Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hats and things read in 2017

Some books and things read in 2017 (a mostly-complete list):

Alexander Pope "The Rape of the Lock"
Boethius The Consolation of Philosophy
Marcel Proust The Guermantes Way
H. E. Bates Elephant's Nest in a Rhubarb Tree and Other Stories
Henry James The Outcry
Anton Chekhov The Horse Stealers and other stories
Thomas a Kempis The Imitation of Christ
John Berger About Looking
Gene Sharp Power and Struggle
Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction: Critical Essays
Herman Melville The Confidence-Man
Reinhold Messner Fall of Heaven
Marcel Proust Sodom and Gomorrah
Karl Geiringer Haydn: A Creative Life in Music
Marcel Proust The Captive
Marcel Proust The Prisoner
The Major Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Marcel Proust Time Regained
Anton Chekhov The Witch and other stories
Gene Sharp The Methods of Nonviolent Action
Jane Austen Emma
Albert Camus The Fall
The Cambridge Companion to the Violin
Albert Camus Exile and the Kingdom
St John of the Cross Poems
Rebecca West The Judge
Anne Frank Diary of a Young Girl
Beverley Nichols Down the Garden Path
Orhan Pamuk The White Castle
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
Virginia Woolf Jacob's Room 
Arthur Conan Doyle A Study in Scarlet
Bela Bartók Letters
Victor Klemperer I Shall Bear Witness, 1933-1941 
Arthur Conan Doyle The Sign of the Four
Arthur Conan Doyle The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Cesar Aira The Hare
Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac
Karolina Pavlova A Double Life
ZZ Packer Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Thomas Hardy "A Mere Interlude"
Merivale & Sweeney (eds) Detecting Texts
Thomas Hardy "An Imaginative Woman"
Thomas Hardy "A Withered Arm"
Saint John of the Cross The Dark Night of the Soul
Alice Munro Open Secrets
Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sonnets from the Portuguese
Jeff Sypeck The Beallsville Calendar
Jose Eduardo Agualusa A General Theory of Oblivion

In 2017 I finished Proust's Remembrances of Things Past and began to plunder Mighty Reader's large collection of Virago Classics, reading authors to whom I had not been formally introduced. Both of those projects have been pretty satisfying. In 2018 I plan to re-read more Chekhov and Shakespeare, neither of whom are French or women. I'd also like to read Herodotus and that second volume of Euripides. And more poetry. The usual assortment of best-laid plans, I see.

Some writing done in 2017: 

At some point this spring or early summer, I finished the first draft of a novel called Nowhere But North, unless of course I finished it earlier than that. It's all a blur, frankly, and because I don't seem to have noted the completion of the draft here on the blog, I have no record of it. Anyway, that's one more novel drafted. I no longer see this as much of an accomplishment. There are tens of thousands of Americans rabbiting away on novels every day of the year; it's a popular hobby, is writing novels. Nowhere But North is the longest, biggest, grandest thing I've written. When I've revised it a couple of times, I regret to say that it will be even longer, bigger, and grander. It might also be worth reading. We'll see.

I've recently revised (fairly heavily, too) an older novel, something called Go Home Miss America. That's a religious novel, sort of mostly. It occurs to me that the flaws I see in the book result from the internal conflicts of my own theology and moral system. I don't think those conflicts are going to be resolved in time to make the novel a more unified work of art, but I don't think that's necessary. Go Home Miss America is out on submission with a couple of small publishers. I have no expectations regarding those submissions.

Uncharacteristically, I have not immediately jumped into a new project upon completion of Nowhere But North. I think that's okay. I am making occasional notes for a possible new book, a collection of stories about a fictional town on the American prairie, set circa 1977 or so. I do not know if I'll write the stories. We'll see.

Some blogging done in 2017:

The blogging, clearly, has slowed down considerably. And you may have noticed that I deleted and then restored the blog (a short comedy of errors and idiocy), resulting in a loss of many posts and comments, and all the posts from 2008 (or was it 2009? I forget, frankly) to 2011. Anyway, all that's gone as are about half the posts from 2011 to mid-2017. What fun.

I find I have fewer things to say about the books I'm reading, and almost nothing to say about the books I'm writing. As I say, at this moment I'm not working on any new projects. I'm revising finished novels and flogging them to agents and small presses and that is not very interesting to talk about. Most of the time I used to spend writing has been given over to reading or playing violin, both of which activities are quite interesting and satisfying. My vibrato has improved a good deal over the last couple of months. Remedial stuff, yes, but valuable. Though not so helpful in terms of blogging, I realize.

Back in October when I was reading Cesar Aira's novel The Hare, I took a lot of notes and thought I'd write a long bit about that book, but when I finished the novel I realized that I was happy to be shut of it and could not face trawling through my notes and marginalia merely to cobble up an essay pointing out what a piece of stink The Hare turns out to be. "Language and meaning are relative, as is interpretation of the world itself." Well, okay, Mr Aira, that's fine, but you beat that slim idea bloody for 300 pages of poorly-written adolescent adventure. Aira here has the same problems Kafka had in his novels: the comedy and the (fairly unsophisticated) philosophy are the primary concerns, and the writing itself is clumsy and seemingly slapped together, ugly and tripping over itself, but fans will overlook that because the (fairly unsophisticated) philosophical claims of the book strike some readers as being deep and thoughtful and enlightening. But it ain't. Like Kafka's (unfinished) novels, Mr Aira's The Hare has some good passages, but you must slog your way through a lot of dull comedy to get there, and in truth many of these good passages really only stand out when compared to the crawling dullness with which they are surrounded. And it's this very sort of screed I don't want to be writing, so I am blogging a great deal less because my tolerance for shallow thinking and poor craftsmanship has gone way way down. I enjoyed Mr Aira's Ghosts a great deal. The Hare was a disappointment. I'd love a novel to excite me so much I can't contain my excitement and am compelled to tell everyone (well, the five people who read this blog) about it. I find that I become a more difficult audience as I age. I regret this.


When Mighty Reader and I were in Amsterdam, we stumbled into a fine hat shop near the Old Church, past the Red Light District. I bought a fine gray Stetson fedora that I don't wear nearly often enough. On our trip to Banff, I wore my Bailey's of Hollywood lined winter wool fedora, a fine hat for cold weather. Mighty Reader found a whimsical stocking cap topped with an enormous (faux) fur ball at the Hudson Bay Company in Banff. A pretty good year for hats, though we each left a straw hat behind on the island of Texel, forgotten as we rushed from a restaurant in Den Burg to catch our shuttle back to the wee village in which we were staying.

Monday, December 18, 2017

"It is for my health," said Louisa gravely

You ask how I came here. There is no interesting story. My parents are both dead. My father worked for Eaton's in Toronto in the Furniture Department, and after his death my mother worked there too in Linens. And I also worked there for a while in Books. Perhaps you could say Eaton's was our Douds. I graduated from Jarvis Collegiate. I had some sickness which put me in hospital for a long time, but I am quite well now. I had a great deal of time to read and my favorite authors are Thomas Hardy, who is accused of being gloomy but I think is very true to life--and Willa Cather. I just happened to be in this town when I heard the Librarian had died and I thought, perhaps that is the job for me.
I'm nearly finished reading Alice Munro's story collection Open Secrets. It continues to be interesting from a story perspective and impressive from a technical perspective. The strong movement toward what strikes me (possibly because I am by nature a pessimist) as falsely positive brief endings also continues, but I am trying to learn forbearance and also Munro's intent (or at least build a pretense of understanding what she's doing, because Munro is clearly too good a writer to be doing anything in her stories without having thought it through).

Anyway, that's a side issue having to do with my own expectations of lit'rature. What I wanted to say is that it struck me, after reading about the first six of the stories, that they all involve someone disappearing, in one form or another. People walk out of their lives, or are taken forcibly out of their lives, or escape lives into which they were forced. Perhaps it's because I've been reading literary theory about postmodernism and detective literature that I see Munro's tales of individuals being sought out, or identities being revealed or concealed (or both), as a form of detective fiction. Possibly I'm just one of those people whose world view is entirely overwhelmed by whatever it is they've most recently read, like my mind is a canvas that anyone can repaint at whim, and everything will look like detective fiction of one form or another until I read the next literary criticism essay that falls under my fingers. Who can say? Again, another long digression into my self-doubt, of which I have enormous quantities these days.

I appear to be blogging again, despite my infinite depths of doubt and ignorance. Possibly that is a precursor to actually writing fiction again. It could happen. Maybe I'm just warming up. Surprisingly, I find that idea exciting, in a doubtful and ignorant sort of way.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Love dies all the time, or at any rate it becomes distracted, overlaid--it might as well be dead.

“I read stray sentences from the books that I had always meant to read. Often these sentences seemed so satisfying to me, or so elusive and lovely, that I could not help abandoning all the surrounding words and giving myself up to a peculiar state.”

I'm about halfway through Alice Munro's collection Open Secrets, a group of stories that mostly take place in and around the small town of Carstairs, Ontario. This is my first exposure to Munro and I was not sure what to expect. The Cynthia Ozick blurb on the back cover calls Munro a modern-day Chekhov. I didn't read the blurb before I bought the book; I almost never read the cover copy until I'm a hundred pages into something. Don't ask me why that is. I was surprised when I realized that the stories are sort of linked by the shared setting, with names of characters recurring here and there. I am, after all, planning my own book of stories all set in a small town. But I stole the idea from Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood," I tell you. Nothing new under the sun, which is probably a good thing.

Anyway, Munro is not Chekhov (there is no Chekhov but Chekhov), but she's a fine writer. The prose is quite fine indeed, the stories branching and surprising and beautiful, but so far all having the same annoying way of ending abruptly with a sudden fall into the direction of an unnecessary happy ending, as if Munro was contentedly writing away, fully interested and invested in her story, when it occurred to her that she needed to wrap things up and the best way to do that quickly was to steal a couple of pages from the last chapter of a random Jane Austen novel. I confess that my enthusiasm for Open Secrets is starting to wane as I go along. I know, however, that I am a difficult--possibly impossible--audience.

Although the book has many strengths. With each story I begin, I am already ten or twelve pages into it before I know it, the writing so wonderful and the ideas so sharp and surprising that I'm carried quickly along. Very very admirable narrative craft in this book. And endings are hard, sure. I've taken to using the mature Chekhov tactic of simply dropping out of the story once the reader has been presented with the opportunity to understand the action, without any attempt at closure (whatever, man) or sewing up loose ends (whatever, man). Munro makes a different choice, and I think she's attempting to point the reader in a new direction, to open a door into a new possible story that hasn't been written. I understand that choice, but the open possibilities toward which Munro points don't seem as interesting as the story Munro has just told me.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nikolaius iterandus est

He was an epicurean and a Christian, in that order, a man of faith who believed in gastronomy and God; his wife and his children; and the French and the Americans. In his view, they offered us far better tutelage than those other foreign Svengalis who had hypnotized our northern brethren and some of our southern ones: Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, and Chairman Mao. Not that he ever read any of those sages! That was my job as his aide-de-camp and junior officer of intelligence, to provide him with cribbed notes on, say, The Communist Manifesto or Mao’s Little Red Book. It was up to him to find occasions to demonstrate his knowledge of the enemy’s thinking, his favorite being Lenin’s question, plagiarized whenever the need arose: Gentlemen, he would say, rapping the relevant table with adamantine knuckles, what is to be done? To tell the General that Nikolay Chernyshevsky actually came up with the question in his novel of the same title seemed irrelevant. How many remember Chernyshevsky now?

--from The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen