Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bad Beckett

Maybe I am (still) just in a bad mood, but I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about Lisa Dwan's Beckett Trilogy.  It got some awards in London and rave reviews here (see here and especially here).

I had to rush over to the theatre, since I was working late yet again.  Naturally, they held the theatre for a solid 15 minutes, which I thought was pretty inexcusable, especially as I don't think anyone entered during that time, though perhaps up in the balcony.  I don't think it started in earnest until 20 minutes after the hour. Then they were so, so serious, putting the entire theatre into a complete blackout for the entire show (not even the exit signs were lit).  That is generally a marker that you are taking yourself just a bit too seriously...

I agree that Not I is a bit of a tour de force where Dwan has managed to get through the speech 25% faster than anybody before her.  That may have been Beckett's intention, but I was only moderately interested in the piece the way it was presented.  And frankly that was the highlight of the show.

I hate to say it but I saw a much better production of Footfalls in Ann Arbor 25 years ago.  It wasn't a student production but it was basically an amateur production.  (Interestingly, I see that that summer (1990) they did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  I'm not quite sure why I didn't go,* since that would have been right up my alley.  I didn't see the show until I was in grad. school at Northwestern.)  I think my beef is partly with the text, which is completely obscure on why the young woman is called May in one section and Amy in the other (unless one of them (Amy?) is a daughter that grows old and becomes the old woman with a daughter named May?).  But beyond that, Dwan still had some annoying vocal ticks left over from Not I that spoiled the flow of the text for me.  I thought it was completely unnecessary.  And quite a lot of the dialog was carried by Dwan's recorded voice.  I know Beckett does this frequently, but honestly, I think there is a lot to be said for having an actual person offstage as the disembodied voice rather than working to a recording.

And this is the crux of the problem with Rockaby: 95% of the text is just a recording with Dwan sitting in the chair rocking and saying "More."  Frankly, not that impressive.  I have to admit I missed the subtle shifts in the way the text repeats and doesn't exactly repeat.  It was only in the 4th go-around that I really noticed the differences.  While this is on me, there was a parody of Rockaby that totally took the piss out of it.  I saw this twice in Chicago.  The set up is almost the same where a woman in a rocking chair says "More" very weakly, and then they played Croce's "Time in a Bottle."  The entire song.  Then they did this again and again.  I think the audience made it through 5, maybe even 6 times before they started throwing crumpled up programs and such to make it stop.  Good times.

So yeah, I actually do like Beckett a lot, but this just didn't work for me for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.

Anyway, I am taking a bit of a break from work, and now I have to finish hanging up Halloween decorations.  Fortunately, we have the candy bought already and the costumes more or less ready.  The weather looks like it will cooperate, which is great.  We'll probably head out around 6:30, but we expect kids from the neighbourhood dropping by from roughly 6-8.  Happy Halloween!

* Now this is very strange, though perhaps only of interest to me.  My dusty memory bank is now recalling that I was discussing the Stoppard show with one of my professors (the professor I had for Shakespeare actually) and we were at the Beckett performance.  Was I saying something about how I was looking forward to the show, or more likely that I wanted to see it but was going to be gone that summer?  I do remember thinking how one might attempt a spectacle on two stages back to back where Hamlet was performed on one side of the stage and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the other.  The audience would choose which version to see, though might be vaguely aware in the Stoppard play about the action on the other side (maybe a one-way scrim).  Most likely the pacing is such that they couldn't be interleaved that way, but I still think it is an awesome idea (in the abstract anyway).

What is even stranger is the faint possibility that I did see the show that summer.  I might have a journal entry that would clear it up one way or the other.  Nonetheless, I don't think I saw it back then.  Many of the plays I saw back then are somewhat burned into my memory, maybe precisely because I was such a novice to theatre and everything was new.  Now that I am older and more jaded, the productions from 10-15 years ago are all fighting for room back in the long-term memory.  As I said somewhere else, I've probably seen 400 or more plays over the last 30 odd years.  Curiously, I've not seen Beckett's Happy Days yet (to bring it back around to him), though I've seen Waiting for Godot and Endgame and now Footfalls twice.  The closest Happy Days is playing is Yale Rep next April, but I'm not traveling that far to see it.  Hopefully serendipity will strike and it will be playing closer in the coming years, and I can go.

Friday, October 30, 2015


Just far too much going on these days.  Pretty much the entire team at work seems to be double and triple booked, and when I try to get to my own work, I have to resolve some other issue for someone else, then there are all these PM responsibilities, which I generally am not able to charge back to a project.  So frustrating some times.

Anyway, I just am not able to work through the night the way I used to, though I have been getting up early to get through some of the work.  Nonetheless, much suffers this way.  I actually had carved out the time yesterday in the early morning to work on Sing-for-your-supper (after I had resolved some internal motivation issues) and we had a power outage that wiped out some of the work.  It was clearly not meant to be, and I just went off to work without finishing the piece.  I am so close, but I think I'll just have to skip it this month (again) and try to have this ready for December.  There are two other things that are more pressing and simply have to get done today.  The creative writing gets bumped down again.

I do have a pretty cool picture to post, however.  I was pouring myself some diet Coke and it looked like a universe in my cup or at least a galaxy.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get the camera in time to capture it when it looked like a spiral galaxy with arms, but then it settled down to this (cropped but otherwise not Photoshopped).  So cool.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A return to the North (Harris pt. 2)

Sunday was just not a great day, or at least I had trouble getting started.  I got some work done, though not enough (probably I was spending more time blogging) and then I had to get the groceries.  In the end, I didn't leave the house until 1:05 to try to get down to the AGO by 2.  I have no idea what happened, but the TTC was just not running well at all.  I had checked the service announcements and they only said the Jones bus was going to be affected by some Danforth event, but there was no Pape bus in either direction for 15 minutes.  I was starting to panic, and by this time it was too late to ride my bike (I could have done that if I had set out to bike from the start).  Ultimately I had to walk over the bridge to the mall just to find a cab that would pick me up!

So I was not too happy.  In the end I ended up spending about as much as I would have on a ticket (I was going to a free concert at the AGO).  I made it to the concert, but it was a very close thing.  Anyway, I tried to relax and enjoy the music (mostly successfully) and read a bit more of Vladislavic's The Loss Library.

Since I was already there, I spent a bit more time looking at the Lawren Harris paintings up in Thomson Collection.  I thought these three would fit well into the exhibition that Steven Martin is curating, but they obviously have not made the trip.

