20 April 2007:

Cynthia Ozick on critics; Siddhartha Deb on Roberto Bolaņo, in Harper's.

In the April issue of Harper's, there's an essay by Cynthia Ozick, "Literary Entrails: The boys in the alley, the disappearing readers, and the novel's ghostly twin." Even after several readings, I'm not sure just what is meant by that ghostly twin, but however it's titled, the essay is important. Ms Ozick begins with the war that Ben Marcus tried to start two years ago in the magazine's pages when he attacked Jonathan Franzen for writing too accessibly. She notes that there's one thing that Mr Franzen and Mr Marcus agree about: readers, and where have they gone? She has no quick answers to the readership problem, but her long answer involves reviving the practice of literary criticism. Her exemplary critic is, not surprisingly, James Wood. She quotes him on Flaubert and then compares him to Lionel Trilling. More exactly, she writes,

Surely we have not heard a critical mind like this at work since Tilling's The Liberal Imagination. The key is indebtedness. The key is connectedness. If Wood cannot read Flaubert without thinking of McEwan, neither can he read McEwan without thinking of Flaubert. In this single densely packed paragraph (though he is not usually so compact), Wood reflects on how scenes are constructed; how art imitates faith; how aesthetics can either combine with or annihilate what passes for the actual world. And also: the relation of story to the language that consumes it, and the descent of literature not only from one nation to another but from one writer to another - all the while clinging to a unitary theme, the origin and nature of the modern. Such an imperial analysis has both a Darwinian and a biblical flavor: evolution mixed with Genesis.

In her very next sentence, Ms Ozick writes that one James Wood is not enough. "What is needed is a thicket - a forest - of Woods." Each with his own strengths and weaknesses. There's nothing wrong, for example, with James Wood's dislike of what he calls "hysterical realism." What's necessary is for strong voices, deriving their authority from their intelligent engagement with the world, to disagree. They needn't argue about their disagreements; they only need to be as cogent and comprehensive as possible. And because they never talk about a book in isolation (no matter how fine their focus), they don't write book reviews.

I want to be one of them when I grow up. The other day, I took a few paragraphs that I'd written about Turgenev's last novel, Virgin Soil, and tried to make something interesting out of them. I had somehow never read Turgenev before, and it has been a while since I've read Russian literature at all. Much as I liked Virgin Soil, I found that I had little to say about it beyond the book-report level. I'm simply not very literate at the moment in the novel's larger context, which also includes the French literature that Turgenev read in Paris, where he lived. I am much more comfortable writing about To the Lighthouse; I'd be  even more comfortable if I'd read more of what Virginia Woolf read. (Katherine Mansfield, for example.)

It's not just a matter of making connections, though. Most of the novels that I read make me a better reader overall; they teach me new possibilities. And I know from long experience that my reaction to a book is always partial, incomplete. I find this out if I re-read it. Emma, one of my favorite books, is never the same book that I read the last time. Everything is familiar, of course. But salience changes - because I've changed. 

A few pages after "Literary Entrails," Siddhartha Deb writes an overview of Roberto Bolaņo's fiction that has appeared in English: four novels and a collection of short stories. The essay is remarkably thoughtful (and far more enlightening than Mr Wood's review of one of the books, The Savage Detectives). Mr Deb is reminded by two of Bolaņo's characters of F T Marinetti, author of the "Futurist Manifesto," from which he quotes a brief passage. Then he writes,

This artist - the one who instead of challenging a repressive political system, chooses to become its storm trooper - seems to have haunted Bolaņo in equal measure, so much so that he envisaged an entire body of right-wing literature in the novel Nazi Literature in the Americas (which will be published next year), a work to which Distant Star is meant to be an appendix or coda. The idea may appear outdated to us, sounding, once again, that anachronistic note we heard before: Who takes artists, even fascist artists, so seriously anymore? But art, for Bolaņo, is a belief system that comes into its own in the Americas, stirring into anarchic life in Mexico City and Santiago long after it has been domesticated and neutered in Europe. It functions just like politics and religion in Latin America, engendering a special kind of fervor, producing mythologies and creating deities and saints, devotees and heretics. 

By showing us what taking literature seriously looks like, Mr Deb is quietly suggesting that we take our literature seriously. What would this mean in the United States? Politically, it would mean, among other things, watching less television, because that is the social ill that our literature is increasingly delineating. Once upon a time, nobody wrote about television - what was there to say about it? Then the very vapidity of television inspired literary transgression, and eventually celebration. Now writers such as George Saunders and Jean-Philippe Toussaint are assessing the hangover, measuring the degradation of consciousness in a society that exercises its freedom by wasting time in front of a flickering box that can turn any room into Plato's cave. Taking literature seriously would also require us to exercise our imagination, not so much along the lines of fantasy and the unknown as on the more social footing of entering into other lives in order to understand other points of view. These are only two things that taking literature seriously would inspire. You can surely think of others.

You'll kindly excuse me now, but I have a great deal of reading to catch up on.


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