On five of my favorite books

It occurred to me today, International Women’s Day, to write about five of my favorite books.

Alberta and Jacob, by Cora Sandel

Cora Sandel is the pseudonym of Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius. She was born in 1880, in Norway’s capital city, Oslo (then called Kristiana). But her family moved to Tromsø when she was 12 because of some money problems. Tromsø is the northernmost city in the world. It was a cheap place to live, and it sounds all but uninhabitable. During the winter it turns into a snowglobe, and from the end of November until the beginning of January it remains shrouded in “polar night”: the sun stays below the horizon. This climate, you will learn, if you read the first volume of Sandel’s autobiographical trilogy, feels exactly as crushing as it sounds.

Alberta and Jacob delicately balances claustrophobia and spacious illumination. It reflects its setting. Alberta, like Cora, is the daughter of an official in an extremely northern town. Her family is recently impoverished, and they wear poverty badly, with all the upward envy and downward terror that characterizes the pathologically middle class psyche. She and her brother strain against the poverty of spirit the family’s poverty of money has created. Alberta is desperately shy, and secretly she is a poet. Despite her own fragility she goes to great lengths to cover up her brother’s misdeeds, suffering tortures of suspicion from their angry, peevish mother.

A Legacy, by Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford was born in 1911, and she lived all the way until 2006. Her parents were German aristocrats. Her father died when she was 14. Subsequently she and her mother lived in Italy and France, and she studied in England. She knew Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, and she was friends with, and wrote a biography of, Alduous Huxley. She wrote in English, but her ambit was the world.

A Legacy draws upon the history of her German family and the atmosphere of pre-war German culture. It’s extraordinary and I have written about it at length elsewhere, and this passage from my review is representative of my feelings about the book:

The military, the government, the churches, the gambling houses, the art world, the press: all receive their barb. Bedford’s depiction manages to be both loving and uncompromisingly critical. Family stories and the glowing fragments of childhood memory conveyed to her a story about her forebears, set in a society that was destroyed by two world wars. She appropriates that story with cynical nostalgia. She laments what was lost but remains perfectly aware that the seeds of cataclysm had already been planted, their vicious tendrils evident to anyone who looked closely enough: anti-semitism, militarism, political polarization. The extraordinary feat of A Legacy is to be both an intimate family drama and an objective exposition of history.

A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin had an exciting but difficult life. She was born in 1936 to an Alaskan miner, but when her father went off to war she traveled south to El Paso with her mother, where she met the first drunk to enter her life, her dentist grandfather. After the war, the whole family moved to Santiago, Chile. There Lucia brushed up against high society; and her mother became an alcoholic. She came back to the states for college and… Anyway, I won’t keep narrating her life, because it’s very involved, featuring a lot of different places, multiple love affairs, children, debilitating diseases, struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and a terrible, undeserved, nearly lifelong obscurity.

She died in 2004, and in 2015 A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, a collection of her wonderful stories, was published to great acclaim by FSG. They are stories about work and life and trouble, and they’re poignantly observed and relentlessly witty. I wrote about them here.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone Beauvoir

I don’t need to tell you who Simone Beauvoir is, right? Famous existentialist and feminist; author of The Second Sex and lots of novels, some of which, like The Mandarins, are very good. But my favorite of her books is the first volume of her autobiography. All the volumes are excellent, but the first, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, is a masterpiece.

I’ve read it five times. It’s the rich history of a girl embracing her powers and achieving her freedom, but it’s pierced throughout by a counterpoint, the story of Zaza, Beauvoir’s first best friend. Zaza dies in a most allegorical fashion at the end of the book. The last line is this:

We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.

Zaza, I think, is the “dutiful daughter” in the title — not Beauvoir herself. Beauvoir’s self-revelatory efforts, in this first volume of the autobiography, are a framing technique for the story of Zaza. This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that in the first part of the second volume of the autobiographical series (The Prime of Life), Beauvoir mentions that she wrote Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in order to discharge a debt. A debt, one presumes, to Zaza.

Zaza and Simone undergo similar awakenings to books, to art, and to romance. Beauvoir makes it a point to reiterate at strategic moments — illuminated in retrospect by that shocking final line — that their taste, their ideas, their hopes, their goals for intimacy were basically identical. Despite Beauvoir’s relatively early apostasy from her Roman Catholic childhood faith and Zaza’s patient abiding in it, despite Beauvoir’s quiet rebellion against the totalitarian intrusions of her parents and Zaza’s idealization of filial piety, the double portrait is unmistakably that of moral, aesthetic, and intellectual twins. In the end, Zaza literally dies from the moral conflict between her aspiration to freedom and her religiously buttressed commitment to filial duty. Beauvoir’s personal Bildungsroman turns out to be another tragedy: Zaza’s death marks the end of Simone’s childhood. Thereafter, the value of freedom with which she had flirted as a rebellious daughter is confirmed by an intimate object lesson: the dutiful daughter, the dead one.

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald was born in 1916, into the intellectually brilliant Knox family, and she distinguished herself as a student at Oxford, after which everybody expected her take her place on the cultural scene as a serious writer. But instead she married an alcoholic soldier and had a bunch of babies, all of whom became her exclusive dependents in short order. The bulk of her her adult life was spent feverishly scraping by, and she was unable to properly launch her literary career until she was 57. But when she launched, she damn well launched. She wrote twelve books in the next twenty years, including two biographies and ten novels, as well as lots of essays and stories.

Literally everything Fitzgerald wrote is a precious literary jewel that you should track down, hoard, and delight in. (And while you’re at it, you should read Hermione Lee’s biography of her.) But my favorite is Offshore. Like several other of her first few novels, it mines the experiences of her working life (and then her last novels are historical fiction of an altogether transcendent variety). Offshore takes its material from Fitzgerald’s time living in a houseboat on the Thames. Like everything she wrote it is laconic and ravishing, psychologically astute, funny, tragic, utterly unpredictable, and composed of pointillist-precise sentences. I will never be able to write like her, but she is my constant vision of narrative near-perfection when I write stories.

Like my writing? Please consider following the blog by email or on twitter.

On Apophatic Criticism

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner, is an accessible introduction to a kind of literary criticism that beguiles and frightens me. I think of it as “apophatic” criticism: the literary analogue to apophatic theology. Apophatic criticism rejects facile approaches to literature, and locates its highest values in the failure of texts. But we’ll get there. First, The Hatred of Poetry.

This excellent, short book is — surprise! — about hating poetry. Paradoxically, Lerner is a good poet and a lover of poetry, who hates poetry: “I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable”. His thesis? That hating actual poems is loving the idea of poetry. To hate existing poems, or the limits of actual poetry, is to love virtual poetry, the poetry that cannot exist but seems to linger as a dream behind actual poems. With admirable dialectical tenacity, Lerner ropes in every variety of poem-hating, theoretical, emotional, and practical, to support his thesis:

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did.

All these variants of the hatred of poetry are negative testimonies to the value of true Poetry. Given the impossibility of approaching Poetry in mere poems, “great poets as different as Keats and Dickinson express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions — by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” And great critics, we might add, express their commitment to Poetry by pointing out where merely actual poems fall short and highlighting the places where great poets virtualize their own compositions.

This is what I call the apophatic criticism of poetry. Whence the word “apophatic”?

Apophatic theology is a logical development of the idea of monotheism. Back when I was any sort of Christian, I became obsessed with it for this reason. If god is not a creature, a created thing, and is, in fact, the author of existence itself, then that presents a major problem for theology, the study of god, the attempt to describe god. There appear to be only two possibilities: analogical language, saying what god is “like,” or negation, saying what god is not. All the well-known language of worship and devotion in actual religious traditions is basically analogical, the attribution of creaturely qualitites to the uncreated solely as comparisons, not as real and therefore contradictory predication. But what kind of analogy makes any sense if there is no basis for comparison? If I say Donald Trump reminds me of a badger being eaten by a smaller, hairier badger, either I mean that they, such a badger and Donald Trump, share some feature, or else I’m talking nonsense. But in the case of an analogy between the uncreated and a creature, there is no possible feature they could share. So how is analogical language anything but the purest fabulism? The other way to talk about the uncreated is through negation. Saying what the uncreated is not involves no claim, explicit or implicit, about some shared ground between the created and the uncreated. Given the danger of misattribution involved in any analogy, perhaps the negative way of theology, apophatic theology, is the most accurate way to speak about the uncreated.

It should be obvious by now why I want to borrow the word “apophatic” for the kind of criticism exemplified by Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

Now this kind of criticism can seem very austere and limiting at first. How boring would it be if poetry critics did nothing but talk about the failure of poetry? Lerner leaves himself an out at the end of his book:

[P]oems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing. They can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on. The admitted weakness in the story I’m telling about Poetry is that it doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety; it’s much better at dealing with great or horrible instances of the art. (And I didn’t pretend to know where the art beings or ends: Another essay might look at how hip-hop, or spoken word, or other creative linguistic practices take up or by-pass the contradictions I’ve been describing.) But the story is illuminating because it helps account for the persistent if mutable feeling that our moment’s poems are always already failing us — whether our moment is 380 B.C. or 731, or 1579, of 1819, or 2016.

