, it’s Dhalgren. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out.

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

I had never heard of Forrest until a Twitter pal corrected that. I started Tree (1973) this weekend; its first chapter “The Lives” is a rush of time, memory, color, texture…religion and violence, history, blood…I’m not sure what’s happening and I don’t care (like Faulkner, it is—I mean, each sentence makes me want to go to the next sentence, into the big weird tangle of it all). Maybe let Ralph Ellison describe it. From his foreword:

As I began to get my bearings in the reeling world of There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, I thought, What a tortured, history-wracked, anguished, Hound-of-Heaven-pursued, Ham-and-Oedipus-cursed, Blake-visioned, apocalypse-prone projection of the human predicament! Yet, simultaneously, I was thinking, Yes, but how furiously eloquent is this man Forrest’s prose, how zestful his jazz-like invention, his parody, his reference to the classics and commonplaces of literature, folklore, tall-tale and slum-street jive! How admirable the manner in which the great themes of life and literature are revealed in the black-white Americanness of his characters as dramatized in the cathedral-high and cloaca-low limits of his imaginative ranging.

Typing this out, I realize that I’m bound to put away Dhalgren and continue on into Forrest.

The Combinations, Louis Armand

I read the “Overture” to Armand’s enormous so-called “anti-novel” The Combinations (2016)…the rush of prose reminded me of any number of post-postmodern prose rushers—this isn’t a negative criticism, but I’ll admit a certain wariness with the book’s formal postmodernism—it looks (looks) like Vollmann—discursive, lots of different fonts and forms. I’ll leap in later.

Literary criticism (From Lampedusa’s The Leopard)

Now that Don Fabrizio felt serene again, he had gone back to his habit of evening reading. In autumn, after the Rosary, as it was now too dark to go out, the family would gather around the fire waiting for dinner, and the Prince, standing up, would read out to his family extracts from modern novels, exuding dignified benevolence from every pore. Those were years when novels were helping to form those literary myths which still dominate European minds today; but in Sicily, partly because of its traditional impermeability to anything new, partly because of the general ignorance of any language whatsoever, partly also, it must be said, because of a nagging and strict Bourbon censorship which worked through the Customs, no one had heard of Dickens, Eliot, Sand, Flaubert, or even Dumas. A couple of Balzac’s volumes had, through various subterfuges, it is true, reached the hands of Don Fabrizio, who had appointed himself family censor; he had read them and then lent them, in disgust, to a friend he didn’t like, saying that they were by a writer with a talent undoubtedly vigorous but also extravagant and “obsessed” (today he would have said “monomaniacal”): a hasty judgment, obviously, but not without a certain acuteness. The level of these readings was therefore somewhat low, conditioned as it was by respect for the virginal shyness of the girls, the religious scruples of the Princess, and the Prince’s own sense of dignity, which would have energetically refused to let his united family hear any “filth.”

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.

 

To find a lost father (Donald Barthelme)

To find a lost father: The first problem in finding a lost father is to lose him, decisively. Often he will wander away from home and lose himself. Often he will remain at home but still be “lost” in every true sense, locked away in an upper room, or in a workshop, or in the contemplation of beauty, or in the contemplation of a secret life. He may, every evening, pick up his gold-headed cane, wrap himself in his cloak, and depart, leaving behind, on the coffee table, a sealed laundry bag in which there is an address at which he may be reached, in case of war. War, as is well known, is a place at which many fathers are lost, sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever. Fathers are frequently lost on expeditions of various kinds (the journey to the interior). The five best places to seek this kind of lost father are Nepal, Rupert’s Land, Mount Elbrus, Paris, and the agora. The five kinds of vegetation in which fathers most often lose themselves are needle-leaved forest, broad-leaved forest mainly evergreen, broad-leaved forest mainly deciduous, mixed needle-leaved and broad-leaved forest, and tundra. The five kinds of things fathers were wearing when last seen are caftans, bush jackets, parkas, Confederate gray, and ordinary business suits. Armed with these clues then, you may place an advertisement in the newspaper: Lost, in Paris, on or about February 24, a broad-leaf-loving father, 6’ 2”, wearing a blue caftan, may be armed and dangerous, we don’t know, answers to the name Old Hickory. Reward. Having completed this futile exercise, you are then free to think about what is really important. Do you really want to find this father? What if, when you find him, he speaks to you in the same tone he used before he lost himself? Will he again place nails in your mother, in her elbows and back of the knee? Remember the javelin. Have you any reason to believe that it will not, once again, flash through the seven-o’clock-in-the-evening air? What we are attempting to determine is simple: Under what conditions do you wish to live? Yes, he “nervously twiddles the stem of his wineglass.” Do you wish to watch him do so on into the last quarter of the present century? I don’t think so. Let him take those mannerisms, and what they portend, to Borneo, they will be new to Borneo. Perhaps in Borneo he will also nervously twiddle the stem of, etc., but he will not be brave enough to manufacture, there the explosion of which this is a sign. Throwing the roast through the mirror. Thrusting a belch big as an opened umbrella into the middle of something someone else is trying to say. Beating you, either with a wet, knotted rawhide, or with an ordinary belt. Ignore that empty chair at the head of the table. Give thanks.

