I am not a historian (at least any more, I was a history major in college) nor a current affairs expert- I tend towards the medieval- so take this with a grain of salt, but these are perhaps the three best books I have read for situating America in today’s world. I sang Judt’s praises earlier this year, and Kissinger and Stewart write with the authority that comes from living the stories they tell. All three take the US to task at various points, yet all three also seem to still believe that the US is a fundamentally positive agent in the world, or at least has the ability to be so. There are no easy answers in any of these books, Stewart’s especially reads as tragedy, but all three authors shine in that they speak as Westerners, people we (middle class Anglo-Americans can/want to ID with) but they are able to understand cultures foreign to us. Most importantly they are open with their closures and completely at ease not understanding everything. Judt speaks of a Europe he loves and helped build, Kissinger of a relationship he cultivated and safeguarded, and Stewart of a land he tried to govern. Each is also, at heart, a profoundly good story teller. And the stories they tell matter to the future of this country. They are lessons learned from life that we would be wise to listen to.
So I finished The Pale King last night. It is pretty much a novel about boredom, tedium, and everyday life. It is rather obviously unfinished, and rather not obviously fiction in the strictest sense (re: ‘This is Water;’ [listen here] it seems DFW was exploring permeable membrane between truth and fiction at the time he died, perhaps the regions George Steiner once labeled ‘real’ and ‘more real’).
Nothing much happens. We keep expecting something to happen but it never does. Furthermore, there isn’t even a protagonist. The book is not a novel in any normal sense. Yet it is perhaps the most perfect novel of the decade. DFW’s marries Nabokov’s pitch perfect lyricism with a blistering sincerity all his own. He plums the depths of the era’s deepest fear: boredom. Ennui. Sameness. Lack of uniqueness. It seems the overall conceit of the novel is to bring together the most exceptional batch of IRS employees so as to demonstrate palpably the superiority of computers. Discussions of tax occupy pages and pages.
Tax theory links the narrative. One practically expects to be able to outline the chapters vis a vis a 1040. The choice of the tax world as his hyper-reality is incisive. To most people, taxes represent the most boring task in the world and the IRS terrifies because it is comprised of group of people who have conquered their capacity to be bored. They are all freaks to most ‘normal’ people.
In this world of hyper normalcy DFW explores the abnormality of all human life and the vital importance of paying attention. Of concentration. The Pale King, at times, feels like a vivification of ‘This is Water’ (listen here), but that connection is too hard to hold. The Pale King killed the author. Or at least he killed himself while writing it.
Much as we try to disassociate author and work- pace Barthes- DFW, esp. the DFW explicitly presented in The Pale King as very much the type of person the real DFW directed ‘This is Water’ at, is rather explicitly pushing back at a darkness of near Beckett-ian absurdity. And the real, the living, breathing, writing DFW, apparently lost. It has been said novels, poems, and paintings, all art, is an apology for a life that couldn’t be lived. One hopes that via his last works DFW will point others towards a light we hope he found. His are, as Steiner said, ‘night words,’ Saturday speech in hope of Sunday.
The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate provides an interesting counterpoint to Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Both novels dissect upper class society on the eve of World War I. Both are acutely aware of their characters own awareness of standing on the edge of something. Both are written by class insiders too. Whereas Fitzgerald writes, quite literally, from the trenches, Colegate writes in retrospection but from a culture- post WWII Britain- that explicitly rejected the values and habits of the gentry. Fitzgerald caused a stir by writing about times as they were, Colegate’s audacity lay in writing about a deeply unpopular time, and in the daring to suggest that rich people might have inner lives too. Now, however, is not the time to debate the merits of ‘working class’ fiction. The power of Colegate’s work rests in its simplicity. It covers 24 hours in Nettleby Park. The action never leaves Oxfordshire, nor does the author resort to any particularly ‘literary’ or avant guard trappings. She simply tells a story of a society on the edge of collapse. Sir Randolf Nettleby hosts a variety of guests for a grand fall shoot. His goal is simply for things to go off right. He represents, in many ways, the best of the old guard. He treats everyone with civility and his humanity has a way of making friends of enemies. His aim is not to impress his guests with the greatest shoot in history nor to prove his skill as a marksmen, but to simply be a good host. Unfortunately society in the form of his guests will not allow that. Competition, grossly ungentlemanly in Sir Randolf’s eyes, breaks out among two of the leading lights. Small, inadvertent slights amplify each other and finally reach a tragic, accidental, and avoidable crescendo that grimly foreshadows the coming slaughter in Europe. I guess what strikes me in both Fitzgerald and Colegate is the sense of something coming. The sense that an old world is fading and a new approaching and that the new is entirely unknown. Sir Randolf’s impulse to ‘head for the hills’ is understandable, but ultimately his choice not to is as heroic as his life will allow him to be. Both books are good reading for our times, reassurance that things have changed before and Colegate’s look back past two wars is proof that humans can endure and need not head for the hills just yet.
PS, Downton fans will eat this up. It is an episode in book form.
Followers of this blog my remember previous ‘review’ of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in which I noted that it was not a book I would have appreciated prior to living abroad but while living abroad it was a positively terrifying book. This Side of Paradise is worse in that it is far too close to home. Paradise, it seems, comes at the apogee of Amory and Isabella’s relationship which coincides neatly with the apogee of Amory’s status at Princeton. While it would be hard to call Amory idealistic or naive, he has a sort of innocence for the the first half of the book, the innocence that comes with believing oneself worldly, urbane, and wise- the innocence of privilege, be it wealth, talent, or beauty, all of which Amory enjoys to a certain degree. The book, however, is written from this side of paradise, the far side: paradise lost. It is not, however, a peon to an idealized past. It is the realization that paradise only ever existed insofar as the subject is able to dwell solely on the self at the expense of all others. Amory’s affairs- as he realizes- are self-actualizing to the extreme. Rather they are self-fashioning. They are what Amory uses to define himself, an Amory he bounces off the Amory fashioned by Monsignor Darcy. While he treasures ‘the fundamental Amory,’ the hard truth gained by the book is quite simply that there is no fundamental Amory. There is only Amory the product of his experiences rather than the master- the commander- of them. Paradise is Princeton. It is the aristocratic life Amory aspires to at Princeton. The ideal of idealized life- a world fashioned by Amory for Amory. At the end, though, when ‘the egoist’ becomes ‘a personage’ it seems the primary knowledge gained by Amory, his self knowledge, is quite simply that he is not the arbiter of his own reality. This is Fitzgerald’s first- and most formally daring- novel. It darts between prose, poetry, and drama to capture a world now almost a century old. And yet it feels strikingly appropriate. And far to close to home for someone reading it on the far side of an Oxford much like Amory’s Princeton- an idea as much as an education- and who’s life, to a great extent, has charted by relationships with women. Amory’s diagnoses of others and himself- and Fitzgerald’s diagnoses of Amory and Amory’s world- ring too true for enjoyment. Amory’s ennui is unsettlingly familiar. As the Gatsby movie approaches, it may be worth dwelling on Fitzgerald, especially for young, privileged people (if you are reading this online, you are privileged, fyi). This Side of Paradise is, in fact, a deeply anti-nostalgic novel, in my opinion. It, like much of Fitzgerald’s work, is the excoriation of nostalgia, the realization that we all must have at some point that that was not paradise and to desire a return is to reject any chance of a future. The past is not castigated, it is simply the past, it is part of who Amory is, but it is not his future. His walk to Princeton is no walk to Emmaus but rather the last grasp at past more beautiful in memory than in truth.
It is hard to ‘review’ George Eliot’s Middlemarch. At nearly 800 pages it cannot really be compressed or distilled into easy parts. In fact, it’s great strength is that it is a profoundly inconvenient novel to modern readers. It took me a full 450 pages to see how the two basic halves of her story- town and country- would come together in any fashion other than proximity. That is not to say the book wanders or dithers (as I am prone to think most Dicken’s novels do), rather it takes time to consider- vis-a-vis a plethora of memorable characters- the full sweep of parochial England poised on the edge of The Reform Bill. Moreover, Eliot’s prose is adroitly self-conscious: she is ironic with out being bitter or compromising a basic sympathy towards humanity. She affords her self the time and space to both consider the ramifications of human choice on other humans but also gently check, glosses, and reproofs her characters. I could go on, and perhaps later will, but really it is hard to say anything other than it is the quintessential Victorian Novel.
Reading Tony Judt’s Post-War makes you a better person. It is, in fact, difficult to ‘review’ a book that covers Europe, c. 1945-2005. Perhaps it is not perfect, I am not the best historian to ask, but what I can say is you should- perhaps must- read it. Especially if you are an American asking the normal Yank questions: ‘Europe, WFT?’ It pleases me to no end to see that in Judt the great tradition of British Historiography lives on. He writes with verve and panache and is not afraid to make judgments. Post-War neither hails the dawn of European golden age nor bemoans the impossibility of such an age; rather it seeks to understand the past in such away that facilitates moral and ethical engagement with the present. Thankfully Judt facilitates such engagement not by preaching or sermonizing but by telling a story, the story of how Europe got here. Moreover Judt can write. At 830 pages Post-War is daunting, yet it never lags and- more often than not- he leaves you wanting to know more about a given moment rather than slogging through details. He artfully counterpoints survey and anecdote and leaves no arena untouched. Nor is Judt in the business of making or breaking heroes. Men and women are men and women who make good and bad decisions. He holds leaders and nations to task, but he also understands how good- or rather normal- people can and do make reprehensible choices. I really can’t recommend Post-War highly enough. Read it.
PS, Oxford history/PPE pals in the know say it’s good too, so don’t just take this medievalist’s word for it…
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the rarest of novels. It’s just damn good. Unlike many historical novels it eschews thee’s, thou’s, and all that nonsense and opts instead for a lean, cutting dialogue that translates the immediacy of the emotion narrated. I’ll not lie; I like historical fiction. If you want to look down your nose at me, I don’t care. Wolf Hall, though, is a bit more than your typical historical fair. I read Ken Follett for his story, not his language. He is not a bad writer, but he is certainly not one to turn a phrase. Mantel is, in fact, a supremely gifted writer as well as a compelling storyteller. Not once in the 600+ pages does Wolf Hall lag. Her prose is robust, readable, and interesting. Her characters are compelling and believable. And, perhaps more impressively, she never winks at you. I loathe self-indulgent fiction. In a literary season where childish games masquerading as grown-up fiction are in and out-and-out children’s books dominate the market, Wolf Hall is a relief. It is an adult novel that entertains with out insulting. I mean, good grief, it reduced a friend and I to giddy texting about how good it was. Wolf Hall is historical fiction at its highest. Cataclysimic events are distilled to dinner tables, bedrooms, and personal relationships. The English Reformation is reduced from a metanarrative to a series of human choices. The promise of historical fiction is not that it relates the true past, but that it reminds us of the truth that history is just the record of real human beings, more like us than not. Human beings subject to many of the same emotions as we are, and- as human beings are wont to do- make decisions based off those emotions. So what if her portrayal of Cranmer and Cromwell is fictive, and her picture of More intentionally deconstructive, she reminds us that before these three men were reduced to surnames they were all simply ‘Thomas.’ She gives Henricus Rex VIII the space to simply be ‘Henry.’ History with a capital ‘H’ becomes the personal narrative of men and women caught in difficult situations, frequently of their own making. The primary problem with most historical fiction is that character becomes an accessory to event, Wolf Hall explores how people cause events that shape History and become legends who become characters. In the end, Mantel’s humanism is what connects her to her subject. Like her protagonist Cromwell, she struggles to push human beings to the fore.
PS, I realize I am late on the bandwagon, but all that means is I have less time to wait for the sequel…coming in May.
 I read David Foster Wallace, I read George Steiner, I read Joyce, I read Chaucer, I read Fitzgerald, I read what a damn well please, I did a masters in medieval literature at Oxford and if I found Pillars of the Earth enjoyable and you were too stuck up to like it, well, I don’t apologize for that.
 And good God, what a year we had for it- Freedom, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Marriage Plot, ick.
 Note, this friend is a Rhodes Scholar working on her second masters in literature, one was in Early Modern Literature, i.e. the period Mantel covers, i.e. a sharp cookie and not one to fall for silly books.
Last week I finished Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I liked it a lot, but I am not entirely sure what to make of it. It is, of course, ironic but not, perhaps, in the way we always expect. The target of much of Stendhal’s satire is, of course, upper class French society in the 1830’, yet at the same time me thinks he pokes gently at cross currents of Romanticism as well. Let’s be perfectly clear: Julian Sorel is a deeply compromised individual, morally dubious at best. He is hard to latch onto, so to speak. While anyone who has felt out of place will identify with some of his behavior, the end to which it is directed seems petty and hollow. Perhaps this is Stendhal’s point. Perhaps, in the end, the entire societies behavior collapses into Julian’s botched murder attempt and his sucidal defense at his own trial. Perhaps Stendhal uses Sorel to expose the sucidal impulse of the very society that both condems Julian’s birth and affirms his behavior. The challenge they face is not of a commoner evidencing more nobility but of the realization of the complete ludicy of nobility as a construct at all. Anyhow, was a good read, glad I read it, and would recommend to others. I wish I could read it in French.