Thus The Hatred of Poetry is an exploration, for Lerner, merely of one very important feature of the poetic experience. What would a more uncompromising apophatic criticism look like?


An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.

You may have heard of Mitchelmore from his blog This Space. Not so long ago, he made the excellent decision to turn a number of posts from that blog into a book, entitled This Space of Writing, published by Zero Press. When I found out about this book, I purchased it with glee.

I discovered Mitchelmore’s blog when I was a college student. Without going too deeply into it, I was a miserable person then: I was cooped up in a terrible university I had chosen for religious reasons, and those religious reasons were beginning to get complicated, to slip away, and I was waking up to the profound intellectual poverty of my surroundings. I felt alone in my enthusiasm for books and philosophy and history, despite a lively social life and intense involvement in all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time holed up in quiet corners, desperately reading, or looking for real live intellectual models and virtual friends on the internet. I stumbled onto This Space and encountered a way of talking about books that seemed as far above me in intellectual seriousness as I felt I was above my fellow students. Mitchelmore clearly valued books more than anyone I’d ever met. But he had some secret technique or method of approach that guided everything he said while evading all my attempts to isolate it. He’d developed a kind of discourse that seemed to turn every story into a text about reading and writing itself.

Mitchelmore’s essays have none of the fat that characterizes commercial criticism or the different kind of fat that characterizes book blogging. He writes with an intensity of focus that either sucks you in or makes you scornful. Those seem to be the two responses his blog draws: and the critical response to his book has been no different.

In a blog post called “Mehr Nichts” (it’s also included in the book), he asks at the end: “What does it mean to acknowledge the limits of writing?” And it was only after I had read Mitchelmore for many months, as a teenager, that I realized this was the question, or the kind of question, guiding his work. He prefers fiction that raises the question; and he reads all fiction, the good and the bad, with the question in mind.

Before I clued into this apophatic method, I found Mitchelmore’s writing difficult for a very specific reason: it rebuffed my desire to imitate it. I was deeply impressed by his irascibility toward other reviewers and by the way he seemed to dive into a text, causing it to disappear by becoming more intensely itself. But when I tried to read that way myself, or to discriminate between the critics and novels who offered or allowed for that way of reading and those who didn’t, I continually arrived at the “wrong” conclusions. Like Churchill, who supposedly taught himself politics while he was stationed in India by reading volumes of the debates of parliament, determining his own views and reasons about each issue, and then measuring them against the reported outcome of the actual debates, I essentially taught myself to read like an apophatic critic (or tried to) by seeing what book Mitchelmore had written about, trying to read that book as I imagined he would, and then comparing my experience to what he wrote.

It sounds more slavish than it was. I’ll write more on some other occasion about Mitchelmore, his book, and what his blog meant to me in college, because he deserves the attention, and I owe it to the role he played in my self-education. His book also requires its own post because to really show what he’s up to would require zeroing in on how he talks about specific texts, and I can sense this post will already be rather long without a digression of that kind.

In fact, that is the very the feature of an apophatic criticism that most appeals to me: despite the way it might seem abstract or predictable from an outside description, in practice it is more deeply focused on the real (or virtual?) object in front of the critic than any other form of criticism.


I approach the question of criticism from a practical standpoint. It interests me as a writer of criticism who needs a method rather than as a scholar in pursuit of the most defensible theory. From that perspective, and ignoring all the subtle distinctions of scholars, I see basically five varieties of criticism.

(1) Consumer advice. It measures a book against what it imagines readers want, and passes judgment on whether you, the consumer, ought to buy it. Is it a beach read? An aspirational read? A good read to give someone for Christmas? (The language of “reads” rather than “books” is symptomatic of consumer advice criticism.)

(2) Reader response. This kind of criticism is essentially a self-report. I liked the book or I didn’t, and this is what I liked or didn’t like about it. Nothing wrong with reader response, but it’s fundamentally autobiography, and therefore inevitably about the reader more than the book. The vast majority of book blogging is reader response.

(3) Textual-rhetorical criticism. Here the reviewer attempts to determine what the author was trying to do, and judges whether they succeeded or not, based purely on an appraisal of the text. In the hands of a perceptive and knowledgeable critic, it can be quite illuminating. It’s where you turn when you’ve been puzzled by a book and want a hand thinking about it. It can also very easily shade over either into disagreeable arrogance, when the critic ventures ex cathedra mind-reading of an author, or else into boring apologetics, when the critic reads an author’s goals out of their text without separating vision from actuality.

(4) Contextual-rhetorical criticism. This kind of criticism also attempts to judge an author’s intended act of communication and whether they achieved it, but relies upon all kind of sources (textual or not) beyond the book. Much of what I write in my formal book reviews for places like Open Letters Monthly and The Los Angeles Review of Books could be classified this way. I tend to use biographical events, intellectual history, letters, genre considerations, and so forth, in my attempt to figure out what a given book is up to. I make no pretense of ginning up the author’s vision from the text alone. Some of my favorite critics, like Fredric Jameson and Walter Benjamin, practiced this variety of criticism. Obviously it lends itself to political and materialist interpretations, but don’t let my list of critics or my own example limit the range of the method. I’d say a blog like Wuthering Expectations is contextual-rhetorical criticism too, even though the context drawn upon is primarily literary history. Obviously I love this kind of criticism. It has one serious disadvantage, though: it melts the specificity of a text into its context. The book becomes a node whose meaning arises from a conjuncture of other things. Perhaps that’s fine and we should reject the consideration of uniquely “literary” dimension of experience. (I’m not accusing the critics I mentioned of harboring that opinion; I just think it’s a practical implication of only writing contextual-rhetorical criticism.)

(5) Apophatic criticism. I’ve already described it, but to recap: it’s a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits. It searches for a specifically literary dimension of experience, and necessarily it excludes other concerns, including the rhetorical, because its interest is not in the text as an occasion for communication, but in textuality as such.

There is one other way of writing about books — which I call “book chat” — but it’s more of a style than a method, so I won’t include it among my unscientific numbered set. It’s a plummy, belletristic, gossipy way of writing. Though not a text, the extremely enjoyable podcast Backlisted is a great example of book chat. V.S. Pritchett’s reviews were often this way, too. It’s a fine way to write about books; but I’m not sure it’s properly a form of criticism at all. (Surely anything that aspires to be a form of “criticism” must involve measuring something against something.) Really what book chat resembles is fan-centered sports-writing, of the Bill Simmons variety, but without falling into mere reader response. Yes, fundamentally it’s the discourse of fans. Perhaps it bears the same relation to apophatic criticism that popular devotion bears to the apophatic theology in monotheistic religions.


An important stage in my journey to atheism and irreligion was the way station of apophatic theology. For me, deciding that the negative way of theology was the only logical and appropriate way to speak or think of the uncreated called much of the everyday business of religion into question: the side of religion involved in building a community and living a certain way seemed more and more earthly and political, while the side involving an attempt to contemplate god seemed disconnected from the earthly altogether. Ultimately the tension proved insupportable, and my religious life split and transformed into socialist politics on the one hand and philosophical and aesthetic speculation on the other. But my point here isn’t to narrate my autobiography, it’s to ask whether apophatic criticism doesn’t spell a danger to work as a critic similar to the danger apophatic theology poses to religion.

I think the escape hatch that Lerner gives himself, quoted above, is unrigorous. Having conclusively determined that actual poetry is always inadequate as Poetry, he nevertheless permits himself to discuss the actual value of “good” poetry. And I’m at a loss to understand what he means by “good poetry.” To be a good X is to possess in the highest degree the qualities that make an X an X; and that is precisely what he has decided poetry cannot do. He has argued that poems are endemically imperfect. So what he means is that poems can be good for things other than the poetic. This would be like saying a shiny spoon with a hole in it was a good spoon because you can use its shiny surface as a mirror: in fact, it’s not a good spoon, it’s a bad spoon and a good mirror.

A critic can certainly write actual criticism, valuable criticism, which asks what non-literary things literature is good for. The contextual-rhetorical criticism that I often practice, for example, can, I think, be pleasant to read, instructive, even edifying. But is it literary criticism? Shouldn’t literary criticism involve judgment as to a work’s success as literature? In that endeavor, I think, apophatic criticism has no peer. Which is why I value Steve Mitchelmore’s work so much.

My admiration presents me with a problem, though. Apophatic criticism is difficult to read, and it will never, I suspect, be particularly popular. So does that mean that the professional critic must fall short of properly literary criticism? “Success, in the sense defined by the reviewers,” writes Mitchelmore, “would be failure.”


My college fascination with Mitchelmore’s This Space ultimately lead me to his sources. To Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici, among others. In the course of reading from and around Blanchot, I lucked onto the brilliant essay “A Phenomenology of Reading,” by Georges Poulet. It’s a bizarre text that begins as an exploration of the experience of reading, ultimately settling on a description of reading as a sort of possession of one’s faculties, and then takes a sharp turn into discussing the various types of literary critic, among whom he singles out several critics contemporary to him, including Maurice Blanchot, the ur-apophatic critic.

I’ll conclude by quoting without commentary a passage from Poulet which touches directly upon apophatic criticism:

[The critic] can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power on the part of the subject, while at the same time accentuating in the object those characteristics which emphasize its infinite distance from the subject […] the maximum lucidity thereby achieved only confirms a separation instead of a union. […] I may […] separate myself so completely from what I am contemplating that the thought thus removed to a distance assumes the aspect of a being with whom I may never establish any relationship whatsoever. […] the act of reading has delivered me from egocentricity: another’s thought inhabits me or haunts me [but I] keep [my] distance and refuse to identify.

Like my writing? Please consider following the blog by email or on twitter.

Notes on Reiner Stach’s Kafka

I write a lot of book reviews, but I strain against the form. I write them because they’re a vehicle for telling stories and working through my thoughts, a vehicle that editors are actually willing to publish, where they wouldn’t just publish my maunderings sans occasion (or at any rate, I don’t think they would).

But each time I write a long book review, I shelve a pile of ideas that don’t fit the angle. My latest piece — about Reiner Stach’s magnificent three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, written for Open Letters Monthly’s February issue — felt particularly tragic in this respect. So I had an idea. Why not start publishing “annexes” to my reviews, here on this blog, in which I briefly adumbrate some of the ideas and observations I couldn’t fit into the formal review?

Well, here you go. Some additional notes on Reiner Stach’s Kafka. (It would be a shame not to read first the essay to which these notes are an annex, so please do that!)

(1) Kafka loved to read biographies. He was indiscriminate though. Explorers, writers, politicians, activists — he didn’t seem to have a type of biography he liked so much as a style. Here’s Stach:

In devouring numerous biographies and autobiographies, Kafka was searching not for the minutest details but for the characteristic ones that revealed the structure and essence of an entire life — only these were “true,” in his view, and everything else a conventional frill.

If you’ve read my main review, you’ll know that this matter of “truth” is quite important to Kafka. He used the word to indicate something like aesthetic coherence and authenticity. Moreover, he sought to build his own life around such truth, forming some very distinctive, ascetic habits, principals, and preferences.

One of the many cool things about Stach’s biography is that I think Kafka would have enjoyed reading it. (Well, no, he would probably have cringed at the thought of a biography about himself; but I mean it’s the kind of biography he would enjoy.) While Stach maintains a narrative thread — and often inserts a chapter that stands out like a short story, as it follows Kafka in detail through one day, or one incident — he is focused on structure and essence. I wonder if Stach consciously tried to create the kind of biography Kafka would have liked?

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer.

(2) Kafka’s suspicion that bachelorhood was a condition for art reminded me, naturally, of Kierkegaard, and also of Henry James. Kierkegaard famously conducted a dramatic and disastrous relationship with Regine Olsen, a relationship that reached an ignominious denouement when Kierkegaard pretended to be horrible in order to force Regine to break up with. He ghosted her and traveled to Berlin to write the first of his astonishing books, while requiring voyeuristic reports from friends back in Copenhagen on the fallout from his abandonment. And then he obsessed over and wrote about Regine for the rest of his life anyway, even after she happily married someone else. Henry James, on the other hand, was gay; but he also thought about bachelorhood as a way of being, a permanent observer status, and he meditated often upon a lost quasi-love, his cousin Minny Temple. (Colm Tóibín’s The Master is wonderful on this subject.)

Kafka noticed the resemblance between his own contretemps with Felice Bauer and Kierkegaard’s with Regine Olsen. He read Kierkegaard’s journals and commented on the parallel.

Unlike James and Kierkegaard, however, Kafka never gave up on the possibility of a balance between intimate social relations and literature. Despite the evidence of the apparent poverty of his life in comparison to either of the others, he actually harbored a more utopian vision of everyday life than either one. Kafka wrote: “Only on our death beds can we allow things to remain bad once and for all.”

And in fact, in his brief, beautiful relationship with Dora Diamant, his ungovernable hope seems to have received the benison of a happy ending. We don’t usually think Kafka in the same sentence as a happy ending. But I felt like he had a somewhat happy ending.

(3) Kafka was exposed to and highly sympathetic toward socialism. His classmate Rudolf Illovy introduced him to it; and apparently Kafka sometimes even wore the symbol of socialism, a red carnation in his buttonhole.

Lily Braun: Memoirs of a Socialist

For Kafka even to have flirted with socialism was an affront to his father, a way of siding with the shopkeepers of the Kafka fancy goods store against the authoritarian owner of the place.

It also happens that Kafka’s absolutely favorite biography was Lily Braun’s Memoirs of a Socialist.

But like many other ideological flirtations in Kafka’s life (notably with Zionism), he seems not to have found it possible to commit himself to socialism as a “truth” in his sense. Stach suggests his understanding of oppression went deeper than mere political repression and material inequality, embracing more profound, universal, existential “prospects of identification, stability, and even security.” The implication being that socialism has a surface-level understanding of what it means to be precarious and insecure. Personally, I’m far from convinced this is an exclusive disjunction. I’d like to read more about Kafka’s relations with socialism and socialists.

(4) The three volumes of Stach’s trilogy have a curious relation to each other. Each of the volumes overlaps to some degree. They are not just arbitrarily severed lengths of one biographical chain: they are each books with their own themes and internal structure. Perhaps this was necessary because they were written out of order (2, then 3, then 1). Book 1 assembles the elements of an image: of an essentially static psyche, of a writerly habitus, technique, and ideal, of a set of social pathologies. Book 2 shows their most blazing incarnation, in the long debacle of Kafka’s first failed engagement to Felice Bauer, which also prompted the frenzies of writing in which he produced, among other things, his most famous works: “The Metamorphosis” and The Trial. Book 3 is about the ramifications of this established and paradigmatically demonstrated pattern, as even desperation, mortal illness, access to fame, changes in the composition of the family, fail to break the pattern or Kafka’s life or mar the image he presents. The appearance of the same picture in books 2 and 3 of Kafka with Felice Bauer (a sort of engagement photo) contributes to the sense of the books’ separateness, or individual self-containment.

Robert Musil, 1925

(5) Stach is really good with counterfactuals. What if the interaction between Kafka and Robert Musil had blossomed into a real friendship and Musil had helped Kafka move to Berlin and take up fulltime writing? What if James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and Franz Kafka had all visited the spa they liked at the same time and gotten to know one another? In each of these cases, how might the history of literature have changed?

(6) I enjoyed it when Stach would settle down to augment the drama of a moment. Biography ought to be, among other things, a dramatic art. An example of this came when he was about to describe Kafka’s first meeting with Felice Bauer, at his best friend Max Brod’s house. This meeting set Kafka on a crazy emotional and literary roller coaster for years. There are moments in literary history, Stach says portentously, which stand out for their awesome significance, and then he launches into this delightful list, saying Kafka’s evening at the Brod’s was like:

the transformation of the dilettante Jean-Jacques Rousseau into a critic of civilization one October afternoon in 1749 while he was on the road from Paris to Vincennes; Hölderlin’s first encounter with Susette Gontard, later known as Diotima, on December 31, 1795, in Frankfurt am Main; the hatching of the idea of the “eternal return of the same” in Nietzsche’s mind after a stroll at Lake Silvaplana in early August 1881; and Valéry’s renunciation of literature one stormy night in Genoa on October 4, 1892.

(9) I could have written a whole essay just on Stach’s intermittent discussions of Kafka’s craft as a writer. I just want to quote a few fascinating bits and pieces from across the three books.

An insight into the way Kafka learned to produce the flat yet sparkling affect of his descriptions:

One passage in the first version [of “Description of a Struggle,” Kafka’s first long-ish extant prose fragment] reads: “The train started up so slowly that it seemed irresolute.” Kafka was unhappy with that wording, and replaced “irresolute” with “weary,” but he ultimately opted for a totally different solution, which switched the perspective and transformed the psychological expression into an impression: “The train started up so slowly that one could picture the revolution of the wheels.”

The function of Kafka’s diary within his overall literary production:

It appears as though Kafka was inventing a new variant of the diary that enabled him to keep on writing in addition to and after his literary work; it was still literary, but without working toward a narrative goal. If a story resulted, so much the better—and this was an occasional outcome. If not, at least he had “written.”

Kafka and metaphors:

He never treated metaphor as an afterthought, and he definitely never sought one out. In the beginning — such is the first law of Kafka’s universe — is the image, and more than a few of his texts can be read as expansions of one memorable image, as a demonstration of what an image can yield.

He suggests we can understand much of Kafka’s work as, essentially, speculative fiction:

Someone roars with laughter at a solemn occasion. Someone is pursued by two little balls he cannot shed. Someone wake up one morning as a bug. Someone stops eating. How will it go on from there, assuming that everything else in the universe remains unchanged?