From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.

Reasons I didn’t read your novel

  1. The first sentence is not compelling.
  2. Neither are the second, third, or fourth sentences.
  3. Nor the fifth.
  4. (I’m sure the later sentences are sterling, stunning stuff, but I’m sorry, I’m sorry, those earlier efforts couldn’t propel me onward).
  5. Those blurbs: So thickly pasted in glowing praise is your novel that its spine I dare not crack.
  6. Swarming with spiders. Scores of mean spiders. A horde, exploding from your novel’s pages.
  7. Too long.
  8. Your novel is part of a trilogy.
  9. Your novel is basically a fan fiction of a nineteenth-century literary novel.
  10. Your novel is basically a fan fiction of a twentieth-century literary novel.
  11. Your novel-memoir-thing is basically a blog.
  12. All the ghosts in your novel are metaphors.
  13. Ceaseless cyborg sex scenes.
  14. Four chapters in, my only thought is “I’ve read this novel before.”
  15. Your novel is in French.
  16. Your novel is too good and I am too stupid.
  17. Your novel is morally instructive.
  18. Printed in pink ink.
  19. I left it on a plane.
  20. Your novel is upside down.
  21. All of your characters have quirky hobbies; this I cannot abide.
  22. Oh cool, a stranger comes to town?
  23. Every verb attributing speech to a character is modified by an adverb.
  24. Too short.
  25. Too few swamps.
  26. That cover!
  27. Your novel is overtly engaged in social issues.
  28. Your novel is about baseball.
  29. Your novel is “erotic.”
  30. Your novel is extraordinarily well behaved.
  31. Your novel’s extended metaphor is too obvious.
  32. Written on rope.
  33. You are a conceptual poet with bad ideas and boring books.
  34. You had me at Rags to Riches—but back to Rags again?! Not this time.
  35. Exposition!
  36. Not enough cyborg sex.
  37. Your novel is a Word doc.
  38. Your novel is part of a tetralogy.
  39. Your novel was so goddamn excellent that it made my right eye twitch. As if it, my eye, were doing some manic jig. Then, my other eye—the left one—well, your novel was just so literary that that eye got to twitching something awful as well. By the second chapter, my eyes were fairly vibrating, and a clear but steady stream of snot was leaking from my nose. By the fourth chapter, I could no longer feel my lips, and by the beginning of chapter five, I was literally insensate. It took me months to recover, aided by family and friends alike. I will try your novel again when I am stronger.
  40. I drank too much.
  41. Your novel is filled with pressed flowers which I’d rather not disturb.
  42. Deader, better novelists await.
  43. 600 pages of a woman brushing her teeth.
  44. The main character is too likable.
  45. Your novel’s extended metaphor is too oblique.
  46. Your novel’s central character worries about poetry all the time. Poetry!
  47. The batteries died.
  48. No pictures.
  49. I’m too cynical.
  50. Your novel was a brightly-colored bunch of helium balloons—beautiful, sure—but I gave them to my daughter and she—almost immediately—surrendered the string to which they were tethered. Your novel is in heaven now, where it certainly belongs.
  51. Your novel is about a math problem.
  52. Mimesis, ugh.
  53. I gave it to a friend I don’t like.
  54. Not enough chainsaws.
  55. Your novel kept sending me to look up obscure references on Wikipedia, and the Wikipedia pages were more intriguing.
  56. Oh cool, you backpacked through Europe?
  57. Unnecessary end-notes.
  58. You keep emphasizing how brilliant and intelligent and talented this character is, yet nothing in the prose harnesses that brilliant intelligent talent.
  59. Your novel is extraordinarily well meaning.
  60. Your novel is carved into the bark of a very tall tree atop a very tall mountain which I am too physically weak to climb.
  61. Your novel is in Italian.
  62. Your novel is too bossy.
  63. Your central character is invisible, and yet no one is having any fun.
  64. You’ve mistaken “imagination” for “research.”
  65. Too much furniture.
  66. Your novel is just the May 1968 issue of Playboy with your name written on the cover in Sharpie. (Okay, I did read your novel).
  67. Magical realism, eh?
  68. You are a brilliant young novelist, perhaps, but you’ve forgotten to read so many of the brilliant young novelists who came before you.
  69. Your novel is made of poison, which is admittedly appealing, but which I fear will kill me.
  70. Your novel’s characters repeatedly reference other, much better novels (by much deader writers), reminding me that those novels exist.
  71. Pages and pages and pages of weather.
  72. I tucked it under the wheel well of a stranger’s automobile.
  73. All the Southern characters’ speech is rendered in bad phonetic transcription.
  74. Did you buy these epigraphs in bulk?
  75. Your novel is very clever and very unfunny.
  76. Not lurid enough.
  77. I left it out in the rain. It turned to pulp and became a temporary home to small suburban animals—do you find some measure of joy in that? No?
  78. Oh cool, you backpacked across Southeast Asia?
  79. Your novel is cursed.
  80. Your novel is a sustained argument against breakfast, and I can’t get down with that.
  81. Hero’s journey, eh?
  82. The first paragraph is too good. I would only be disappointed by anything that came after.
  83. I like my dirty realism much dirtier.
  84. Your novel was actually a salad, so I ate it.
  85. Having every other character be a Christ figure sounds like a cool idea, but it isn’t.
  86. No dial tone.
  87. Your novel is in Japanese.
  88. Your characters earnestly cite long passages from philosophy.
  89. I’m lazy.
  90. Not enough orcs.
  91. Your novel seems to mistake postmodernism, which is a description, for a prescription.
  92. Your novel is “like X on Y times Z.”
  93. Your “literary novel” fetishizes “genre tropes.”
  94. I didn’t drink enough.
  95. I’m just jealous.
  96. The prose is too dazzling.
  97. Look, we’ve all read Kafka, we get it.
  98. Time is limited, life is short, ashes ashes we all fall etc.
  99. I’ll wait for the movie.

