Last week, browsing yon olde booke shoppe, I came across a battered but beautiful copy of Mervyn Peake’s novel Gormenghast. I can’t remember how or where I heard of Peake’s trilogy of not-quite-fantasy novels, but when I spied the spine I pulled it, loved the cover, and asked Twitter if the novels were any good. The answer seemed to be a resounding, Yes.
I picked up a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the first part of the trilogy, Titus Groan, along with the beautiful Ballantine edition of Gormenghast today. I also couldn’t resist a first edition of Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn.
I started Titus Groan today, and after pushing through its thick opening paragraphs, started to really dig it. The opening sentences are a bit of a hurdle. Here’s the first paragraph, thick and even foreboding in its diction and syntax:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
It was “the owls made of it an echoing throat” that made me want to keep going. Peake, like Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, is a wordslinger. A few pages in he made me look up the word “recrudescent.” I was proud of myself a few pages later when Peake busted out “catalpytic,” which I guess I sort of knew (“a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber” was the phrase). Describing some castle drudges getting drunks, he notes that they “attacked the bungs as though unweaned” which cracked me up. By the time little Titus is born, the book seems to make more sense to me: funny, thick, imaginative, but also abject, a bit gross, grotesque even, drunk on its own thick language.
Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review, 3:AM, FullStop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and more.
Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.
In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.
Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”
This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense?
Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).
I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).
The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.
Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.
DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.
Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.
I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.
I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.
Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?
DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.
Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?
DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).
Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?
DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.
Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?
DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.
Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.
Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?
DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”
There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.
Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.
DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.
Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.”Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”→
1. “In my more extravagant moments,” writes David Rieff in his introduction to Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, “I sometimes think that my mother’s journals, of which this is the second of three volumes, are not just the autobiography she never got around to writing…but the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write.”
2. In my review of Reborn, the first of the trilogy Rieff alludes to, I wrote, “Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things.”
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is far closer to the ‘notebook’ side of things too, which I think most readers (or maybe I just mean me here) will appreciate.
3. I mean, this isn’t the autobiographical novel that Rieff suggests it might be (except of course it is).
Consciousness/Flesh offers something better: access to Sontag’s consciousness in its prime, not quite ripe, but full, heavy, bursting with intellectual energy, her mind attuned to (and attuning) the tumult of the time the journals cover, 1964 through 1980.
It’s an autobiography stripped of the pretense of presentation; it’s a novel stripped of the pretense of storytelling.
4. Sontag’s intellect and spirit course through the book’s 500 pages, eliding any distinction between lives personal and professional. “What sex is the ‘I’?” she writes, “Who has the right to say ‘I’?” The journals see her working through (if not resolving, thankfully) such issues.
5. An entry from late 1964, clearly background for Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp” (itself a series of notes), moves through a some thoughts on artists and poets, from Warhol to Breton to Duchamp (“DUCHAMP”) to simply “Style,” which, Rieff’s editorial note tells us, has a box drawn around it. The entry then moves to define
Work of Art
An experiment, a research (solving a “problem”) vs. form of a play
—before turning to a series of notes on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
6. A page or two later (1965) delivers the kind of gold vein we wish to discover in author’s notebooks:
PLOTS & SITUATIONS
Redemptive friendship (two women)
Novel in letters: the recluse-artist and his dealer a clairvoyant
A voyage to the underworld (Homer, Vergil [sic], Steppenwolf)
A collective hallucination (Story)
A work of art which is really a machine for dominating human beings
The discovery of a lost mss.
Two incestuous sisters
A space ship has landed
An ageing movie actress
A novel about the future. Machines. Each man has his own machine (memory bank, codified decision maker, etc.) You “play the machine. Instant everything.
Smuggling a huge art-work (painting? Sculpture?) out of the country in pieces—called “The Invention of Liberty”
A project: sanctity (based on SW [Simone Weil]—with honesty of Sylvia Plath—only way to solve sex “I” is talk about it
7. The list above—and there’s so much material like it in Consciousness/Flesh—is why I love author’s notebooks, We get to see the raw material here and imagine along with the writer (if we choose), free of the clutter and weight of execution, of prose, of damnable detail.
There’s something joyfully cryptic about Sontag’s notes, like the solitary entry “…Habits of despair” in late July of 1970—or a few months later: “A convention of mutants (Marvel comics).”
If we wish we can puzzle the notes out, treat them as clues or keys that fit to the work she was publishing at the time or to the personal circumstances of her private life. Or (and to be clear, I choose this or) we can let these notes stand as strange figures in an unconventional autobiographical novel.