A Glossary of Literary-Critical Cliches

The following glossary explains the true and secret functions and unintended revelations of certain common cliches used by reviewers when they are describing books. It is lovingly compiled, since I am in fact a reviewer. I am no doubt guilty of most of these transgressions at one time or another. But it is seriously intended as a relevant tic-list. Every single one of these abominations could be avoided, and a hundred others besides, if we reviewers mustered the strength of purpose to avoid lazy evaluative abstractions. Also, I frequently get carried away in my analysis of unintended revelations, so don’t take anything too seriously.

– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.

To be updated (when I get the chance) with: elegant, luminous, lush, prescient, provocative, riveting, stunning, thrilling, transcendent, unflinching, love-child of author and author, and voice of a generation.

Feel free to contribute addenda in the comments, or to suggest other likely candidates for the glossary!

Completist Aspirations

The few unmitigated pleasures of my graduate education have been the occasions when I was forced, by my own procrastination or the surreal requirements of my program, to drop everything and immerse myself in huge, demanding bodies of literature. I did it for my Master’s comprehensive exam, for my Doctoral comprehensive exam, and for my dissertation. From the delicious hope that precedes a daunting project, to the sensation of tremendous assimilation that comes in the middle, to the truly gratifying sense of repletion and accomplishment that follows it—I can’t recommend the experience enough. It’s probably hard to believe if you’ve never done it: but I bet you’d surprise yourself. The pleasure of it surprised me.

What I would like to do is arrange one month a year, for the rest of my life, in which my primary objective is a completist reading project. (Actually one of my favorite realistic fantasies is to book passage on a month-long container-ship voyage during which I would do nothing but complete one of these reading projects, journal, and contemplate the sea.)

This is a list, without commentary, of authors whose works I would like to read in the order they were written and in their entirety, each over the course of, say, one coffee-fueled month. In these ideal reading retreats of mine I would include extant letters and journals: just a complete and massive immersion in the totality of words written by the author in question. I’ve read a book or two by each of the authors listed, but all the books of none, and always in random order.

  • Aristotle
  • Stanislaw Lem
  • Honoré de Balzac (perhaps 2 months!)
  • Edmund Wilson
  • Edith Wharton
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Mark Twain
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Arthur Schnitzler
  • Clarice Lispector
  • Rosa Luxemburg
  • V.S. Naipaul
  • David Hume
  • Colette
  • Thomas Mann
  • Naguib Mahfouz
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • Karl Marx
  • Samuel Johnson
  • Søren Kierkegaard
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Goethe

Have you any completist aspirations, dear reader?

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

We project the reality of actual people much as we do the seeming reality of fictional characters.

Madame Bovary is, factually, a noun to which certain verbs are attributed. Functionally, however, she is a person whom you care for or despise, laugh at or despair of, picture in the round, treat as possessing interiority, and, perhaps, even conduct imaginary dialogues with. Likewise your own mother, in the most basic sense, is a series of impressions, conceptualized as a continuous entity, accruing, like a snowplow leaving drifts on either side, attributions of causality. You speculate that she is an outside-with-an-inside-that-seems-to-be-free-and-autonomous. Just like you. You recognize her in certain primordial ways too. I’m not denying that. But most of what you think about her is constructed by your ongoing work of fantasy. Actually, Madame Bovary can seem more real to you than your mother. When you’re tired or your mother transgresses the bounds of your fantasy by doing something unexpected, then at least Madame Bovary is coherent, neatly tucked into her narrative. This mother, though—! She practically dissipates into incomprehensibility unless you maintain her invisible dimensions.

Given the sheer effort you expend to maintain your perception of another person’s independent reality, you seize any shortcut or prefab element you can find. That’s one reason children universally adore stories: stories are prefab fantasies, enormously useful. But besides stories, we repurpose the traits, types, and projected motivations of our fantasies about one person in our fantasies about another. We form an idea of mother, and use bits of it in our idea of father, and so on. (It’s not linear like this, obviously, but circular and recursive.)

Your family, at the level of its fantasy-existence as a collection of real people constantly presumed to be carrying on their own lives outside your head, are all built from one another. This Frankenstein, this family, is nonetheless, for you, the very definition of the real, the distinct, the effortlessly independent and permanently stable surround. Your brothers and sisters and mother and father are the archetypes from which you draw the materials for all subsequent fantasies about the new, supposedly real, people who touch your consciousness.

Well, perhaps one other person adds something incontestably new: your first lover.

The first person who breaches that wall of physical distance, the wall you built up gradually from your naked and bawling babyhood, in clumsy childhood, in embarassed adolescence, in dignified adulthood. Your lover reorganizes the whole settled engine of your fantasies. This traumatizes however it happens.

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a very short novel composed of tiny sections that leap back and forth in time and from one plot line to another. It forms a mosaic whose central figures are a fictionalized version of Duras herself—as a 15 year old girl—and her first lover. This lover is the son of a rich man and he is Chinese. Marguerite, of course, was French. She ostensibly goes with him because she wants money. Her mother, a bankrupt widow, stuck in the colonial Saigon, has awoken her to the need for money. And then later Duras thinks: perhaps I did love him.

From what I’ve been able to find out, the autobiographical events from which this tale stems, however, are different in one important way: the real Duras recollected that she only slept with the lover once, due to her racist revulsion from his body.

Imaginary-Duras, though, sleeps with him for two years. She’s a school-girl in colonial Vietnam. Perhaps you know about strained imperial communities that attempt to recreate the homeland’s social world. In such a recreations, polite fictions are continually undermined by the presence of the slave, the exploited, the subjugated, the ostensibly savage. Societies like that don’t handle scandal well (consult Kipling and the early Orwell). Young story-Duras is a scandal even before she takes up with a non-European who has no intention of marrying her. She wears a man’s hat and gold lamé shoes. She has a face, she tells us, that prophecies debauchery, a grown up dissipated face on a pubescent girl’s body. A delightful fictionalization, I thought, and then I found a picture:

This is, I believe, a young Marguerite Duras

Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It aslo served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me. I knew it the same as other people, but, strangely, in advance. Just as the space existed for desire. At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face […] That was how everything started for me—with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.

For The Lover, Duras won the Prix Goncourt. To win such a major prize with barely a hundred pages: astonishing.

The story shows how one cannibalizes family members in an attempt to construct a fantasy about the lover’s independent reality. She imagines him as mother, father, brother. (“He takes her as he would his own child. He’d take his own child the same way.” Yes, admittedly creepy.) But ultimately, the lover breaches any merely borrowed fantasy. What most people take to be a recognition in later life that she actually loved the lover, and didn’t just go with him for his money, I take to be a surrender to the necessity to form fresh elements of fantasy to cope with his memory.

[I]t was when the boat uttered its first farewell, when the gangway was hauled up and the tugs had started to tow and draw the boat away from land, that she had wept. She’d wept without letting anyone see her tears, because he was Chinese and one oughtn’t to weep for that kind of lover.

What makes The Lover extraordinary, I think, is that it combines these two things: the way a first lover reorganizes the material of your fantasies about other people, and imperialism. Marguerite’s lover resists her existing stock of family fantasies not just by being a lover, but also by being Chinese. The foreignness (and perceived inferiority) of his being Chinese, however, cannot be maintained as a shadowy otherness when he is her first lover. It’s an intractable problem and their “love” does not work out—quite apart from its external obstacle which is, ironically, not her mother (who nonetheless beats her and screams at her for degrading herself with another race, even while accepting the monetary bounty that flows from her daughter’s promiscuity), but his father, who considers the girl beneath them.

At one point in the novel, Duras tosses out a little line that struck me between the eyes like a poleaxe: she says there is a “superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem.” I thought about it and she’s right: there isn’t a political solution to a personal problem. (A thing we are about to learn with searing clarity.) But what is left unsaid—and Duras usually speaks as much through what she doesn’t say as through what she does—is that personal problems might have political origins.

Take her personal problem with that first lover. It wouldn’t be a problem—or not as intractable a problem—without the fact of Imperialism.

And that of course raises the question: though there can’t be political solutions to personal problems, can there be personal solutions to political problems? Well, suppose the novel is an attempt to answer that question. I’ll leave it to you.

What’s Immoral About the Immoralist?

I think I can be forgiven hoping to find something lurid in a novel entitled The Immoralist, written by a notorious French pederast. But at first blush there’s not all that much to blush about in André Gide’s book. I closed it a bit underwhelmed, feeling as if I’d finished a competent but frankly somewhat prudish mashup of Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allen Poe. The story had, however, entered the two-chambered stomach of my mind. I chewed the cud of it for a day, and by the time I’d digested it I realized just how interesting it was.

Michel, the eponymous immoralist, is a bookish and independently wealthy young man. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Marceline. On their honeymoon he almost dies of tuberculosis. Galvanized by his escape, he decides to abandon books in favor of sensual experience: sunbathing naked, hanging out with pretty little boys, roaming about at night poaching rabbits on his own lands, that sort of thing.

Marceline doesn’t much like Michel’s new philosophy, and when she gets pregnant he seriously considers taking back up the burdens of typical bourgeois life. But then Marceline miscarries and gets tuberculosis herself. By way of a cure, Michel foolishly hustles her from place to place. He convinces both of them that carting her around the Middle East is the best way to treat her. They retrace the path of their honeymoon: for him it was a journey of convalescence, but for her, now, it’s a journey of deterioration. In a suitably gothic finale, she dies hemorrhaging, drowning in her own blood, covered in sheets of it, just about where Michel was definitively cured, in a remote desert village beyond the reach of any doctors.

Plenty is disturbing in this story, especially the fate of Marceline. But where’s the immorality? A bookworm almost dies and realizes he needs to live a little. For the most part he doesn’t hurt anybody, except by accident. It is disturbing when the narrator suggests that Michel was unmoved by the death of Marceline. But even there, apart from Michel’s poor medical theories — for which he did, actually, have some basis, since he’d been cured by the same desert that kills Marceline — he does nothing to deserve serious opprobrium, offering Marceline devoted daily care, even though he’s long since ceased to base his happiness on their love. Can you fault someone for being unable to muster an emotion, when he doesn’t allow that inner coldness to interfere with any external duties? Where’s the immorality?

I think questing for that immorality, an almost inevitable readerly task, as Gide surely realized when he chose the title, unfolds a seemingly straightforward and simple story into something more profound and challenging.

Perhaps the key to the book is a conversation that takes place about halfway through. After Michel and Marceline’s honeymoon they end up back in Paris where Michel gives some lectures. He tries to express his new philosophy of sensuality in these lectures, but nobody understands. Nobody except one former acquaintance, Ménalque, a man much further along the same path. Here’s the pertinent exchange:

Ménalque, who was walking up and down the room, absentmindedly lit a cigarette, then threw it away at once. “There is,” he continued, “a ‘sense,’ the others would say, a ‘sense’ you seem to be lacking, my dear Michel.”

“You mean a ‘moral sense,’” I said, trying to smile.

“No, just a sense of property.”

Michel doesn’t lack a moral sense; he lacks a sense of property; yet we find him in a book called L’immoraliste. This isn’t a contradiction because there’s a difference between immorality and amorality. An important difference actually, one all-too-often elided. If two people believe in different accounts of what is good, and therefore judge different actions to be right, each will perceive the other to be immoral. If one of them didn’t believe anything was good, and that there were no right actions, he would be amoral.

Michel does lack something: a sense of property. And this makes him appear immoral to people who possess that sense.

What does it mean that he lacks a sense of property?

In the remark’s immediate context, it quite literally means that he isn’t jealous of his possessions. He lets a child steal from him for the pleasure of witnessing the theft, for instance.

But in a deeper sense that Ménalque teaches him, Michel has no property because he lives entirely in the present. Don’t cling to memory, advises Ménalque. Don’t steer your craft by the north star of principle or any particular constellation of previous felicity, but follow the erratic comet of present inclination. If a friend tires you, drop them; if a former hobby bores you, neglect it; if you want something, buy it. Relinquish both the past and the future.

What becomes of property if there is no past or future? It ceases to make sense as a concept. For something to be “property” to you, you must project your possession of it into the future as a right, on the basis of some supposedly legitimating act of appropriation in the past. Perhaps you bought this banana yesterday, and therefore you consider that only you or your agents may eat or dispose of it tomorrow. (My beloved and I experience the antinomies of banana ownership on a weekly basis, as she considers her act of purchasing the bananas reason enough to deprive me of what I perceive to be my right to dispose of them when they get black and mushy.) The very coherence of the idea of property depends upon time-consciousness, depends upon our not fully inhabiting the present.

But why does Michel’s lack of a sense of property, in either the shallow or the deeper sense, make him immoral? Remember, the immoral is a comparative term, used by those with a different conception of the moral than those whom they consider immoral. We may therefore presume that Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he appears to those who differ from him in the essential way that they possess a sense of property. And indeed this is fully borne out by a second key scene in the book.

One of Michel’s tenants realizes that his landlord is poaching rabbits on his own land. He’s buying copper wire to help the son of his overseer set up illicit snares, and then he’s running around at night setting them up, taking great delight in, essentially, stealing from himself. Michel’s tenant, Charles, delivers a sermon to his landlord:

Charles’s voice grew more and more assured. He sounded almost noble. I noticed that he had shaved off his whiskers. […] “It was Monsieur who taught me last year that property involves certain responsibilities — but Monsieur seems to have forgotten. Either you take those responsibilities seriously and stop dealing with those [poachers] or else you don’t deserve to own anything.”

Michel doesn’t deserve to own anything: but what would make him deserve ownership? Presumably, the missing sense of property. The circularity of this observation delights me. It highlights the arbitrary nature of ownership itself. The will to own is itself the prime justification and qualification for ownership. And in fact isn’t that the disillusioning reality?

I think I’ve found what makes the immoralist immoral. Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he is perceived by a bourgeois who properly understands what Michel has become. What has he become? A sensualist, someone wholly absorbed by the present and therefore unwilling and unable to entertain a sense of property. That’s not so bad, though, I don’t think. In fact it’s… admirable. Not being amoral, Michel is immoral because he has detached himself from the obsession with property that festers at the heart of bourgeois morality. Earlier, before the perfection of his sensuality, he saw just how unhappy this obsession could make him:

Furniture, fabrics, engravings, everything lost all its value for me at the first blemish — things stained, things infected by disease and somehow marked by mortality. I longed to protect everything, to put it all under lock and key for myself alone. How lucky Ménalque is, I thought, owning nothing! It’s because I want to save things that I suffer.

A year ago I was briefly misdiagnosed with a heart problem and spent several weeks convinced I might die at any moment. It was among the best things that ever happened to me. Months later, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that gaze into the abyss for anything. Among its many lingering effects is a strong and existential disgust with possessions. I keep finding ways and reasons to get rid of my things. The Immoralist revealed something to me about this disgust: it’s the obverse of a newfound appreciation for immediacy, for the present. All those things, mementos of the past or collections curated and aimed at a future completion, were bifurcations of the present, so many incursions of death upon life.

The various gothic thrills and horrors of The Immoralist conceal a quietly more interesting idea: the transvaluation of values effected by a clear perception of the precious contingency of existence.

As plain a thing as an ordinary sentence

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:

You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.

Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.

That would be desire.

Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.

These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.

The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”




When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”

But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?”

If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.

I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”

So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.

For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.

But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”

Why did I read four biographies of Stefan Zweig?

[Trigger warning: talk of suicide and despair, including a disturbing picture.]

Why did I read four (well, three and a half) biographies of Stefan Zweig in a row? The short answer is, I’m not sure. The long answer will take us through train rides, insomnia, paragraph-structure, marriage, suicide, political despair, and then leave us where the short answer did, in uncertainty. So come along if you don’t mind futility.

These days I choose what to read according to spontaneous interest or arbitrary schemas, in order to maintain the impetuosity of my enthusiasm. Lately I’ve put the list of all the books I want to read onto Goodreads, where I can order them by author or publication or title or whatever. Just for the serendipity of the thing, I’ve been reading them alphabetically by title. I had a long train ride coming up, so I needed a journey-specific project, and I was getting a little tired of books beginning with A. First I thought I’d start from the other end and read one beginning with Z. But then that seemed too predictable. So I really mixed things up and decided to start with authors whose last names begin with Z. Which led me to Stefan Zweig.

I got hold of a few of his novellas, and his wildly acclaimed autobiography, The World of Yesterday, and settled in for my train ride.

Clive James had alerted me to the existence of Zweig in his crotchety fabulous Cultural Amnesia. According to James, Zweig was important for the friendships he cultivated and for the portrait The World of Yesterday paints of pre-war Vienna; his fictions, James thought (if I’m remembering correctly), were competent but inconsiderable.

Well, by the end of my trip I disagreed with James. I found Zweig’s novellas masterpieces of concentrated narrative. And most of the world agrees with me, having kept him continuously in print. The US is waking back up to him too, and recent years have seen lots of new translations and republications and biographies and so on. Zweig is in the air. He ought to be. I felt that I had a lot to learn from his craft as a writer. His paragraphs for example, dazzled me. They’re longer than you find in contemporary fiction. But they’re also propulsive and remarkably orderly, even while they seemed to grow organically from the demands of the story. They are a strange hybrid of the logically unfolding paragraph of the essayist or historian and the dancing-forward, streaming paragraph of the story-teller. Here he is, for example, describing a professor who only really comes alive as the genius he is when a lecture rises spontaneously from a discussion in his classes:

Soon what began as mere intellectual conversation became electrical excitement and took fire, with his skilful hand fanning the flames— forceful argument countered claims made casually, sharp and keen interjections heated the discussion until the students were almost at loggerheads with each other. Only once the sparks were really flying did he intervene, calming the overexcited atmosphere and cleverly bringing the debate back to its subject, but at the same time giving it stronger intellectual stimulus by moving it surreptitiously into a timeless dimension— and there he suddenly stood amidst the play of these dialectical flames, in a state of high excitement himself, both urging on and holding back the clashing opinions, master of a stormy wave of youthful enthusiasm which broke over him too. Leaning against the desk, arms crossed, he looked from one to another, smiling at one student, making a small gesture encouraging another to contradict, and his eyes shone with as much excitement as yesterday. I felt he had to make an effort not to take the words out of their mouths. But he restrained himself— by main force, as I could tell from the way his hands were pressed more and more firmly over his breast like the stave of a barrel, as I guessed from the mobile corners of his mouth, which had difficulty in suppressing the words rising to his lips. And suddenly he could do it no longer, he flung himself into the debate like a swimmer into the flood— raising his hand in an imperious gesture he halted the tumult as if with a conductor’s baton; everyone immediately fell silent, and now he summed up all the arguments in his own vaulting fashion.

(Admittedly I also like this paragraph because it describes—and I say this without imputing to myself the success Zweig’s character has with it—almost exactly the method I used to lecture when I taught philosophy. I’d stir up an argument, nurture it like a little fire—the same metaphor has even occurred to me—and restrain myself from jumping in until things had gotten really intense and I could count on the students caring about my intervention.)

But anyway, after I’d read a few of his novellas, I moved on to Zweig’s autobiography. The World of Yesterday was certainly remarkable, evocative, fascinating, but it raised more questions for me than it settled.


Zweig had purposefully retired into the background of his own autobiography, but I couldn’t help wondering about his career—how did he support himself when he decided to just take a few years off to translate obscure French poets? How did he parachute into a regular gig at the Viennese equivalent of the New Yorker, becoming one of their lead essayists when still in his teens? Why did he turn from writing poetry to writing the narrative fiction for which he became famous? Also, naturally, his personal life intrigued me—what was his relationship to Judaism when his career was launched by the founder of Zionism and yet he himself became the living symbol of pan-Europeanism, an avatar and advocate of assimilation? How did he make friends so easily—seemingly considered a bestie by everybody who was anybody in Middle European culture—even when he was a nobody absconding to France from graduate school in Berlin? And of course, why did he commit suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, with his much, much younger second wife Lotte, shortly aftering mailing in The World of Yesterday for publication?

I would have to read another biography.

But I didn’t get to it for a few days, too busy socializing at the place my train had taken me. Then, one night, I found myself sweating onto a matress in an air-conditionerless basement where the humidity was approximately 323%—breathing felt like chugging a glass of water—and the dark, lucid wings of insomnia unfolded above me. So I got up and downloaded onto my Kindle a biography-cum-memoir by Zweig’s first wife, Frederike, and proceeded to read it in one sitting.

Federike and Stefan Zweig

It was a strange mixture of compelling memories and shrewd analysis interwoven with unreadable schmaltz and special pleading. The first caution of a biography about an artist who took their own life must be, I think, not to interpret the whole life as a journey to suicide; but Zweig’s wife is understandably fixated on his end, and you can tell a lot of her character-analysis is basically an attempt to understand why he did it, and to blame it, as much as possible, on the woman he left her for. I found Friderike’s information illuminating. She explained some of the contradiction I had noticed in The World of Yesterday, such as the way Zweig castigates the sexual repression of the pre-WWI Vienna but then complains about the sexual freedom of post-WWI Vienna. He apparently exhibited the same contradictions about freedom as a step-parent:

He could not, he said, repress a feeling of envy at seeing the youth of today enjoying itself in such free and easy fashion. And this explained a strange trait, entirely contradictory to the rest of his nature: incited by such memories, he would suddenly deprive the children of some harmless pleasure he himself had suggested. Such retractions, coming from a man who loved to make people happy, seemed inconceivably harsh.

One of the sad implications of Frederike’s biography—and I don’t doubt her for a moment, because it’s an old, familiar story—is that Zweig’s demands as an artist whose life needed to be managed by others and protected from disturbance stole her own career from her.

As guardian of his inner world I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances. Therefore — a fact but seldom openly confessed — I was to have no world of my own, no work of my own that might possibly deflect me from my watch. The circle was widely extended, but I had to stay within it.

I was glad for the shadows Frederike’s biography added to my perception of Zweig. But now I had become interested in her, curious how candid her apparently very open and honest memoir actually was. Some things struck me: even in her own account of their romance, for example, it’s clear that Frederike decided she would go get Zweig for herself, even before he knew who she was, when she was a young unhappily married mother of two. She got him, and according to her became the light of his life, only to be betrayed for a secretary after twenty years of marriage. I had no real desire to exonerate Zweig of being a patriarch, a shitty father, or a ungrateful lover; but there are usually two sides to stories of domestic distress.

So when I got home from my trip I picked up another biography of Zweig, this one by George Prochnik: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.


Here I feel a made a mistake. I don’t mean that Prochnik’s is a bad book or that I regret reading it, but the reason I wanted to read it was to clear up some of the details about Zweig’s career that remained for me, and to add to that an assessment of Frederike’s candor as a memoirist. Prochnik’s book isn’t actually a biography. It’s a meditation on exile and a very moving investigation of the reasons for which Zweig committed suicide, presented in a mixture of novelistic scenes, brief out-of-chronology explorations of his past, and comparisons to the experience of other exiles, including, most prominently, Prochnik’s own grandparents. It was interesting; but it answered virtually none of my questions and raised a bunch more. I think I’ll probably write something about the book on its own account another day. In the story of why I read four biographies of Zweig, however, its role is just that it wasn’t what I needed at the time.

I confess it: at this point I began to get tired of Zweig. I was an absurd expert on certain details of his life. I could probably write my own biography, of considerable length, just from memory. But, an intractable puzzle, I couldn’t leave his life alone, particularly because I still hadn’t gotten any real insight into the things that most concern me when I read a writer’s biography: the material basis of their career, their working habits, how they learned their craft, whether they felt they had completed their work when they died, that sort of thing.

So, with some hesitation, I picked up my fourth biography, Matuschek’s Three Lives. Immediately, it became clear I should have begun with that biography. It was a normal chronological study, based on an exhaustive survey of available sources—including new batches of letters and so forth—and fully satisfying me as to the material details and personal chronologies I was so curious about. But a weird transformation in my motivations for continuing to study Zweig began to take shape as soon as I realized I’d found what I wanted.


Suddenly I didn’t care about my usual practical interests in this writer I liked. Suddenly I was obsessed with his suicide.

The unthinkable had occurred. I’d fallen prey to that morbid kind of clue-seeking attitude that afflicts biographers of artists like Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway. I blame Prochnik. The end of his book is a truly horrifying account of Zweig’s last hours, and of how his body and that of Lotte, his young wife, were found. Some of Lotte’s clothes were in an untidy heap beside the bed, and it was apparent she’d taken her poison shortly after Zweig. Prochnik speculates that Zweig took his while she was in the shower or bath, and she realized what had happened only after it had happened; she was faced suddenly with the choice of whether to follow him or not. Prochnik has this line I’d like to quote—but don’t have the book in my hands at the moment—about how Zweig looks dead, but Lotte looks in love. That’s because after she took her poison, she climbed in beside her already dead husband, she lay down on her side, gazing at his face, and wound her fingers through his. To pound home the nail with a last blow of the emotional hammer, on the last page Prochnik prints the death photo he is describing. I doubt I’ve recreated the effect of these pages in my brisk summary, but this is what they did to me: I was now obsessed with Zweig’s suicide, with the existential fact of it, with imagining it, horrified and fascinated.

Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.
Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.

As a result I gave up on the last, best biography of Zweig halfway through it. It was now not the book I wanted. As Emil Cioran says:

Each desire provokes in me a counterdesire, so that whatever I do, all that matters is what I have not done.

I gave up reading, but I didn’t give up thinking. I continued to obsess over Zweig’s last days, to imagine the causes and moment of his suicide.

He was by then a refugee. A wealthy and opportunity-rich refugee, admittedly, but one exiled from land and language. His books were banned in both Germany and Austria. He had spent a few years flying, dissatisfied, from country to country, Britain, the US, Brazil. Just before decided to do the deed, he and Lotte had descended into Rio for Carnival, a festival that tended to put him back into his usually happy, gregarious, life-loving frame of mind. Something happened during that trip. Perhaps he read some of the newspapers, with their stories of German advance on the fronts of WWII. Perhaps it was a chance remark a friend made to him around that time, when he casually asked them whether they thought Brazil was safe from Nazi agression—they thought not, that Hitler might come for them, and Zweig’s face had shown he took this prediction much harder than its source warranted. Whatever the case, he was suffering from political despair.

The situation seemed hopeless. Because he had invested his entire life in the cultivation of international literature with a specifically political purpose—the creation of a European culture that could transcend the disgusting aggressions of nationalism—he experienced that political despair as an existential despair, a despair about himself and his own life. Despite his continued wealth, the wife he loved, his many friendships, the prospect of continued work, and the beauty of the landscape in his adopted country—despite all this, he was done with life.