Inherent Vice (William Gaddis’s J R)

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From page 571 of my Penguin edition of William Gaddis’s novel J R. The phrase appears as part of the character Jack Gibbs’s work in progress, Agapē AgapeThe phrase is not especially uncommon, I suppose, in art history, and I (obliquely) remark it in this post for my own amusement.

Some fine thoughts

A planet spoiled by the human species (Ursula K. Le Guin)

My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert. . . . We survive there as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do—they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish. They came; they brought us help. They built ships and gave them to us, so we could leave our ruined world. They treat us gently, charitably, as the strong man treats the sick one. They are a very strange people, the Hainish; older than any of us; infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don’t even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past. Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force. The absolute regimentation of each life toward the goal of racial survival. We had achieved that much, when the Hainish came. They brought us . . . a little more hope. Not very much. We have outlived it. . . . We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art”

As practical men, the new middle classes found literature frivolous; as pious ones, they found it idolatrous; as class-conscious citizens, they felt it too committed to court and salon. Yet they could not live without it; a lust for images of their own lives, projections of their own dreams and nightmares moved them obscurely. They demanded a form that would be really their own, a mass-produced commodity to be bought or rented in the marketplace like other goods, a thick and substantial item to be placed on the table with other evidence of their wealth and taste. The novel is the first large-scale example of “mass art.” It is quite different from “folk art,” with its handmade appearance and its air of knowing its place, for folk art is rooted in the country and in agriculture; it changes slowly and almost imperceptibly, its chief appeal being its resemblance to what has come before. “Mass art,” on the other hand, is urban art, changing with the rapid changes of fashion, and seeming as much the product of new advances and technique as in any profound shift in the imagination. Like the wood-block engravings of 18th-century Japan, or the movies later on, or jazz on records, its triumphs depend chiefly on developments in manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. Like other mass-produced products, it tends to drive out of existence craft objects, which cannot survive the class structures which demand them and the class-consciousness which defines their consumers. Just as the spectacular rise of the novel is inconceivable without the perfection of printing, its final victory is inconceivable without the invention of the circulating library; mass-produced, it is also mass-circulated like any commodity in an expanding mercantile economy.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

He dreamed (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

He dreamed of a race at the poles who rode on sleds of walrus hide and rucked up horn and ivory all drawn by dogs and bristling with lances and harpoon spears, the hunters shrouded in fur, slow caravans against the late noon winter sunset, against the rim of the world, whispering over the blue snow with their sledloads of piled meat and skins and viscera. Small bloodstained hunters drifting like spores above the frozen chlorine void, from flower to flower of bright vermilion gore across the vast boreal plain.

A feverdream from late in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree. Finished the book again this afternoon, via an Michael Kramer’s audiobook—and lots of rereading. I’ve read the last 20 or so pages three times now, and have some thoughts that may coalesce into a riff around the book’s ending (Does Suttree die?).

Last time I wrote at length about Suttree, I focused on how McCarthy synthesizes so much of literature—particularly American lit—in this novel. The passage above is just one minute but shining detail in a baroque masterpiece bristling with such moments. And while it taps into a sort of primeval American past, it also seems to point outward—maybe to McCarthy’s next novel, Blood Meridian, but also to, I don’t know, William Vollmann’s novel The Rifles.

One of the functions of all my novels is to prove that the novel in general does not exist (Nabokov)

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From a 1968 interview with Nicholas Graham. Reproduced in Strong Opinions.

A review of Millennium People, J.G. Ballard’s novel of middle-class boredom and meaningless violence

Act of Violence, Rene Magritte

Early in J.G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, our narrator David Markham remarks that “A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.” The sentence delivers three of the novel’s key terms: boredommeaningless, and violence. These words (or iterations of these words) repeat so often in Millennium People that any connotative spark they might bear becomes dulled. Even the violence becomes boring.

The violence in the novel resonates from its central plot about a middle-class revolution in Chelsea Marina, an “enclave of middle-class decorum.” Corporate psychologist David Markham is drawn into this revolution after his ex-wife dies in an apparently-meaningless bombing at Heathrow Airport. (She dies at the baggage carousel—symbolically-overloaded and thoroughly-Ballardian). Initially, Markham’s goal is to infiltrate the group as a kind of unwitting police spy. However, he soon takes part in acts of terrorism and meaningless violence, led in large part by Kay Churchill, an ex-film studies professor who rails against the evils of Hollywood and travel. Soon, Kay ventriloquizes Markham:

…I could hear her voice inside my head: bullying, pleading, sensible and utterly mad. The middle class was the new proletariat, the victims of a centuries-old conspiracy, at last throwing off the chains of duty and civic responsibility.

Kay eventually leads Markham to Millennium People’s would-be heart of darkness, demented pediatrician Dr. Richard Gould. Kay and Markham:

‘Richard says that people who find the world meaningless find meaning in pointless violence.’

‘Richard? Dr Richard Gould?’

‘You’ll meet him again, when he’s ready. He’s the leader of our middle-class rebellion. His mind is amazingly clear, like those brain-damaged children he looks after. In a way, he’s one of them.’

Kay is a far more interesting character than Gould. Unfortunately, Ballard teases out Gould as the Big Bad, occasionally having him show up to dialogue with Markham on finding big-em Meaning in all the meaninglessness of the world. God as a Void, the evils of the 20th century infecting the new millennium, etc. These ideas repeat and repeat and repeat, bumping along a muddled plot. Indeed, much of the plot and many of the themes of Millennium People might be condensed into this conversation between Markham and his one-time colleague/boring-assed doppelgänger Henry the psychologist. Markham speaks first in this exchange, explaining the revolution to Henry (I’ve added bold-faced emphasis if you’re in a hurry):

‘Middle-class pique. We sense we’re being exploited. All those liberal values and humane concern for the less fortunate. Our role is to keep the lower orders in check, but in fact we’re policing ourselves.’

Henry watched me tolerantly over his whisky. ‘Do you believe all that?’

‘Who knows? The important thing is that the people at Chelsea Marina believe it. It’s amateurish and childish, but the middle classes are amateurish, and they’ve never left their childhoods behind. But there’s something much more important going on. Something that ought to worry your friends at the Home Office.”

“And that is?’

‘Decent and level-headed people are hungry for violence.’

‘Grim, if true.’ Henry put down his whisky. ‘Directed at what?’