8. Those looking for more direct material about Sontag’s life (and really, why do you want more and what more do you want?) will likely be disappointed—everything here is oblique (lovely, lovely oblique).
Still, there are moments of intense personal detail, like this 1964 entry where Sontag describes her body:
Low blood pressure
Needs lots of sleep
Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts—not a high enough concentration)
Intolerance for liquor
Tendency to anemia
Heavy protein craving
Very good stomach—no heartburn, constipation, etc.
Negligible menstrual cramps
Easily tired by standing
Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)
There’s more autobiographical detail in that list than anyone craving a lurid expose could (should) hope for.
9. For many readers (or maybe I just mean me here) Consciousness/Flesh will be most fascinating as a curatorial project.
10. At times, Consciousness/Flesh resembles something close to David Markson’s so-called “notecard” novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point,The Last Novel):
Napoleon’s wet, chubby back (Tolstoy).
Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness.’
Nabokov talks of minor readers. ‘There must be minor readers because there are minor writers.’
Camus (Notebooks, Vol. II): ‘Is there a tragic dilettante-ism?'”
‘To think is to exaggerate.’ — Valéry.
and so on…
11. Sometimes, the lists Sontag offers—
(offers is not the right verb at all here—these are Sontag’s personal journals and notebooks, her private ideas, material never intended for public consumption, but yes we are greedy, yes; and some of us (or maybe I just mean me here) are greedier than others, far more interested in her private ideas and notes and lists than the essays and stories and novels she generated from them—and so no, she didn’t offer this, my verb is all wrong)
—sometimes Sontag [creates/notes/generates] very personal lists, like “Movies I saw as a child, when they came out” (composed 11/25/65). There’s something tender here, imagining the child Sontag watching Fantasia or Rebecca or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz in the theater; and then later, the adult Sontag, crafting her own lists, making those connections between past and present.
12. While Reborn showcased the intimate thoughts of a nascent (and at times naïve) intellect, Consciousness/Flesh shows us an assured writer at perhaps her zenith. In September of 1975, Sontag defines herself as a writer:
I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an emotionally uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my minority taste (ideas) becomes majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary relation to my own work.
13. Readers looking for a memoir or biography might be disappointed in Consciousness/Flesh; readers who seek to scrape its contours for “wisdom” (or worse, writing advice) should be castigated.
But As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh will reward those readers who take it on its own terms as an oblique, discursive (and incomplete) record of Sontag’s brilliant mind.
I’ll close this riff with one last note from the book, a fitting encapsulation of the relationship between reader and author—and, most importantly, author-as-reader-and-rereader:
Recycling one’s own life with books.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is new in trade paperback from Picador; you can read excerpts from the book at their site.
So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.
So, what have I been reading?
Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.
Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.
I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.
S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.
I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:
That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.
W. G. Sebald reading from his novel Austerlitz at 92nd Street Y. October 15, 2001, just two months before his death.
He later takes questions (beginning at the 28 minute mark), including a discussion of how he uses photography in his work. Susan Sontag then takes a question in which she addresses “cowboy rhetoric” after 9/11. They then discuss which of their books might be their “favorite.”
Firbank, Caprice; Vainglory; and [Inclinations] (trilogy)
Jap[anese] writer [Yasunari Kawabata] (N.B. visual sense, suppleness of changing scenes)—Snow Country, etc.
Dickens (cf. Eisenstein)—
There are people who thought with camera eye (a unified p-o-v that displaces itself) before the camera
“new novelists”: Claude Simon, Le Palace
Claude Ollier, La Mis-en-Scène
(all based on organization of a decor (N[orth] Africa)
–From an entry dated 6/26/66 Paris in Susan Sontag’s notebook, published as part of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh.(I’ve maintained the bracketed editorial intrusions of the published text, even with they did not seem necessary).
I’ve been—I don’t know—strolling through Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks this past week. Collected as As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh and new from Picador, this volume picks up where Reborn left off. I’ll be doing a full write up some time this month—really more about writer notebooks (I love Hawthorne’s in particular). Until then—a sample spread from the summer of ’66:
If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is actually no such thing as atheism” quote by Foster Wallace out of context to bash atheists (ignoring its implicit ‘worship God precisely because He is so ineffectual He can’t harm you’ angle) with no further interest in his writing or life, I’m going to nail a copy of Infinite Jest to their collective forehead.
