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The “Mating” Book Club

4: “Here Was the Famous Voice”

March 27, 2015 | by

“A Farce Written in Human Blood,” pp. 70-89

mating

This is the fourth entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

So here he is, after all this setup: Denoon—the anthropologist beyond anthropology, the man who until this chapter had been kept behind the margins as if in the wings, behind a curtain. Because his entrance here, now, is a stage-entrance—he’s going to give us a performance.

Here we have a party whose entertainment consists of an anthropologist’s lecture costumed as an anthropologist’s debate—with politicians, about politics—in the thickly-caked makeup of a play: “A Farce Written in Human Blood: THE DESTRUCTION OF AFRICA ACCELERATED BY HER BENEFACTORS, PRESENT COMPANY NOT EXCEPTED.” The CAPS are Rush’s. Then there’s this heading: ACT II. But what was ACT I? Did we miss it? We did. Our unnamed narrator gives us access to Denoon only after he’s finished (verbally) demolishing capitalism (rather “excoriating the capitalist development mode for Africa”)—socialism is next.

But before we get into Denoon’s “objections to the socialist remedy for Africa,” let’s ask a question: Why did Rush write this section as a drama? Why not as a thoroughgoing narrated scene? Read More »

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On the Shelf

The Rise of Slackness, and Other News

March 27, 2015 | by

General-echo

General Echo‘s 12" of Pleasure LP.

  • Luc Sante on listening to reggae in the late seventies: “General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of ‘slackness,’ the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian ‘cultural’ style … his songs include ‘Bathroom Sex’ and ‘I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire’ (‘crotches,’ that is), as well as ‘Drunken Master’ and ‘International Year of the Child.’ ”
  • The Cannes Film Festival saw a lot more action in the fifties: “Of all the grueling daily rituals … perhaps the most frivolous are the combination beach party/publicity functions, where paparazzi scramble to get shots of the ‘traditional striptease by the starlet of the year standing on the rocks.’ This particular custom was spawned in part by Brigitte Bardot’s inaugural, bikinied appearance at Cannes in 1953. But disrobing actresses arguably didn’t become a fixture of the festival until the following year, when Simone Silva got banned for posing topless next to Robert Mitchum—a spectacle that caused a pile-up of frantic, injured photographers.”
  • How the Danish writer Dorthe Nors found her way to the short story: “The Swedes have that big, fearless, existential approach to literature. The Danes have an elastic, playful, anarchistic and ironic way of using language. And here was this dude telling me—the closet Swede—that I should make use of the strengths of my own language … ”
  • What does Taylor Swift have in common with Austen, Auden, Thackeray, and Shakespeare? And don’t say, She’s a storyteller of legendary talents—the answer is more mundane. She’s an adopter of they as a singular pronoun.
  • When John Updike tried to write a Jewish character—Henry Bech, who went on to star in four of Updike’s novels—Cynthia Ozick took him to task: “Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing … Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair.”

Our Daily Correspondent

Conservative Radicals

March 26, 2015 | by

frost meet the press

Frost on Meet the Press in 1955.

First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More »

On Film

Drunk in Love

March 26, 2015 | by

Sixty-four years later, The Tales of Hoffmann continues to delight and perplex.

a Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion DVD PDVD_005

A still from The Tales of Hoffmann.

Lovers of the recherché have flocked to see Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 Tales of Hoffmann at Film Forum, where it’s still showing for one more day. In a newly restored print, the film’s fantastical mise-en-scène and extravagant polychrome glory assault viewers head on for a hundred and thirty-three minutes. At each screening, Martin Scorsese introduces Hoffmann in a videotaped homily, during which he confesses to an “obsession” with the film, having first fallen for it, strangely enough, when it aired in black-and-white on Million Dollar Movie. Most critics rave or rant, or both, about this odd work. The amiable William Germano, the author of a smart, slim volume about the film for the British Film Institute, spoke at the screening I attended, and his was one of the more measured, sanguine appreciations: “Whatever Hoffmann was, there had never been a cinematic creation quite like this one.” Read More »

The “Mating” Book Club

3: “Blasts and Lurches”

March 26, 2015 | by

From “A Fête Worse than Death” through “A Great Reckoning in a Little Room,” pp. 59–71

mating

This is the third entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

In their opening salvos to this celebration of/cerebration on Norman Rush’s Mating, it seems only reasonable that my virtual clubmates, Popkey and Piepenbring, have focused on the voice of the novel’s nameless first-person narrator. Without question, she’s a unique creation. Piepenbring calls her, approvingly, “strange,” a strangeness that Popkey would have us appreciate for a believable femaleness. I concede, as Popkey documents, that since Mating received the National Book Award for fiction, in 1991, it has been a point of debate, among critics and readers, to assess the degree of plausibility of the femaleness of Rush’s narrator (a nameless narrator who, in Rush’s third-person second novel, Mortals, has a brief walk-on part in which we learn both her pedestrian forename and her satisfying surname). 

Setting aside here the question of a male novelist’s capacity to imagine female prose (whatever that is), it seems to me that a deeper challenge, and the one by which we might measure Rush’s capacities, is his ability to imagine a character with a complex, plausible intellectual life. Though the human heart tested to its limits is amply central in the history of the novel, a human mind functioning at the peak of its powers is less well represented (and, when amply charted, is more typically criminal: Charles Kinbote and Humbert Humbert, for two). As such, I’m less concerned about veracity of voice than I am with memorableness of mind. No one I know talks like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in him. And no one I know takes in the world quite the way the narrator of Mating does. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Not Without My Piglet, and Other News

March 26, 2015 | by

          From Pulp Drunk: Mexican Pulp Art

From Pulp Drunk: Mexican Pulp Art

  • This spring, Zachary Leader’s new life of Saul Bellow arrives—“transparently meant as a corrective to the authorized biography published by James Atlas in 2000, which presented Bellow as a racist and a woman-hater, among other things, and accelerated Bellow’s fall from literary grace. You can feel the lines being drawn and the gloves going up … ”
  • “Characters having hallucinations and apparitions; super-strength robots throwing cars on a destructive rampage; jealous gorillas who are furious they didn’t end up with the girl; a thieving woman stealing a piglet under the cover of nighttime; circus murder mysteries … ” You’ll find all these and more on the pulpy covers of Mexican paperbacks.
  • A nineteenth-century guide to oratory tells you everything you need to know about giving a good speech; it will generously expand your gestural vocabulary, if nothing else. (The key to public speaking is to flail around like you’re an out-of-water synchronized swimmer, apparently.)
  • You might also make liberal use of litotes—the art of ironic understatement “in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary”—a not unsubtle addition to any rhetorician’s arsenal. “Litotes is best appreciated as a kind of rhetorical magician or illusionist. It can draw our attention to something—its badness, its difficulty, etc.—while, simultaneously, emphasizing its opposite. The quickness of the rhetorical hand deceives the mind’s eye—now you see what’s being meant, now you don’t.”
  • And steer clear of zombie nouns, while you’re at it: “Judith Butler, in the essay that won the 1997 Bad Writing Contest, uses account, relations, ways, hegemony, relations, repetition, convergence, rearticulation, question, temporality, thinking, structure, shift, theory, totalities, objects, insights, possibility, structure, conception, hegemony, sites, strategies, rearticulation and power—all in a single sentence. It is not much clearer with the other words added.”