Saturday, April 05, 2008

the end of the book

I talk about the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos...
He nods, and murmurs thoughtfully:

-- And Job...

I mention the mystics: Saint John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbruck..., and ask him if he ever rereads them, if he likes the spirit of their writings.

-- Yes... I like... I like their... their illogicality... their burning illogicality... that flame... that flame... that burns away filthy logic.

the death of the reader

It's good to see the attention drawn by the Blogging the Classics debate at the beginning of the week. A civil war in literary criticism has been averted.

In a recent review of Rónán McDonald's The Death of the Critic, one of the panellists expressed sympathy for the book's general complaint about the dearth of "expert evaluative critics" from academia: "In the English departments of British universities" writes John Mullan, "the professors have been strenuously denying the value of literature" and have thus waived their critical authority. If the lack is true, it is also true of novelists. There are very few writers of fiction who are also noted critics. As the Guardian Book Blog might ask: "Where are our Henry Jameses?".

Perhaps novelists are content to rest on the alibi of the innocence and purity of creativity even if, as seems incontrovertible to many of us, it has long lapsed. And for sure, there are plenty of readers for them who seek potato-headed delight to still the shimmering of the philosophical horizon. Witness another Blogging the Classics panellist sneering at one of the last century's great critics despite having not heard of him before let alone read a word. I have to admit this apparently harmless post has troubled me ever since I had the misfortune to read it (there is no RSS feed unsubscribe for pained memory); its disingenuous self-deprecation and withering contempt for another's "erudite literary argument" when only brief off-hand comments are quoted. So perhaps the reason for the critical dearth is more to do with the perceived unwillingness of "the market" to engage with anything other than cheerful chat about Victoriana and little Englander pre-Modernist nostalgia. What are publishers and newspapers supposed to do in this climate?

For what it's worth, below is a selection compiled from memory of critical and philosophical books about literature that I've enjoyed in recent years - many written by professors - some of which just might not have been mentioned in print thanks to that blessed editorial filter. Be warned though, they may contain erudite literary argument.

Michael Wood - The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction
Eduardo Cadava - Words of Light
Malcolm Bowie - Proust among the stars
Stanley Corngold - Kafka: The Necessity of Form (I'm reading Lambent Traces at the moment)
Teodolina Barolini - The Undivine Comedy: Detheogolizing Dante
John Freccero - Dante: The Poetics of Conversion
Lacoue-Labarthe - Poetry as experience
Timothy Clark - The Theory of Inspiration and Martin Heidegger
Christopher Ricks - Beckett's Dying Words
William Large & Ullrich Haase - Maurice Blanchot

I might add more as memory whirrs on. It should go without saying that I include Blanchot's non-fiction and Josipovici's On Trust and The Singer on the Shore, the latter currently being enjoyed at BookWorld. But now I have to ask if you have any such recommendations. Feedback is one of the advantages the blogosphere has over other forms. Apparently :)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

“I'll buy no more books by this monster”

Patrick French has just published an unflinchingly honest biography of Nobel prize-winning writer VS Naipaul, who comes across as unpleasant and stuffed with conceit. That, I guess, is true of many other authors, too. But Naipaul is exceptionally malevolent, a man without grace or humanity, sadistic to those who have dared to love him. So why do we tolerate such behaviour in writers?
So asks the exceptionally humane Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Evening Standard. Perhaps, we can answer, because vetting every single author's life and opinions before we read them would deprive us of some serious aesthetic bliss, and because, as Alibhai-Brown's column alone demonstrates, it throws up many questions. We also like a good laugh.

The first question is: how can the reader know the biography is "unflinchingly honest"? Does a focus on the distressing anecdotes of a individual's life equal honesty, or could it be an avid interest in extreme suffering is a pathological fear of life's uncertainty?

In her second paragraph Alibhai-Brown tells us Naipaul's first wife "was devoted until she died horribly of cancer". Perhaps it was Naipaul's fault it was horrible. No doubt. But can one die nicely of cancer? "It could be said that I killed her" Naipaul said. "Too late, sir" says our ever-punctual commentator. Only, isn't Naipaul's admittance as unflinchingly honest as his biographer? Is then Patrick French someone we should tolerate?

Once Alibhai-Brown has spent herself on the juicy gossip, she recalls wistfully the days she read and loved Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. As she doesn't say, we can only guess why she loved his work at that time. Was he a nicer chap? "Since [Mr Biswas]" she complains "his books have got increasingly bigoted and nasty; he was moved more by hate than love, and an ugliness repeatedly broke through his beautifully written prose." We have to ask again: is it ugly hate or unflinching honesty? When I found out Naipaul was married, it was after I'd read and enjoyed the overtly autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival which does not (if a twenty-year-old memory serves) mention any other presence in the narrator's Wiltshire cottage. Does this demonstrate a protective love or contemptuous indifference? Such is the ambiguity of writing.

Alibhai-Brown is happy to bypass any doubt by revealing she shares more than a hyphen with Charles Sainte-Beuve: "The man and the writer are not as easily separated as critics would have us believe". Well, critics bar the dead Frenchman and Nigel Beale! Should we think otherwise, our intrepid journalist informs us that writers "don't have to be saints but they do have to have empathy and live as civilised beings within the rules that apply to us all". She's so appalled at the Nobel Prize winner that she says "I certainly will not buy another book by this egomaniac. The literary cabal can protest all it wants but Naipaul deserves the contempt many of us now feel for him." And if that wasn't hilarious enough, she asks:
What would we do if we found Richard Branson beat his mistress and drove his wife to death? Or if the BBC's director general spoke of his addiction to paid sex?
Let me guess: offer them loads of cash to write drivel in moronic London newspapers?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

This is what's left

Following the shameful news that Nick Cohen and Johann Hari are both finalists for the Orwell prize for journalism, it's gratifying to learn that our finest political blogger and tireless opponent of the cruise-missile left is to publish his first book this summer.

Richard Seymour's The Liberal Defense of Murder (sic) from Verso Books "traces the journey of [figures such as Cohen and Hari] from left to right and explores their critical role in the creation of the new American empire. With wide-ranging testimony from many key figures on the left, this is a crucial account of the emergence of the 'pro-war left,' and its shaping of our post-9/11 world." But why does the cover use the US spelling of Defence?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A cure for literary sickness

Some welcome book news today. The four judges of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize have made a surprise move by adding a title to the shortlist announced in February. Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent, announced that he and his colleagues - Kate Griffin of Arts Council England, novelist and University of Kent professor Abdulrazak Gurnah and Le Monde's literary editor Florence Noiville - were now including Enrique Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady because, on reflection, they realised that the award, and each one of them, would lose all credibility and respect had it failed to include this unusually sweet, funny and profound novel beside their more serious literary choices. Read more about the judges' penitence here.


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