Shifting gears, let’s put the Buckinghamshire rambles on hold and talk about guns. In particular the AK-47. The ‘bad guy’ gun. Seriously, toting an AK unilaterally puts you on the side of evil, darkness, and/or oppression. The Soviet Union broke it in crushing uprisings in Eastern Europe, child soldiers employ it in Africa, it adorns the flag of Hezbollah, and on and on- every James Bond bad guy ever has tried to off him with the Kalashnikov. As Samuel L. Jackson said: “AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.” The gun is an icon. I am not trying to glorify it, rather to get my mind around perhaps the most significant- or pernicious- machine of my lifetime. There is one AK-47 for every seven people on Earth. Seven million killing machines. In his book The Gun, C.J. Chivers uses the history of the AK-47 heuristically to explore laws of unintended consequences. Richard Gatling, the inventor of the machine gun, thought he was saving lives by reducing the need for large armies. The US invested untold amounts of time and money checking the Soviet Union’s nuclear ambitions, and yet it was the far end of the martial spectrum- the AK-47- that inflicted the lion’s share of the US’s Cold War casualties in Vietnam, many incurred while G.I.’s struggled to fix their M-16s. The AK-47 is an engineering marvel. It is nearly impossible to render unfirable. Kids can strip and re-assemble it in 30 seconds. Its stubborn refusal to fail at its primary task- killing people as rapidly as possible- makes it an ideal military arm. Last year the coalition troops in Afghanistan recovered a first run AK-47, made c. 1950. In its 60 year career, how many lives did it take? These are the types of questions Chivers tries to ask and answer. Frequently his book departs from the primary narrative. He tracks the development of the AK-47 and contrasts its success in the rice-paddies of SE Asia with the M-16’s failure. Chivers’ book is a marvel of cultural history. It avoids the most technical and controversial questions- many unanswerable given the official veil of secrecy surrounding the gun’s development- but it explores the way in which a simple machine can change the course of history. The book is a fascinating read for anyone, especially for those turned off by military history. The gun has defined our times, at least we should understand it.
Michel de Montaigne, On Solitude, Penguin Great Ideas, Series 4, no. 64 (London: Penguin, 2009)
First, this is the first of likely many reviews of various volumes of the Penguin Great Ideas series. This series is brilliant. It actualizes a point a great mentor of mine- Dr. Paul Vincent- made in a memorable chapel address years ago: the best books, those most worth reading, should be able to fit in the hip pocket of a pair of jeans. Moreover, Penguin brings a sense of style to these books. The understated elegance of the paperback production makes them a pleasure to read and addictive to collect. Blackwell’s 3 for 2 deals help. But with out further fuss- de Montaigne.
Michel de Montaingne is, in my opinion, not at his best in the titular essay: ‘On Solitude.’ I will return to my thoughts on it at the close of this essay. But to start, I must simply remark on the near perfect simplicity of ‘On the Length of Life.’ It is, to my mind, Montaigne at his best: speaking directly and with out undue recourse to classical allusion. He is witty and canny, notably pointing out the ludic undertones of the term ‘natural death.’ He bobs and weaves like a boxer having fun and it’s hard to keep count of the hits he registers because you are just enjoying the show too much. His effortless wit and ability to move quickly from trivial to sublime is on display in other essays as well, but at times, I think, his penchant for antiquity reduces some essays to chains of examples. Frequently he draws from Seneca, and often to great effect. And yet, I think this is where my creeping issues with de Montaigne begin. In his discussion of solitude he endorses a Senecan, stoic, withdraw or detachment. In a through away comment he mentions the stress of managing ones estates to point out that country retirement does not always equal rest, or properly: otium. There is, like in Seneca, a darker undertone. de Montaigne’s leisure was contingent upon the backbreaking labor of others. His patrician tone extends past his predilection for the ancients. It seems harsh, or unduly Marxist, to judge a man retroactively- he was no worse and likely much better than most of his class- and yet his exhortations on some issues are impossible to accept because the require an entire socio-economic system we have rejected wholesale. Perhaps my ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ occludes my judgement, but- I must say- I must reject the solitude he suggests precisely because it- to my mind- is a house built upon sand, and perhaps worse, watered in blood. Now, I don’t wish to put off de Montaigne entirely. When he speaks of life, of human emotions such as anger or constancy, he is scintillating. I guess I speak in the light of my days. Without being too political (and anyone who actually knows me knows how laughable the charge of liberalism is) it is hard to read anything today that does not recognize the problems of class, labor, and money. Montaigne’s virtue requires, to some extent, unvirtuous acquisition of the material means necessary to obtain the requisite otium he sees paramount to living the good life.
So I just finished What is the What. I loved it. It moved me much in the way A.B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life moved me. One can read Achak’s story as simple inspiration, but I found its deeply introspective narrative structure haunting. The constant juxtapositions of Africa and America expose the basic threat to humanity: human potential for barbarity. And yet, the conversational narrative mode is fundamentally hopeful. Eggers and Deng understand that language, at a basic level, expresses the hope of transcendence: that word becomes thing- the What. The dialectical motion of What is the What keeps the reader on their toes. It rejects the stock CNN/BBC World News image of Sudan. It requires the reader to listen closely to sentences and spaces. It problematizes the ‘Starving African Refugee Autopilot Reader Response.’ George Steiner has discussed the problem with books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and What is the What: in their very force they can engender such a torrent of emotion in the reader that he or she no longer feels the need to act in the way the book demands. Reading the book becomes an act of social justice, and yet such an act moves no closer to the real justice needed. By implicating his reader in the dialogue, by continuously rupturing the space between author and reader, Deng and Eggers leave the reader asking questions, doubting news stories, and deeply upset. They do not permit the type of emotional release that while satisfying would in fact move a person away from meaningful action. Now, as South Sudan struggles to make good on the promise of men like Deng, their cry is crucial. What is the What, asks Deng? The answer, in a Barthian sense, is in fact the question. Now Deng has a country, a What, and the world asks: What is the What? Perhaps the message of What is the What should be that it is the constant asking of that question, the relentlessly restless ambition to make the world better, the dissatisfaction with talk evidenced in Deng’s weariness.
So. I finished DFW’s Broom of the System last night (by a crackling fire to boot) and I am not quite sure how I feel about it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it immensely.DFW’s full range of wit and verbal pyrotechnics never fail to surprise and delight and his well humane passion seems bottomless. Many themes which come to fruition in Infinite Jest are on display in Broom of the System, and like his magnum opus, there are moments of apocalyptic silliness- the moments that would be just too brutal if they were not in fact hilarious. And I guess that’s what I love about DFW. Humor is never at anyone else’s expense. DFW is funny because he is human and human life is pretty funny. He was a humanist in the richest sense, and his boundless- if at times excessive- passion for the human ability to make sense, or attempt sense making, of the world illuminates his novels. Particularly in this case. Language and narrative are fact a subjects of the novel. The binary pair of Rick Vigorous and Lenore Beardsmen- comically linked in DFW’s eschatological climax- both talk too much and not enough. They attempt to fashion a romance in entirely verbal terms. Enter Andrew SealanderLang whose nickname ‘Wang-Dang Lang’ magnifies his extra-linguistic prowess. Lang and his estranged wife/Rick’s longtime Lolita-ish crush, exert a raw, physical, pressure over Rick and Lenore. Ultimately the Broom of the System is about making meaning, I think. Its conclusion is not conclusive. Important events often take place off stage. Basically life happens. Still, though, Broom of the System does not, at least in my mind, reach the stratospheric heights of Infinite Jest. This is, I suppose, not actually a critique of the former as much as praise of the latter.
NB: External pressures also shape our readings of Broom of the System. It’s penultimate moment, its climax, ‘The Night of Fire,’ occurs on September 11. But this does not actually mean anything at all. The book was written in 1987.
Anonymous asked: You are the reason people have fantasies about librarians while spending inordinate amounts of time in the stacks.
If a person is stuck in the stacks fantasizing about librarians, I’m assuming it’s because they can’t find their book and need help real...
It takes an ocean not to break.
“Poetry must resemble prose, and both must accept the vocabulary of their time.”— William Butler Yeats on modern poetry in a rare 1936 BBC recording.