Lawren Harris, Lake Superior Sketch XIII, ca. 1926

Lawren Harris, Baffin Island Mountains, ca. 1931

Lawren Harris, South Shore Bylot Island, 1931

In the course of looking up the painting details, I found this other view of Bylot Island (below).  This painting is owned by the Vancouver Art Gallery, and it was in their 2014 Harris exhibition.  I am not sure if it has been included in the new show, currently down in L.A.  I'll report back once I can verify one way or the other.

Lawren Harris, Mount Thule, Bylot Island, 1930

I had just a bit of time to kill, and I went over to the Bau-Xi Gallery.  (The painting gallery was open, but not the photography gallery, since they needed to staff the booth at the Toronto Art Expo.  I'm sort of sorry I didn't go, but honestly I just was not up for any more crowds this weekend.  Maybe next year...)

The one painting that really caught my attention was by an artist they just added to their roster, Chris Temple.  I actually found this painting really uncomfortable, as if was going to trigger agoraphobia (as far as I know I don't actually suffer from this).  I might see what else Mr. Temple is up to down the road.

Chris Temple, Park, ca. 2013-15

Then I ran next door to the Art Square Cafe and Gallery.  They had a one-man exhibition by Johny Deluna.  I thought these were quite colorful, interesting pieces.  There were a few elements that reminded me of Jim Flora, but then the way he covered most of the canvas with dots within dots reminded me just a bit of Vance Kirkland or Chris Ofili (though with Ofili you often have to get very close to the surface to see the second level of dots -- as with the picture below).

Chris Ofili, No Woman, No Cry, 1998

As it happened, Deluna was there, and I chatted very briefly with him.  He said he had never heard of Jim Flora before.  I didn't ask about Kirkland or Ofili. There were a few pieces I liked in the show, though none quite enough to actually acquire one.  This one (The Long Road Home) may have my favorite.

After this, I did go into the office for a while.  I didn't get everything I needed to get done, but I made some headway.  I do hope I am not feeling quite so behind next weekend, since I have a lot more obligations, including taking the kids out on Halloween and probably giving out candy the rest of the night.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Loss Library

I just had a chance to read The Loss Library, which is interesting, mostly for the meditations on why authors may drop certain ideas that seemed promising.  Most of these sections are often little more than an idea left in a notebook, though "The Loss Library" is basically a full-blown (though short) story and Vladislavić discusses how he had an actual story go missing when boxes of his papers were lost between Germany and South Africa.  (I can't imagine anything more horrible, though I have had a few electronic files get corrupted without a back-up.  Nonetheless, all my current creative writing is backed up in a few places.)

"The Loss Library" is basically a dream about a library that could have been invented by Borges, which is filled with all the books that authors didn't write either because they got distracted (the conclusion of Coleridge's Kubla Khan) or they went down a different path and wrote a different (and perhaps better) book, or they died early of natural or perhaps more often of unnatural causes (Némirovsky's Suite Française among countless other works) or because they frittered away their time in bars talking about the great work they were going to do (shades of Joe Gould's Secret, with the extra twist that Joseph Mitchell ended up suffering from crippling writer's block himself).  Unfortunately, I can't remember who said it, but a wise writer said not to share the titles of short stories or poems with friends, since revealing titles was more than half the pleasure of the creative process and if done prematurely, one would never get down to the hard work.  While there is a bit of an inversion, this seems very much along the lines of Audrey Niffenegger's The Night Bookmobile, which contains all the books a person actually read during their lifetime.  (Of the two, I'd rather be stuck in the Loss Library, since it would all be new to me.)

It's kind of interesting to track the literary name-dropping that Vladislavić does, mostly in "The Loss Library," but in some of the other pieces.  Most of them are authors that I recommend, and it is not too surprising to see Vladislavić placing himself in that line of experimental literature.  The ones that I noted down are: Rabelais, Lawrence Sterne, Jules Verne, Andre Breton, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, James Joyce, Borges, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthleme, Don DeLillo, Georges Perec, J.M. Coetzee, W.G. Sebald and Elias Canetti.  It's a good list.  I'm reasonably familiar with these writers, except for Canetti, whom I had not heard of.  I actually have been meaning to post on Bruno Schulz, and perhaps this will nudge me into doing so.

Given that it was only published in English translation in 2011, I assume that Vladislavić was not familiar with Krzhizhanovsky's The Letter Killers Club while he was writing these pieces. The general theme of The Letter Killers Club reminds me just a bit of "The Cold Storage Club," which is the second most interesting piece in The Loss Library.  Essentially, Vladislavić conceived of a club where the members valued books so much that they locked them away and hardly ever read them.  Obviously, this makes sense to a certain subset of collector, but for most of us that live and breath books, it is an absurd stance.

It's worth reading this book once, but this is not likely to be as enduring as The Restless Supermarket or Portrait with Keys or even Propaganda by Monuments.  On the other hand, it does have some cool collages created by Sunandini Banerjee, which are definitely worth checking out.

Collage for "The Loss Library"

One last thought before I move onto something else is that, while "Mouse Drawing" seems to be completely lost, at some point after sending The Loss Library off to the publisher, Vladislavić made an attempt to write the story of "Dr. T" and his papers.  This attempt became "The Trunks -- A Complete History," which appears in 101 Detectives.  I have to report that it is not one of the more successful pieces in the collection.  Nonetheless, Vladislavić has now gotten this off his chest and can cross it off the list and move onto something else.

Thoughts on the Library of America

While wrapping up my recent post focused on Jewish American writers, I spent a fair bit of time looking at the Library of America website.  While they have a very different focus and mission from the New York Review of Book Classics imprint, which I discussed in some detail here, I think it is a noble mission to try to keep American authors in print in a definitive edition.  However, it must be admitted that these are books for serious readers, not casual ones.  The print is pretty small and the pages are usually tissue-thin, so they should not be loaned out to high schoolers doing book reports, for example.  On the positive side, they usually have comprehensive notes.  Their editions typically don't quite reach the level of a scholarly edition from say Oxford or Cambridge, but they are very good for a serious reader who is not working on a dissertation.  I fall into that sweet spot.

Given how many of their titles are in the public domain, in some ways their biggest competition is with the free e-books from Project Gutenberg.  There's no question that I have looked at some very tempting volumes and then decided that, as much as I like holding a physical book (particularly when reading on the train), these editions aren't all that great for casual reading; also, I have basically run out of shelf space.  Thus, I passed on getting the Henry James volumes or any further Mark Twain volumes.  In addition, I have been buying books for a long, long time, and I often do have the primary contents in some other format.

If I had unlimited shelf space and money (and time), I suppose I would get all the volumes in the collection (and they actually do have a discount if you do that).  Short of that, I have pulled together a personalized list of the volumes from their catalog that interest me the most and that are most in line with what I actually do like to read.  I'll mark it with an O if I actually own the book in question, and in those cases I'll add more details on the contents (more for myself than anyone else).  I simply don't have the energy to list all the details of all the volumes in this list, and anyone interested can certainly follow up over at LOA.  It appears I own 38, perhaps 40 counting their slimmed-down one volume editions of World War II and Vietnam War reporting.  I don't think I've read the complete contents of any of these books, though I am closest with the Raymond Carver Collected Stories and the poetry of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens.

Given how long the list is, I'll just make a few somewhat random comments before I delve into it.

Sometimes timing is everything.  I have had the first volume in their Arthur Miller plays series for years, but they only had that one volume.  There was a 6 year gap until 2012 when volume 2 came out and then another 3 year wait for the third volume.  Since there was no real indication they were publishing more, I went ahead and filled the gap with other editions of these plays (though honestly Miller falls off so fast after The Archbishop's Ceiling from 1985 that I can't see buying this third volume -- maybe I'll reconsider some day).  That's basically the same story with Philip Roth's Zuckerman Bound where I've had a copy of this for ages, so see no particular reason to upgrade to the LOA edition.

In general, I am more likely to check books out of the library or to go the e-book route, so I think I probably will hold off on getting the Bernard Malamud books (even though there is a hint that they will eventually put out that third volume covering his work from the 1970s).  This is perhaps one author where I will end up getting the books from LOA but only if I find them at a bit of a discount (and I clear off a bit more shelf space).

There are a couple of significant missed opportunities.  Many (most?) reviewers feel that the selections in the Pauline Kael volume are inferior to those in For Keeps, and I am leaning towards getting that book instead.

There is a different and more serious problem with the Susan Sontag edition, where there are quite a few copy-editing mistakes.  I suspect this is an unfortunate situation where LOA trusted her son to do the editing, and he simply wasn't up to the task for some reason.  LOA has indicated that at some point they will reissue the book with corrections, but there is no particular timeline (and they may not be particularly open about it either, to avoid having to replace the copies already sold).  This is a shame, as I was all set to buy the book, but I will hold off for quite some time now to try to ensure I get the corrected version.*

While not in the same league, I think it was a missed opportunity to not try to get the rights to the Reginald Marsh line illustrations for Dos Passos's The U.S.A. Trilogy.  I have included a couple here (if you scroll way down the post).  I actually went out of my way to order an edition with the illustrations; it was totally worth it.  Given that LOA attempts to have the definitive edition of these works that, to me, would mean incorporating the illustrations, but it is more a sin of omission.  At least the copy-editing seems ok in this volume.

I have to say, I do like some of the new things they are trying, like the The Cool School anthology and the essays in Shakespeare in America, though the downside of doing more edited collections is that there is inevitably more controversy over what is and isn't included.  For instance, apparently The Cool School collection does not include a single poem or journal entry from Allen Ginsberg (estate problems?) and another reviewer bemoans the absence of Carolyn Cassady.  On the whole, however, these look like pretty solid collections.

As it happens, I wasn't even aware of either of these until yesterday, and now they are the two books I am most likely to order from LOA.  The third is Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism.  At the moment, those are probably the only 3 that I am likely to buy in the next year, though I will surely be tempted by a few others.  Down the road I will plan on getting the corrected Sontag, and I may yet waver on the Malamud and Miller books.  (I can feel the siren call already on Miller, but I'll see if I can convince the Robarts Library to pick them up, so I can actually read the plays first and decide if they are worth making space for on the shelves.)  And I want to double-check that I don't own Eudora Welty's Complete Novels, since that is one that I probably would have ordered and stashed away somewhere, the same as Flannery O'Connor is MIA somewhere in the basement.**  I will probably seriously consider getting the first of the Dawn Powell volumes as well.  Though it's not like I don't have plenty of reading to get through without it...

Without further ado, here is The List:

Henry Adams   
    History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson (1801–1809)
    History of the United States During the Administrations of Madison (1809–1817)
James Baldwin   
O   Collected Essays (Notes of a Native Son • Nobody Knows My Name • The Fire Next Time • No Name in the Street)
    Early Novels & Stories
    Later Novels
Saul Bellow   
    Novels 1944–1953
    Novels 1956–1964
    Novels 1970-1982
    Novels 1984–2000
Ambrose Bierce   
    The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
Elizabeth Bishop   
    Poems, Prose, and Letters
Paul Bowles   
O   Collected Stories and Later Writings
O   The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House
Raymond Carver   
O   Collected Stories (Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love • Cathedral)
Willa Cather   
    Early Novels and Stories
    Later Novels
    Stories, Poems, and Other Writings
Raymond Chandler   
    Later Novels and Other Writings
    Stories and Early Novels
John Cheever   
    Collected Stories and Other Writings
    Complete Novels
Kate Chopin   
    Complete Novels and Stories
Philip K. Dick   
    Four Novels of the 1960s
    Five Novels of the 1960s and 70s
O   VALIS and Later Novels (A Maze of Death • The Divine Invasion • The Transmigration of Timothy Archer)
John Dos Passos   
    Novels 1920–1925
    Travel Books and Other Writings 1916–1941
R   U.S.A.

Loren Eiseley
     Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, the Cosmos (2 volume set)

Ralph Waldo Emerson   
    Essays and Lectures
    Selected Journals 1820–1842
    Selected Journals 1841–1877
James T. Farrell   
    Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy
William Faulkner   
    Novels 1926–1929
    Novels 1930–1935
O   Novels 1936–1940 (Absalom, Absalom! • The Unvanquished • If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms) • The Hamlet)
O   Novels 1942–1954 (Go Down, Moses Intruder in the Dust Requiem for a Nun A Fable)
    Novels 1957–1962
F. Scott Fitzgerald   
O   Novels and Stories 1920–1922 (This Side of Paradise • The Beautiful and Damned • Tales of the Jazz Age)
Benjamin Franklin   
    Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings
    Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings
Robert Frost   
O   Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays
Dashiell Hammett   
    Complete Novels
    Crime Stories and Other Writings
Nathaniel Hawthorne   
    Collected Novels
O   Tales and Sketches (Twice-told Tales • Mosses from an Old Manse • Tanglewood Tales)
William Dean Howells   
    Novels 1875–1886
    Novels 1886–1888
Washington Irving   
    History, Tales and Sketches
Henry James   
    Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America
    Collected Travel Writings: The Continent
    Complete Stories 1864–1874
    Complete Stories 1874–1884
    Complete Stories 1884–1891
    Complete Stories 1892–1898
    Complete Stories 1898–1910
    Novels 1871–1880
    Novels 1881–1886
    Novels 1886–1890
    Novels 1896–1899
    Novels 1901–1902
    Novels 1903-1911
William James   
    Writings 1902–1910
Thomas Jefferson   
Sarah Orne Jewett   
    Novels and Stories
James Weldon Johnson   
Pauline Kael   
    The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael

Elmore Leonard   
    Four Novels of the 1970s
    Four Novels of the 1980s
    Four Later Novels
Aldo Leopold
    A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology

Sinclair Lewis   
    Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth
    Main Street and Babbitt
A. J. Liebling   
    The Sweet Science and Other Writings
Abraham Lincoln   
    Speeches and Writings 1832–1858
    Speeches and Writings 1859–1865
Jack London   
    Novels and Stories
Ross Macdonald   
    Four Novels of the 1950s
    Three Novels of the 1960s
    Four Later Novels
Bernard Malamud   
    Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s
    Novels and Stories of the 1960s
William Maxwell   
O   Early Novels and Stories (Bright Center of Heaven • They Came Like Swallows • The Folded Leaf • Time Will Darken It)
O   Later Novels and Stories (The Château • So Long, See You Tomorrow)
Carson McCullers   
    Complete Novels
Herman Melville   
O   Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd
    Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick
    Typee, Omoo, Mardi
H. L. Mencken   
    Prejudices: First, Second, and Third Series
O   Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series
    The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition
W. S. Merwin   
    Collected Poems 1952-1993
    Collected Poems 1996-2011
Arthur Miller   
O   Collected Plays 1944–1961
O   Collected Plays 1964–1982
    Collected Plays 1987–2004, with Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s
John Muir   
    Nature Writings
Vladimir Nabokov   
O   Novels and Memoirs 1941–1951 (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight • Bend Sinister • Speak, Memory)
O   Novels 1955–1962 (Lolita • Pnin • Pale Fire • Lolita: A Screenplay)
    Novels 1969–1974
Frank Norris   
    Novels and Essays
Flannery O'Connor   
O   Collected Works
Eugene O'Neill   
O   Complete Plays 1913–1920
O   Complete Plays 1920–1931
O   Complete Plays 1932–1943

Frederick Law Olmsted
    Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society

Thomas Paine
    Collected Writings

Francis Parkman   
O   France and England in North America: Volume One
O   France and England in North America: Volume Two
Edgar Allan Poe   
    Poetry and Tales
Katherine Anne Porter   
O   Collected Stories and Other Writings (Flowering Judas and Other Stories • Pale Horse, Pale Rider • The Leaning Tower and Other Stories)
Dawn Powell   
    Novels 1930–1942
O   Novels 1944–1962 (My Home Is Far Away • The Locusts Have No King • The Wicked Pavilion • The Golden Spur)
Philip Roth   
    Novels and Stories 1959–1962
    Novels 1967–1972
    Novels 1973–1977
    Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy & Epilogue 1979–1985
    Novels 1993-1995
    The American Trilogy 1997–2000
    Novels 2001-2007
O   Nemeses (Everyman • Indignation • The Humbling • Nemesis)
Isaac Bashevis Singer   
    Collected Stories: A Friend of Kafka to Passions
    Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer
    Collected Stories: One Night In Brazil to The Death Of Methuselah
Susan Sontag   
    Essays of the 1960s & 70s
Gertrude Stein   
    Writings 1903–1932
    Writings 1932–1946
John Steinbeck   
O   Novels and Stories 1932–1937 (The Pastures of Heaven • To a God Unknown • Tortilla Flat • In Dubious Battle • Of Mice and Men)
O   The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936–1941 (The Long Valley • The Log from the Sea of Cortez • The Harvest Gypsies)
O   Novels 1942–1952 (The Moon Is Down • Cannery Row • The Pearl • East of Eden)
O   Travels with Charley and Later Novels 1947–1962 (The Wayward Bus • Burning Bright • Sweet Thursday • The Winter of Our Discontent)
Wallace Stevens   
O   Collected Poetry and Prose
Henry David Thoreau   
O   A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod
    Collected Essays and Poems
James Thurber   
    Writings and Drawings
Alexis de Tocqueville   
    Democracy in America
Barbara W. Tuchman   
    The Guns of August, The Proud Tower
Mark Twain   
    Mississippi Writings
    Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890
    Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910
    Historical Romances
    The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It
    A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels
O   The Gilded Age and Later Novels (The American Claimant • Tom Sawyer Abroad • Tom Sawyer, Detective • No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger)
John Updike   
    Collected Early Stories
    Collected Later Stories
Kurt Vonnegut   
O   Novels & Stories 1950–1962 (Player Piano • The Sirens of Titan • Mother Night)
O   Novels & Stories 1963–1973 (Cat’s Cradle • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater • Slaughterhouse-Five • Breakfast of Champions)
O   Novels 1976–1985 (Slapstick • Jailbird • Deadeye Dick • Galápagos)
O   Novels 1987–1997 (BluebeardHocus Pocus Timequake)

Eudora Welty   
O   Complete Novels (The Robber Bridegroom Delta Wedding The Ponder Heart Losing Battles The Optimist’s Daughter)
    Stories, Essays, and Memoir
Nathanael West   
    Novels and Other Writings
Edith Wharton   
    Collected Stories 1891–1910
    Collected Stories 1911–1937
    Four Novels of the 1920s
    Novellas and Other Writings
Walt Whitman   
    Poetry and Prose
Thornton Wilder   
    Collected Plays and Writings on Theater
    The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948
    The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings
Tennessee Williams   
O   Plays 1937–1955
O   Plays 1957–1980
Edmund Wilson   
    Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s
    Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s
Various Authors
    Harlem Renaissance Novels: Five Novels of the 1920s
    Harlem Renaissance Novels: Four Novels of the 1930s
O    Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism
O    The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground
O    Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
    Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology
    American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958
    American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953–1956
O   Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s
O   Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s
    Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s
    Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s
O   Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology
O   Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

* So the corrections have been made to the the Sontag volume, and they expect that the first print run will be flushed out of Amazon's system by mid January 2016 and the LOA's site by February, but if you read between the lines that means they are still knowingly selling an inferior copy to their customers.  I have to say I think that is really inexcusable, but it is what it is.  You have been warned.  Since we will be in Chicago in late March, in early March, I will order a copy of the Sontag through Amazon.  They are the most likely to accept a return if I somehow still get one of the books from the bad batch.  I'll probably consider getting Arthur Miller Plays #3 and the 2 Baldwin novel collections at that time as well.

Edit (12/22/2016): I did order the Paul Bowles 2 volume set, and I was sorely tempted by some of the Henry James's volumes, and even the first one by William Dean Howells (since it is floating around for incredibly cheap on Amazon), but I did hold off since their novels can be found for free at Project Gutenberg.  I'm wavering a bit on the Baldwin novels and haven't actually ordered them.  (It's possible I'd make more progress in actually reading the novels by checking them out individually at the library.)  I'm hoping to score the Sontag volume at some point in 2017.  So far I haven't been able to confirm that I'd end up with the corrected version.  This is one downside of not having many brick and mortar stores any longer...

** After further reflection, I will pass on Miller Plays #3 -- so many of the early plays and radio plays are just curiosities that don't really merit more than a quick read.  I found Welty's Collected Stories (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, not LOA), but I don't think I ever had anything that gathered up her novels, so I ended up getting the LOA edition of her novels.  I have not been able to put my hands on O'Connor's Complete Stories, though it is probably downstairs somewhere.  I think this is a case where there is just enough additional material (Wise Blood and her essays) that I will order the LOA volume and then donate Complete Stories whenever it turns up.  I'm much less certain about the Baldwin novel set, but it depends on what I can find it selling for in early March.  Also, while I am nowhere near as interested in the fourth Vonnegut volume, compared to the first three, I think I'll order it anyway to complete the set.

Lawren Harris

The impetus of this post is a column in the Sat. Star about Steve Martin curating an exhibit of Lawren Harris paintings, which are being loaned from Canadian museums to the Hammer Museum in LA, then will go to the Boston Fine Arts museum and then will be on view in Toronto at the AGO in 2016.  The on-line version of the column is a bit better, as it has a few more photos.

The full details are that the show has opened in L.A. and will remain there until Jan. 24.  The paintings will be in Boston from March 12–June 12, 2016.  (Interestingly, we may be in Boston at the tail end of spring break.  If it doesn't cost extra to see this exhibit, I'd go just to see how the staging/hanging works in two different locations.)  Then the exhibit comes to Toronto from July 2 – September 11, 2016, and I'll check it out a few times, I am sure.

What's somewhat interesting is that Steve Martin is only interested in one period and perhaps one aspect of one period of Harris's career, i.e. the paintings of the North.  Very early in his career, Harris was essentially a realist painter and he has some quite nice paintings of houses and city blocks.  Then during his most famous period with the Group of 7 he focused on landscapes and particularly the arctic views.  This is what Martin is honing in on, particularly where the mountains are starting to get just a bit abstracted.  (This is also the focus of the Harris paintings in the AGO and the McMichael Collection, though they have some of his earlier paintings as well.)

What I hadn't been aware of, until I saw an exhibit focused on Harris in Vancouver in 2014, was that for over half of his career, Harris painted abstracts.  He actually had apparently wanted to become part of the U.S. art world, though that didn't happen for a variety of reasons.  While I thought a few of the abstracts were interesting, his landscapes are probably his most enduring works.  This piece in Macleans discusses the two shows and hints that there will be another exhibit heavily featuring Harris at the McMichael in 2016, so I will definitely keep my eyes open for that.

Martin is probably correct that focusing on a single aspect of Harris's work is the most likely to get him attention in the States, but it is worth noting it is just one aspect of his work.

I'm sort of intrigued that I have probably seen all these paintings in their home galleries, even including the paintings from Hamilton and Saskatoon.

Lawren Harris, Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior, 1923

Lawren Harris, untitled (Mountains near Jasper), 1940

While less obstructed than the picture in the Star article, my photo from the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon has a bit too much glare.

Oddly, the painting that Martin says he saw in London, Ontario belongs to the National Gallery (in Ottawa).  I did see that particular Harris on my trip to Ottawa (though my photo is just a bit blurred), but not another one that is definitely in the Idea of North exhibit.  I am also including one non-Arctic painting that I liked a bit better.  That also might break up the monotony just a bit.

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Baffin Island II, 1931

Lawren Harris, Afternoon Sun, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1924

Well, if nothing else, that article has drawn my attention to Museum London, which I should visit one of these days.  It looks like I may have missed a decent exhibition on modernism last year (who knows perhaps that was when they had the Baffin Island painting on loan from the National Gallery).

Museum London has a few paintings by Harris, including a few that are definitely in the scope of Martin's exhibit, though I don't know if this one made the cut.

Lawren Harris, From the North Shore, Lake Superior, 1927

To round out this discussion, I really ought to return to the magnificent Harris paintings at the McMichael and the AGO.  Many of them are already featured in publications about the Group of Seven or the Thomson Collection, so I won't link to those paintings, even though a few have been borrowed for the current show.  However, Grounded Icebergs is a relatively new donation (2005) to the AGO, and I don't believe they have decided how to integrate it into the collection.  It was one of the few standout pieces in their recent landscape show.

Lawren Harris, Grounded Icebergs, ca. 1931

I'm not sure there is much more to say.*  Here, as in so many of these other northern landscapes, Harris is tapping into the sublime, austere north in these paintings, and the most appropriate response is appreciation and awe.  If you have a chance to catch these paintings in person in L.A. or Boston (or obviously Toronto), then it is certainly worth a look.

* Of course, there is always more to say.  I actually was just at the AGO and will go ahead and post a few more Harris paintings in a separate post.  I also recommend scrolling about 1/3 down this post to see Douglas Coupland's ultra-abstract take on Lawren Harris.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Soggy weekend

Unfortunately, the rain that was supposed to hold off until the mid to late afternoon moved in a little faster than we had hoped.

I had managed to bike up to the library and back by 10 (just arriving back at the same time as my wife and daughter, back from the orthodontist).  I then had to run over to help out at the Hoot and Howl fund-raiser.  I was already a bit miffed, as I had been shifted back onto the bouncy slide.  I found it kind of stressful keeping kids (and parents) in line last year, and I didn't really want to do it again.  While people are generally pretty pleasant and rule-abiding, there is still quite a bit of confusion when there are lots of kids scrambling up the ladder and then there are always a few little ones that won't want to come down.  Fortunately, the two high school girls could go up if necessary and retrieve the children who were stuck (usually more psychologically than physically).  I was glad that for whatever reason the slightly older kids (11-14) were not lining up, as the real problems come when you start mixing big and small kids.

On the whole, it wasn't quite as difficult as last year, but then it started to rain and the slide got quite damp and then just too wet.  We closed down the slide and I sent the high school girls in, but then I had to stick around to tell people the slide was closed.  That was close to an hour.  Just as my shift ended, the rain stopped and they were trying to dry off the slide and reopen it, but I don't really think the rain was going to hold off for very long.

Fortunately, most of the events were inside, though that meant it was incredibly crowded in the hallways.  I didn't see the samosas for sale, but I did pick up a pumpkin square that was pretty good.  I saw that they had a whole table of books for grown-ups at the book sale (so I could have donated my books after all), and there were a few that I already owned.  I did see Quarrington's Whale Music was there, and I could have picked that up for a loonie, but I am no longer in the habit of picking up spare copies of books to give to friends or co-workers.  I only got one book -- Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure for Death by Lightning.  This appears to be a book I would probably like, not love, so I'll stick it on the TBRD pile not far from Whale Music.

After this, I needed a break from little children so I came home and took a nap. I decided it was best to take it easy. Hopefully, I won't get sick from standing around in the rain. I am also going to skip Toronto's Art Expo, since I just don't feel like dealing with crowds this weekend. I didn't get a lot done today, but I'm in a better mood than I was a few hours ago.  I'll see about doing a bit of work tonight and perhaps finally getting around to watching 8 1/2.  

I'm hopefully that the rain will have rained itself out tonight.  It's supposed to be dry tomorrow, and I will go to the AGO for a free concert, as well as drop by work.  At the moment, the forecast next week is for a dry, but cold, Halloween.  I guess all in all, I would rather have it rain this Sat. rather than next Sat. while the kids are out trick-or-treating, but I would rather it not have rained on either day.  Oh well.  We have my daughter's outfit ready and are deciding what to do for my son's costume.  He may just go as some kind of ghoul, so it will mostly be face painting, with which I have some experience.

Jewish novels

I have stared at this draft topic header for a couple of weeks now, debating whether it is worth writing (or rather completing) a post on such a vast topic.*  This actually all came about in my mind over reading David Golder and The Finkler Question in quick succession, but then wanting to comment on them but placing them against the work of mainstream Jewish-American novelists.  Insane, but that is the only way my brain wants to put the material together.  It is worth noting that I come to the topic from the North American context where Jews became "white" a long time ago and one's Jewish experience is left largely up to the individual to decide on how assimilated one will be (and where Jewish intermarriage rates are very high -- to the point where quite a few Jewish advocates worry about the implications for the future where children from interfaith marriages are generally not brought up Jewish).**

Many books and theses have already been written on this, and I would merely add that I agree that the towering trio of American Jewish novelists are Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.  Of course there is always the Modernist masterpiece Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, but then late in life Henry Roth produced a quite incredible eruption -- the four volume Mercy of a Rude Stream (completed by Roth but largely published posthumously) and even another posthumous work, An American Type, that was largely the work of his editor going through thousands of pages left behind after Roth's death. (I have to admit I have not gotten around to An American Type, which apparently has at least some surface similarities to On the Road, but I did read all of Mercy of a Rude Stream.)  There is no question this later work has caused people to completely rethink Henry Roth, since he revealed that he had incestuous relations with his sister (as well as sex with his cousin) in Mercy of a Rude Stream.  To some, this ick factor has sort of spilled back and spoiled Call It Sleep for them.  I don't take it that far, but the controversy does seem destined to keep Henry Roth as more of an afterthought than part of the conversation around American Jewish novelists.

One of the more interesting coincidences is that Library of America has been issuing recent editions of the novels (and stories) of Malamud, Bellow and Philip Roth.  This will help cement their stature as "American" writers, but there are occasionally strange gaps in the coverage that may lead to some misunderstandings about the core of their work.  Philip Roth seems to be the only one that merits getting his entire oeuvre into print from LOA, though with their fourth volume of Bellow LOA comes close to covering him as well, with all the novels and novellas, but missing out on some key short stories.

With Malamud, LOA seems to stop short at the 1960s.  I think this is quite unfortunate as The Tenants is perhaps his most interesting novel, and it had its roots in the late 1960s, though it was published in 1971.  I would probably also seek out and read his short story collection Rembrandt's Hat (1974).  I am not as sure about Dubin's Lives (1979), and God's Grace (1982) sounds like late Vonnegut for better and worse.  I may get around to these some day, but it will be a long, long time before I do.  So I can understand LOA's reluctance to put out a volume of Malamud in the 1970s and 80s, but I still wish they had found a way to squeeze The Tenants into that second volume.  As it happens, I used to own quite a few of his books, but I only read a story or two from The Magic Barrel and I'm fairly sure I read The Tenants, but not The Assistant.  I eventually parted with them in one of my many moves (I sort of wish I had held onto The Magic Barrel with this trippy cover).

However, that actually puts me into the target audience to buy the two LOA volumes covering Malamud's work from the 1940s through the 60s.  While I am not all that interested in reading a baseball novel (The Natural), the rest are quite interesting, largely looking at Jewish life in the 1950s and 60s when Jews were living cheek-by-jowl with African-Americans in the less desirable neighborhoods, particularly in New York.  The Tenants is definitely in this line as well, though it also has some existential overlay where there is a Jewish writer struggling with writer's block and a Black militant author (probably modeled on Amiri Baraka) moves in.  (For another obscure novel in this same vein, it is worth seeking out The Bag by Sol Yurick, another Jewish American writer.)  By the mid 1970s, Malamud was writing more frequently about Jewish characters outside of the U.S. ghetto and sometimes featuring non-Jewish characters.

Bellow spent more of his career writing about assimilated Jews and Jews outside of Jewish enclaves, certainly relative to Malamud.  Perhaps this can be explained by his use of Chicago as a base of operations early in his career.  Jews simply are not found in great numbers in the Midwest as they are in the Northeast and California; in fact, according to this survey and Pew, Jews are more under-represented in the Midwest than even in the U.S. South.

As a reader, I have a complicated relationship with Bellow.  I've read everything except a few short stories, the novella What Kind of Day Did You Have? and his final novel Ravelstein.  I thought all of the novels had something of interest, particularly his first four (3 short and Augie March quite long), but from Herzog onwards, it really seems like Bellow was rehashing some private family business -- he was screwed over by an uncle on a business deal or something and the only way to get back at him was to put some version of this into every novel.  (This is pure supposition, but it definitely is a recurring theme.)  And of course, there are the extramarital affairs.  I believe they feature in every novel from Herzog to More Die of Heartbreak.  Maybe this was just something in the air in the 1960s through 1980s -- the natural outcome of the sexual revolution.  As affairs are common in Philip Roth's work as well (Deception being just one of many novels featuring adultery), perhaps it is something endemic to Jewish intellectuals (I kid, I kid).  It is more likely that infidelity may have been seen an endemic of suburban life, as martial affairs are quite common in John Cheever and John Irving and John Updike's work as well (just thinking of a few examples off the top of my head).

As much as I am tempted by the LOA Bellow set, I am not really that likely to reread all these novels.  I am fairly likely to reread The Adventures of Augie March and The Dean's December, my favorite two Bellow novels, and I might someday reread Herzog or Henderson the Rain King.

With Philip Roth, his early career seemed to feature Jewish families in Newark, so not too dissimilar from Malamud, though far more emphasis on the family and Roth takes a more comic look at his characters and their situations.  His later work is quite varied.  He ultimately seems more adventurous to me than Bellow.  While the Zuckerman Bound quartet (and arguably Exit Ghost ) are not so dissimilar to the realist novels that Bellow specialized in, Roth also used the Nathan Zuckerman character in other meta-fictional ways, not so differently from Dennis Potter where the line between author and character are blurred. Roth also engaged in speculative fiction (The Plot Against America), postmodern fiction that arguably cribs from Paul Auster (Operation Shylock) and experimental novels that are hard to pin down (The Great American Novel, My Life as a Man and The Counterlife).  While there is sometimes a touch of misogyny surrounding some of Roth's characters, his willingness to try different things and an embrace of experimental writing (often working off of real-world figures) make him the American Jewish novelist I have ultimately found the most interesting.  I doubt I'll ever read all of his novels (or buy any of the LOA volumes aside from Nemeses), but I do expect to read Sabbath's Theatre in the near future and reread Zuckerman Bound in the more distant future.  I haven't quite decided when I will get to his later novels, but I will try to find a way at some point.

In contrast, I have decided to completely give up on Howard Jacobson.  I find him a very insular writer, writing novels that really are not at all interesting if one is not part of the Jewish community in Britain.  In the Finkler Question, pages and pages are devoted to this idea that being Jewish is so interesting that not one, but two, goys try to make the attempt to become integrated into the Jewish community.  The book is completely obsessed with how Jews deal with criticism of Israel and how Jews themselves criticize Israel.  Finkler himself starts as a major critic of Israel, but then falls for the old canard that only Jews can criticize Israel without being racist.  While this may or may not reflect Jacobson's feelings, by this point in the novel, I was so bored that this was the tipping point.  There is also a sordid affair (which seems to have started only because a goy wanted to sleep with a Jewess as if her Jewishness would rub off on him while she was rubbing him off) and bad behavior all the way around.  I didn't like Kalooki Nights either, though I was simply bored rather than bored and exasperated and mildly offended, as I was by The Finkler Question.

What confuses me is why he is so popular in Britain, or at least why does the literary establishment keep putting him up for awards like the Man Booker Prize.  When you look at the average reader's reviews of Jacobson's work, they are pretty lukewarm (maybe slightly more positive than I am) but he is just lionized by most of the British literary establishment.  Well, there is always that navel-gazing and insularity about certain authors (in the U.S. there are innumerable, overpraised books emerging from Ivy league writing workshops), so I am not offended by this.  However, I do know that where is a reviewer that highly praises Howard Jacobson, then I am deeply out of sync with that same reviewer and I will no longer follow their advice.  I could write more, but I think I've said enough.

So I have finally circled around to Irène Némirovsky's David Golder.  Like many other readers, I was swept up in the excitement over the publication of Suite Française.  There is not much to say other than her story was one of many terrible tragedies, with the additional anguish that she knew things were turning bad but was not willing to leave their home in Paris until it was really too late.  They might have managed to get out of Occupied France in time, but it is hard to say.  I have not read any of the other recently rediscovered and/or posthumously published works.  I'm sure I will some day.  Instead I read David Golder, a novel that was published during her life and which basically made her a literary darling of her era.  Several writers have commented that David Golder reads very much like one of Dostoevsky's novels, and I can certainly see some connections with The Gambler: the obsession with money and the inability to reign oneself in, even when following a disastrous course.  (One might also say that Jewish stereotypes are present throughout Dostoevsky's and Némirovsky's work, though in David Golder she accepts the libel that Jews are always grasping for money but then explains the deep-seated need for security -- money being the only thing that can establish even provisional security for Jews, since titles and often even land could not be held by Jews in many European countries.  It worked for me, though many critics continue to argue Némirovsky is anti-semitic.)

I have to say I recognized a bit of myself in Golder -- not the obsession to make money but allowing work to upset family life and even one's health to a certain extent.  However, he is one of those people for whom working is central to his sense of self.  I can relate to that, though I don't take it that far.  It is interesting that Golder "redeems" himself in a sense by getting back in the saddle one last time, though only on behalf of his fairly spoiled daughter and not for the wife who has ridiculed him and lives openly with her lover.  I'm not really sure it was worth it.  I sort of see David Golder as Silas Marner in a fun-house mirror.  Instead of realizing that hoarding gold is a mistake and that family bonds are what matter, David's family is quite horrid and yet his "salvation" is to overlook the trouble his family has caused him and to make one last business venture to accumulate the money his daughter needs.  It's a somewhat ambiguous moral to say the least, but it actually was quite an interesting novel.  Now that I have zig-zagged all over the place (like Golder who went from continent to continent in his business dealings), I think it is finally time to put this long, long post on Jewish novels to bed (and thus get a bit more sleep myself).

* And whether I am really qualified to write on the topic.  Ultimately, I decided that I have a right to express my opinions as an occasional reader of Jewish novels but should not make any excessive claims of understanding the mindset of Jewish novelists. 

