Apostrophe on Hiatus

Posted on | July 15, 2012 | 3 Comments

Dearest readers, whoever you are: as you may have noticed, Apostrophe has been a little sparse of late, and rather than let it die a slow death, I’m going to officially put the blog on hiatus.  Other obligations have demanded my attention at the moment, but please keep me on your RSS feeds for when the blog comes back to life!

Jonathan Franzen Wants You To Like Him

Posted on | April 25, 2012 | No Comments

This week in the Barnes & Noble Review, I take a look at Jonathan Franzen’s latest collection of essays, Farther Away, and his complicated relationship with David Foster Wallace.

Jonathan Franzen wants you to like him. In “Mr. Difficult,” a 2002 New Yorker essay, Franzen identifies two types of authorship: the Status model, devoted to the pursuit of difficult art at the expense of commercial gain, and the Contract model, which privileges the enjoyment and connectedness of the reader. Franzen is, in his own estimation, “a Contract kind of person.” His novels don’t ask more of the reader than she is willing to give in turn. “[T]o build the reader an uncomfortable house you wouldn’t want to live in: this violates what seems to me the categorical imperative for any fiction writer.”

But if Franzen the fiction writer diligently abides by this Kantian fiat, Franzen the essayist is not in the business of building comfortable houses. In his nonfiction, Franzen violates the writerly contract he so vaunts, not by high-art subversion but simply by being a grouch. How to Be Alone, which appeared in 2003 two years after the breakout success of The Corrections, collected his essays of the previous decade into an angry bundle. Anchored by his famous Harper’s essay on the plight of the modern novelist, the book lambasted our national preference for cultural pablum and lamented the demise of a virtuous solitude. Farther Away, coming nearly two years on the heels ofFreedom, follows much the same pattern. Like its predecessor, this assemblage of essays finds Franzen in a curmudgeonly mood — ranting against the encroachments of social media and other people’s cell phone “I love yous” — and like its predecessor, it contains one long essay that has already proved a lightning rod. [More here.]

Reading in Tongues: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years

Posted on | February 28, 2012 | 1 Comment

Note: “Reading in Tongues” is a very occasional feature on the experience of reading in a foreign language.

The longlist for the Best Translated Book Award was announced today, and I was pleased to see Seven Years by Peter Stamm—which I’d just read at a sloth-like crawl in the German—among the contenders.  I’d been curious about Stamm ever since Tim Parks’s controversial blog post for the NYRB a few months ago comparing him with Jonathan Franzen.  Parks’s argument, in brief, is that Stamm’s prose exemplifies a tendency among contemporary European novelists to privilege a flat, “internationalist” style stripped of regional vernacular—a style that, coincidentally or not, makes their books easier to sell and market in the US.  While an author like Franzen can litter his books with references to corporate Americana (“the new TV remote was stupid, the NBC prime-time schedule had been stupidly arranged, the National League was stupid for not adopting the designated hitter rule”) without diminishing his international market share, Stamm and his peers have to erase any regional tics that will alienate American publishers.  As Parks argued in a follow-up post, European writers have “discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things.”  In other words, there is market pressure towards syntactical ease.

While there is much to be troubled by in these developments, they happen to have the side effect of making German easier for relative newcomers like me.  There is always a trade-off when reading in a foreign language between linguistic and analytic comprehension.  The more mental energy one expends on deciphering what a word means, the harder it is figure out what it really means: Seven Years opens with the narrator, Alexander, watching his estranged wife through a window—a metaphor that opens itself up to interpretation only if you happen to know the word for window.

Reading Stamm, I found myself turning to the dictionary less frequently than usual. His vocabulary rarely extends itself beyond the ordinary, and he is spare in his use of simile.  His descriptions, rather than reaching for a clarifying image, rely on straightforward adjectives.  Sonia, Alexander’s uptight, architect wife, is “lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.”  His mistress Iwona, a sexually artless Polish immigrant into whose arms Alexander occasionally lapses, is “completely unattractive:” “Her face was puffy and she wore her midlength hair loose.  Presumably she had gotten a perm some time ago, but it had grown out, and her hair was hanging in her face.  Her clothing looked cheap and worn.” * Read more

This Is The Way a World Ends: Joseph Roth’s Letters

Posted on | February 25, 2012 | No Comments

In the back-page essay in this week’s New York Times Book Review, I take stock of Joseph Roth’s letters—and what they can and can’t tell us about their author:

The final message from the Austrian novelist ­Joseph Roth in Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters is short and desperate. “Dear friend,” he writes to his French translator, Blanche Gidon, “my eyes are in grave danger. May I count on you to find a moment to advise me in the course of the afternoon. I am very fearful. Please.” The brevity is out of character; the desperation is not. There is scarcely a letter of his that doesn’t include some sort of plea — for money, for work, for forgiveness.

To date, no full English-language biography of Roth has been written, and this collection of his letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, makes for a strange surrogate. Best known for “The Radetzky March,” his 1932 multigenerational chronicle of European decline, Roth was one of the early 20th century’s loudest and most cantankerous witnesses. He was born into a Jewish family in Galicia in the waning days of the Austro-­Hungarian Empire and left for Lvov (now Lviv, in Ukraine) and then Vienna, for his studies. His career as a journalist, most regularly for Frankfurter Zeitung, sent him wandering across Europe to report on the shifting continental mood — with Paris, more often than not, his magnetic north. Along the way, and in the company of ungodly quantities of schnapps, he established himself as one of the finest novelists of his day. [More here.]

Of course it’s impossible to capture the full flavor of the letters in a short essay, but luckily, the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog ran an excerpt of the correspondence between Roth and Stefan Zweig, his friend and rival who supported Roth (much to Roth’s resentment) in the later years of his life.

Meta in Madrid: Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Posted on | January 23, 2012 | No Comments

I came to Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station via the bandwagon.  I first learned of the novel from James Wood’s New Yorker review, which left me intrigued: a novel about the uncertainty of language, expat angst, and the appropriation of history in the quest for an authentic self?  I may not be a poet adrift in Madrid, but a year spent scouring Berlin for self-referential metaphors left me prepared to sympathize.

Adam Gordon is a poet, insofar as he will admit to a profession at all, passing the year in Spain on a prestigious fellowship.  He’s technically supposed to be conducting research for a long poem about the Spanish Civil War, but really, he spends a lot of time smoking spliffs, roaming the Prado, and arranging his face in ways that will absolve him of having to speak: “I realized with some anxiety that [Teresa] would expect me to be upset, very moved, that I needed to be so in order to justify my abrupt departure from the others.  I turned back toward the fence, licked the tips of my fingers, and rubbed the spit under my eyes to make it look like I’d been crying, repeating this until I felt there would be enough moisture to catch a little light or at least make my face damp to the touch.”  When his face fails to garner the sympathy and attention he requires, Adam composes lies about his parents—a dead mother, a fascist father, both sweet upper middle-class Kansans, alive and well.

While Adam Gordon bears some resemblance to Sartre’s Roquentin or even the Underground Man, his is a very twenty-first century kind of anomie.  He not only has to worry about whether his experiences are mediated—his over-exerted consciousness interfering with the business of authenticity—but also about whether the world is forcing him to mediate it by yet another degree.  The internet and cell phones interrupt the fantasy of the artist abroad, leaving Adam to construct a reality in which they don’t exist.  He pretends he doesn’t have internet access in his apartment so as to maintain the extinct feeling that distance is not just spatial but spiritual.  In one of the rare breaches of Adam’s well-kept isolation, his friend Cyrus reports on witnessing a drowning in Mexico, worried his girlfriend has thrilled to the experience: “She was shaken up in her way… But she also seemed excited.  Like we had had a ‘real’ experience.”  Naturally, their conversation takes place in gchat. Read more

The [Insert Superlative Here] Books of 2011: My Year in Reading

Posted on | December 20, 2011 | 5 Comments

I recently, and much belatedly, got around to reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. It’s brilliant—not a word I use easily—and really deserves its own post, but there is a point on which Frye and I disagree, in practice if not in theory.  “The demonstrable value-judgement,” he claims in his introduction, “is the donkey’s carrot of literary criticism, and every new critical fashion…has been accompanied by a belief that criticism has finally devised a definitive technique for separating the excellent from the less excellent.”  Attacking Matthew Arnold for his effort to establish a pecking order among the great poets, Frye writes witheringly: “We begin to suspect that the literary value-judgements are projections of social ones.  Why does Arnold want to rank poets?”  His dismissal of such exercises is indisputable but for one omission: lists are fun. There’s a satisfaction to the categorizing and ordering, to the confidence of knowing in your bones that one book is better than another.  It may not do justice to the works at hand, but the brain—or my brain, anyway—can’t help itself.  And so, without further ado, my year in books:

Best New Novel(s): As discussed a couple posts ago, I came down favorably on the new Eugenides, but not for the reasons I anticipated.  I was excited by the idea of a novel that took on novels as a subject, by the promise of a meta-masterpiece from an author I trusted to get it right.  Instead, I found that The Marriage Plot has gotten too much credit for making a coherent claim about literature and not enough for its simpler pleasures as a Bildungsroman.

But not everything I read makes it onto Apostrophe, and my other favorite novel this year is a kind of zanier, and in its way more ambitious, obverse of The Marriage Plot. I expected The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, to be all tricks and little substance. Phillips is an author I’d never taken particularly seriously, mostly because unlike the writers with whom he shares a demographic—Eugenides, Franzen, Lethem—he doesn’t beg to be taken seriously.  I read and liked Prague a few years ago, but in the kind of way that made me want to go live out my expat fantasies in Budapest rather than in the kind of way that made me want to keep reading his work.  Phillips’s apparent lack of interest in jockeying for literary status makes The Tragedy of Arthur’s vexing questions of authenticity and authorship all the more intriguing: What makes a work great?  Where does artistic power end and consensus begin?  He’s talking about Shakespeare, but one might ask the same questions of some of his peers.  (Was Freedom really that good?)  I could take or leave Phillips’s faux-Shakespeare play (or is that only because I know it’s not Shakespeare?) but the novel posing, Pale Fire-style, as an introduction to the play manages to do what The Marriage Plot couldn’t quite: it uses fiction to address, and challenge, some of our most closely-held assumptions about why and how we read.  It’s also, I should add, extraordinarily funny. Read more

In Which I Take Bravo’s “Work of Art” Far Too Seriously

Posted on | December 1, 2011 | No Comments

I recently started watching the Bravo show “Work of Art”—not that I needed much of an excuse—after reading some of Jerry Saltz’s New York Magazine recaps. What was an art critic, whose very currency is taste, doing in the wilds of reality TV?

That competitive art-making should land on television was probably just a matter of time.  ”Work of Art” has all the ingredients that have made “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” so successful: a visual creative process with an end product that can be held up for judgment.  Sure, art likes to imagine itself a world apart from food and fashion, but the boundary between art and commerce has always been blurry.  It’s not for nothing that the prize in one episode was a chance to have a piece sold at auction; monetary value is the easiest, if not necessarily the best, measure of artistic value.  (I suspect the literary world hasn’t eschewed the reality TV limelight out of some high-minded aesthetic idealism; it’s just hard to see the telegenic potential in bunch of sun-deprived poets pattering away at the keyboard.)

“Work of Art”  does have one difference from its sibling shows, however, in that it attempts to bring the language of criticism to television.  Where “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” have external criteria by which to measure the output of the contestants—is it well made?  is it wearable?  how does it taste?—“Work of Art” has no language for judgment besides what is good.  And explaining what makes for good art on television is no easy exercise.  The strange thing about watching the show is that it’s easy to tell which pieces are successful and which are failures simply by looking at them, but the language of the “crit”—as the judging sessions are called in art-school fashion—do little to illuminate why.  A sequence of drawings based on New York Times photographs of Libyan soldiers, by the increasingly evil Lola, is, if not exactly MoMA-worthy, at least compelling.  A pile of money drenched in fake oil and banded together with ribbons of newspaper is embarrassing. Read more

Performance Art in Prose: Kirsten Kaschock’s Sleight

Posted on | November 30, 2011 | No Comments

My latest piece for the Barnes & Noble Review is on one of the stranger novels I’ve read this year: Kirsten Kaschock’s Sleight. A more positive review than mine also ran this week, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  It’s a polarizing enough book that I recommend reading both.

In her novel Sleight, Kirsten Kaschock has set herself a near-impossible challenge: the creation of a new, multidisciplinary art form that she can only communicate in words. Set in an almost-alternate reality where people have names like Kitchen and Marvel and “sleight” is a prestigious cultural institution with its own rich history, the novel centers on two sisters, Lark and Clef, who have spent their lives training as sleightists. Although temperamentally at odds, they’re inextricably bound together by their art. In their divergent approaches to sleight—Lark is tortured and delicate where Clef is steadfast and cold—they become twinned allegories of artistic creation. [More here.]

Of Dating and Derrida: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot

Posted on | November 3, 2011 | 4 Comments

Fall has arrived, the season of weighty novels. Much like Freedom did this time last year The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, has launched our annual referendum on The Novel in the 21st Century.  As Evan Hughes noted in a moving piece on their generation of writers, Eugenides and Franzen are both working in the gaping hole blown open by David Foster Wallace, who managed to marry the cynicism of Pynchon and DeLillo with the moralism they left behind.  Can good old-fashioned realism recoup its losses after Wallace paved a new way forward?

Franzen set out to answer this question with a bravura performance: a big, thumping, occasionally sloppy novel that made its case by packing contemporary subjects into a work that, on a technical level, might as well have been written in 1878.  Eugenides, on the other hand, comes at the question head-on.  The Marriage Plot reads as a kind of syllabus—a primer on the linguistic turn and the classics it consigned to the dustbin.

Based on various reviews, I had expected The Marriage Plot to be a fictional disquisition on the viability of the novel in the wake of theory.  The ingredients are all there.  But as it turns out, this is not the book Eugenides has written.  Whether the title is a feint or whether Eugenides has misread his own work I can’t say, but here is what The Marriage Plot is not about: literary theory, Victorian novels, and, the uncanny resemblance of the character Leonard Bankhead notwithstanding, David Foster Wallace.

Yes, the characters within the novel engage with these motifs.  Some of Eugenides’s best scenes are those set in an undergraduate semiotics seminar at Brown.  “Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water-Babies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot,” Eugenides writes.  This new currency in literary cool lands Madeleine in Semiotics 211, which begins with a would-be Derrida disciple introducing himself:

Um, let’s see.  I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.  Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am?  O.K.  My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut.  I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.

Yet what theory means for the novel is a question that ranks somewhere between why Leonard Bankhead hasn’t asked her out and where to meet her parents at graduation in Madeleine Hanna’s catalogue of anxieties.  Semiotics 211 may ask Madeleine to investigate the relative merits of realism and poststructuralism, but Eugenides’s own novel seems uninterested in putting these competing aesthetics to the test.  Once his characters are launched into the world—Leonard and Madeleine to a genetics lab on Cape Cod, Leonard’s would-be rival Mitchell Grammaticus to a year of spiritual questing in India—Eugenides mostly lets the matter drop. Read more

Like Things Glimpsed From a Train: James Salter’s Light Years

Posted on | October 20, 2011 | 2 Comments

I’m in the throes of a renewed love affair with James Salter.  Every time I read Salter, I conclude all over again that he’s the best living stylist in English—and apparently I’m not alone.  In his introduction to Light Years, Richard Ford writes, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.”  With A Sport and a Pastime, he secured his place in the small pantheon of novelists who can write about sex without seeming grotesque or pornographic or pathetic.

But more than a great writer of sex, Salter seems to me the great writer of intimacy.  Not sexual intimacy—though that too, of course—but the intimacies of the everyday, the intense relationships with objects, habits, and meals that give life to time.  “Life is weather.  Life is meals,” Salter writes in Light Years. “Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled.  Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.”  In Light Years, even as the marriage of Nedra and Viri begins to show signs of wear, these small, tactile relationships remain—in their way no less important: “The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied.  Into them there came books, errands, the seashore, occasional pieces of mail.  She read them slowly and carefully, sitting in the sunshine, as if they were newspapers from abroad.”

I recently read Light Years over the course of almost two months.  Initially embarrassed by my slowness, I have come to understand it—it is a book for savoring.  For a novel so fixated on the worldly—Viri and Nedra are a model of the aspirational from before aspirational was a word, their inchoate ambition never quite certain of its object—Light Years has an ethereal quality.  Salter’s sense of time manages to be both compressed and languorous.  He covers multiple decades in three hundred pages.  It’s as if he happened to wander into the room for the most essential moments of his characters’ lives and is content to let the rest remain a mystery, even to himself.  Here is Salter describing Light Years in his 1992 interview with the Paris Review:

The book is the worn stones of conjugal life.  All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither.  It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train—a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by—everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people, and scenes.

There appears, now and again, a phantom “I.”  “I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge and tan, rugs which though worn, seemed to drink sun, to collect its warmth…”  Salter is not afraid to be the voyeur of his own characters.  Their world is there for him to find.  And yet it doesn’t come naturally to him, this sideways relationship to time.  When the Paris Review posted a scan of his outline for the first six chapters, it was touching to see his own authorial self-commandments: “Be discursive, oblique, storytelling.”

There’s a reason this post is mostly a sequence of quotations and stray impressions: picking away at Light Years too much feels like a form of sacrilege.  It’s the kind of novel that makes people talk about literature as a secular religion—a sacred communion charged with meaning by something beyond itself.

The image that accompanies this post, which I have taken from the MoMA site, is “Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (The Breakfast Room)” by Pierre Bonnard.  In the Paris Review interview, Salter says that he was thinking of Bonnard as he wrote Light Years.

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