Well, it’s almost embarrassing that this is coming in the middle of January, but not quite as embarrassing as some of the other shit I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t gotten around to yet in the new year. I’ve been busy, though, so we’ll call that something like an excuse. Anyway, the list first (and yes, those are affiliate links, and no, I unsurprisingly haven’t made any money off this shit yet):
The list counts to 39 but in reality it was 41 because two of those volumes were doubles (the Perec and one of the Robbe-Grillets). It’s less than last year but I feel fine with that; The Second Sex, for example, was real fuckin' long.
I didn’t do any numbers — public or otherwise — on last year’s reading but from a quick look through it seems like I read maybe a little more nonfiction (and definitely more "fun" nonfiction, i.e., bike books), and I read (maybe) somewhat deeply, or continued to read authors I’ve read a fair amount before (e.g., Maso, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Austin, etc.). I even did some rereading, which is pretty unusual for me in a non-comfort-book kind of way. Somebody told me recently (Lisa? Alia? Chelsey?) that one should maybe reread a book for every new book read. I’m not quite on that level yet so far this year, but I have, funny enough, already done some rereading (here’s lookin' at you, Beowulf.) It also looks like I read a fair bit in translation (due to my minor obsession with the French, I guess); I’d like to keep doing that, too.
Anyway. Maybe nobody’s interested in this aside from me, but that’s fine. I’ve put a little * next to my favorites from the year, how about that?
This is not normally how I do things but it’s been busy at work and I thought it might be fun to share some quotes. So today I’m going to broadly recommend the work of one Mr. Alain Robbe-Grillet. No, I haven’t read all of this work. Yes, I’ve very much liked what I’ve read. Yes, I have seen "Marienbad", and yes, I did LOL at Perec’s commentary on it.
As I may have mentioned elsewhere, after reading Everyday Reading (HA!), I started keeping a "scrapbook" of quotes and things. Suffice to say, Robbe-Grillet features heavily. Largely because of these gems from For a New Novel:
If the reader sometimes has difficulty getting his bearings in the modern novel, it is in the same way that he loses them in the very world where he lives, when everything in the old structures and the old norms around him is giving way.
— For a New Novel
The novels first. I read Jealousy & In the Labyrinth and liked them both very much, but I though Jealousy was legitimately a masterpiece. The things he manages to do with such small (prose) movements were really amazing. He manages this with repetitions, in a way that is certainly reminiscent of "Last Year at Marienbad" but rendered in prose it is (I think) much more pleasing. It all comes down to the sentences. Here is an example (from the version translated by Richard Howard):
Suddenly the creature hunches its body and begins descending diagonally toward the ground as fast as its long legs can go, while the wadded napkin falls on it, faster still.
The hand with the tapering fingers has clenched around the knife handle; but the features of the face have lost none of their rigidity. Franck lifts the napkin away from the wall and with his food continues to squash something on the tiles, against the baseboard.
About a yard higher, the paint is marked with a dark shape, a tiny arc twisted into a question mark, blurred on one side, in places surrounded by more tenuous signs, from which A… has still not taken her eyes.
In the Labyrinth was also good (though apparently I did not write down any quotes in it), and felt like a long, slippery digression on ekphrasis. There are layers and cut-backs and well… it’s a labyrinth. It also builds by repetition, but for my money, the greater number of set pieces and characters (as compared to Jealousy) dilutes the effect somewhat. That said, it’s an excellent case study if you’re looking for mirroring techniques; the whole thing (arguably) is sort of just about what goes on in this painting, a Russian-doll kind of story wherein the ground of each scene always seems to be slipping.
It in a way reminds me of one of the later story’s in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse in which he does this super-hard-to-track thing with embedded quotations, but in a less typographically visual way.
Oh, and did I mention there is always an "I" embedded in these otherwise third-person styled narratives? Fucking rad.
Then to the theory. For a New Novel. Still feels pretty fucking fresh. I’ll let it speak for itself:
The height of the ["majestic"] mountain assumes, willy-nilly, a moral value; the heat of the ["pitiless"] sun becomes the result of an intention…In almost the whole of our contemporary literature, these anthropomorphic analogies are repeated too insistently, too coherently not to reveal an entire metaphysical system.
— Nature, Humanism, Tragedy,
from For a New Novel
Metaphor, which is supposed to express only a comparison, without any particular motive, actually introduces a subterranean communication, a movement of sympathy (or of antipathy) which is its true raison d’être. For, as comparison, metaphor is almost always a useless comparison which contributes nothing new to the description. What would the village lose by being merely "situated" in the valley? The word "huddled" gives us no complementary information. On the other hand it transports the reader (in the author’s wake) into the imagined soul of the village; if I accept the word "huddled," I am no longer entirely a spectator; I myself become the village, for the duration of a sentence, and the valley functions as a cavity into which I aspire to disappear.
— On Several Obsolete Notions,
from For a New Novel
Let us, then, restore to the notion of commitment the only meaning it can have for us. Instead of being of a political nature, commitment is, for the writer, the full awareness of the present problems of his own language, the conviction of their extreme importance, the desire to solve them from within. Here, for him, is the only chance of remaining an artist and, doubtless too, by means of an obscure and remote consequence, of some day serving something—perhaps even the Revolution.
— On Several Obsolete Notions,
from For a New Novel
As we have already had occasion to specify in the course of this work, the novel is not a tool at all. It is not conceived with a view to a task defined in advance. It does not serve to set forth, to translate things existing before it, outside it. It does not express, it explores, and what it explores is itself.
— From Realism to Reality,
For a New Novel
Pretty neat stuff. Anyway, happy Wednesday.
Well, it’s another series (maybe). I can’t seem to blog in a straight line these days and that’s fine — it’s almost peppermint schnapps season.
Back when I was commuting to the North End in Boston I would sometimes bike behind this guy I called "the bumblebee" because he’d taped up his black single speed with bright yellow reflective tape in stripes all over, and he was a friendly guy to pass or to be passed by depending on the morning, and the other day I saw him going the other way over the Mass Ave bridge and it was really affirming, somehow, to know he’s still out there riding around, too.
All I want to do when I grow up is be an old guy wandering around in a public park on a weekday morning staring up at a tree and probably thinking, "huh: nice tree."
I got passed today at a light by a dude clipped in (SPD) to his track bike, and then he got passed by a dude clipped in (SPD-SL) to his nicer track bike, and I didn’t have the legs or care really to try and keep up with either of them, but based on the second guy’s low RPM at the speed even I was going (~19-20), he must have been pushing a 50T chainring or something. Just goes to show you that you’re only hot shit until the next guy shows up. Also, it’s about time I switched back to commuting in clipless pedals (I have cozy boots for the winter, and also my toe-clip-commuting shoes are starting to stink to high heaven and I can’t seem to get rid of the smell).
We have reached the point in autumn where half of us are wearing big puffy coats while others of us are wearing shorts and/or T-shirts for the commute. I keep forgetting that it warms up by about ten degrees as soon as I cross the town line over into Cambridge.
On Wednesdays we do long rides before work to some coffee shop or bakery or other and sometimes that means that I come into the city through Allston, passing by the Landry’s on Beacon. They’ve got a tent and a bike stand out most mornings and I usually blow by them but the other day I’d left the guys I ride with to go their own ways back across the river and stopped: my chain was making horrible, embarrassing sounds. (When did I become the kind of person who doesn’t both to lube his chain? When I stopped working in a shop, I guess.) So anyway I stopped and asked for some lube and like bike people we talked about bikes. The older guy — not that old, just older than the two charming, sweet, and kind of knuckle-headed college guys out there that morning — and I had that moment of recognition when he asked what I did for a living and I told him but told him that I used to work at the shop I used to work at. He had too. (It seems like half of Boston’s shop folks have cycled through there at some point sometimes.) Anyway, we had a nice chat and I went on my way with a much less embarrassing chain, thinking just a little bit about his offer to come do a shift sometime if I ever missed it, was feeling itchy.
It finally happened: someone I passed on my way in walked into the bike room at the building when I was leaving. I don’t think he recognized me, but he sure as shit recognized my horrifically green bike.
I hate daylight savings because it’s just objectively bad. I will say though, that the change back to Standard Time meant that the sun that Monday morning was marvelous.
There are like five of you who still read this, so, you know, if you all buy like 10 books over the next year, I might have earned enough for a beer or two.
I’ve also gone back and added links for some of the stuff in the past but mostly I haven’t because that’s a lot of work and I don’t actually expect to make money on this anyway.
I mean, why not jump into the fray?
I’m not really going to talk about it though, save that I think it’s fun that Boston is involved, I am (so I’ve recently learned) only like a degree or two of separation from some of those folks, and I actually do remember the whole Boston Book Fair "One City One Story" thing from a few years back.
But mostly I want to talk about me and my friends: much less litigious. Also less well published as an aggregate, but —
And I won’t say we’re not petty or that we don’t talk shit: I would argue that’s one of the greatest joys of friendship (being petty, talking shit). The crowd in Boston met mostly (OK: entirely) in an MFA program (not the one you’re thinking of) and so sure, we complained about and (gently) lampooned professors, the school, the bad healthcare plan, and a lot of those jokes still have currency. We don’t, as a rule, talk shit about our peers. We’re pretty serious about that. I mean, we’re good people after all. We make jokes, sure. We’ve had questions about plagiarism between us and us (which was resolved after a frank, adult conversation, I’m proud to say — and also it wasn’t really alleged plagiarism of material but a stylistic tic, but hey: we’ve all got to try things), we’ve had fights and disagreements and hurt feelings, sure (you should have seen me after workshops during my first year or so of grad school — so sensitive!), but I mean, I think the thing is that at the end of the day we think it’s cool when our friends actually make some work, and we are supportive when they get published, and
we're really good at drinking at the bar we try to support our community when and how we can.
Really, though, much of our time together has little to do with writing. In reality, we’re more a social club made up of folks who happen to be writers and who say things like "I can only seem to read mid-20th century French literature in translation right now" without (too much) irony. We share work, we do — shit, I’m sitting on a friend’s novel right now that I genuinely cannot wait to read — but, especially now that a majority of us are done with grad school. We’re busy. And we sometimes think we have time to read somebody’s thing and then we don’t. And we sometimes think we’re reading to send something out but we’re actually not.
And you know, the idea of when and how to send work has changed a lot, too.
Jane (Unrue) said something once that stuck with a lot of us about the difference between private and public writing, the writing that is "just for us" and the writing we "share." I think as we get farther a long into it (should I speak for more than just myself? Sure, why not?), the more we tend to hold onto things until we think that they really are ready: we don’t, as much, need the early look, the "is this a good idea at all" reads. Maybe it’s hubris, maybe we just are at a point where we have a better idea of what we are trying to do and what we want. I think this is a good thing.
So although I admit I have some envy of a proper "writing group," I really wouldn’t want that, at the end of the day. Sure, some more accountability would be good, but honestly I’m not sure I have time for that, either. The infrequent book clubs are enough. The odd short-short shared is enough. The novels come when they come and that’s a good thing: I’m not sure I have enough brain to read sections of novels and keep them all together over the course of months anymore. I like that we instead drink beers in parks in sock-koozies and metal water bottles, talk about who and who wasn’t "personally invited" to this or that reading (and about what day of the week a "really good reading" would be on), about who is reading what, about whether or not this or that documentary about Big Foot was actually just a large bait-and-switch.
It’s a writers' social club; it’s just that instead of the Algonquin or Bloomsbury we’ve got the Boston Common and the Banshee down on Dot Ave, and our best work is still very much yet before us.