It occurred to me today, when I sat down to write a blog post for an hour (and then apparently forgot about that limit and wrote this behemoth instead) that I finally feel like I understand Zweig. I feel some small taste of political despair myself right now, the day before the first presidential debate in the most sickening election cycle of my life. I can hardly bear what is happening to my country or what may happen to the world, and I am oppressed by nightmares and dark daydreams about how things could, will, must go terribly wrong and plunge our century into bloodshed and hatreds that will make the 20th century look like an era of humanity and hope. I don’t pretend this is a fraction of the political despair felt by Stefan Zweig; but perhaps reading about him was a way for me to cope with my own small despairing. That’s my best but still inadequate explanation for why I read three and a half biographies of the same person in a row.

Like my writing? Please consider subscribing by email or following me on twitter.

A Landslide In the Mind

I read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women out loud with Rachel. We try to make it a habit to read together every evening, partly because it’s a pleasant, intimate way to spend time, a way infinitely superior to watching TV together, and partly because we’re trying to establish a culture of bildung among ourselves for the eventual day when perhaps we’ll add a tiny third. I was required/privileged to sit for an hour every evening as I was growing up, in an extremely religious household, for “family devotions.” It’s an institution whose purposes of religious indoctrination I now deplore, but it really did contribute to my love for books and serious conversation. Reading aloud together, playing the piano, intentionally conversing are probably the secular echo, in my menage, of that regular childhood experience.

We’d heard Pym’s Excellent Women was hilariously funny, so we read it hoping to laugh. It’s not that funny, or it wasn’t to us. But it’s pretty interesting. It’s about the (lack of a) lovelife of an English woman during or a little after WWII, who grew up in a manse and now teeters on the edge of old maidenhood. A smart couple with a rocky relationship move in below her flat, the male half of whom she finds charming, while her best friends, the local (unmarried) vicar and his sister try to cope with the fact that he’s fallen in love with a boarder they take on.


The book’s actually pretty painful. Mildred Lathbury, the heroine, is smart and perceptive, kindhearted and good in an emergency, but her internal monologue is relentlessly self-deprecatory. As Rachel said when we read the last line, with a frown, “I thought she was going to stand up for herself!” Everybody uses her without consideration for her feelings or hopes: married and unmarried female friends, flirting husbands, eligible bachelors in need of people to cook their dinners and help them with secretarial work, even clergymen who are supposedly there to minister to them. This book is about how the spinsters of England, back then at any rate, if they were religious and docile, got burdened with all the emotional labor of everyone in their lives and were expected to assume the role of mother and wife-servant to the public at large. Endless tea-making, listening to other people’s troubles, lavishing time and attention where it isn’t requited, while enduring the condescension and mockery of the same people they served. It’s searing, the longer you think about it.

The funniest parts—because it was funny in places—are when Mildred questions some of these expectation of the spinster’s part, and gets slapped down. As here:

Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury . . .’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

What makes the novel ultimately pretty sad is that this landslide in the mind never really gets any momentum in Mildred’s own mind. As how could it?

I was reminded, reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, of Excellent Women, when I got to this passage:

Custom seemed to preserve [young girls] as a symbol of its most secret ideals, as an emblem of womanly chastity, virginity, and unworldliness. But what a tragedy it was if one of these young girls missed her time, if she was not yet married at twenty-five or thirty! Cusom pitilessly demanded of women of thirty and forty years of age that for the sake of “family” and “morality” they maintain this condition of inexperience and freedom from desire, of naivete although it no longer suited their age. But then the sweet picture usually turned into a sharp and cruel caricature. The unmarried maided became an article left on the shelf, and the left-over became an old maid, the butt of shallow derision of all the comic papers. Whoever picks up a volumen of the *Fliegende Blätter*, or any one of the humorous magazines of that period, will shudder at their stupid jeering at aging maidens, who with nerves disturbed did not know how to conceal their natural desire for love […] people ridiculed them with a lack of understanding that disgusts us today. For a society is always most cruel to those who disclose and reveal its secrets, when through dishonestly society itself has outraged Nature.

When I read this, shortly after finishing Excellent Women, it stopped me cold. Rachel and I agreed, as I mentioned earlier, that the book wasn’t as hilariously funny as it was reported to be, and it suddenly occurred to me that this supposed hilarity might have been a misplaced perception that the book was a contribution to the literature of mockery that Zweig talks about here. Perhaps many of its first readers thought it was so very funny because they believed there was something laughable in being a middle-aged unmarried woman? I have no idea if that’s true; but if is, that’s horrifying. If anything, Excellent Women is a book that demands empathy for the oppressed, the shows the real unhappiness of a supposedly laughable kind of person.

An English example of the cruel humor that Zweig describes.
An English example of the cruel humor that Zweig describes.

A Man Should Know His Own Leg

Oliver Sacks’ A Leg To Stand On is my favorite of his books, which is saying something: I like it better than his wonderful biography On the Move, and better than his many collections of narrative essays. A Leg To Stand On is a philosophical memoir-novel, based on his own experience and with himself as the main character.

Sacks went to a Norwegian village on vacation and chose to climb a nearby mountain. Near the top, he ran into a bull, right in the middle of his path. Attempting to flee this bull, he fell over a cliff and severely damaged his leg. The first part of the book tells a man v. nature story about trying to inch back down the mountain, scrabbling on his butt like a crab with a wounded pincer, increasingly convinced that he wouldn’t make it, night would fall, and he would freeze to death.

Most of the book is about what happens after he’s rescued, but the gripping early chapter already displays the book’s best features: a narrative style of surpassing clarity and readability, intermixed with reflections of quite astonishing philosophical penetration and literary scope.


Sacks has a very cultured near-death experience: he motivates himself by quoting Goethe and Nietzsche and he plays Mozart in his mind as a soundtrack to his wounded exertions. If we can assume that much of the book is a faithful record of the sort of thing that actually went through his mind—and having read his autobiography and numerous recollections of him, I think we can assume that—then A Leg To Stand On shows, among other things, the incredible internal richness that bildung, the lifelong process of thirsty cultural self-shaping, can lend a life. John Stuart Mill famously defends the pleasures of high culture by saying that anyone who has experienced both vulgar pleasures and more refined ones will know the latter possess more value, more intensity and quality as pleasures. This can be difficult to prove to anyone, since everyone assumes their cognizance of pleasures, high and low, is sufficient for such judgments, and few agree about the superiority of high culture; but reading Oliver Sacks describe himself creeping down a mountain like a wounded animal stirs up, in me at least, a desire to have the kind of internal life he displays. It feels like an affective proof-by-novel of Mill’s claim.

The real plot of the book only begins after Sacks’s operation to fix the leg. He wakes up from the anaesthesia to discover that his leg has disappeared. It’s still there, visibly attached to his body, solid and available within its cast for him to wrap with his knuckles or knead with his fingertips. But it’s a foreign object, disconnected from his proprioceptive internal map, and it feels like inert meat distressingly connected to his self-sufficient trunk.

Such a syndrome was first described in the last century by Anton and is occasionally referred to as “Anton’s Syndrome,” though he only picked out a few of its features. More had been delineated by the great French neurologist Babinski, who had coined the term “anosognosia” for the singular unawareness that characterized such patients.

It turns out this anosognosia is a rather common experience for the victims of the kind of injuries that require a limb to be immobilized for a long period of time. Actually, most of us have experienced in at least the minor form of sleeping on an arm and waking up to find it, like a foreign object, weirdly insensible and immobilized until it prickles back to life.

Sacks experiences his injury not just as a stressful physical manifestation. It also sets in train a series of reflections, about identity, knowledge, even the history of philosophy:

Johnson and Wittgenstein were in perfect agreement: one existed, and could show it, because one acted—because one could lift, or kick, a stone. I suddenly thought: a man with a phantom—a phantom leg—could not kick a stone.

The story—which never ceases to be a story—becomes a meditation upon the implications of the neurology of body-image for epistemology, metaphysics, even aesthetics. I found myself looking up every few pages to reflect and frequently I was sent scurrying for a notebook.

With all the satisfactions of a plotted climax, the leg comes back to life in a most surprising and wonderful way:

And suddenly—into the silence, the silent twittering of motionless frozen images—came music, glorious music, Mendelssohn, fortissimo! Joy, life, intoxicating movement! And, as suddenly, without thinking, without intending whatever, I found myself walking, easily, joyfully, with the music. And, as suddenly, in the moment that this inner music started, the Mendelssohn which had been summoned and hallucinated by my soul, and in the very moment that my “motor” music, my kinetic melody, my walking, came back—in this self-same moment the leg came back. Suddenly, with no warning, no transition whatever, the leg felt alive, and real, and mine, its moment of actualization precisely consonant with the spontaneous quickening, walking and music. I was just turning back from the corridor to my room—when out of the blue this miracle occurred—the music, the walking, the actualization, all one. And now, as suddenly, I was absolutely certain—I believed in my leg, I knew how to walk.

