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#16 bart

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 10:28 AM

Claire Messud, author of the just-released novel "the Emperor's Children," was interviewed by Diane Rehm on NPR this morning. She read a long selection, and it was beautiful. I sat in my car for fifteen minutes after arriving at my destination, just so I wouldn't miss the rest of the interview.

I first heard of this book in a review in The Economist which went so far as to recommend that everyone buy TWO copies -- and give one to a friend. (Statements like that are unheard of in the arts pages of that magazine, which was enough to get me to order the book from Amazon. Just one copy, but at an excellent discount, I'm glad to report.)

I'm not generally fond of contemporary fiction nowadays, so it was quite exciting to hear Messud respond to a listener's question about Tom Wolfe by commenting that she had never read his work, didn't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and actually prefers 19th century novels like "Buddenbrooks" and the works of Tolstoy. And this from someone who is quite young!

#17 dirac

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 10:55 AM

I just finished Quartered Safe Out Here, a memoir by George MacDonald Fraser about his infantry service in Burma in WWII. Fraser wrote the Flashman historical/comic novels. This is a good read about a relatively little-known part of that war and also is very interesting as a coming-of-age story. Fraser was nineteen and was tapped to lead much more experienced soldiers.



I haven't read that one, but I love the Flashman books, although they've begun to run out of steam, hardly surprising after such a long run. I also enjoyed Fraser's book on the Scottish border raiders, "The Steel Bonnets."

#18 Quiggin

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 05:39 PM

I'm not generally fond of contemporary fiction nowadays, so it was quite exciting to hear Messud respond to a listener's question about Tom Wolfe by commenting that she had never read his work, didn't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and actually prefers 19th century novels like "Buddenbrooks" and the works of Tolstoy. And this from someone who is quite young!


Claire Massud is married to the critic James Wood, who has been writing on and on (in the New Republic and most recently N+1) about the state of the contemporary novel, so they must have a lot to talk about over breakfast and dinner on this subject. Here is Wood in the Guardian on the "glass bottom boat" school of writing of many current novelists--the sort of writing Claire Massud seems to be pushing away from:

Franzen is a very intelligent, very appealing writer; so much so that an essentially dark book stays in the memory as warm and comic. To call it Tolstoyan seems exaggerated, however. The novelist Michael Cunningham likens it to Buddenbrooks, but a comparison of those two novels shows The Corrections to be wide rather than deep, and smart rather than subtle. It has some of Mann's sweep and some of his gentle comedy (and even some of his Schopenhauer); but it lacks the luminous control of that great German book. Indeed, The Corrections suffers from a desire to put too much in. His novel is a kind of glass-bottomed boat through which one can glimpse most of the various currents of contemporary American fiction: domestic realism; postmodern cultural riffing; campus farce; "smart young man's irony" of the kind familiar in Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace; and, rather too often, an easy journalism of style.



#19 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 06:27 PM

Quiggin--Here's the Kakutani review of Franzen's 'own story'. This is one case where I can't overlook the person terribly well, especially since I didn't read the 'masterpieces' first, and even though Ms. Kakutani gets on my nerves.

http://www.nytimes.c...d209124&ei=5070

#20 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 08:38 PM

I never get to participate in these threads because (to my shame) I barely read. But I just finished a book! (woohoo!) - Kschessinska's memoirs, "Dancing in Petersburg". I write more about it on my blog, but it's most striking for a study in narrative voice. You're always wondering as you read it what she's leaving out.

I've temporarily put aside Solomon Volkov's "St. Petersburg, A Cultural History" to read and return a book lent to me by a friend who shares my fascination with northern climes, "Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez. Alas, there is no ballet I know of in Nunavut or Greenland.

#21 Quiggin

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 09:40 PM

Thanks, Papeet, for the Kakutani link. It predisposes me towards Franzen. Kakutani gets so angry I can barely read her--her run of the mill adjectives almost burst at the seams with anger towards whoever she is reviewing. And the last paragraph is routinely merciless.

She can be sensible from time to time. She wrote an essay about how young people are afraid to express themselves, afraid to enter into debate, for fear of offending anyone. And that this was impoverishing us as a nation. But then she went on to ruin it by blaming it all on the powerful influence of French intellectual thought, Derrida, Barthes et al, her bete noir, over English language literature.

#22 dirac

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 09:48 AM

I haven’t read “The Corrections,” but I must say whenever I’ve seen Franzen's byline on an article the contents of same tend to be deeply pompous, and so I suspect Kakutani is right on the money.
This wouldn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of his fiction, however, because it’s quite possible for an novelist to have less than attractive qualities when off the clock and still be a fine writer.

Quiggin writes:

But then she went on to ruin it by blaming it all on the powerful influence of French intellectual thought, Derrida, Barthes et al, her bete noir, over English language literature.


It's an institutional prejudice, I fear. I was dismayed by the Times obituary for Derrida.

#23 Quiggin

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 02:03 PM

It's an institutional prejudice, I fear. I was dismayed by the Times obituary for Derrida.


It's a bit like that at the New Yorker too. Alex Ross takes rather cheap shots at Adorno who, while extemely difficult, has written beautifully on Beethoven, Mahler, and on the language of music.

Even Michael Kimmerman at the Times in otherwise excellent review on the terrible replacement for the Musee de l"Homme in Paris, stops Walter Benjamin short:

The critic Walter Benjamin, who remarked that "there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism," said he could not "contemplate without horror" the works we call "cultural treasures."

That was going too far.


NYTimes: Kimmelman article

Everything goes too far for the Times.

#24 papeetepatrick

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 04:15 PM

It's an institutional prejudice, I fear. I was dismayed by the Times obituary for Derrida.


It's a bit like that at the New Yorker too. Alex Ross takes rather cheap shots at Adorno who, while extemely difficult, has written beautifully on Beethoven, Mahler, and on the language of music.

Even Michael Kimmerman at the Times in otherwise excellent review on the terrible replacement for the Musee de l"Homme in Paris, stops Walter Benjamin short:

The critic Walter Benjamin, who remarked that "there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism," said he could not "contemplate without horror" the works we call "cultural treasures."

That was going too far.


NYTimes: Kimmelman article

Everything goes too far for the Times.


I respectfully disagree with all this. Having read a great deal of Derrida, Benjamin, and Adorno, I am very aware of the spell they can induce. While under it, it is almost impossible not to stand at rapt attention and even worship. Which does not mean they are not important, of course they are even though I would take even a single page of Deleuze's 'Mille Plateaux' over all of Derrida's effete delicacies (although in 'A Taste for the Secret' he does hit on something I hadn't yet found expressed quite so uncannily. Later I found that Lyotard said the same thing, but in a less death-loving way. Derrida himself said 'I think of nothing but death.' His business, but 6 volumes of Derrida was like a lovely life sentence I can look back on.) A lot of people took umbrage at the Times's obituary of Derrida. What startled me were op-eds declaring him the most famous (and most important? surely that is what is meant there) philosopher in the world (I suppose until his death, and including no one even immediately previous. Deleuze and Foucault were far more important to many of us--more life-giving, and not less true by virtue of their refusal to concentrate solely on tedium and death.)

While Kakutani overemphasizes this, it is a necessary attitude for some non-rednecks to take, because the snob appeal in the French post-structuralists and post-modernists is enormous and equally as tiresome as she can be. Under the circumstances, she really ought to find Mailer's unsavoury characterization of her quite refreshing, at least in the sense that it does not reek of anything even remotely Derridean. The main problem she has here is not making the difference in the vast array of French philosophers of the last 50 years. There are many who think Baudrillard is a charlatan; I, on the other hand, think he is capable of huge sloppiness and occasional extraordinary profundity. that's just one of many examples. I find Slavoj Zizek to be a mere careerist with sparkles of cleverness (he's Slovenian, of course).

The Times is always sort of middle-cult, you can't expect it to be subtle. Show me a greater newspaper, despite its massive faults.

I agree with Kimmelman on Benjamin except that Benjamin was not even worth quoting in this regard. Anybody who has read 'the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' knows of his polemic of 'the film', how putting it together piece by piece comes up with this artificial 'perfect orchid' and his discussions of 'auras' are sure to put in the humourless 'the bad aura of the cult of the film star.' It would be interesting to know what he'd think now, when even this 'bad cult of the film star' is hardly to be seen as it was once. This is the serious intellectualism that is useful and useless by turns. Same with Adorno, whose writing on music is remote and purposely difficult, abstruse to the point that only a very few can understand any of it. And the usual Frankfurt Marxist humorlessness with his ridiculing of 'the light popular cinema' and the inferiority of jazz, among the most overrated and overdiscussed writings on art and 'artworks' I've ever had the displeasure to waste much too much time on. These are both examples of the high-minded philosopher who has the greater breadth of mind to write Scripture about art--Heidegger's horrible tracts as in 'The Origin of the Work of Art' are further examples of the arrogance of the philosopher. The artist, on the other hand, is not granted any reciprocal rights when it comes to philosophy. They even say this quite openly and until this day. To my knowledge, Deleuze is the only one of these French philosophers who had the largeness of mind to realize that the philosopher is not the only privileged thinker.

Dirac--point well taken about how Franzen may be a fine novelist nevertheless. It was the particular odious qualities that Franzen bragged on, not that they were just odious. William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote all have a host of qualities one might describe as odious, and they've never stopped me. Franzen just sounds like a bratty child or spoiled teenager, although I don't doubt he can write. I also wasn't swayed by Kakutani's opinions of Franzen, but rather his direct quotes.

To counter any accusation of being off-topic, I will say that I am now reading ms. Kakutani's review of Bruce Wagner's latest novel. Although I think she is almost always wrong about which of his books are best, this particular review is far more subtle, assessing how the characters were made complicated and then unconvincingly simplified. On the other hand, I could never be a fan of hers, after her review of Didion's 'The Last thing He Wanted' and DeLillo's 'Cosmopolis.' She's occasionally useful, but no artist herself. Sontag said she never understood any of her novels. although she reviewed favourably some of what I think are Sontag's most ugly-styled novels (for me, this includes all of her novels, although not all of her essays, which are often extremely interesting.)

#25 dirac

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Posted 14 September 2006 - 02:51 PM

papeetepatrick writes: Sontag said she never understood any of her novels. although she reviewed favourably some of what I think are Sontag's most ugly-styled novels (for me, this includes all of her novels, although not all of her essays, which are often extremely interesting.)

I read “Death Kit” and “The Volcano Lover” and figured that was plenty. “On Photography” is one of my favorites – really remarkable stuff in that.

A lot of people took umbrage at the Times's obituary of Derrida.


I was bothered less by content than the tone of the thing – I don’t have time to look it up, but at the time the adjective ‘snotty’ seemed like an accurate characterization.

Show me a greater newspaper, despite its massive faults.


I’m intensely grateful for the NYT. I remember discovering it in high school, out here on the West Coast, and it was a revelation to me of what a great newspaper was like. It’s big enough to take a punch now and then, though.

bart writes:

I'm not generally fond of contemporary fiction nowadays, so it was quite exciting to hear Messud respond to a listener's question about Tom Wolfe by commenting that she had never read his work, didn't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and actually prefers 19th century novels like "Buddenbrooks" and the works of Tolstoy.


Funny. Tom Wolfe has similar preferences. :)

#26 Anthony_NYC

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Posted 14 September 2006 - 07:00 PM

I read “Death Kit” and “The Volcano Lover” and figured that was plenty. “On Photography” is one of my favorites – really remarkable stuff in that.

"The Volcano Lover" is the only one of her novels I've read. I so wanted to love it, but have to admit I found it tough going. Not because it's difficult--it's not--but because it just didn't engage me deeply on any level. I read her play "Alice in Bed" and didn't understand a word of it. She seems to have had no talent for expressing ideas through narrative, characterization, evocation of period. She was much, much better as an essayist.

Getting back on subject, I just finished Luciano Berio's "Remembering the Future." It's the print edition of his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, and a completely absorbing read by one of the great creative (and intellectual) minds of recent times. An instant classic. It's interesting that great artists have often written great essays, but great essayists don't, if they're bold enough to try, usually make good art.

#27 bart

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Posted 15 September 2006 - 04:16 AM

I actually enjoyed "The Volcano Lover," being a sap for intelligent and well-rearched historical novels.

I agree that it is not particularly engaging as a story. At least not for the contemporary market. Perhaps that's because of Sontag's decision to focus, not on the obvious choice, Emma Hamilton, but on her odd, intellectual, and very 18th-century husband, Sir William.

I wonder how many readers -- drawn to the book by memories of Vivian Leigh and Lawrence Olivier (as Nelson) in "That Hamilton Woman" -- became quickly puzzled and disoriented by what Sontag actually produced.

P.S. The Hamilton-Nelson menage might have made a passable MacMillen full-evening ballet -- a kind of "Manon," but with a much larger cast. AND an active volcano.

#28 papeetepatrick

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Posted 15 September 2006 - 07:36 AM

I was bothered less by content than the tone of the thing – I don’t have time to look it up, but at the time the adjective ‘snotty’ seemed like an accurate characterization.


It probably was snotty. I think the London Times's obituary was entitled "Derrida 'Dies"'. These weren't nice things to do, but probably inevitable--as if impossible now to go back to speaking without reference to 'differance' and all the rest, due to intimidation by this kind of refinement.

Anthony--it's hard to know where the good essayists and artists leave off another. Mailer, Martin Amis, Didion and Vargas Llosa have all done fine essays and 'made good art.' Maybe it's that the essayists who write less about art also 'write better art' than those who write primarily about art in their essays. The best art is perhaps not 'arty,' and essayists like Sontag, who write mostly or largely about art, tend to sound very arty when they set about trying to write real fiction: It can come across as mere erudition and rearrangement of some sort of connoisseurship and highbrow taste rather than something without too many citations (these can be very hard to edit out, even if you exclude most of the proper names.)

#29 dirac

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Posted 15 September 2006 - 02:57 PM

papeetepatrick writes:

It can come across as mere erudition and rearrangement of some sort of connoisseurship and highbrow taste rather than something without too many citations (these can be very hard to edit out, even if you exclude most of the proper names.)


I wonder if “Death Kit” might not have been better if Sontag hadn’t been quite so well read and up on the latest thing. I had the impression there was a good bit of conventional naturalism in there screaming to be let out, to paraphrase Cyril Connolly.

richard53dog writes:

She seems to have had no talent for expressing ideas through narrative, characterization, evocation of period. She was much, much better as an essayist.


A critic may be more erudite, have greater analytic powers, and be just plain smarter than a given novelist, but there’s no substitute for creative imagination, an unforgivably foggy phrase but I can’t think of anything better at the moment. I think also of “The Memoirs of Hecate County” by Edmund Wilson (although that was pretty good in its way). I do think that such attempts are honorable and useful; you don’t have to be a novelist to understand a novelist’s craft, but it can help.

#30 papeetepatrick

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Posted 05 October 2006 - 09:48 PM

I mentioned above that I was going to be reading Lawrence Wright's 'The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11'. I have just finished it and it is certainly (for me) as important a book as I have ever read. Not until this 5th year anniversary did I finally really get in touch with the grief I went through from seeing the Towers fall from West 13th Street out my south window and subsequently finding that a friend of mine had died in the Pentagon crash. There was a trauma from the very first, but that does a lot of paralyzing. This meant partially that I never was even able to master some of the most basic facts about the catastrophe, so this book was extraordinarily valuable. It's an incredible history, threaded with the fate of John O'Neill, the FBI counterterrorist man who lead the investigation on the USS Cole, who might have been able to get the CIA to stop withholding information which could perhaps have prevented 9/11 if he'd not been thwarted, and who died in the collapse of the South Tower, where he'd started a new job a few days earlier.

I may say more later, but here are 2 recent reviews of the book, currently a hardcover NYTimes bestseller. I haven't gotten to the NYRB one yet.

http://www.nytimes.c...50f1248&ei=5070

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19433


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