Some devoted fans with lots of time on their hands recreated Infinite Jest out of Legos. What have you done today?
(photo by Isolde Ohlbaum)
Not sure how I missed this, but back in May, Joshua Cohen had a fantastic little review of the posthumous collection of W.G. Sebald’s early literary criticism, A Place in the Country, in the Times. Aside from being whip smart, Cohen’s piece mentions a few features about Sebald’s “novels” that I hadn’t realized:
All four of his novels bear the marks of these influences, in images and even lines lifted verbatim: parts of Stifter’s story “Der Condor” appear in “The Rings of Saturn,” and of Walser’s short story “Kleist in Thun” in “Vertigo,” unacknowledged. But then Sebald also borrowed from the living, especially from the biographies of émigrés: the poet and translator Michael Hamburger has a cameo in “The Rings of Saturn.”
None of this was plagiarism, or even allusion. This was Sebald proposing a self whose only homeland was the page: Existence beyond the bindings was too compromising. This principle corresponds to the photographs Sebald included in his novels, black-and-white portraits he’d purchased from antique markets; in “Austerlitz,” that boy in the cape holding the plumed tricorn is not Jacques Austerlitz — it can’t be: Jacques Austerlitz is fictional — and yet it is more Jacques Austerlitz than the boy it actually depicts, who remains unknown to the reader (and who remained unknown even to Sebald, who, according to James Wood, paid 30 pence for the photo).
The page is the new horizon at the same time that it’s the old one. All words and works, bound together and repeated and rephrased and reused—mine and yours and Walser’s and Sebald’s and Cohen’s—forever and ever. Of course, Sebald and Cohen say it better than any of us can.
To occasion the release of Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, Brain Pickings has excerpted several rather motivational quotes from the enigmatic director’s conversations with Paul Cronin. Herzog on his DIY ethic:
I did as much as possible myself; it was an article of faith, a matter of simple human decency to do the dirty work as long as I could… Three things — a phone, computer and car — are all you need to produce films. Even today I still do most things myself. Although at times it would be good if I had more support, I would rather put the money up on the screen instead of adding people to the payroll.
Herzog on experience:
Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books.
Herzog on money:
The circumstances of funding never just appear; you have to create them yourself, then manipulate them for your own ends. This is the very nature and daily toil of filmmaking. If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. There is a German proverb:“Der Teufel scheisst immer auf den grössten Haufen” [“The Devil always shits on the biggest heap”]. So start heaping and have faith.
It’s all very Herzog, and all very good. Out September 2 from Faber & Faber. You also might look into this killer blu-ray collection that just came out this year and is on this guy’s x-mas list.
Courtesy of Grant Snider and capturing my feelings exactly. Never let a brand die. Word on the street (see: my girlfriend) is that the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is better than 1Q84, so whether that means more weird sex and vanishing cats or less weird sex and vanishing cats, plan your bingo moves accordingly.
With Márquez, Gordimer, Berger, and others passing, it’s been a rough year on literature. Now Pierre Ryckmans (AKA Simon Leys) is gone, leaving us a rich body of critical work. Outspoken, concentrated, eccentric, lucid, and always interesting—Ryckmans was a rare breed of critic who could be humane and combative and smart all at once. Pick up his collected essays, The Hall of Uselessness, out on NYRB and worth every bit of your attention. From the short essay, “Momento Mori,” parting words:
We never cease to be astonished at the passing of time: “Look at him! Only yesterday, it seems, he was still a tiny kid, and now he is bald, with a big moustache; a married man and a father!” This shows clearly that time is not our natural element: would a fish ever be surprised by the wetness of water? For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time. Nevertheless, it is within the bonds of time that man builds the cathedral of Chartres, paints the Sistine Chapel and plays the seven-string zither—which inspired William Blake’s luminous intuition: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
(Hand lettering by Joel Holland)
In tandem with publishing a César Aira story entitled “Picasso,” The New Yorker has a little interview of the international-lit juggernaut Barbara Epler this week. It’s always refreshing to see some Aira float to the top of the cultural conversation—same with New Directions. There’s a nice aside in the interview in which Epler talks about meeting Aira on a trip to Argentina, with characteristically Airan results:
For several weeks, he’d ignored my e-mails from New York asking if I could see him, until the morning I was flying off, when a brief note appeared—“I love all my publishers a priori”—saying that he’d pick me up at my hotel the next morning and show me the town. He ran me through three museums in ninety minutes: it was the White Rabbit tour. When we finally sat down and I could have a beer, I tried to talk to him about his own books, which turned out to be a dreadful idea. We only started enjoying ourselves when he told me that his favorite English-language author is Muriel Spark.
"Flight forward," indeed. A collection of Aira’s short stories entitled "The Musical Brain and Other Stories" is due out by ND next year. Check out the title story, also published in The New Yorker in 2011.
It’s Christmas in August, is how it feels right now. First the Fancy galley comes in and now this: The Minotaur’s Daughter by Rowland Saifi. Now in the spirit of fair disclosure, I’m going to admit that I occasionally workshop/play chess/drink beers with Rowland. That being said, he’s just about the best writer I know—always trying something new; always finishing projects he starts; always funny and smart and generous and punch-you-in-the-gut powerful on the page. Rowland’s a literary lifer, which is about as good as it gets these days. The Minotaur’s Daughter is a beguiling novella, structured around the starts and stops you’d encounter in a labyrinth, and as attuned to the sounds words make as to the story’s rhythmic engagement with memory. I read it on loose sheets in the air from Houston to Chicago and hit the ground dizzied and drunk on the sentences. But let’s let the work speak for itself:
You have a second self.
But this is not unusual.
There were several moments when you felt as if you could succumb to a sort of mental collapse, from which there would be no recovery, not a glass of milk, not a hair comb, nor well-wisher could keep you from water. In those moments, when you wring your hands, pull at your face, and consider your possessions, there among the dissolution of things with a puffy face, an empty stomach, and your kidneys aching, there at the precipice, even, with childhood clothes neatly folded all around you, stuffed animals and garbage bags of books, love letters gathered and bundled, but not torn, and gently placed in a rubbish bin, standing there in the one pair of shoes you allowed yourself, stripped of all connotative gifts, unused for fear of bad spirits and yet you carried them from place to place, from episode to episode, because of the guilt they inflict upon you and the memory of when gifts arrived biannually, you stand combing your hair, feeling the tortoise-shell teeth move along your tender, sun-burned skull, and thinking about all that you have owned, or carried unused, the emptiness of the town you ruined, and thinking that despite a few good years, and a few good years after, there came a voice whispering in the second person, a voice that you are unsure is the voice of sanity, but a voice you are sure is below, promising a soft landing, coaxing you to let the wind carry you - and why not?
Out now on Spuyten Duyvil and with blurbs by Jesse Ball, Laird Hunt, and Danielle Dutton. This is what’s happening in literature. Right now, this.
(Bust of Augustus, from Meroë, Sudan, 27-25 BC)
Daniel Mendelsohn has a nice article on John Williams’s final novel, Augustus, out in August on NYRB Classics. This is the same author whose book Stoner—the quiet, sobering college novel about an aging professor—became a surprise hit last year in the UK, almost 50 years after its publication. Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus, but the novel has languished out of print for some time now. Mendelsohn’s write-up will double as the introduction to the new addition, and is a nice rendering of the author’s subtle style:
The main theme at play in all three of Williams’s mature novels is in fact rather larger: it’s the discovery that, as Stoner puts it to the mistress he must abandon for the sake of his family and his job, “we are of the world, after all.” All of Williams’s work is preoccupied by the way in which, whatever our characters or desires may be, the lives we end up with are the often unexpected products of the friction between us and the world itself—whether that world is nature or culture, the deceptively Edenic expanses of the Colorado Territory or the narrow halls of a state university, the carnage of a buffalo hunt or the proscriptions of the Roman Senate. At one point in Augustus a visitor to Rome asks Octavian’s boyhood tutor what the young leader is like, and the elderly Greek sage replies, “He will become what he will become, out of the force of his person and the accident of his fate.”
(Photo: Ugly Duckling Presse)
The Paris Review has a nice little interview with experimental author Dodie Bellamy. Active for around three decades, Dodie was part of the Bay Area’s New Narrative movement, a loose grouping of writers that tried to test the boundaries of narrative fiction with techniques that were more closely associated with poetry. On her new book, The TV Sutras, out now from Ugly Duckling Presse:
I’m compelled to take risks in my work, to write toward taboo, both content-wise and formally. This can create a lot of anxiety. To keep going I have to shut out my awareness of an audience and throw myself into my fictive world like some outsider artist perv. Think Henry Darger salivating over his nubile cut-outs. When I do that, subject matter becomes sculptural—these bits of material that I manipulate until everything makes sense in this alternate reality. Self-criticism comes in during gaps where I lose my focus, or sometimes when I’m up in front of a room giving a reading and I’m unexpectedly mortified, and there’s nothing else to do but to continue reading with an air of confidence while thinking, How could you write such sick fucking stuff?
For what it’s worth, Coach House Books put out an awesome compendium of writing associated with New Narrative, which I highly recommend if you want to see where the possibilities of fiction might lie.
The NYTimes has a great write-up of rock star cover designer Peter Mendelsund’s two new books, Cover and What We See When We Read. Without a doubt, Mendelsund has designed some of the most iconic covers of the last decade. Go to your shelf and pick out a beauty published in the last few years and chances are it’s from his hand.
To come up with a cover, Mr. Mendelsund begins by scribbling notes on a manuscript and underlining key thematic sentences. He hangs the marked-up pages above his computer. Then he begins cataloging his ideas on a piece of paper covered with 16 rectangles, filling each one with a word, phrase or tiny sketch. He picks the most promising concept and creates a draft on the computer.
Once he has a rough design in place, he will often switch to illustrating by hand, drawing with an ink brush, layering on paper collage or filling in blocky shapes with gouache, a dense watercolor. Finally, he prints out a mock cover, wraps it around a hardcover and leaves it on his bookshelf for a few days. If his eye is spontaneously drawn to it a day or two later, he considers his direction on the right track. If the cover disappears into the background, he knows something is missing.
And of course, plug time: come out to Peter’s release party, next Tuesday, August 5 at 7pm here at the powerHouse Arena. I’m trying not to use our Tumblr as a promo platform so when I break the rule you can tell it’ll be great. Seriously, just look at these new Kafka covers. COME ON!