I picked up Penguin’s The Essential James Joyce in Jimbocho, an area in Tokyo known for used bookstores.
I recall paying maybe ¥100 for it. It comprises a few selections from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, some of Joyce’s (totally unessential) poetry, and the entirety of Dubliners, Exiles, and Portrait. I’ve kept it because of sentiment (and I like the cover).
In appreciation of Kafka (and this whole cosmically-ironic fiasco), we direct you to audio clips of the PEN fellowship’s March 26, 1998 tribute, which featured, among others, E.L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and Paul Auster, reading from their own essays on Kafka, or the Czech’s work. The highlight is David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Series of Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Not Enough Has Been Removed.”
You can stream the tracks here. True biblioklepts can download them directly from here.
New in trade paperback next week from Picador,Reborn collects the early private writings of Susan Sontag, beginning in 1947 when she was just fourteen. The book begins with the following salvo from 1947: “I believe: (a) That there is no personal god or life after death.” If the phrase seems awfully definitive for such a young person to write, its terse tone is repeatedly undercut in other places in Sontag’s early journals, like when she asks “What does the expression ‘in his cups’ mean?” (he’s drunk, sweetheart). There’s also something almost cute about her entry from 12/19/48: “There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few.” I feel the same way myself. She goes on to list over 20 authors and titles, including Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Dostoyevsky’s Diary of a Writer. Sontag’s immediate, visceral, and sometimes raw reactions to whatever she’s reading, hearing, and watching, make up a good bulk of Reborn, and there’s something fun, if inessential, to know that she read Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza and James’s Portrait of a Lady in January of 1950.
Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things. The book certainly doesn’t feel like its 320 pages, mostly because it’s comprised of lists, notes, half-poems, and half-ideas–with the occasional major insight or life-changing moment thrown in in an almost alarmingly casual tone. Check the following consecutive entries:
Excellently staged performance of Don Giovanni last night (City Center). Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me–to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff, who is working on, among other things, a reader in the sociology of politics + religion. At last the chance to really involve myself in one area with competent guidance.
Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning?–I am engaged to Philip Rieff.
If there’s more to this episode in Sontag’s journal, her son David Rieff, the book’s editor, has chosen to elide it (although he has included that, as early as 12/19/56, if his mother is to be believed, he knew “the difference between a sarcophagus and an esophagus”). In an introduction loaded with much hemming and hawing, Rieff acknowledges the rawness of his mother’s private diaries, noting that they were written only for Sontag herself, who had no intention of publishing them. (Rieff’s decision to publish them is an issue of control: Sontag had sold her all of her writing and papers to UCLA and Rieff felt that assuming an editorial role might protect his mother to some extent). And, as one would expect of the notes of a young college student, nothing here is even remotely polished: like the adolescent who so easily denies an afterlife, many of Sontag’s notes and thoughts come across as callow, or at least not on par with the intellectual who gave us On Photographyand “Notes on ‘Camp.'” A note from 1/2/58 comes across as painfully emo: “How to make my sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make anguish metaphysical?” Not that these are unserious questions, but methinks someone’s been hitting the Kierkegaard a bit too hard. When Sontag the diarist steps in–that is to say, the diarist who reflects honestly, as opposed to the academic pulling philosophical poses–we get brusque honesty full of pathos. In a note from 1960, after briefly discussing how her mother’s conflict-aversion led to “the idea that honesty equaled cruelty,” Sontag drops this shocker: “No matter what I have said, my life, my actions say that I have not loved the truth, that I have not wanted the truth.” While I don’t particularly demand self-reflection, this kind of honesty is both rare and affecting coming from an academic.
But why should we expect Sontag’s private journals to be more than they are? It’s more fun to read Reborn elliptically, picking it up and putting it down, browsing through Sontag’s lists of movies, quotes from Rilke and Blake, and various thought-experiments. From 11/4/57:
“Try whiskey. To find a voice. To speak.
Instead of talking.
[ . . . ]
Are the Jews played out? I am proud of being Jewish. Of what?
[ . . . ]
Orc–imaginary mailed beast, dragon, ogre, named after a sea-monster killed by Orlando, in Ariosto’s Orlando Furious
Whiskey, Jews, Orcs–great stuff.
We’ll conclude with one of our favorite moments in the book, which is simply a list of words. In one of the few contextual notes Rieff concedes, he notes that all her life, “SS made lists of words into which she occasionally inserted a person’s name or a brief observation.” The list is from the fall of 1949: