Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hoping for a bad review

Like Mr Orthofer at The Literary Saloon, I want to see Novel 11, Book 18, Dag Solstad's latest novel in translation. Unlike him, however, I was disappointed by Shyness & Dignity, perhaps because Paul Binding writing in the TLS said that "Solstad ... shares [Thomas] Bernhard's galvanic anger" and I had expected something more than ordinary. I would not have been interested without that brief comparison. [UPDATE 2021: I've since re-read Shyness & Dignity and have revised my opinion: it's a wonderful novel.]

Reviews often have this trip-flipping effect. Melissa McClements' exasperated reading of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady was enough to make me go out and buy the book. By happy coincidence, she's reviewed Novel 11, Book 18 too. Before reading it, I braced myself with hope and anticipation for another display of offended sensibilities. "It might be a profound exploration of philosophical ideas" she concludes after a plot summary "but as a novel it’s an emotionless and unsettling read." Oh. Isn't being unsettled an emotion, and are ideas anything other than philosophical?

It's impressive how well McClements uses key words to their full potential: "profound" is here freighted with so much disdain it glows. Still, I would have welcomed an explanation of the title which is what first excited me about his work. Harvill Secker can be forgiven its health-bringing truncation of Montano's Malady for the English market by retaining such a bleak heading. Like Michael Orthofer, however, I wonder why they didn't promote it by sending a copy to European fiction's most enthusiastic Britlitblogger.


  1. Anonymous8:00 am

    "are ideas anything other than philosophical?"

    Yes: they can be empirical. There may be philosophical discussions to be had about Newtonian Mechanics, but Newtonian Mechanics is not a philosophical idea. I would argue McClements' phrasing is clearer than if she had just said "exploration of ideas" (which could include Newtonian Mechanics) or "exploration of philosophy" (which could include the philosophical implications of Newtonian Mechanics): she means that the novel explores the set of ideas derived from logical reasoning about the nature of the world.

  2. Newtonian mechanics are entirely philosophical! Just be because Western rationalism decides something is true, it doesn't escape their philosophical underpinning.

  3. Anonymous1:56 pm

    Er ... are you really suggesting that gravity is less a matter of observable and testable reality than a matter of cultural and temporal local opinion? If so, best just to say I disagree with you, and leave it at that.

  4. No, I'm not suggesting that - but that gravity is understood as a concept; an idea. It has nothing to do with cultural or temporal opinion but with consciousness (itself an idea). These are words, ideas, that have to understood philosophically even if we have so internalised them to the point of accepting them as actuality rather than possibility.

  5. Anonymous3:08 pm

    Thanks. I think I understand you better now, though I still get the sense that I'm missing something.

    To the extent that everything *can* be abstracted as "an idea", because in even framing the concept we are engaging in some degree of abstraction, I agree with what I think you're saying.

    However, I think the point at which I stop agreeing is the point at which you say ideas "have to" be understood in this way. It seems perfectly possible to me to accept (for example) gravity, and accept the mathematics by which we can predict the effects of gravity, such as the orbits of the planet, without worrying about the gap between the theory and the understanding of the theory. And that seems to me to be something other than a pure-philosophical understanding of gravity as an idea.

    I would go so far as to say that the great strength of empirically-derived ideas is that they provide some measure of escape from a pure-philosophy anxiety about understanding and meaning. Not a complete escape -- obviously; if it did, we wouldn't have a philosophy of science -- but a certain amount of confidence that what is being understood can be accepted as a justifiable approximation of actuality.

  6. What you're missing is the lack of a distinction between "empirically-driven" ideas and "pure-philosophy". There is no anxiety of understanding or meaning. It's just a matter of a necessary process. To ignore the process isn't to have a faster track to reality but to self-delusion.

    To understand philosophy as epiphenomenal and science above it *is itself* a philosophy.

    Empiricism is fast becoming a religion. Will someone deny that God is an idea even though He's as obvious as gravity.

  7. Anonymous5:21 pm

    I don't think I'm arguing that science is *above* philosophy, just that it's distinguishable from it, with different strengths and weaknesses. I do think that "Empiricism is fast becoming a religion" is close to a pure oxymoron, but it's long enough since I read my Popper/Feyerabend/Hume/Dennett/et al that I'd have difficulty getting into the detail of that right now. On the other hand, a discussion that ends with further reading encouraged is no bad thing...

  8. Anonymous2:45 pm

    Just bought Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 on a whim and, seeing the blurb-writers' claims to affinity with Bernhard, immediately came here to see if you had any thoughts on Solstad. I hope to be less disappointed by it than you were by Shyness and Dignity. Indeed, I hope for an emotionless and unsettling read.

  9. Anonymous10:56 pm

    ...and Imagine My Surprise on seeing Novel 11, Book 18 listed as one of three essential books in this month's Esquire magazine, alongside some ladlit crime toss and Jay McInerney's latest pisspoor collection of stories. I'm looking forward to it a little bit less now.



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