Book Log: February 2020

On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, by Jacques Barzun

A small collection of letters, essays, scholarly notes, and even a satiric squib about — surprise — writing, editing, and publishing. I found it worth reading in every part and superlative in two parts: it contains my now favorite exhortations about writerly discipline and the best essay I’ve read about Abraham Lincoln as a writer.

Leaving Tabasco, by Carmen Boullosa

A novel in which the grown-up and long-exiled Delmira Ulloa looks back on her childhood in the small Mexican town of Augustini, where portents and miracles and plagues abounded, and where, in retrospect, Delmira can see that her world was shot through with the political and sexual intrigues that conspired in the end to send her fleeing to another continent. The book does what I like best in a long narrative: fructifies inexhaustibly with surprising incidents while sharply describing a clear and inevitable arc.

Before, by Carmen Boullosa

A novella in which the childhood of a girl now dead is narrated by either her ghost or the woman she became. (It seemed to me that the narrator is the latter and that the ghost conceit is a metaphor for leaving childhood, but I’ve read critics who disagree, and what do I know? Nothing.) The life (or childhood) of this person is characterized above all by a sense of persecution by shadowy presences and otherwise ordinary objects. You could call it the memoir of a paranoiac. It is an engrossing frightshow of recollection — the lucid opposite of nostalgia.

The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

A novel set in France during the Bourbon Restoration (early 19th century) in which the book-reading son of a carpenter is invited to teach Latin to the children of the local mayor. From this stroke of fortune he launches improbably upward through the social order, relying upon his excellent memory, the dictates of his combative and resentful pride, and his attractiveness to women. He idolizes Napoleon and wishes he’d been born just 20 years earlier, when a man like him, regardless of social position, might see himself a general “at six and thirty” — but now, in a post-heroic age, boudoirs are battlefields and hypocrisy is a greater virtue than courage.

Walks with Men, Ann Beattie

A novella about a young literary aspirant who allows herself to be seduced by an older writer. He instructs her in the finer points of cultural snobbery, proves to be already married, divorces and marries her instead, and then disappears, leaving her a lot of money, angst, and specific rules about cocktail napkins.

Guided Tours of Hell, by Francine Prose

A volume composed of two novellas. The first concerns the inner turmoil of a writer at a Kafka conference who is visiting, along with the other conference attendees, a former concentration camp. He finds himself hating the self-assertion and envying the sexual conquests of a holocaust-survivor from this very camp, who is also at the conference. He recognizes the embarrassing incongruity of his petty concerns and the grim horror he is supposed to be witnessing, and this contrast becomes the basis for an excruciating dark satire.

The second novella concerns the inner confusions of a young woman employed by a travel newsletter whose boss and ill-defined lover has repeatedly used their research trips to Paris to conduct an affair, but has, on this occasion, sent her to Paris alone. Is he signalling the end of their affair? Paris takes on the qualities of her despair. This second novella has a tour-de-force chapter in which the protagonist is mistaken for someone else and given a personal tour of the Rodin Museum, where brilliant ekphrastic descriptions of the art in the museum are paired with and partially express her existential crisis.

The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner, by Alan Silitoe

A collection of stories featuring mostly working class British boys and men in the years between the two world wars. It is a hopeless context of grinding poverty, and it makes for sad stories. Silitoe scrounges what sparks of defiance and ephemeral beauty he can from the lives of his emotionally stunted, violently policed, and economically exploited anti-heroes. The title story, in particular, is a shaken fist: a boy consigned to a Borstal (a kind of youth detention center) for robbing a bakery, is picked out by the Borstal’s overseer to represent the institution in an important race, but he stops just short of the finish and refuses to win, even though he knows this act will infuriate the overseer, put an end to the dream his jailers have been trying to instill in him of making an honest living as an athlete, and turn the remainder of his detention into a living hell. Despite all that, he refuses to be exploited by his jailers. Silitoe writes structurally crystalline stories, often in the first person, adopting a voice of rough eloquence and slangy energy that unspools in huge yet very readable paragraphs.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

A man writes to his brother-in-law, relating the tale of his wife’s first, disastrous marriage, chiefly via excerpts from her diaries and letters. It is Gothic in language and atmosphere, because Anne was after all a Brontë, but it has no element of the supernatural — the enemy here is alcoholism, the marriage laws and social mores of Victorian England, and the implacable violence of the male libido. It reminded me of — of all things — Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I think that’s because of something about the linear, inexorable course of the diary portion of the novel and a certain dogged, moralizing realism. Anne is, however, an infinitely better writer of sentences than Dreiser, so there was no point in the reading of this book where I considered that I would prefer to hit myself in the face with a cast-iron skillet rather than to keep reading — and I like that in a book.

The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt

A novel of madcap monologues and omnidirectional ill-content, about an Argentinian embezzler who loses his job and his wife and throws in with an outlandish plotter of revolutions. It didn’t do much for me, and I actually found this essay by Aaron Bady, which I read after finishing the novel, more useful for my purposes than the novel itself. A shameful thing to admit, but there you have it.

Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb

A novella about the brief, comically degrading career of a non-Japanese woman (based upon the real life experiences of the author herself) at a major Japanese company, and especially her love-hate relationship with the Japanese woman who is her immediate superior. The protagonist plummets from writing reports all the way to cleaning the bathrooms, locked in a pride-off with her enemy. The hyper-focus of the narrative creates a kind of literary chiaroscuro that I found enthralling: I can see why Amélie Nothomb is something of a superstar in the Francophone literary world (though I understand this also has to do with Nothomb’s tendency to ostentatious millinery).

The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrère

A memoir of the author’s conversion to and deconversion from Catholicism, together with a novelistic reimagining of the life of the ostensible New Testament author Luke. The book is suffused by the central self-doubts occasioned by an experience of conversion or deconversion: you bear in your own memory the traces of another person who was you, and yet a diametrical consciousness. You have been permanently disabused of the notion that you have a continuous or coherent self. In the future you could be a different person again. The narrative that is supposed to define you is fragmented, fissured. So really what it’s about, more than anything, is conversion as a psychological phenomenon.

Hemlock and After, by Angus Wilson

A novel about the last days of a famous writer, who is also a semi-closeted gay man. His success in getting the government to endow an institution to support young poets leads to an enemy (a local procuress for pedophiles) outing him, which ends up affecting all his relationships in different and surprising ways, including his relationship to his wife, long immured in a hell of paranoid psychosis. The language was a revelation, a kind of mandarin, high-density, syntactically perfect eloquence. It reminded me of Anita Brookner, though Wilson is far less sensuously evocative and a little less forgiving. This kind of prose is the fortified wine of literature. Keep it on hand, portion it out, savor it.

Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Lee Milazzo

From a series that compiles the major interviews and profiles of contemporary authors. I am very interested in just about everything pertaining to Joyce Carol Oates, but this book was a travesty and a disappointment — not because of Oates but because of the unrelenting stupidity of every person, apparently, who has ever interviewed her. Basically, she is asked over and over in a million different ways just two questions: how and why do you write so much? And why is there violence in your stories even though you’re a frail-looking women with large eyes? This compilation, which I finished in horrified fascination, essentially features her many strategems to deal with the tedium of these repeat questions: sometimes she answers frankly, other times offers the equivalent of a cut-and-paste, other times pivots like a politician to talk about something she actually cares about, other times teases the journalist with purposefully outlandish responses. Nothing has ever made me more horrified by the idea of literary fame: this is what it amounts to?

Oriental Tales, by Marguerite Yourcenar

A small collection of tales, most of which are based on legends from various sources — Taoism, Hinduism, Serbian nationalism, The Tale of Genji — while a handful, despite having the same feel, are pulled straight from her imagination. They are tales not short stories because (this is my own distinction, I’m just making it up as I type) they have less to do with the psychology of characters and more to do with the patterning of narrative. The prose, as written and translated from French, is stately and perfect.