A Dance With Three Legs, by Magritte

This is an incredible book, perhaps—in my opinion—the best Sacks ever wrote. Strangely, it stands rather low in the poll of popular opinion, decisively beaten out by blockbusters like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. But I think the book may have a greater claim to being a major work of literature than anything else he wrote. (Admittedly, I haven’t read everything he wrote yet, so my assessment is heuristic.) Sacks’ writes brilliantly on the features of his experience common to us all, here for example on what it feels like to recover from serious infirmity:

From this moment there was no stopping me. I went out constantly, I fell in love with the world, I chartered taxis as extravagantly as a potentate visiting from another land. And, in a sense, this is what I felt like—a man, a king, long exiled, returning, accorded a wonderful, royal welcome by the world he was returning to. I wanted to hug familiar dear buildings; I wanted to hug chance strangers in the street—to hug them, devour them, like my first meal in the teashop—for they too were part of the wonderful feast. I must have smiled and laughed a great deal, or otherwise exuded happiness and love, because I received a great deal in return. I felt this especially in the pubs around Hampstead—wonderful, jolly, crowded pubs, with gardens and awnings bright in the warm sun, and people the most genial and congenial in the world. My crutches (for I needed both, to get in and out of taxis), my cast, served as a passport of universal validity. I was welcomed, I was made much of, wherever I went. And I loved it, I who had been so withdrawn and so shy. I found myself singing, playing darts, telling bawdy stories, laughing. Everywhere, and in myself, I discovered a Rabelaisian gusto—a coarse, but festive, and perfectly chaste gusto. But also, and equally, I sought for the byways of life, quiet glades, moonlit walks, for meditation. I wanted to give thanks, in every mode—in energy, in quietude; in company, alone; with friends, with strangers; in action, in thought. The joy of this time was extraordinarily intense—but it seemed to me a healthy joy, without mania or sickness. I felt that this was how one should find the world—how the world really was, if one were not jaded or tarnished. I felt the gaiety and innocence of the newborn. And if this was “the truth,” or how things should be, how could one find the world dull? I wondered if what one normally calls “normal” was itself a sort of dullness, a deadening of sense and spirit, if not, indeed, a very closure of their doors.

But in addition to this almost definitive expression of common experience, A Leg To Stand On contains the sorts of experiences and reflections that only someone as uniquely situated as Sacks could share with us.

I happen to know that this book gave Sacks more trouble than any other. I know this from his autobiography, in which he describes the years it took him to complete the manuscrip—not because he was blocked or mentally constipated; no, Sacks’ symptoms tended in the other more—um—fluid direction. The reasonably sized, normal novel-length book that we possess had to be cut from a mountain of manuscript many times longer. I think the trouble was repayed in full, however, and perhaps the invisible excess that lies behind what we possess, is what gives the book its feeling of infinity, the feeling that its significance stretches off over the horizon in every direction, no matter how thoroughly, how comprehensively it treats of the phenomena in describes.

It case you couldn’t tell, I recommend A Leg To Stand On without reservation!

To the sea he leads me, like a spider

This weekend I resumed my long-delayed project of reading straight through Grene and Lattimore’s Complete Greek Tragedies. I started up again with Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens. Almost immediately, things got real. Too real.

The Suppliant Maidens is about fifty sisters, refugees from “a holy precinct bordering Syria,” who come to Argos to beg for shelter. Hot on their trail is an army sailing at the behest of fifty brothers who want to forcibly install the sisters as their wives. The sisters ask the local ruler, Pelasgus, to give them sanctuary. But he’s dubious, offering the politician’s excuse:

…never may people say, if evil comes,
“By honoring immigrants you destroyed the city.”

This is a play about what it feels like to be “an immigrant group in a foreign land, which bears the brunt of every evil tongue, and is the easy target of calumny.” I did not expect that. This play is very topical, right now.

Refugee Women
Refugee Women

The sisters manage to convince Pelasgus to give them sanctuary. But not before the army of Egyptus (their pursuers) shows up and attempts to abduct them. That attempted abduction involves some really intense and disturbing language. [Trigger warning.] Sexual violence seems imminent:

Hasten to the boats
fast as you are able,
lest torn and pricked,
pricked and scratched you’ll be,
bloody and bloodstained,
your heads cut off!
Hurry, hasten, curses! Curses! To the boats!

Like all great literature, The Suppliant Women raised a bunch of questions I had to work through.

First, there was the matter of why Pelasgus finally decides to shelter the sisters. Here’s the speech where he sums up his reasoning:

If I do not carry out what’s due to you,
you’ve warned us of unmatchable pollution.
But if before these walls I take a stand
and bring the battle against Egyptus’ sons,
your cousins, wouldn’t that be a bitter waste—
men to bloody the earth for women’s sake?
But yet the wrath of Zeus the Suppliant—
the height of mortal fear—must be respected.

The “unmatchable pollution” he mentions is that the sisters have promised to hang themselves outside the city gates if they’re not given shelter. Horrifyingly, Pelasgus requires the threat of an avenging Zeus to give a shit. Other things being equal, he’d rather leave the women to their fate.

This reasoning made me wonder about the far-famed hospitality of ancient cultures. You hear and read people waxing nostalgic for the duties of hospitality. But it had its ugly side. I wonder if it wasn’t largely a duty of fear, an unpleasant duty that you performed so as not to be smote by a god. (And while we’re enumerating its unpleasant sides, let’s not forget Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and the murderous, carousing suitors that descend upon her and demand her hospitality the moment her husband disappears.)

Another question the play raised for me is an old one that I frequently reconsider when I read a new Greek tragedy: the discomforting theology. I wrote about this regarding another Aeschylean tragedy, Prometheus Bound, for Open Letters, and I’ll quote something from that piece: “This must have made very uncomfortable viewing for pious Athenians at the festival of Dionysus—here was a play that proclaimed Zeus unjust and anti-human.” The same could be said for The Suppliant Women, in the larger context of the tragic trilogy it was originally part of. Early in the play, the sisters observe that, “an altar’s stronger than ramparts; it’s a shield impenetrable.” In other words, even assholes like Pelasgus have to help those who need, because Zeus.

But here’s the thing: the army of Egyptus does eventually seize the sisters. Not in this play—though there are omens at the end—but eventually. Their marriage night is the occasion for one of the other, now lost, plays in the trilogy: on it, at the urging of their father, forty nine of them stab their new husbands to death.

So much for the impenetrable shield of an altar…

I bet someone has written a book on the theology of the Greek tragedies. It would be interesting to see what a systematic exposition would reveal. I would have found them very discomforting to watch, assuming I believed that beings like Zeus, Artemis, and Aphrodite really existed. The tragedies would have undermined my confidence in the gods.

Finally, I had to ask myself how this play was a tragedy. Obviously lots of unpleasant things happen in it, and it’s part of a larger narrative (if we look at the whole trilogy) of typically Greek ruination and horror. But the plot of this specific play is a happy one! Some refugees come to a city, beg to be protected, almost get abducted, but are rescued at the last moment and given a home. That’s no so bad, right?

But there is something deeply tragic about this play, something that goes below the level of mere plot, something that has more to do with what makes a drama tragic (I am coming to believe) than whether things end better or worse at the end of the story. My current thesis is that the greatest tragedies are about inherent and inalienable precarities and tensions. In this case, the tragedy of The Suppliant Women is the condition of being a woman in the heroic age.

These fifty sisters are really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their father is one of those sexual-purity-or-death types, who tells them: “Only regard this command of your father: value modesty more than life itself.” And so they’re utterly terrified of the would-be husbands on their trail. And then these would-be husbands are the worst sort of men, whose bitterness at their rejection by the women has turned into a vicious, brutal anger. The sisters are disregarded as people by Pelasgus, who only helps them because he’s afraid they’ll hang themselves and bring Zeus down on him, and even when they’re given shelter they’re told to watch out, because they should expect sexual violence just as a consequence of who they are and not merely from the bad guys: “I beg you,” says their father, “not to bring me shame, you who have that bloom which draws men’s eyes: there is no simple guard for fruit most delicate, that men and beasts, both winged and footed, devour.”

The last words of the play are the women trying to extract some maxim for future behavior from the trauma they’ve just undergone. This is the best they can come up with:

I am content with two-thirds
of good, just one of ill;
and justly, with my prayers,
through the saving arts of god
to follow justice.

Translation: being a women sucks at least 33% of the time. At least. So stop hoping for anything better and just try to be pious in the hope that you get the maximum 66% of happiness. At best. Yikes.

One final note. I would be remiss not to mention how poetic this tragedy is. The language sings. It’s amazing to me that Aeschylus could have written both The Persians, which I found mostly tedious and pedestrian, and things like The Suppliant Women, Prometheus Bound, and Agamemnon (to which we will come next!). But he did. I know which I like better.

Here’s a parting shot, something the women sing as they think they’re about to be abducted. It would make a fascinating libretto for a song in an opera:

Ah, father, to the sea he leads me;
like a spider, step by step,
a dream, a black dream.
O woe, woe!