‘It doesn’t matter. In fact, the ideal act of violence isn’t directed at anything.’

‘Pure nihilism?’

‘The exact opposite. This is where we’ve all been wrong – you, me, the Adler, liberal opinion. It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence and you’re protesting against war. You don’t even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of rational motive carries a significance of its own.

While Ballard’s diagnosis of the end of the 20th century is both perceptive and prescient, the novel’s repetitions build to very little. Ballard puts his interlocutors into fascinating territory, but then squirms away. Here’s Gould holding forth to Markham:

We’re living in a soft-regime prison built by earlier generations of inmates. Somehow we’ve got to break free. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th Century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act. And that was its point.

Markham then immediately turns the conversation to the Heathrow bombing that killed his ex-wife. The potential for a shocking exchange simply veers back to the novel’s central thesis.

And that thesis becomes muddied. Markham, Gould, Kay, and other revolutionaries make bold, radical declarations, but often append them in a sentimentality at odds with their revolutionary claims. Ballard’s characters let us know that they think murder is wrong. The contradiction between the impulse for meaningless violence and the core (and very middle-class) values that often restrains the impulse remains unexplored. This unresolved contradiction might have been a purposeful tactic meant to highlight the limits of our narrator’s desire for real revolution, but there’s little to lead a reader to this conclusion beyond his own hopeful imagination. Ballard seems as uncommitted as the characters.

A lack of force and shock—that’s the problem of Millennium People, I suppose. It’s unfair and unproductive to expect Ballard to rewrite Crash or High-Rise here, even though he’s playing with many of the same themes and motifs. And yet those novels exist. Dr. Richard Gould is a pale answer to Crash’s Dr. Robert Vaughan (or Richard Wilder of High-Rise or Strangman of The Drowned World or Dr. Barbara of Rushing to Paradise…). Ballard’s satire suffers from a lack of full commitment. The hyperbole peters out; the tonal inconsistencies, far from clashing, become dull.

Still, there’s much to commend in Millennium People even if it falls short of Ballard’s finest work. The novel’s larded with little riffs and satirical observations: “America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up,” Kay remarks. Markham observes in a riot “the outrage of professional men and women who had never known pain and whose soft bodies had been pummelled only by their lovers and osteopaths.” We’re informed that “From now on ordering an olive ciabatta is a political act.” (I would love to read the notebook where Ballard recorded these phrases, if such a treasure exists).

Millennium People’s prescience—like most of Ballard’s previous work—only comes into sharper relief over time. The erosion of the middle class, the spike in income inequality, the inability of regular working people to live in places like London or New York City anymore—Ballard’s mapped it all out here. The contemporary world Ballard satirizes in Millennium People—published just a few years before his death in 2009—is already thoroughly Ballardian. The millennium caught up to the man.

A riff on J.G. Ballard’s superb degenerate satire High-Rise

  1. Ballard-High-RiseWith the bad taste of a recentish YAish post-apocalyptish novel in my brain, I riffled through some old sci-fi titles, hoping to find something to hit “reset.” J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise—which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager—wrapped me up immediately with its opening  sentence:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

  2. (If the promise of that first line doesn’t intrigue you, High-Rise isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll enjoy all the old High-Rise covers I couldn’t help but to scatter through this riff).
  3. The first chapter of High-Rise is aptly titled “Critical Mass.” This is a book where things, uh, escalate quickly, if you’ll forgive my indulging in the parlance of our times. Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery (or is that debauched depravity?). He gets that pot boilin’.ballard-high-rise
  4. Depravity. Debauchery. Degeneration. The boiling pot of late-20th century consciousness.
  5. So, what is High-Rise about? Like, the plot, man? Class-war in a high-rise condo: A self-contained society that fails, its id overspilling into sex and violence: The veneer dissolved in piss and spite. And the best part? Ballard dispenses with any sort of explanation whatsoever. We begin at critical mass. He counted on his late-20th-century reader to intuit the whole damn deal (or throw down the book in defensive disgust).
  6. Ballard structures the book around three anti-heroes, who represent, probably, id, ego, and superego—or rather, what I mean to say is ironic send-ups of id, ego, and superego—with the high-rise itself a kind of consciousness in crisis.6001572752_4a601a081e_b
  7. From the middle-class (and perhaps ego)—the 25th floor—there’s Dr. Robert Laing—not really a practicing doctor, no, but he works at a teaching hospital. Ballard tricks us into thinking he’s the protagonist—which I guess he is!—by which I mean audience surrogate, and also typical Ballardian hero (divorced; mama issues; a drinker). His name may recall to you the (anti-)psychiatrist R.D. Laing (as well as, perhaps, Language).
  8. We might find a tidy—as in sanitary–summary of High-Rise in this brief excerpt, where our ego hero Laing packs away his tools and totems of the old world in anticipation of the new one to come:

    In this suitcase-sized cavity he hid away his cheque book and insurance policies, tax returns and share certificates. Lastly, he forced in his medical case with vials of morphine, antibiotics and cardiac stimulants. When he nailed the floorboards back into place he felt that he was sealing away for ever the last residues of his previous life, and preparing himself without reservation for the new one to come.

  9. The phrase “to come” — as in a future to come — repeats throughout High-Rise—a kind of irony, ultimately, that I shouldn’t step all over here. I’ll get back to that momentarily, but—
  10. Ballard soon trips us up by shifting his free-indirect style from Laing to Richard Wilder of the 2nd floor. A bestial brawny brawly dude (and the only father in this trio of anti-heroes) Wilder (c’mon with that name man!) is id id id all the way down (up). Wilder’s also a filmmaker, a camera in his hand, a sensing thing all the way down (up). He causes some problems.
  11. (The idea that a middle-class man like Wilder might represent the proletariat here is addressed in more (although oblique) depth in Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People).
  12. And then the super-ego/upper crust: Anthony Royal (O! c’mon with that name dammit!) of the penthouse. He’s the literal architect of the high-rise, which makes him possibly maybe probably responsible for its many, many design flaws, which boil down to intake, outtake, and power, but look like parking, garbage, and electricity.High-Rise
  13. And so Ballard shuttles us between these three consciousnesses, like the elevators that symbolically anchor this novel. (Anchor is a terrible verb for these mobile metaphors. Or maybe it’s the precise verb).
  14. Like I said in point 5, Ballard doesn’t really bother to foreground the causes for the high-rises’s society’s degenerate descent (ascent?)—instead, he offers concrete contours and psychological descriptions. Like this one, when a psychiatrist (yep) offers this analysis to Laing (and the reader, of course):

    I had a bucket of urine thrown over me this afternoon. Much more of that and I may take up a cudgel myself. It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism. The model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection — obviously a more dangerous mix than anything our Victorian forebears had to cope with. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry. Perhaps they resent never having had a chance to become perverse . . .

  15. (“Perverse” is a term that repeats throughout High-Rise, and I had to leave in those bucket of urine and cudgel details).
  16. The concrete contours, the description, the late-20th century analysis—that’s the reason to boil along with High-Rise. The book is fucking fun in its thrilling awful decadence—it’s Lord of the Flies for adults, with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo replaced with psychiatric mumbo-jumbo. Or Salò.
  17. Back to that future to come thing, here’s another citation, at some length (enjoy those concrete contours), but with my emphasis in boldface if you’re in some big fucking hurry:

    Still uncertain how long he had been awake, or what he had been doing half an hour earlier, Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor. He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins. He found it hard to remember what their original function had been. To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand. Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this — sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

  18. Ballard’s describing the late 20th century there, but perhaps he intuits the beginning of the 21st as well.91ihsrhnexl-_sl1500_
  19. —Or maybe those are the same thing, I suppose—I mean, High-Rise was published in 1975, four decades ago, but doesn’t feel that old. For some perspective, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts was published in 1936, almost forty years before High-Rise, and that novel doesn’t feel horribly dated either, a tribute to its sharp satire.
  20. —Which is my way of transitioning to the probably completely non-controversial idea that High-Rise is wonderful dark satire. Ballard ushers our consciousness to the high-rise’s summit through surrogate Laing, the limited concrete prose focused on the failed doctor’s misperception of transcendence. Laing perceives himself as the conquering brute, alpha male par excellence, inheritor not only of the falling high-rise, but also its female cohort, his harem in a future to come, his genealogical generativity restored. Laing can’t see that he’s been x’ed out of this equation, the failed phallic figure jutting impotently into mother sky.
  21. So you know that High-Rise is going to be a movie? A Major Motion Picture? Starring Tom Hiddleston? As cynical as I am, I think the book should make a fine film—it’s adaptable, yes. It could even be a great video game. A video game where you eat a dog. A video game where you think you win, but you don’t.