Refresh, Refresh, by Benjamin Percy

A collection of short stories set mostly in rural Oregon in the early 2000s. Full of mountains and forests, hunting and killing, godforsaken American towns, the psychological and social desolations wrought by the war in Iraq, and emotionally damaged, violent men. But the writing itself! Percy has a hyper-specific, sensually immersive style, often both emotionally wrenching and full of narrative tension, and it caused a serious flair-up of professional envy on my part. This is how I would like to write short stories, how I have not yet quite managed to write them, despite a certain amount of publishing success. (I mean in form: our subject matter could not be more different.) I read the collection three times and copied out many a passage to study, recognizing a lot of little tricks I could steal, from the structure of scenes, to the juxtaposition of sentences, to the rhythm of inner monologue, to the methods of indirect exposition, to the syntactic patterns of certain sentences. Most of all, Percy has a quality I call “gusto” — sheer energy vibrating in his words. More than anything in writing, I admire gusto, and I study it wherever I find it.

Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by Lászó F. Földényi

An essay collection combining art criticism, a loose and evocative kind of cultural history, and an exploration of “metaphysics” (in a sense that corresponds to the confusion that category has in bookstores, combining the occult and the philosophical cheek by jowl). I got an ARC of this book intending to review it and am now considering getting hold of Földényi’s early work on melancholy and his other recently published essay collection, The Glance of the Medusa, to write something a bit more substantial. These are essays with a compelling and frustrating texture, coy and yet allusively indicative of profudnity. I can’t think of another essayist now living who writes this kind of thing, especially now that George Steiner and Elias Canetti are both dead. (Well, perhaps Roberto Calasso approximates. And, I suppose, Giorgio Agamben. Fine, Földényi’s not unique.)

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey

An urban fantasy detective novel. This is my preferred audiobook genre to listen to while tramping around cities — I’ve listened to the collective dozens of books comprising Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Tad William’s Bobby Dollar. I’m an addict, I keep coming back for another hit of wise-cracking hard-boiled heroes battling angels and demons and vampires and dark sorcerers on the gritty streets of some city or other. Butcher’s Chicago, Williams’s San Judas, Aaronovitch’s London, Kadrey’s Los Angeles. Every city needs their noir fantasy detective, probably. Maybe I’ll try my hand at the genre someday (I’d keenly like to assay a less misogynist, less macho version of this protagonist template, and to kick the poetry of the noir style up to truly outlandish levels). So we’ll just call my addiction to the genre research.


Anonymous1834 February 29, 2020

Alan Silitoe and Angus Wilson are two writers I had previously dismissed as middlebrow, and now you may have compelled me to read them, for which you have both my regards and frustration.

Robert Minto February 29, 2020

Haha! They may very well be middlebrow for all I know. I read like a pig, with my snout in the trough consuming whatever’s available with zero discrimination, be it garbage or caviar, and then I report on the mouthfeel. But who knows, you might find them interesting.

Amateur Reader (Tom) March 2, 2020

Interesting as usual. I just started pat 2 of Seven Madmen, The Flamethrowers. Maybe that would pop it into pplace. I doubt it. You could register the Arlt with Caravan Richard’s Literature of Doom event. Arlt is as pure an expression of Argentinean Doom as I have come across.

The Yourcenar, or at least a selection from it, is a staple in French schools. “How Wang Fo Was Saved” is particularly famous.

Robert Minto March 3, 2020

My hope with the Arlt is that as I read later Argentinian literature with him in mind, gradually I will start to understand and feel why he meant so much to other writers, and eventually I’ll reread Seven Madmen with appreciation. I find myself thinking about the footnotes a lot. Does he do a similar thing with footnotes in The Flamethrowers?

I can totally see why French schools would feature Yourcenar. Kill a few birds with one tale. Give students a taste of Taoism and a kind of (admittedly caricatured) taste of ancient China, a model of prose style, and a foothold in French literature, all at once.