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Books

Working on My Novel

July 28, 2014 | by

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From Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel.

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction. Or so it seems to me. Arcangel’s “elevator pitch” puts a brighter gloss on it:

Working on My Novel is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it's the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But the book piques my interest for the opposite reason: it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist, as if he’s just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)Read More »

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In Defense of Fanny Price

July 10, 2014 | by

Mansfield Park at two hundred.

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A publicity still of Billie Piper as Fanny Price in a 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park.

Poor Fanny Price. The unabashedly mousy, pathologically virtuous protagonist of Mansfield Park—which turns two hundred this year—is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine. She spends most of the novel creeping around the periphery of the titular park, taciturn and swallowing tears; she tires after the briefest of physical exertions; she looks down on her wealthier cousins for engaging in flirtatious amateur theatrics; and for most of the book’s five hundred pages, she refuses to voice her long-held love for her cousin Edmund.

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C. S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!” Even if we are to separate Lewis from Screwtape, it’s difficult to see Fanny as anything but, to quote Nietzsche’s famous description, “a moralistic little female à la [George] Eliot.”

And indeed, those who defend Fanny tend to see her as a Christian heroine in the mold of a Dorothea Brooke. As the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it, “it is in rejecting obedience in favor of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism.” But to read Mansfield Park as a kind of Middlemarch is to miss the far more complicated story Austen has told. Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form—before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role—along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values—is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing. Read More »

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A Glorious Figure of Young Manhood

July 8, 2014 | by

Baseball Joe on the School Nine
HE WAS A GLORIOUS FIGURE OF YOUNG MANHOOD

“HE WAS A GLORIOUS FIGURE OF YOUNG MANHOOD”

Baseball Joe of the Silver Stars

“IT DARTED TOWARD THE PLATE, BREAKING INTO A WIDE OUTCURVE”

Baseball Joe on the Giants
IT WAS THE LONGEST HIT THAT EVER HAD BEEN MADE ON THE POLO GROUNDS

“IT WAS THE LONGEST HIT THAT EVER HAD BEEN MADE ON THE POLO GROUNDS”

Baseball Joe Home Run King
JOE CAUGHT IT SQUARE ON THE END OF THE BAT

“JOE CAUGHT IT SQUARE ON THE END OF THE BAT”

JOE WAS DOING GOOD WORK

“JOE WAS DOING GOOD WORK”

THE NEXT MOMENT THE HORSEHIDE WENT SPEEDING TOWARD THE PLATE

“THE NEXT MOMENT THE HORSEHIDE WENT SPEEDING TOWARD THE PLATE”

If baseball remains, however tenuously, our national pastime, then Joe Matson, the eponymous hero of Lester Chadwick’s Baseball Joe series, remains our all-American man: an “everyday country-boy” with a can-do attitude, an unimpeachable sense of right and wrong, and a fucking cannon-arm. Chadwick’s sequence of boys’ novels, published from 1912 to 1928, follows Joe on a Horatio Alger–esque journey from small-town schoolyard star to World Series slugger. Spoiler alert: Joe wins. Joe always wins.

With their cheery illustrations and gee-whiz spirit, the Baseball Joe novels emblematize a brand of wish fulfillment that stands at a far remove from the young-adult fiction of today: there’s no dystopia here, nor even a whiff of the supernatural, unless you count Joe’s otherworldly batting average. What we have instead is the distillate of dozens of summers spent dreaming in baseball diamonds, redolent not of beer and nuts but of Wonder Bread and whole milk and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver.

Or so it seems. Turns out the Baseball Joe books had some dark subplots, though you’d never know it to look at their publisher’s catalog, which supplies breathless titles with curiously terse synopses: Read More »

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Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?

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A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later? Read More »

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An Exhilarating Head Trip

June 25, 2014 | by

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P. H. Newby; date unknown. Photo via phnewby.net

The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police. It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams. Night after night he floated in the sunset-flushed, marine city. He could smell the salt and the jasmine. He dreamed that Mrs Khoury, Mr Khoury and he were all sailing out of the harbor in a boat that slowly filled with water. He dreamed he was in a hot, dark room with a lot of men who argued and shouted. It must have been in the Greek Sailing Club because when a door opened there were oars and polished skiffs; and opposite, high over Simon Artz’s, of the other side of the Canal, was Johnnie Walker with his cane and his top hat setting off for Suez. Or was it the Med.?

So begins P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, the 1969 novel that won the first-ever Booker Prize. “The Booker was not, as it is now, a high media event,” Anthony Thwaite wrote in an obituary for Newby in 1997. “I remember the then–sales director of Faber & Faber, the book’s publisher, telling me that the prize probably resulted in no more than about four hundred extra copies.”

That’s a shame, because Newby, who was born today in 1918, deserved, and deserves, more attention. Graham Greene called him “a fine writer who has never had the full recognition that he deserves,” and that’s as true now as it was in Newby’s lifetime. Very few of his twenty novels are still in print; in the whole of The Paris Review’s archive, his name comes up only once, in Truman Capote’s 1957 Art of Fiction interview: “Well, who are some of the younger writers who seem to know that style exists? P. H. Newby, Françoise Sagan, somewhat.”

In additional to his success as a novelist, Newby enjoyed a long career as a broadcast administrator—he rose through the ranks to become the managing director of BBC Radio. He lived in Cairo from 1942 until 1946: it was “like living in a human laboratory, in which there were no inhibitions,” Thwaite writes, and it informed a number of his novels, Something to Answer For among them. Read More »

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The Physiology of Marriage

May 20, 2014 | by

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This man could save your marriage—or ruin it. A portrait of Balzac, based on an 1842 daguerreotype

It’s Honoré de Balzac’s birthday, making this as good an occasion as any to investigate one of his stranger works, 1829’s The Physiology of Marriage—an extraordinary kind of precursor to the self-help manual. Balzac was thirty when it was published, and already he felt he knew enough about the institution of marriage to advise others on the matter. And maybe he was: though he hadn’t married yet, he’d already perfected the art of the aphorism. This book is full of them: “To saunter is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live.” “A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.” And “Marriage is a fight to the death, before which the wedded couple ask a blessing from heaven, because it is the rashest of all undertakings to swear eternal love; the fight at once commences and victory, that is to say liberty, remains in the hands of the cleverer of the two.”

The Physiology of Marriage is a series of meditations on the more quotidian aspects of loving and living with another—many of which arrive at the rather contemporary conclusion that marriage is an exceedingly difficult arrangement, liable to end in adultery. The book has moments of surprising candor about men and women, and Balzac clearly knows a thing or two about, you know, the Human Comedy. But he’s also full of lousy counsel, and he loves playing power games. Here, for instance, are some excerpts from Meditation XII, “On the Hygiene of Marriage”:Read More »

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