Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Golden Rule of Storytelling (as exemplified by Breaking Bad)

Here is the only necessary law of successful narrative fiction, the Golden Rule of Storytelling: The only law is the law of unintended consequences. This is how good stories proceed: from the unexpected through the unforeseen to the utterly unpredictable. Good narratives move through a series of major actions and the ramifying unintended consequences of those actions. It's the unexpectedness of the consequences that sustains a reader's interest, keeps readers reading and wondering what the hell will happen next. A story in which actions have only their expected consequences is a dull, unimaginative thing.

I could exemplify this rule with any good narrative from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Chabon's Wonder Boys, but because I'm of the opinion that the most cogent criticism of contemporary American literary fiction is the inarguable fact that no American novel of the past 13 years has captured the insanity of contemporary life in this country as effectively as two cable series, Breaking Bad and The Wire, I'm going to make my argument with reference to the tale of Walter Hartwell White. The overall five-season arc of Breaking Bad can perhaps best be described as a study in increasingly severe unintended consequences. White's initial decision to cook meth has the almost immediate consequence of forcing him to turn his RV into an improvised mobile gas chamber for the defensive killing of two drug dealers. (This detail from the pilot dovetails perfectly with Walter's final incarnation, five seasons later, as an inadvertent fundraiser for neo-Nazis. His first Nazified killing foreshadows the man he will become.) This act has the unintended consequence of failing to kill Krazy 8, which leads to him being treated like an Abu Ghraib prisoner in Jesse's basement and plotting to kill Walter with a pottery shard. His theft of the shard has the consequence of convincing Walter, who had decided to free Krazy 8, to instead murder him, slowly and brutally. And so the series continues, through unintended consequences large and small, the most apocalyptic of these being the Wayfarer 515 disaster at the end of season two. This was the ultimate unintended consequence of Walter's attempt to rouse Jesse, which accidentally knocked Jane onto her back, a position in which she choked to death, a death which impaired her air traffic controller father (memorably played by John de Lancie, a character actor almost as ubiquitous as Bryan Cranston) and caused the disastrous midair collision that was the Breaking Bad world's September 11. Only in the series' very last episode, dedicated to fan-pleasing and loose-end tying, do the characters' actions have always and only the predictable consequences. This was of course a structural exigency--unintended consequences would have kept in motion a narrative machine the finale was required to shut down--but it produced a final hour that (for me, anyway) swerved away from the unpredictable spirit of the series and left me feeling rather unsatisfied.

A Thought on Sade, after reading Justine and Philosophy in the Bedroom

Like many thinkers who mistakenly think themselves 'radical,' the Marquis de Sade possesses a worldview stalled in the first moment of a deconstructive dialectic. He is stuck in the rut of moral inversion, revaluing evil as good and then moving on to revalue evil as good in another anecdote. This is his only trick, and like a mentally-challenged magician he performs it again and again and again... Sade simply inverts the traditional good/evil moral binary and then prematurely arrests the dialectic at this point, failing to appreciate the instability of the inversion and further failing to conclude that both the binary and its inversion depend upon and perpetuate an ideology that they serve to conceal, patriarchy. (In this way, Sade is very much like a fatuous academic feminist trapped in an intellectually moronic "women good, men bad" worldview. Lest you think this is a caricature, I can assure you that I have known more than one academic feminist who actually thinks this way.) Sade's texts can be easily deconstructed, but they fail to deconstruct themselves (in the way, for a contrasting example, that Paul de Man argued Rousseau's texts deconstruct themselves, obviating the need for Derrida). The Undivine Marquis's thought, in short, is facile and immature, his prose is mediocre, his artistry deficient. Finally, I can read him only as a silly satirist with a nastily misogynistic streak.

On Foreign Fiction and Ours

American literary journalism (to the extent that such a beast still exists in our decidedly post-Edmund-Wilsonian America) continues to follow its bizarre ungraven commandment about non-English language fiction: Thou Shalt Admire Only One Foreign Writer at a Time. In recent years this single slot in our national literary consciousness has been filled by W. G. Sebald, then Roberto Bolano, then Javier Marias, then a quartet of Hungarians who slid past faster than bad goulash through a colon (Marai, Esterhazy, Nadas, Krasznahorkai--I ask admirers of these four apocalyptic horsemen (estimable writers all) to pardon my excremental simile), and now the overrated critic James Wood is easing Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard into the slot. (I haven't read him yet, but his stuff looks potentially interesting, and I've already mis-Englished his funny name to "Charlie Oily Noseguard.") So despite the fact that our intubated, respirator-attached, heart monitor-beeping literary establishment only notices one etranger at a time, this phenomenon still evinces a hunger for foreign fiction. The outlanders give us something that our domestic product fails to provide.

In the case of Sebald, the powerful attraction many American readers and writers feel toward his fiction may be directly comparable to the attraction British writers of a century ago felt for the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Against the comforting, overstuffed palisade of our safe, middle-class literature, these foreign works hurl existential cannonballs. As Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did when read by the Bloomsburyites against the background of Trollope and Bennett, Sebald and Bolano insist upon the importance of the "big questions" in an age when our fiction has become narrow and domesticated. Foreign writers somehow haven't learned to fear the huge themes that invigorated the best American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries: the fundamental matters of existence and its opposite, meaning and meaninglessness, good and/as evil, the absence of the supernatural, the presence of death--themes that can perhaps be encompassed in a single, packed phrase: the terror of nothingness and the wonder of being. In a word (or two), existential anxiety is the quantity missing from our academicized fiction. While American literary fiction focuses on issues and identities (the family, feminism, the environment, minority rights, racism, identity politics), foreign writers such as Sebald, David Grossman, Peter Nadas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai insist upon that Melvillean "little lower layer" that obstinately refuses to be dissolved in the ironic acids of so-called postmodernism. (That last word fires off an extended parenthetical digression: Postmodernism is less 'post' than 'posthaste;' at its most dogmatic, it's a frenzied, hysterical flight from the concerns of Modernism that becomes, in our ivy-covered halls of mirrors, a monstrous parody of Modernist narcissism. Who among writers, after all, was or is more tormentedly self-imprisoned than David Foster Wallace? In an amusing but too-influential essay, he nicknamed Updike, Roth and Mailer--three phallic pillars of American late Modernism--"the Great Male Narcissists." One might reply that Wallace, the So-So Suicidal Solipsist, wasn't much of an improvement upon his elders. My current view of Wallace is that while he wrote some very good stuff (most of it hidden deep inside Infinite Jest), as a writer--that is, as an artist in prose--he rarely approaches the level at which William Vollmann and Annie Proulx comfortably cruise. Nor, it must be said, does his prose compare well with that of Updike, Styron, Roth, Gass, or most of the other Old White Narcs. And now I slam down the closing parenthesis:) After half a century of postmodern American novels, of prurient parody and paranoid pastiche, of mutating metafictions and mutilated meditations, we find ourselves gazing abroad for signs of writers still concerned with those archetypal "modern themes" that the coiner of the word 'metafiction,' Big Bad Billy Gass, carefully listed in his early essay on E. M. Cioran, a set of bullet points sharp enough to make any corporate Powerpointer proud:
  • alienation
  • absurdity
  • boredom
  • futility
  • decay
  • the tyranny of history
  • the vulgarities of change
  • awareness as agony
  • reason as disease
We could doubtless find all of these themes in Infinite Jest (and certainly in Gravity's Rainbow) if we looked hard enough, and finding them there would support my old contention that postmodernism is neither more nor less than late Modernism, the Modernist movement's later phase rather than its dialectical antithesis. Nonetheless, this list reads like the beginning of a litany of the 'missing pieces' we seek in Sebald and his international contemporaries.

Don DeLillo and those he has influenced (about two generations of MFA writers, by now) try to sound these themes, but their playing is too deliberate, too academic, too terribly technical and not nearly musical enough. The reader (this reader, anyway) suspects that these mostly middle-class American writers are concerned with these themes not because they've felt the claws of these realities digging into their flesh, but because they read a list of these themes in an essay by Gass and learned that this was the proper stuff of serious fiction. (In a very similar way, young Dave Wallace learned his MFA lessons well and became a postmodernist in the postmodern era, a highly conventional act of unconventionality.) What the Americans mostly lack is what some foreign writers still possess, the authenticity of lived experience. Over the past 50 years, Europeans have experienced everything from totalitarian terror to revolutionary ecstasy (the political experience, not the club drug--although that can be an experience too) while Americans sat on their couches and watched these events on TV ("Ooooh, the Berlin Wall's coming down!... Pass the picante sauce.") An old argument states that U. S. 'serious' fiction tends toward suburban realism as a function of America's economic and geopolitical position as an isolated, affluent, secure, imperial superpower in which every citizen from Bill Gates to the housekeeper who mops the pee stains off Bill Gates's bathroom floors considers himself 'middle class.' We Americans have been terribly overdetermined to produce bourgeois fiction in the manner of Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates.

