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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

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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The First-Ever Fuck, and Other News

February 12, 2014 | by

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Image via io9

  • Behold: the first written use of fuck, from 1528, inscribed by a monk who seems to have been pretty pissed off with an abbot.
  • “Kicking against the pricks becomes rather less impressive when the pricks have melted away.” Taking a hatchet to the Hatchet Job of the Year.
  • Wes Anderson’s new film, Grand Budapest Hotel, is by his own admission “more or a less a plagiarism” of the works of Stefan Zweig. Will the movie renew American interest in Zweig’s writing?
  • An “edit-a-thon” aims to close the gender gap on Wikipedia, to which far more men contribute than women. Though as the Newsweek reporter Katie Baker tweeted, “Maybe few women edit Wikipedia because they do enough thankless unpaid labor already.”
  • “Emptying the Skies,” Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 essay on the poaching of migratory songbirds, is soon to be a documentary.
  • Toby Barlow’s Write-a-House, a residency program that gives houses to writers, is still a bit shy of its fundraising goal, but there’s a week left in the campaign—help out.

 

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What We’re Loving: Gremlin Jokes, Spiritual Paths, Sundae Ire

January 17, 2014 | by

Backgammon (1982) by Jane Freilicher

Jane Frelicher, Backgammon, 1982.

It’s been almost fifteen years since Akhil Sharma published his first novel, An Obedient Father. This terrible, improbably funny book—about a single mother forced to share an apartment with the father who raped her as a child—won Sharma a PEN/Hemingway prize, a Whiting Award, and praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates. (I remember because it was the first novel I had the honor of editing.) Now Sharma is back with Family Life, the tale of an Indian American boy coming of age in the shadow of a family disaster. It too is terrible and improbably funny, and is excerpted in this week’s New Yorker. With acid, deceptively artless prose and a faultless ear for dialogue, Sharma strips his characters bare from page one and dares us to love them in their nakedness. I cannot think of a more honest or unsparing novelist in our generation. —Lorin Stein

Michael Hofmann is the only translator whose work I would read no matter what he decided to English—if only I could keep up with him! In the excellent new issue of Asymptote, he tells a story about interviewing Wolfgang Koeppen in 1992, four years before the German novelist’s death. (“With my English reticence and youth, I met Koeppen halfway: in other words, we were both barely out of our shells.”) He also writes of the Joseph Mitchell–like silence that Koeppen fell into after the publication of Death in Rome (1954) and lauds the still-untranslated last book, Youth (1976)—giving us reason to hope he might be at work on an English version. The final remarks on Koeppen’s sentences—continually “sidestepping into freedom,” “scrupulously managed, supple, cadenced, sumptuously lexical, expressive prose”—double as a description of Hofmann’s own writing. —Robyn Creswell

Poetry’s January issue contains a thirty-page feature on Jane Freilicher: her artwork and her close friendships with a number of poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. The section is adapted from Tibor de Nagy Gallery’s wonderful exhibition, last summer, “Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets” (it’s currently on view at the Poetry Foundation, in Chicago). I remembered having glimpsed the show’s catalogue in Lorin’s office. I liberated it, and I’m not sure I’ll give it back. It’s like having a scrapbook made by the people whose work you most admire, and it shows that they had as good a time in one another’s company as you’d imagined. “Some little gremlins seemed to have popped loose in my idea factory and I think they may have been sent over from Koch’s brassiere factory,” writes Freilicher to O’Hara. And in what may be my favorite letter in the whole book, from Jane to Frank on a poem of his: “it just don’t seem to have that real low-down smelly sexy everyday Olympian quality your admirers depend upon.” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

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Writers Sell Out, and Other News

November 13, 2013 | by

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  • A pretty amazing slideshow of authors shilling for products through the ages.
  • Jonathan Franzen loves Harriet the Spy. Now really want to know his views on the even odder The Long Secret and frankly bizarre Sport.
  • Herewith: a scratch and sniff wine book.
  • “The very foundation of Judaeo-Christian ethics is presented as a list.” On listicles.
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    Substituting Russian Literature for Sex Ed, and Other News

    September 20, 2013 | by

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    Film still from Anna Karenina (1935).

     

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    Franzen on Kraus: Footnote 89

    September 6, 2013 | by

    Oskar Kokoschka's 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Oil on canvas, 65 x 100 cm, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

    Oskar Kokoschka’s 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

    This week, to celebrate the launch of our Fall issue, we will preview a few of our favorite footnotes from “Against Heine,” Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Click here to get your subscription now!

    In the end, the people who never came out of their province will go farther than the people who never came into one.89

    (p. 216)

    89 I think there’s a lot of truth in this, but Kraus also seems to be making an implicit claim about his own decision to remain rooted in Vienna, in contradistinction to Heine. Here’s the story I tell myself about his agon with Heine. Basically, Kraus arrives too late. He’s an assimilated Jew who has an enormous facility with language but strikingly less talent with “original” forms like poetry, drama, and fiction. And unfortunately there’s already been a German-speaking Jew like him—Heine—who, worse yet, became one of the most famous and influential writers of the previous century. Kraus needs room to live and to work and to believe in the necessity of his work, and what does he have to hold on to in his struggle against his famous precursor? His feeling that there was something wrong with Heine—with the work, the man, his language. And so the story that he tells himself is that Heine was a proto-Kraus who betrayed his gifts by his moral failings and thereby betrayed assimilated German Jews, too. Heine helped create the stereotype of the rootless, linguistically facile Jew. Without Heine, no feuilleton, yes. But also: without Heine, Kraus could simply have been a great satirist who happened to be Jewish. Hence, I propose, the ferocity of the attack in this essay, and the peculiarly moral tone of it. If Kraus also sounds an anti-Semitic note, it’s because he’s trying to annihilate the bad Jew, the stereotypical Jew, so as not to hate himself. That so many Gentile German philistines are willing to forgive Heine’s Jewishness only adds to his rage.

    I, too, often make moral arguments about art, but on my better days I’m suspicious of them, because I’m aware of the envy, the powerlessness and self-pity, that lurks behind them. Back in the nineties, I spent a lot of time assembling a moral case against John Updike. I was offended (rightly, I still think) by Updike’s famous comparison of a writer’s work to excretion: you take in life, digest it, and shit it out in paragraphs. Updike was very proud of his three-pages-per-day regularity, and I didn’t need to know much about his personal history to imagine his mother crowing over the neatness and beauty of his daily bowel movements. My moral complaint was that Updike had tremendous, Nabokov-level talent and was wasting it, because he was too charmed by his daily dumps and too afraid of irregularity to take the kind of big literary risks that might have blocked him for a year or two. His lifelong penchant for alliteration was of a piece with this. It made reading even his otherwise fine stories about the Maples painful; I couldn’t get through more than a few lines without running aground on the anal-retentive preciousness of his prose. Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive processes, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist. David Foster Wallace was the one who actually called Updike an asshole in print (in the New York Observer), but I felt the same way. If you’d suggested that I envied Updike for his unobstructed productivity, or for all the women he got to go to bed with him (and then wrote about in graphic detail), I would only have restated my moral case more trenchantly.

    Later on, after Updike ceased to seem like such a threat, I went through a period of feeling deeply censorious of Philip Roth, because he didn’t seem to care about his many glaring technical deficiencies as a fiction writer, and because his admirers didn’t seem to, either. Roth’s writing seemed to me, as Kraus says of Heine’s, “always and overplainly informative,” which was why, I believed, the philistines had come to tolerate him a lot better than he tolerated the philistines. As with Updike, my judgments had a flavor of Krausian moralism: Roth was lazy, Roth was an asshole, etc. Naturally, I believed that I was merely sticking up for vital aesthetic virtues—a fiction writer ought to be able to write good dialogue, create convincing and well-rounded female characters, and let a story tell itself without discursive intrusions—but these “vital” virtues happened to coincide with some of my own abilities as a fiction writer. To make my moral case against Roth, I had to ignore or downplay other plausible virtues, most notably Roth’s heroic fearlessness of his readers’ moral judgments, because I subterraneanly envied his fearlessness and wanted people to pay attention to me and not him. This was the kind of thing that Nietzsche had in mind when he mocked the “slave” mentality of moral judgments.

    “Heine and the Consequences” is the document of Kraus’s struggle to overcome his great precursor. On his own terms, he may have succeeded; his best-known and most shattering work, The Last Days of Mankind (a documentary “drama” of the First World War) was written in the decade that followed. German readers, however, are not so convinced that he vanquished Heine. My friend Daniel Kehlmann, the Austrian novelist, loves the essay and grants that Kraus scores a lot of points off Heine in it. “But,” he says, “Heine is still wonderful, too.”

     

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