“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, September 15, 2003

Letter

My friend T. has responded to my posts about reviewing.
Here are some of the juicy bits.

"I wasn�t going to do this. I had a plan. I left work and was going to get home a hellofalot earlier than my usual; I was not going to log on, jack in, read or research or write�no, I was going to drink beer and watch the Giants-Cowboys game, or a Steve McQueen movie and drift off to sleep earlier than is my usual�.but, no, not to be�I�d rather respond to your post regarding the book review.



I will not disturb your account of the track of the book review unto nullity implicated in the fate of magazines and newspapers; I will accept it wholly as a report from a front that I have no interest in visiting. As for your account of the experience of finding books becoming a nullity in its absorption by academia, I will confirm that report as a fellow traveler. The quotes from Copperfield, MB and Middlemarch brought me great pause and teary eyes; thank you.



From your post, I thought a bit about my encounters with books as a reader, as a finder of books, as a dilettante and contrarian, as one with no obligations but my pleasure of texts. Nevertheless, I read book reviews and mostly think them shit; think of most reviewers as morons who either never exactly know what they want to be, or, alternatively, morons who are in fact quite what they thought themselves to be, but they are not readers of books. Here�s the issue: for fiction, there is a nexus of the book reviewed, the reviewer�s take on it and other similar books; comparison and superlative made necessary; there are in such reviews the author�s previous books or earlier book, or books of a certain similar style, manner or genre, and then there is this one, the one reviewed and whether and how it is as good or not as good. Then there is non-fiction: there is the book reviewed, the reviewer�s take on it, and the subject matter of the book reviewed; comparison and superlative are as necessary to this manner of review: how and why the methodology or source or credentials of the reviewed author are either acceptable or no. In each case, the reader of the review has no place whatsoever except as a potential consumer of the book reviewed; that this reader is given an endorsement or not; that a cookbook might as easily be reviewed as a novel, that a collection of letters might be as easily and as similarly be reviewed as a self-help book; that a book of philosophy might be as easily reviewed as a biography of a philosopher.



The reviewer, it seems to me, if he aspire to art (which he never will or cannot, which you cover in your post), must invoke Tolstoy: the commonality and sharing of emotion; he must invoke Deleuze (and therefore Clem Greenberg): that art medium joined to feeling.

So I though a bit about book reviewing, the (lost art of) finding books, and libraries and ideal readers (not the technical sense, here), and then, inevitably and naturally enough for me to Borges and Barthes and Derrida and Eco; thoughts of their libraries, to their �reviews� (Derrida as a reviewer of Plato and Austin; what about Leibniz�s �review� of the I Ching; aw hell, I can�t afford these indulgences!); and thoughts that our dear Nietzsche probably had as scant a library as any.


Have you ever read any of Borges� book reviews? I went and found and reread them in the Viking edition of his selected non-fictions (selected from his writings in El Hogar Magazine (1936-1939)). Much formulae (references of the number of pages of a book, grand introductionary sentences regarding books and writers, each writ large, to Chesterton, etc and usw), and much �Borges�, but there is evidence of that extraordinary capacity to consider the general, the specific and one�s problematic place in such considerations; some are damned lovely; here are three, in their entirety:

William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!
I know of two kinds of writers [as an abrupt aside: someone sent me a quote from Woody Allen this morning: there are two kinds of people: the ones who say there are two kinds of people, and the ones who don�t]: those whose central preoccupation is verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed and �Byzantine� or praised as �pure artists.� The later, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets �profound,� �human,� or �profoundly human,� and the flattering vituperation �savage.� The former is Swindburne or Mallarm�; the late, C�line or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained G?ngora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoyevsky� Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last, that is, until the tremendous impact of Faulkner.

Faulkner likes to expound the novel through his characters. This method is not entirely original � Robert Browning�s The Ring and the Book (1868) details the same crime ten times, through ten voices and ten souls � but Faulkner infuses if with an intensity that is almost intolerable. There is an infinite decomposition, an infinite and black carnality, in this book. The theatre is the state of Mississippi: the heroes, men disintegrating from envy, alcohol, loneliness, and the erosions of hate.

Absalom! Absalom! is comparable to The Sound and the Fury. I know no higher praise.



The Literary Life: Oliver Gogarty
Toward the end of the civil war in Ireland, the poet Oliver Gogarty was imprisoned by some Ulster men in a huge house on the banks of the Barrow, in County Kildare. He knows that at dawn he would be shot. Under some pretext, he went into the garden and threw himself into the glacial waters. The night grew large with gunshots. Swimming under the black water exploding with bullets, he promised the river that he would give it two swans if it allowed him to reach the other bank. The god of the river heard him and saved him, and the poet later fulfilled his pledge.



An English Version of the Oldest Song in the World
Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: � A man condemned to death doesn�t care that he is standing at the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.� Here the translator attached an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: �The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.� Then, like Paolo and Francesca, I read no more. A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul.

Each time fate brings me before a �literal version� of some masterpiece of Chinese or Arabian literature, I remember that sorry incident. Now I recall it again, reading the translations that Arthur Waley has just published of the Shih Ching, or The Book of Songs. These songs are of a popular nature, and it is believed they were composed by Chinese soldiers or peasants in the seventh or eighth century B.C. Here are some of the translations of a few of them [�]

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