But that situation is, tragically, changing before our eyes. Now that the United States is in undeniable economic decline, now that we have become a site of terrorism both domestic and foreign, now that the existential fear of violent death and the paranoid psychosis of the far right have become central elements in our nation's political discourse, now that grinding poverty exists a street away from spectacular wealth and the formerly comfortable middle class feels itself sinking faster than the Titanic, the former social determinants no longer apply. By all rights, 21st-century Americans should produce a 19th-century Russian literature. The America of our time is finally, terribly, a Dostoevskyan place. We are all foreigners now.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Proustian Simile

Proust provides the best introduction to any Proustian topic, so let's begin this brief note on the Proustian simile with three increasingly complex examples from A la recherche du temps perdu:

As the spectrum makes visible to us the composition of light, so the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person's sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate. -- The Captive

Faced with the thoughts, the actions of a woman whom we love, we are as completely at a loss as the world's first natural philosophers must have been, face to face with the phenomena of nature, before their science had been elaborated and had cast a ray of light over the unknown. Or, worse still, we are like a person in whose mind the law of causality barely exists, a person who would be incapable, therefore, of establishing a connexion between one phenomenon and another and to whose eyes the spectacle of the world would appear as unstable as a dream. -- Within A Budding Grove

As, from a long way off, the sight of the jutting crag from which it dives into the pool thrills with joy the children who know that they are going to see the seal, so, long before I reached the acacias, their fragrance which, radiating all around, made one aware of the approach and the singularity of a vegetable personality at once powerful and soft, then, as I drew near, the glimpsed summit of their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, on which hundreds of flowers had swooped, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects, and finally their name itself, feminine, indolent, dulcet, made my heart beat, but with a social longing, like those waltzes which remind us only of the names of the fair dancers, called aloud as they enter the ballroom. -- Swann's Way

The Proustian simile is a perfect example of how Modernism "makes it new" by taking its methods from the oldest archaeological layers of the Western tradition. For Proust's trademark similes are merely modernizations of the epic simile, a stylistic hallmark that descends from Homer through Virgil to Dante and onward to the Renaissance epicists and their Romantic descendants. As 19th-century archaeologists dug through the Turkish dirt to bring before modern eyes the ruins of a city Andromache knew and Agamemnon burned, so Proust descended to the birthing place of Western literature and from that hillside still stinking of putrefying python pulled forth such similes as this classic comparison of young girls to flowers from Within A Budding Grove:

...these young flowers that at this moment were breaking the line of the sea with their slender hedge, like a bower of Pennsylvania roses adorning a cliffside garden, between whose blooms is contained the whole tract of ocean crossed by some steamer, so slow in gliding along the blue, horizontal line that stretches from one stem to the next that an idle butterfly, dawdling in the cup of a flower which the ship's hull has long since passed, can wait, before flying off in time to arrive before it, until nothing but the tiniest chink of blue still separates the prow from the first petal of the flower towards which it is steering.

This is an especially complex example, beginning with a metaphor that likens the band of girls strolling along the shore to "young flowers" before modulating, at "like," into the epic simile that consumes the rest of the passage. Proust (or should we say Moncrieff?) departs here from the classic "" form he uses elsewhere, but conceptually there is little difference between Proust's comparison of Albertine's "little band" to a bouquet and Homer's comparison of doomed warriors to falling leaves. The major, specifically Modernist difference lies in the way the vehicle subsumes the tenor. The roses all but erase our readerly vision of the group of seaside girls. Albertine and her friends are lost behind an image of flowers that reads very much like a close description of a canvas by Monet or Cezanne. (Proust's painter Elstir, whom the narrator meets in this volume, seems a composite of Monet, Whistler and Cezanne.) The radical flattening of space in Proust's image--the vastness of the sea contained in a flower garden and a tiny insect placed in parallel with an ocean-going steamship--is as much a stylistic signature of Cezanne as the epic simile is of Proust. It fairly screams Modernism. But the writer is not content to relax into the echoes of this exclamation. He pushes things further and animates the image, showing us the moving tanker, the flying Nabokovian blue (for what else could it be?), and in so doing he trades the brush of Monet for the camera of Lumiere. Perhaps unintentionally, the way genius often follows its muse, Proust brings his text of memory (both personal and literary) forward into the cinematic century of its composition.

More could be said about this passage. Most obviously, one might comment upon the butterfly as an image of the narrator's erotic desire, floating promiscuously over the group as a whole before coming to rest on Albertine--a desire that might feel subjectively like the 'buzzing blooming confusion' of an insect but look to an outside observer more like the lumbering progress of an oil tanker... And even more could be said. More can always be said about great art. That's why any acceptable commentary on the entire Recherche would surely run to at least 14 volumes. Better to just read Proust and puzzle it out for ourselves.

List No More : Ten Reasons Why I Will Post No More Lists On This Blog

  1. Every lame-ass blog in the imaginary electronic universe is cluttered with nonsensical lists.
  2. The decontextualized data imparted by lists exemplifies the valorization of information and the parallel devaluation of knowledge that are two of the most salient intellectual consequences of our current technological revolution. (The ongoing transformation of formal education into vocational training is a much more important manifestation of this phenomenon.) 
  3. Justin Bieber.
  4. I asked myself, "What would Faulkner do?" (and a Snopes replied, "No more a yer goldarn lists, ya carpetbaggin' varmint!")
  5. I need more time to work on my arrangement of Tristan und Isolde for single banjo.
  6. If Norman Mailer were here, he'd be head-butting me right now.
  7. Emily Deschanel's eyes.
  8. I've spent far too much time at the downward-spiraling Huffington Post paging through all those useless "literary" lists that exist solely to amplify HuffPo's hit count and thus increase corporate ad revenue.
  9. Will Shakespeare told me to stop.
  10. Vita brevis.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Prolegomena to Any Future Discussion of the Nobel Prize; or, The Only Nobel List You'll Ever Need

Now that the annual suspense is a month behind us and the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the impressive and deserving Canadian short story writer Alice Munro rather than (to name a few equally deserving North Americans) Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, William Kennedy, Don DeLillo, John Ashbery, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Albee, William Gass..., this is perhaps a good time to cast a colder-than-Canadian eye on the Nobel by composing a list of non-Nobel laureates that is even more distinguished than the well-known list of winners. Granted, Beckett and Mann and Faulkner and Hemingway and Sartre and Camus and Grass and Coetzee and many other major, deserving writers have all won the Nobel, but check out the undeniably major writers to whom the Swedish Academy awarded a Hemingwayish nada:

Leo Tolstoy.

Joseph Conrad.

Henry James.

Emile Zola.

Mark Twain.

August Strindberg.

Henrik Ibsen.

Anton Chekhov.

James Joyce.

Marcel Proust.

Virginia Woolf.

Franz Kafka.

Robert Musil.

D. H. Lawrence.

E. M. Forster.

Carlos Fuentes.

Chinua Achebe.

Arthur Miller.

Henry Miller.

Tennessee Williams.

William Carlos Williams.

Jean Genet.

William Gaddis.

Allen Ginsberg.

Jorge Luis Borges.

Andre Breton.

Paul Eluard.

Louis Aragon.

Antonin Artaud.

Federico Garcia Lorca.

Julio Cortazar.

Italo Calvino.

James Baldwin.

Danilo Kis.

Bertolt Brecht.

Mikhail Bulgakov.

Vladimir Nabokov.

W. H. Auden.

W. G. Sebald.

Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Louis Ferdinand Celine.

Ezra Pound.

Simone de Beauvoir.

John Dos Passos.

Paul Celan.

C. P. Cavafy.

It appears as though Tom, Don, Philip and Ol' Cormac are going to be in excellent company either way.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Rest of My Sixty-odd Literary Pillars

(I'm bringing this series to a close now with some shorter takes on the rest of my Gassean 'pillars'.)

Vertigo by W. G. Sebald. I can't choose just one of Sebald's four major fictions. Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz are four books I hold more closely than any I have read in the past decade. I've flown across the Atlantic many times and spent many hours, days, weeks in the galleries of Europe standing in front of paintings and sculptures and looking and thinking until I began to understand them. I discovered Sebald on one of these trips, bought a copy of Vertigo at Waterstone's Piccadilly (Europe's Largest Bookstore, the sign outside boasted most unBritishly), read it, then read it again, then read Emigrants, Saturn and Austerlitz in quick succession (all three in a single week, as I recall), and soon found myself identifying deeply with the narrator of Sebald's books. Rarely have I so closely identified with a fictional character. His bookishness, his aestheticism, his intellectuality, his wanderlust, his haunting by the horrors of history: these were all aspects of my personality before I knew Sebald existed, so finally reading him was like gazing deeply into a mirror that reflected through my face and showed me the shapes of my mind. Reading him was and is an unsettling and troubling experience. That's why I value it.

The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. Very few books possess the power to change the way you read everything else. For me, The Anxiety of Influence was one of them. Reading this slim but Borgesianly enormous volume altered my understanding of the shape of literary history. No longer was it trapped in chronology and historically delimited isms. Now an Elizabethan writer could be seen to reach across the centuries and decisively influence a Modern; and even more startlingly, the Elizabethan could now be re-read as a writer impossibly influenced by the Moderns, the way Blake sometimes reads like a disciple of Yeats, and Cervantes like a brilliantly wayward student of Barth. My understanding of Melville and Sterne as postmodernists, my notion that the novel since Cervantes (hell, since Petronius, if we want to press the issue) has always been a 'postmodern' form, these ideas were licensed by the freedom Harold Bloom granted to my reading mind. And another thing (there's always another thing when you're writing about great books): Somewhere in Anxiety, Bloom states that the meaning of a poem is always another poem. He's speaking of literary influence, but I creatively misread the line to license a truly aesthetic form of criticism, an as-yet purely hypothetical school in which criticism will be as beautiful as the objects it attempts to apprehend. In our publish-or-perish, jargon-or-die world, that would be a refreshing change.

Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Paglia suicided her credibility a few years back when she slipped off the rightwing deep end and started making birther noises, but back in the first half of the 1990s, she was the most dynamic, most media savvy, and most intelligently provocative scholar in America. Sexual Personae is another book that transformed me as a reader--and also, to some extent, as a human being. I read it at just the right time, as a college student during the P.C. early 90s, a time when many ideas that had formerly been genuinely revolutionary--feminism, the subversion of gender and sexual roles, the liberation of desire--were becoming institutionalized and hardening into Foucault-influenced academic dogma and kneejerk puritanism. (In a graduate seminar ca.1995, I remember a professor mentioning Paglia as a 'pro-pornography feminist'--a description Paglia herself would've endorsed--and this phrase brought one Women's Studies student to a state that could only be described as 'flabbergasted.' She shook her head in disbelief as she said, "Wait, wait, wait a minute... There are pro-pornography feminists?!") I was looking for a way to understand art that neither reduced it to ideological exemplarism nor treated it as a sacrosanct, quasi-religious object. Reading Paglia during the summer of '93 validated my nascent intellectual aestheticism by giving it a name. Her book introduced me to Walter Pater, showed me the connection between Michelangelo and sadomasochism, and taught me the true and wondrous meaning of decadence. Sexual Personae could only have been written in the late 20th century, but in many ways it's a nineteenth-century book, a throwback to an age when scholarly ambition was still encyclopedic, before the shades of the prison house of overspecialization closed upon our culture. 

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The Waste Land is the only poem that has ever made me cry. That's not literally true; there were a few others, but this poem by a man whose public persona was reserved to the point of mummification brought me to a place so nakedly emotional that I wept--no, not the 'copious tears' of schlock fiction, but at least one or two authentic ones. The part I found so emotional was Part One, lines 35-42, the 'hyacinth girl' passage. By a strange alchemy, this sketched scene of emotional strangulation set my emotions free in a way that mere words have rarely done, before or since. No reader of this blog will be surprised to learn that today I'm fascinated by the homosexual erotics of The Waste Land. I find something very cruise-y and Whitmanesque (and Cavafyesque, too) in the Thames-side workingmen's pub where the poem pauses (lines 259-265) for a few lines before escaping to the aestheticized interior of a church--a poor escape strategy, for the aestheticism of the image invokes Pater and Ruskin, two men of decidedly non-normative sexuality, the former gay and the latter a pedophile. The crux of any gay interpretation of The Waste Land, however, must be a passage near the end of the poem (lines 402-405) in which the speaker addresses a 'friend' (a possible allusion to the 'master-mistress' male friend addressed by the speaker of Shakespeare's sonnets, the greatest gay poem in the language), speaks of the blood shaking his heart, and invokes the memory / fantasy of "the awful daring of a moment's surrender," saying, "By this, and this only, we have existed..." And what is "this"? This, quite simply, is what this always seems to be: the main thing, the Edwardianly unspeakable thing: white-hot homosexual amour, gay sex hotter than poured steel. That'll set a seal on your bowler-hatted life, Mr. Eliot. These lines are as close as the proper and prudent T. S. E., OM, will ever come to what jacket copy writers like to call "sulphurous gay confession."

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the second week of June, 1990, reading War and Peace cover to cover. That's right: I read the whole thing in one week. I'm still not entirely sure how I pulled that off, but it was probably a combination of youthful energy, 21 year-old eyes, and the absolute lack of a life. (About this same time I read McMurtry's Lonesome Dove in five days--not quite so impressive, but still...) This marathon immersion in early 19th century Russian life reminded me (at a time when I needed a reminder) that great novels have the power to bring us into contact with vanished lives, gone worlds, and to make those worlds, for the duration of a reading, more vital than the world we inhabit. We return from such an experience with an unexpected boon, a revitalized vision of the wonder of living. (This all sounds very Romantic and naïve to me now, but that's because I've become jaded in my middle-age.) The fat Signet Classic that inked-up my thumbs 23 years ago still sits on my bookshelf next to the Signet Anna Karenina I read a few months later. It's time to read them again; I've been away from Tolstoy for far too long.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read it in the spring of my depressive, neurotic, Raskolnikovian twenty-first year. I remember sitting in a metal chair amidst the warped and creaky floorboards of my parents' front porch and losing myself in Dostoyevsky's fever dream of a warped and spooky St. Petersburg. While I read it, the novel held me like a nightmare from which I couldn't awake. I often find myself re-reading books that impress me this deeply, but in the case of Crime and Punishment, I stayed away for more than twenty years--my punishment for the crime of enjoying it, I suppose. When I re-read it a few months ago, it seemed written in the jagged lines and glaring colors of Expressionist painting. It is surely the greatest crime novel of its century.

The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser. In any good secondhand bookstore (shouldn't it be 'secondbrain'?) you should be able to find the four Vintage paperback volumes of Hauser's Social History of Art. Don't pass them by. Hauser is where any modern understanding of history's effect on artistic expression should begin. Shortly after reading them, I traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and spent a day walking around the European painting galleries and spotting example after example of sociopolitical change affecting the forms and contents of art. Some of these examples were obvious: the effect of Protestant iconoclasm on the subject matter of 17th-century Dutch painting: the triumph of still life, landscape and portraiture over "papist" religious scenes. Others less so: the flattened, wind-up toy-like figures in Seurat's Grand Jatte as a response to an industrialization and mechanization that escaped the factory floor to inf(l)ect all of life with its inhuman rationality.

Fiction and the Figures of Life by William Gass. Gass's essays are a recently discovered love. I started reading them (and re-reading them, compulsively) within the last ten years. Even when I disagree with Willie-the-G(and I do, profoundly, on the importance of story and plot in novels (negligible, he thinks; I say, essential)), I read his incomparable sentences with, to coin a phrase, mindful pleasure.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. I remember reading Henry Miller's obituary in the newspaper when I was twelve years old and thinking that these scandalous Tropic books sounded like hot stuff. A decade later, I devoured Cancer in two days and discovered one of the most deeply European and philosophically pessimistic of all American novels. (Perhaps only Djuna Barnes' Nightwood exhibits a more cosmopolitan sensibility.) It's also the most iconoclastic of them all, a surrealist-influenced tearing down of aesthetic idols, a Dadaist gob of spit in the face of artistic pretension and Jamesian elegance. (Stylistic warning: the next sentence begins with an ironic pastiche of Henry James's stuttering qualifications. Unlike Mr. James, I can't control myself.) Additionally, and not least, Tropic of Cancer is, at times, quite beautifully written, an aspect of Miller's work that finds an echo in the eloquent ranting of Philip Roth's iconoclastic characters. (Which reminds me of a little example of the decline of American culture. A few years ago, one of the cable 'arts' channels produced a series titled Iconoclasts. In each episode, two wealthy celebrities interviewed each other. All of the interviewees had one thing in common: not a single one was any kind of iconoclast.)

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was one hell of an iconoclast. It's too bad that he's misread in schools as an official philosopher of Americanism, because he's much greater and much, much more dangerous than that. To read "Experience," "Self-Reliance" and "Circles" is to put yourself inside the mind of a man who writes, "The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is." and "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

The Atlas by William T. Vollmann. This is the book in which Vollmann invites us to wander the world alongside him. It's a breathtaking journey, written in some of the finest prose of his generation. The Atlas is one of the best recent books I've read since the turn of the millennium, a real "you gotta read this" book.

The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche. To my mind, Nietzsche is the first Western philosopher to get the God stuff absolutely right. Not only is the Transcendental One dead, He only ever existed as a symptom of human weakness. "...[A] poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want anymore: this created all gods and afterworlds" (Thus Spake Zarathustra). If I must choose a single essential book by Nietzsche--and there isn't one; great stuff is scattered all over his oeuvre--my candidate would be The Gay Science.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Larkin's poems pull off the neat trick of being both exquisitely crafted and bracingly direct. "Church Going," "An Arundel Tomb," "The Old Fools," "The Trees," "Aubade," "Deceptions," "Mr. Bleaney," "Dockery and Son," "Ambulances,"... there are so many good ones. He's such a fine poet that one easily forgets he was a reactionary doofus. That's the way it should be.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann. I am an existentialist, and Sartre is my philosopher. It's been fashionable for a while to dismiss him as a chicly radical commie stooge, but like the parallel dismissal of Heidegger as a Nazi (and, for the record, Heidegger's Nazism was much more egregious than Sartre's communism; anyone who fails to distinguish between being a communist in De Gaulle's France and being a fascist in Hitler's Germany lacks the ability to distinguish anything; it's the difference between opposing the power structure in one's country and licking its jackboots), but, as I was saying before that parenthesis, the contemporary western elite's ideological dismissal of Sartre is a convenient way to avoid the hard work of reading and thinking about his writings. The best introduction to Sartrean existentialism is the lecture "Existentialism is a Humanism," included in this exceptional volume. The other selections from Sartre here are also very good. Being and Nothingness, which I've been reading in a piecemeal way for many years, is a quite difficult book that contains scattered passages of beautiful lucidity. It was written for a professional philosophical audience, and no one should confuse it with an introductory text. The several volumes of his translated essays and interviews (in English under many titles from many different publishers; New York Review Books has just published a good selection in one volume) and the novella Nausea are other good places from which to leap into the Sartrean world. I also enjoyed Ronald Hayman's biography of Sartre, a good enough and highly readable popular bio.

Novels and Other Writings (A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, etc.) by Nathanael West. This Library of America book brings together the complete works of the almost-forgotten father of the American dark comic novel. I discovered West when Harold Bloom mentioned him in passing in one of his books as an important precursor of Pynchon, an opinion I found amply confirmed when I read West's four novellas. He's not a Faulkner or Hemingway, but he's easily the equal of Flannery O'Connor and deserves to be as widely known and read. A Cool Million, published in 1934, is the Great American Political Satire. The demagogic rhetoric of West's American fascist leader, ex-President Nathan "Shagpoke" Whipple, will ring eerie bells in the minds of readers who've been paying attention to the Tea Party 'movement.' (In this context, that last word must carry its full complement of scatological overtones.)

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett or Genet? Well, Beckett was more important to me in my formative years. (I recall once telling the Russian  playwright and translator Sergei Task that my three favorite writers were Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov. Now, two decades later, I wouldn't be able to choose just three.) But today I'm leaning more toward Genet. A Parisian lowlife who can write like Proust trumps a terminally exhausted Irishman any day. It's too glib, but perhaps true nonetheless, to understand the dour Irishman as the end of something (Modernism) and the queer Frenchman as the beginning of something else (Postmodernism). When I was 20, though, and I first read Godot, it was like opening a door onto a world as bizarre and funny and bloody awful as the one I lived in. My reaction to that first reading of Godot bore a family resemblance to the effect of the films David Lynch was making during these same years: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart. There's a similar irrational strangeness in the two men's works, a Kafka-like quality that makes it difficult to draw any hard distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism. The latter is perhaps best seen as the late, late stage of the former, an analysis that can be analogized to contemporaneous developments in capitalism--but that's the stuff of Fredric Jameson's and David Harvey's works, not Beckett's, Genet's or Lynch's.

Collected Plays and Prose by Oscar Wilde. I will now attempt something completely original: I will write about Oscar Wilde without quoting him. The Wilde One is the most quotable writer of the past 200 years. He's even more quotable than Nietzsche (and that's saying a lot). He also wrote the funniest English play of the 19th century (The Importance of Being Earnest) and the most exquisite horror novel of a century that also gave us Frankenstein, Dracula and the bifurcating Dr. Jekyll. But he has been remembered as a wit, and that would likely have been his preference. For the Wildean paradox is not merely a game of words; it is a carefully crafted act of social satire, a verbal timebomb  elegantly tossed into the gaudy drawing rooms of late Victorian England. No wonder they destroyed him.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Relax, Ayatollah. It's only a dream. Several of them, actually, all amazing. Rushdie brought magic realism into British literature in a huge way with Midnight's Children, but Satanic Verses was the first of his novels to cross my stateside reader's radar. (A dubious thanx to the extreme hatchet-jobbers in Tehran for alerting me to this great novel by giving it the ultimate bad review.) Verses was the first magic realist novel I ever read, so of course it impressed me enormously. As a college student at the time, I even became something of a minor evangelist for the book, trying to convince professors to add it to their syllabi. Like all evangelists, I was ineffectual.

Close Range by Annie Proulx. Annie Proulx kicks ass. She kicked mine when I picked up this book and read "Brokeback Mountain." She kicked it again with "The Half-Skinned Steer." And several other tales herein left my posterior battered and bruised. She is one of the major American prose artists of our time.

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. For some reason, I put off reading Flaubert until my 30s, and the first book I read was Steegmuller's edition of his travel journals and letters, Flaubert in Egypt. Then came the beautiful Bovary, the brilliant Trois Contes, and finally the magnum opus, Sentimental Education. It's probably the greatest of all 19th-century French novels. It's no Sharknado, but it's good enough.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Like Walt Whitman and Michael Herr and (arguably) David Foster Wallace, Sterne was a one-book writer (Sentimental Journey is a comparatively slight and forgettable performance), but his one book was a mind-blower. Kundera writes somewhere that all novels descend from either Fielding or Richardson. I want to trifurcate that paradigm and propose a third line descending from Sterne and running straight on through Joyce and Pynchon to the infinitely jesting Mr. Wallace.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Speaking of Kundera, I think I'll let Kundera's novel speak for itself: "The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become."

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. He died so obscure that one obituary writer misspelled his name and another titled the obit "Death of a Once-Popular Author." Too bad he was dust before the opportunity for a last laugh arose. I think we should take a cue from Spanish writers who refer to Cervantes' masterpiece as 'the Quixote' and start referring to Melville's as 'the Dick.' For me, the Dick is one of the two greatest novels ever written by an American. Absalom, Absalom! is the other.

Great Short Works of Herman Melville. None of Melville's other novels have impressed me as much as the Dick, but much of his short fiction is brilliant--and often deeply weird, another quality I value in fiction (and life). Bartleby, Billy Budd, "Benito Cereno," and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" especially impress me.

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath. I haven't read Plath for years, but there was a time when she was the only poet for me, and Dostoyevsky was the only novelist. A bad time. Now I compare her to Van Gogh, another artist who achieved true originality, whose work became most vital, lucid and crystalline, while his life rushed toward self-destruction. This is the most dangerous aesthetic game. No one should play around with it.

Complete Poems by Anne Sexton. After Plath, I discovered Sexton, the second of the suicide sisters who presided over the 1960s American poetry scene. I preferred Sexton because her work was crueler and funnier; her deathwork was full of life.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Yes, she stole the novel's basic idea from Ulysses, a book she snobbishly derided. (Usually a fine and discerning critic, she allowed personal prejudices to get the better of her here.) And yes, To The Lighthouse is probably more beautiful and formally adventurous. But I find myself repeatedly drawn back into Clarissa Dalloway's day, maybe by Woolf's rather outrageous decision to counterpoint her prim and proper title lady with the shellshocked and impoverished suicide Septimus Warren Smith. The book has become so canonical by now that we've lost the sense of just how radical a choice this was.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I seem to be on a suicidal roll here, so let's not leave out the most recent inductee to this most dubious of literary societies. Infinite Jest is DFW's one great book (relatively few writers have written even one truly great book); there are very good things in the others (Bombardini, the Great Ohio Desert, the 'Brief Interviews,' "The Depressed Person," "Octet," "Good Old Neon," much of the journalism in Supposedly Fun Things... and Consider the Lobster), but much of Wallace's writing now reads like either preparation for or reaction to that one great book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It took me several tries to finally read Blood Meridian. My first attempts were waylaid early by the violence and stupidity of the characters and the general ugliness of the tale. I repeatedly returned it barely read to my bookshelf, but the beauty of McCarthy's prose lingered in my mind, and I repeatedly picked it up again. When I finally read the whole thing, it was like a bomb going off in my brain. For two or three days after finishing Blood Meridian, I wandered aimlessly around the crater it had blown.

Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings by Jonathan Swift. Swift is the secret English father of Voltaire. Swift is a Rabelais who knows when to stop. Swift is a satirist whose irony indicts us all. Swift is seriously funny, and major-league filthy. Decades ago, a scatology-free Gulliver was cartooned for the kiddies. That's too bad. Swift without shit is like Joyce without Guinness, Shakespeare without sack, Nabokov without little girls. "I like obsessions," Luis Bunuel has written, "my own as well as other people's, because they make it easier to deal with life; I feel sorry for people who don't have any." Don Luis was a foot man; Swift's obsession aimed higher.

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell). Solely in terms of his facility with images, Rilke was a poet of Shakespearean power. There are precious few of those; they are rarer than Vladimir Putin's smiles; they happen about as often as Kim Jong-Un says something sane. Rilke, at his best, is an inexpressibly beautiful poet. Death-obsessed, he imagines metaphors that leap into life. Rodin and Cezanne taught him to see, and he is their equal in words.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. How's this for a slick segue: One of Rilke's mistresses, Baladine Klossowska, was the mother of the painter Balthus, one of whose trademark nymphets adorned the cover of an early paperback of Lolita. I first read the novel in Alfred Appel's annotated edition, which was a great initiation into the parallel universe of Vlad the Inscriber. It might be interesting to read Lolita in terms of Nabokov's conflicted relationship to homosexuality. His brother and (if I recall correctly) one or two of his uncles were gay, and it seems clear that one of the targets of Lolita's satire is the rhetoric of homosexual apologetics, as refracted through the prism of Humbert's self-serving rationalizations of pedophilia.

Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. In our overspecialized society, where a person is permitted one function and one function only, most people know Sam Shepard only as a character actor who often turns up in westerns, the thinking man's Sam Elliott. Alternatively, those who know him as a playwright tend not to rate his acting too highly. Like most people outside theater circles (and those are very small circles indeed when set against the vastness of America), I knew him first as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Five years later, when I read Buried Child and True West, I learned that he was one of American theatre's few true geniuses. These two plays don't deserve comparison with O'Neill or Miller or Mamet; they deserve comparison with Faulkner and Melville, the two titans at the top of the American mountain.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This short novel is one of my Bunuelian obsessions. I reread it every two or three years. Everything that needs to be said about Gatsby has already been said by Lois Tyson in her highly readable textbook Critical Theory Today, which submits Fitzgerald's novel to readings based on all the major schools of criticism. So I'm going to take this opportunity to write about the Robert Redford / Mia Farrow film, a fine adaptation that everyone seems to hate. I've found very little to dislike in the movie: Redford, Farrow and Waterston are as good as can be expected, and Dern is great; it's a faithful adaptation; the cinematography is memorable if a bit too gauzily sentimental (but that was a 70s stylistic tic; it's in all the period films of the era). I suspect that so many people claim to hate the film because the negative opinion gained currency early and makes the criticizer feel culturally superior. It's a lazy opinion that has fossilized into general wisdom.

How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong. Erica Jong was one of the first writers to take me inside a woman's life, so she's tremendously important to the development of my literary mind. I had read Alice Walker earlier, and later I read Austen, Bronte(s), Eliot, Porter, Cather, O'Connor, Oates, H.D., Dickinson, Bishop, Sexton, Plath, Woolf, Rich, Morrison, Nin, Proulx, Murdoch, Sontag, Barnes, Hobhouse, Colette, Jelinek, Paglia, Lessing, Dove, Forche, Carter, Dworkin, O'Brien, Cixous, Atwood, Le Guin, Beauvoir, Gaitskill, Minot, Carson, Sappho, Kempe, Holmes, Welty, Roiphe, Irigaray, Olds, Wharton, and on and on... I'm surprised by how many women writers I've read, because I don't think of them as 'women writers;' I stopped making that distinction a long time ago. At the beginning of my adulthood, I read Jong's Isadora Wing trilogy (Fear of Flying, How to Save Your Own Life, Parachutes and Kisses), and the second one seemed the best: the smartest, funniest, and sexiest of the three. For a long time now, Jong has been paying the penalty that our literary establishment enforces upon writers who achieve phenomenal success: academic ignorance of her work, which is officially considered as weak and ephemeral as most other bestsellers. This is simple snobbery. And in the case of a writer as bookish, as unabashedly literary as Jong, it is also simple stupidity.

l'Assommoir by Emile Zola. Zola's greatest novel is insufficiently known to English-language readers, perhaps because its title obstinately resists easy translation. Penguin Classics avoided this problem by publishing it under the French title. An assommoir is a lower-class drinking establishment, a low dive, a boozer, a beer joint, and English lacks a single word to clearly signify both the establishment and the nature of its clientele. One English publisher called it The Dram Shop, which just sounds odd. Under any title, it's the defining novel of 19th-century naturalism. It will show you many things, and it will break your heart.

United States by Gore Vidal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, before he became a television creature, Larry King was the best thing on American radio. He was the Mutual network's late-night man, hosting a talk show that broadcast live (live!) from midnight to 5:30 every weeknight. The guests ranged from politicians and pundits to writers and musicians to comedians and conspiracy theorists, and King kept every guest on the show for three full hours, usually an hour of interview followed by two hours of listener questions and Kingly follow-ups. Then, after the guest made his drowsy exit, the host threw open the phone lines and spent two more hours fielding unscreened calls on any topic anyone awake at 4am wanted to talk about. If this sounds insane, well, it was insane--and it was also great entertainment. (I still remember King 'conversing' with an anonymous numerology fanatic from Winnemucca, Nevada, who thought he could prove using numerical equivalents of the letters in Gary Hart's name that Hart was the Antichrist. When the caller finished his crazy spiel, King asked calmly, "Okay, now can you tell me who's gonna win the second race at Aqueduct next Saturday. 'Cause that's some information I can really use, ya know?") The King show was popular liberal radio (something virtually unknown today), and it attracted Washington insiders and Tonight Show-level celebrities. During the early Reagan years, it was the little bit of late night sanity in my young life. It introduced me to Erica Jong and the concept of zipless fucking; it was where Dr. Ruth informed me that masturbation was perfectly natural (a big load off my tweenage wanker's mind); and it was the place where I first encountered Gore Vidal. The Greatest Gore circa 1982 was Mr. Savoir Faire. I delighted in his haughty voice, polished periods, withering wit and suave sparring with the krazy callers. His appearances on the King show led me to his novels, which led me to his essays, which will Horaceanly instruct and delight me until the end of (my) time.

The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany. Who will be the Melville of our time? What great writer presently living will the future use to indict us with blindness, the way we look back on the late 19th century and want to scream, "Open your eyes, you dolts! There's this great book called Moby Dick by a great writer named Melville, and he's still living among you and you don't realize any of this because you're too busy memorizing 'Thanatopsis.'"? What rough and incomparable literary genius exists among us all-but-unacknowledged outside a small coterie? My candidate is Samuel R. Delany. Science fiction fans have known him for a very long time, but most of them know him the way aficionados of sea stories knew Melville--as a writer who did important work in the genre many years ago. Delany continues to write big, important books, but he now writes in the genre called 'literary fiction.' The Mad Man may be the most amazing of these.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I've said it before, and it's worth saying again: Upon finishing The Master and Margarita I thought, "This is it. This book is the reason writing was invented." Surely the Sumerians didn't go to all that trouble just so we could read Danielle Steele. The Master is the greatest Russian novel of the Soviet era written inside the U.S.S.R.. Given that Bulgakov worked during the Stalin terror, it's amazing that he died of natural causes. If he were writing today, Putin would imprison him.

Selected Essays by John Berger. One of John Berger's books is titled Just Looking, and that's how some of his best essays begin, with Berger standing before a work of art and just looking at it, letting it trip him into thought. Berger is that rare and necessary thing, a politically engaged aesthete. His work should be paradigmatic for all leftist criticism of art and literature. Like Arnold Hauser, Robert Hughes and Robert Herbert (and unlike the equally perceptive but less talented T. J. Clark), Berger combines a perceptive mind with an admirably agile pen. His criticism is literature.

(There are of course many other books that have rewired my intellectual circuitry, but they're not specifically literary pillars: Noam Chomsky's works; Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States; the complete works of the art critic Robert Hughes; Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul; Inwardness and Existence by Walter A. Davis; Joseph Campbell's Jungian flights; The Parallax View by Slavoj Zizek; John Richardson's multi-volume biography of Picasso; David Cook's History of Narrative Film; Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation; many others...Lewis Carroll's Alice books should've been included on the list of 'pillars;' they're two of the most subversive works to emerge from Victorian England, and I hold them closer than anything by Dickens.)

A Few of my Literary Pillars, Part Six

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. We all know what happens to Gregor Samsa, but what's it all about? There are as many answers as schools of interpretation. Psychologists will tell you that Gregor is externalizing and literalizing the self-image thrust upon him by his family; psychoanalysts might see an eruption of the Freudian id or a horrifying outburst of the Lacanian 'Thing'; Marxists will argue that he has been dehumanized by the ideological structures of hegemonic capitalism; Christians will speak of him as a blameless saintly figure suffering martyrdom in a godless modern world; Foucaultians might position him as a victim of the ubiquitous and inescapable power relations that define family and society; Derrideans could read him as a deconstructive subversion of the human/bug polarity that puts the very nature of definition into question. (I'm caricaturing, of course, but only slightly.) And not one of these interpretations will be satisfactory; all of them will leave questions unanswered and aspects of the text ignored. All of them will reduce Kafka's work to an allegory of the critic's paradigm of choice. (Susan Sontag made this same general point half a century ago in "Against Interpretation." Too bad no one was listening.) Easy to allegorize, difficult to understand: that's the problem with Kafka. More emphatically, understanding is the problem with Kafka, and the first sentence of The Metamorphosis shows us why. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The matter-of-fact irruption of the irrational at the end of the sentence confounds its calmly reasonable tone and rationally grammatical form. This confounding of reason, this problematizing of understanding, is one of the things The Metamorphosis, and much of Kafka's best work, is about. Kafka turns understanding into a problem, a dilemma. The very notion of understanding, of interpretation, is contrary to the spirit of Kafka. His work repeatedly brings the irrational into troubling contact with modern reason and forces the rational into retreat; the task of interpretation, by contrast, is to argue unreason away, to tame it, to dissolve it into rational allegory. Interpreters have done their damnedest with this story, but in the end Gregor Samsa remains a gigantic dung beetle and no rational interpretation can satisfactorily tell us why.

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. And speaking of interpreting the irrational... Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Sigi!  Freud spent decades in Vienna doing the exact thing that Kafka, scribbling away in Bohemian obscurity, repeatedly showed to be impossible. The original German title of his best book is much better: Die Traumdeutung, with the traum reaching toward trauma and inflecting the English dreams into drama. For every Freudian dream is the drama of a trauma, the imaginative expression of unconscious conflicts. For me, the best parts of this book are not Freud's interpretations, which sometimes seem a little too clever, too slick, but the dreams themselves. Nearly every dream Freud records is a surrealist masterpiece in miniature, a strange, troubling, mysterious, and medievally anonymous work of art. The mind is a craftsman as amazing as any who carved Chartres, and we are all members of its guild. I've read quite a bit of Freud in the quarter-century since my first interpretation of the Interpretation: many of his papers in the great Collier paperback editions with a triple-faced Freud on the covers (Sexuality and the Psychology of Love is an essential volume), papers and case histories in Peter Gay's Freud Reader, The Ego and the Id, Civilization and its Discontents, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Totem and Taboo. But the Traumdeutung is still the most important to me. What other book has the power to wrench open a door to the unknown third of our lives?

The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri. After arguments about money, disputes about translation tend to be the nastiest and most personal conflicts in which writers engage. This is especially true of the translation of poetry, in the criticism of which it's quite common to see a translator attacked with the kind of ad hominem 'arguments' that form the lingua franca of American right-wing radio. Not only did the translator in question, the critics assure us, misinterpret this word and this line and this poem, but she's also naïve, foolish and incompetent, a child sent to do a man's job, and she probably has smelly armpits too. That last part was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. And sometimes this kind of hatchet job reduces itself to Pythonesque comedy when the hatchet-wielder, halfway through his chopping, remarks in passing that he cannot read the original language... I suspect that most of this misdirected passion is born of love. When we fall in love with a translated poem, the words of that translation become the object of our affection. And when a new translation appears, and the new translator alters our beloved words, how can we not feel enraged, how can we fail to lash out at this interloping translator, this foul rapist of our beloved? I understand these emotions because I've been falling in love with translations for years. I fell in love with the three books of Dante's Divine Comedy in the wonderful 1980s translation by Allen Mandelbaum published in paperback by Bantam with illustrations by Barry Moser. (The Mandelbaum translation is also available in a single hardcover volume from Everyman's Library.) These are three of the greatest books I have ever read. They soar for pages through that exalted realm of beauty and sublimity that Shakespeare reaches only at his greatest moments (Hamlet, the latter acts of Lear, some of the sonnets). If you care to know the most terrifyingly beautiful thing I've ever read, I'll tell you: it's the description of the river of light in canto 30 of the Paradiso. It's the aesthetic equal of Rilke's sublime "garden where flowers eternally open" in the Duino Elegies. It may well be the most unspeakably, unenvisionably beautiful thing ever imagined by the human mind.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. We misread Walt Whitman in my high school English class. That was typical. We misread most everything under the direction of a Christian fundamentalist teacher who confused pedagogy with preaching. She wasn't the only incompetent among the faculty at my high school, but she was surely the most annoying. Our misprision of "the good Walt," however, was not entirely her fault. Our textbook, doubtless designed for the delight of reactionary Texans (the kind of people who tie guys like Walt Whitman to fenceposts and torture them to death), presented a deballed and bowdlerized Walt, a Whitman without a body, a singer who sang of himself, but only from the waist up. This Texan dehorning turned Whitman's greatest work into pages and pages of seemingly pointless catalogs with some ideas borrowed from Emerson to make them look meaningful. I didn't buy it for a minute. What I did buy was a Signet Classic paperback of Leaves of Grass, and therein I discovered the real Walt. I still have the book, and it has held up admirably over the years: a little wear on the edges of the cover, a spine crease near the middle, the pages foxed but not badly. It's still the book in which I first encountered the 'Calamus' poems, correctly understood by some of their early readers as the most significant group of gay love poems in the English language since Shakespeare's sonnets. Whitman became my poet, the singer of (some of) my secret desires. Displaying a kind of courage that I can now hardly credit to my teenage self, I carried the book around my homophobic high school (that was in fact its name, Homophobic High) like an identification badge, a public proclamation of booknerdy queerness. Nothing happened. Fortunately, homophobes tend to be too semiotically challenged to interpret the sexual implications of literary signs.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The Italian title is best, l'Arcobaleno della Gravita. Not only is it better music, but the baleno suggests balena, the Italian word for whale, thus linking, in an appropriately roundabout way, the greatest of all American postmodern novels to its ultimate source in the work of that postmodernist a century and more ahead of his time, Herman Melville. (I won't bother punning on Roberto Bolano.) Beginning in a dream and ending in apocalyptic fragments, Pynchon's arcing whale of a novel did to my mind what the Luftwaffe did to much of central London. Whole mental neighborhoods were laid waste; neuronal Underground lines were torn open and their blind denizens forced into squinting sunlight; my internal power grid was knocked out and total rewiring necessitated. Gravity's Rainbow is that kind of book. I've always been most powerfully attracted to novels in which 'anything can happen,' (Kafka, Nabokov, Borges, Garcia Marquez) and GR takes that phrase to its surrealistic limits and beyond. I have but to mention Slothrop's toilet trip, Brigadier Pudding's fecal meal, or the voyage of the foolship Anubis to establish how far this novel goes, how much the Pynchonian 'anything' entails. Pynchon's probably the only American writer--the only one, living or dead--with enough crazily imaginative artistic intelligence to conceive and accomplish the kinds of things Garcia Marquez could pull out of his hat. It's easy to imitate that side of Gabo, to turn oneself into a magic realist epigone, but how many writers can be that brilliant and still be themselves?

A Few of my Literary Pillars, Part Five

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Woody Allen led me to Borges. I first learned of the Argentine's existence from a throwaway mention Woody planted in the mouth of Diane Keaton's character in Manhattan. Following up on the hint, I borrowed two volumes of stories from my public library (remember the days when libraries had books?) and was quickly hooked. "The Aleph," "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim," "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Library of Babel," "The Book of Sand," "The Circular Ruins," "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," "The Garden of Forking Paths," "Death and the Compass"-- amazing stories all. In Borges I found a miniaturist even more exquisite than Kafka, a writer capable of creating a country in a single sentence and whole universes in a short story. There is a sense, although perhaps not a terribly interesting one, in which Borges's perpetual subject is the act of reading itself, that seemingly magical process by which, as William Gass has written, "we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams" (Fiction and the Figures of Life). Borges's characters tend to mirror his readers, for in the act of reading Borges, we too find ourselves trapped in the labyrinthine ramifications of an infinite authorial imagination. We plunge through his pages into worlds of terror and death (for he's a Poe-man, too, this Senor Borges, like so many great non-American writers), worlds that often seem to pass asymptotically, and horrifyingly, close to the world outside our windows. If his stories be fantasy, they're fantasy with the teeth of wolves.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I kept putting off One Hundred Years of Solitude. I actually read Rushdie before Garcia Marquez. By the early 1990s, Gabo's book had lost its aura of revolution and come to seem more like required reading. It was a novel praised by U. S. politicians (surely a bad sign) and assigned to undergraduates (possibly worse). This envelope of official approval sealed the book off from me, and there was also the fact of its seeming ubiquity: since everyone else seems to have read it, I ill-reasoned, why should I add one more pair of eyes? So the book stood unread on my bookshelf for a decade while the United States invaded Haiti, financed 'drug wars' in Mexico and Columbia, played Le Carre-esque games with the Castro regime, and generally treated the southern half of the western hemisphere like a drunken uncle you hope doesn't show up at Thanksgiving. When I finally did get around to reading Solitude--in the summer of 2000, just before American foreign policy took a lurch toward the neoconservative worst--I was, needless to say, hypnotized by Gabo's voice, amazed by his blend of realism and surrealism, and repeatedly compelled to smack my forehead and exclaim aloud, "Why the fuck didn't I read this fantastic book ten years ago?!" I was also delighted to discover that One Hundred Years of Solitude was a brilliant political novel. It is in fact the Great Columbian Novel. And it's also a great leftist novel. Those American politicians--at least one of them very far right (Rand Paul)--who have publically expressed admiration for Gabo have surely never read his most famous book, because Solitude contains criticisms of American foreign policy (in its military-corporatist United Fruit Company manifestation) that are as strong as any in the works of Eduardo Galeano. If there is a single Great American Novel--and if we understand 'America,' as we must, to refer to the entire hemisphere--this is it.
(A few hours after writing the above, I remembered telling someone about Garcia Marquez in the mid-90s, so I must have read the book before 2000, I must have read it first in the early 1990s. This solecism shows yet again the untrustworthiness of memory; and it should remind you not to trust anything a writer of fiction says.)

Collected Poems by Allen Ginsberg. During the 1980s American culture tried very hard to forget the 1960s and 70s. The Fifties, far enough back to be only vaguely remembered as a time of tailfins and sock hops, were embraced as the lost golden age, the future back to which Moses Reagan promised to lead us, a more innocent, simpler, better time, back before the liberals and the hippies and the homos sent everything to hell in a handbasket. (Although clearly and cartoonishly naïve, not to mention bigoted and self-hating and reactionary, this is exactly the way many Americans still interpret the shape of our recent past.) As part of the general anathema Reaganite ideology pronounced upon the counterculture, the memory of the Beat movement was pushed so far toward oblivion that for a few years during the era of leveraged buyouts and Granadan invasions and constitutional subversion performed by guys who looked damn good in their uniforms (North, McFarlane, Poindexter), one of the most significant American artistic movements of the 20th century seemed almost lost. As a teenager during the 1980s, I heard and knew nothing, absolutely nothing, of Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs. It was as though someone had pressed backspace on a cultural computer and deleted them from the national consciousness. I was first exposed to Ginsberg in the late 1980s when I happened to find on the bargain books table at Waldenbooks (always the best place in the store for me) a large volume of interviews with 60s personalities. Allen was among the interviewees, and the snippets of quoted poetry left me wanting more, much more, so much more, in fact, that I returned to the book store and 'special ordered' a copy of Ginsberg's Collected Poems from the regional warehouse. (That's how we did it in those pre-Amazon days, and if the warehouse didn't have a copy, you were shit out of luck, pal.) Of course, they didn't keep a copy on the shelf; not enough demand for crazy queer poetry during the opening year of the poopy presidency of Poppy Bush. A week later, having paid my sixteen bucks, I returned from the mall, lay down on my bed, and dove into the big red book. Reader, it blew my fucking mind. I started with "Howl," the cadences of which will forever echo in my brain, moved on to "Kaddish" and its tragic repetitions, then traveled along with the Fall of America poems. This voice, while clearly Whitmanesque, was too new and original and fearless and dangerous to be subsumed into any tradition. Ginsberg did for American poetry in the middle of the twentieth century--in, let us note, the middle of that supposedly serene Leave it to Beaver decade so beloved of beaver-hating conservative ideologues--exactly what Whitman had done a century before. He set it free. I will never stop listening to him.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Along with my collected Ginsberg, I ordered a copy of Naked Lunch. Of the three major Beats, I feel the strongest affinity with Ginsberg and the weakest, today, with Kerouac. (There was a time when I loved Jack, but that has passed.) The mugwumpy figure of William Seward Burroughs stands unsteadily somewhere in-between. That first reading of Naked Lunch was a predictably bizarre experience. The book seemed hyperactive to me, jumpy as a junkie excited to score. There were passages of great poetic beauty, pages of satirical brilliance, but there was also more than enough surrealistic overkill. Even the act of hanging people until they ejaculate in other people's mouths can get tired after a while. Admittedly, I liked most of this at the time (it impressed me less on subsequent readings), and I enjoyed and valued the book as a paramount example of literary extremity. Burroughs pushes right through the envelope and sprays semen all over the WPA mural on the post office wall. It's probably impossible to go further into transgression than Burroughs goes here, so the book remains valuable as a limit case. (And as a great argument against censorship: if Naked Lunch is permitted to be published, how can anything else be censored?) But the parts of Naked Lunch that still impress me today are the passages scattered throughout the work in which Burroughs creates images that are as close to the painted visions of Max Ernst or Salvador Dali as any writer has ever come. That's the indelible part of Burroughs.

The Trial by Franz Kafka. Is any authorial adjective more overused than 'Kafkaesque'? 'Joycean' is probably as common among literary types, but the Kafka-word has seeped (nay, flooded) into political discourse. There is not a corridor of the federal government that has not been referred to by someone as a "Kafkaesque bureaucracy." Any controversial cabinet nominee will at some point refer to his confirmation hearing as 'Kafkaesque'--although I don't recall any of them being bludgeoned to death with rocks at the end of the hearings. For Shelley Duvall's character in Annie Hall, sex with Woody Allen was "a Kafkaesque experience." As that last example shows, the word long ago came unmoored from its literary meanings; it has long been an empty piece of cultural capital, a word pronounced to advertise--or fake--erudition. (Yes, there once was a time when people considered erudition a thing worth faking...but even those weren't the days.) This ubiquitous word, and the need to understand it, led me to read The Trial in my early twenties. I eventually arrived at a definition quite different from the self-serving one implied by Clarence Thomas's usage at his confirmation hearing. The shocking eruption of unexplained strangeness within a context of familiarity, an expressionistic scream echoing through the overstuffed rooms of naturalistic fiction--that's what 'Kafkaesque' means to me. It's a meaning akin to the defining characteristic of a literary tendency Kafka decisively influenced, Latin American magic realism. The Latin Americans, from Borges on, added a highball of Faulkner to a tumbler of Kafka, stirred well, poured on a quart of tequila, and set it all aflame. The only thing more ubiquitous than the misuse of Kafka's adjective is his literary influence. This unknown Austro-Hungarian bureaucrat seems to turn up everywhere, influencing both Grass and Murakami, both Borges and Philip Roth, both Updike and Burroughs, both Nabokov and Erica Jong, both Calvino and Rushdie, both Sebald and Ellison (Ralph and Harlan both). Whatever else 20th-century literature might have been, it was certainly Kafkaesque.

A Few of my Literary Pillars, Part Four

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. Every year on the first day of school, the teachers at my junior high would distribute to the students a mimeographed 'Code of Student Conduct.' Then, betraying their bad conscience with regard to their pedagogical competence, they would read aloud from the rule book, so none of us ne'er-do-wells could claim illiteracy as an excuse. This is how we were taught the all-important 'rules.' One of these, I recall, forbade the "possession, distribution or editing of pornographic materials." The 'editing' part always made me chuckle at the outrageous notion that any of my fellow students would have the originality and ambition to set himself up as a junior Larry Flynt. What brings the memory to mind now, however, is the fact that while the rule was being read out on the first day of eighth grade, an athletically-read, crack-spined paperback of John Updike's Rabbit is Rich was lying face-up on my schoolroom desk. I had spent most of the seventh grade (a year I barely remember, for some vague reason) waiting for Updike's novel to be published in paperback so I could buy and read this book about which I had already heard so many positive things. When I finally acquired a copy, it was an extended lightning flash of revelation. Reading it, I was like a secular Saul on the road to Damascus, not blinded but finally finding my sight, finally seeing what lurked in the secret places of the adult world. Beyond the Modernist technique, beyond even the beauty of the prose, I was flabbergasted by Updike's freedom, the almost unbelievable fact that you can show anything in a  novel, that you can even make pissing poetic, that the minutiae of suburban life can be the stuff not just of fiction but of lyrical fiction. And of course--and hardly least, to a growing boy--there was the sex. Hot damn, this was a sexy, sexy book. Oral, vaginal, anal, banal, it was all in there. And this was the book, this book that climaxed with a scene in which two characters peed on each other and then enjoyed a little anal, that I was openly re-reading while some now-forgotten teacher pronounced his mimeo'd anathema upon pornography. I remain unsure if it was the liberality or the illiteracy of my teachers that saved me from an unlivedownable junior high embarrassment. (But I'm leaning toward illiteracy.)

Songs and Sonnets by John Donne. Donne is difficult. Donne is funny. Donne is serious. Donne is sexy. Donne is deadly. Donne is The Man. Probably the most important literary accomplishment of the Eliot-worshipping New Critics was the revival of John Donne, the only poet of his time strong enough to survive comparison with Shakespeare. I first read him in a high school English class, but like all assigned readings, that shouldn't be considered 'reading' at all. Authentic reading, like authentic action, can only be voluntary. I studied Donne more deeply in college, rehearsing the still-standard New Critical explications, teasing out the contradictory ironies wittily concealed within his crazy conceits. But my most important reading was done after hours, sitting in a study carrel in a gigantic room at the Ohio State main library and reading "The Canonization" and "The Sun Rising" and "The Ecstasy" and the various 'Valedictions' over and over until I came into tune with their ironic tone and began to hear them spoken in a highly arch, satirically haughty voice, as though they were being recited by John Cleese on the Python show. I still think this is the voice we should imagine when reading Donne (even the Holy Sonnets), and it's surely the best voice in which to read a body of work deeply influenced by Donne, the poetry of Andrew Marvell.

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Today it seems literally incredible that a writer of aesthetically advanced literary fiction could ever have achieved the level of popularity that, despite its Kilimanjaro-like height, couldn't keep Ernest Hemingway from pressing both barrels of a Boss to his neck and tripping the trigger with his toe. (Oh, how Hemingway would've hated that sentence: too long, too many adjectives, and with a hairpin turn of meaning that's severe enough to produce whiplash.) It's probably impossible for any mere writer today, whether a literary acolyte or a toiler in the genres, to achieve Hemingway's kind of universal celebrity. Even people who had never read a word of him knew who he was: a genius, a great writer, an adventurer. He was revered by everyone from illiterates to intellectuals. Not even Stephen King or J. K. Rowling can boast of that. The truly mind-blowing thing about Hemingway's enormous fame, though, is the fact that it was founded upon a revolution in literary style. Stylistically, most writers are either puritans or hedonists. They either clap buckles on their hats or dance around the maypole at Merrymount. Hemingway, with his successful attempt to clarify a literary language that had risen to levels of HenryJamesian convolution (levels I love like liquor, like licorice, like licking pistachio ice cream melting into the creases of a hot, pink pussy--ahem, excuse my hedonism), is American literature's most prominent member of the buckled hat brigade. It seems counterintuitive to think of the exquisitely mannered and closeted Mr. James as a hedonist and the rowdy, whiskey-soaked, transsexual-fantasizing Hemingway as a puritan, but there we are. He was the foremost stylistic puritan in our literature until the rise of Raymond Carver, and he set American writing on the path that finally reaches its reductio ad absurdum in the one- and two-word sentences of James Ellroy, a style so hard-boiled it'll break your teeth. And of course, as is the dialectical nature of things, alongside this puritanical streak runs a wide, wild, Technicolor swath of hedonistic prose: Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac, Gass, Philip Roth, Gaddis, Pynchon, Morrison, Styron. In general I prefer the latter tendency, but I have found great pleasure in the mountain-clear streams of Hemingway's prose, especially in the short stories. I have often returned to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber," "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Killers," "Big Two-Hearted River," "Indian Camp," "Fathers and Sons" and others.

Sophie's Choice by William Styron. When I was fifteen and a virgin and desperately didn't want to be either fifteen or a virgin, I felt myself personally addressed by this novel narrated by a young writer in his twenties who's both a war veteran and, somewhat inexplicably, also a virgin. A WWII-era one-liner went "There are no virgins in the Army because the Army fucks everybody," a truism to which Styron's Stingo is apparently the unlaid outlier. I deeply identified with Stingo's horniness, but Styron's language was the thing I grew to love. Sophie's Choice was one of the first novels (perhaps the very first) to impress me with the pure, musical beauty of its prose. (The critics who hated the book on this score were timeservers at best and at worst damned dogmatic fools.) Of course, the novel had problems. All long novels do. Even as a teenager, I was a perceptive enough reader to spot the book's most serious formal flaw: Styron sends Sophie through so many kinds of hell over the course of the book that by the time we reach the titular 'choice,' its horrifying force has been somewhat blunted by all that has come before. Rereading the novel in my twenties, after having OD'd on Faulkner and sampled the lyrical flights of Wolfe--the two most obvious precursors of Styron's entire oeuvre--I came to understand it as a tragic meditation on identity, a novel about the way we construct ourselves through the autobiographical stories we tell, and how those stories can be inflected into falsehood by psychological trauma. I still have a very high opinion of Sophie's Choice. As an attempt to write a credible modern tragedy in an American idiom, I place it alongside The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire. It's one of the great American novels.