** One can argue whether this is fundamentally good or bad, but this survey suggests that intermarriage rates, particularly among Jews who were not Orthodox or Conservative Jews has jumped 10% for the most current generation of Jews who were married in 2000 or after (reaching nearly 60%), compared to Jews who married in the 1980s or early 1990s.  Prior to 1970, Jewish intermarriage rates were below 20% and the intermarriage rate was generally in the 30% range throughout the 1970s.  This tracks reasonably well with my narrative of Jews being assimilated into North American culture basically since the mid 1970s.

There are some interesting thoughts on Henry Roth versus Saul Bellow here.

‡  I'm actually quite intrigued to learn that in Exit Ghost, Roth returns to the somewhat scorned character, the writer E.I. Lonoff.  While Lonoff had long been viewed as a caricature of Malamud, Roth adds the salacious details of Henry Roth's life, making him a composite of Malamud and Henry Roth.

On a different note, it's actually kind of interesting how Zuckerman is sometimes a main character, as in Zuckerman Bound and Exit Ghost, but sometimes he is simply a framing device (I Married a Communist or The Human Stain).  Sometimes he apparently falls somewhere in between, which is my take on The Counterlife and American Pastoral.  In American Pastoral, Zuckerman pieces together a story from fragments left behind after Swede Levov's death.  This reminds me a bit of Jack Fuller's The Best of Jackson Payne with just a dash of Jon Baitz's Other Desert Cities.  I wouldn't say I am jumping at the chance to read either of these narrated-by-Zuckerman novels, but I may some day.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

When less is more (Machado de Assis)

We get so used to hearing (in advertisements for example) that more is always better that we sometimes forget the original (and probably more accurate) proposition that less is more.  It often is better to be left wanting more than to be so gorged that the charm of whatever we were reading or watching is lost.  While I often think that the BBC television series are too short at 6 shows per season, having to come up with 13 or more shows in a US series overtaxes the writers and makes it far more likely that the show will jump the shark by the third or fourth season.

This is definitely a lesson I need to absorb as I try to translate some of my visions to the stage.  I have a tendency to write dialogue that isn't strictly necessary to advance the plot.  A bit early on is ok, as it is establishing setting and character, but in the later parts of the play this just pads things out.  Certainly I agree with Chris Jones of the Tribune that most plays could be improved by trimming out 15-20 minutes. (While I still wish I had managed to see it, it sounds like The Iceman Cometh is absurdly long and needs much editing.)  So I will have to apply a scalpel to my own work as I edit it.

It is a little harder to tell about novels, since in some cases the plots really do require a long time to advance them, though personally I prefer novels to stay below the 300 page limit.

Sometimes even 300 pages can seem too long.  I have been reading a fair bit of Machado de Assis lately, and I find even his short novels have a tendency to drag for me.  I suppose this is 1) because so little actually happens in them and 2) he keeps expressing the philosophy that nothing we do on earth really matters since we are all destined for the grave (and many of us will go mad along the way).  I have some respect for such a bleak view, but it does get boring in large doses.  This is actually a shame, since there was a quite interesting section towards the end of Philosopher or Dog? where we shows a bit of a kaleidoscopic view of society where almost everyone is wrapped up in their own issues and only a few have the inclination to help out the main character, even though he had given them a hand up early on in their careers.  It is a bit of an embarrassment to be reminded that they should be grateful, so there is a bit of a relief when the madman is finally put away.

While the language is generally quite refined and genteel, de Assis has an incredibly jaded view of humans in general and Brazilian society specifically.  Most of the characters in his novels are quite aware of how useless they are (politicians or, worse, aspiring politicians) with only a very few of them doing anything remotely productive, such as serving as a lawyer, a newspaper editor or a bureaucrat who actually does work (this puts this character in the same company as Alexander Herzen as opposed to the idle office holders in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina).  Indeed, this productive bureaucrat is a complete workaholic and seems to miss the books in his study more than his wife when he goes off on a tour of Europe.  (It wasn't clear, but I imagine he managed to convert this over to a busman's holiday where he would meet some bankers in England and so forth.)  While one could certainly say that, in the long run, very little than anyone does makes any difference (Bogie's "hill of beans"), that seems a cop out of a different sort.  I am much more inclined to believe (along with the main character of Kurosawa's Ikiru) that work, even government work, can have a meaningful and positive impact on society.  Sure, that playground that Watanabe built will crumble someday and all the kids that swung on the swings will be dead -- and at some point solar flares from the sun will evaporate all life on Earth -- but is that a reason to give up the struggle? 

I say no.  So in that sense, I am somewhat out of sync with de Assis in the first place.  In the second place, since this is all he has to say (along with way too much detail about the failed love affairs of his main characters), I think all of his books and even the Alienist would have been better off at about half their length.

That said, in small doses and well-spaced out, he can be an enjoyable read.  I would certainly start with the short stories, which often are a bit more upbeat.  A Collection of Hats is a good collection, as is the edition of The Alienist (from Hackett) that also includes 7 short stories.

Here are his major works:
R 1881 – Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, also known as Epitaph of a Small Winner)
R 1881 – O Alienista (The Alienist)
R 1891 – Quincas Borba (also known in English as Philosopher or Dog?)
    1899 – Dom Casmurro
    1904 – Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob)
R 1908 – Memorial de Aires (Counselor Aires's Memoirs, also known as The Wager)

From this list, I would definitely start with Epitaph of a Small Winner, as it is his best (and certainly best-known) novel.  This one does seem to draw a bit upon Sterne's Tristram Shandy, whereas Quincas Borba seems to draw more upon Don Quixote, though it is an ironical inversion of Don Quixote where the main character travels relatively little and does very little aside from pressing himself insistently upon a friend's wife and trying to steal away her honor.

The Alienist is worth reading.  The others all have moments, but do seem too long in my view.  I don't expect to change my views after reading the remaining two novels (Dom Casmurro and Esau and Jacob), but I'll update this post if my views do shift.  As should be clear from this post, I'll be taking a bit of a break from Machado de Assis for the time being.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Election Update

I was up waaaay too late watching the election returns.  (It's so tempting to call in sick...)  I always get more than a little nervous how the media calls elections, or really individual races with fewer than half of the polling stations in.  Nonetheless, the called results seemed to be accurate, and the Liberals pulled off an incredible victory.  I don't think anyone, even the Liberals, truly thought they would win a majority.  I actually think it would have been better had the Liberals won 160 seats and needed some help from the NDP.  I think getting electoral reform would have been easier in that scenario.  But hopefully Trudeau will live up to his promises to do some kind of electoral reform.  I also hope he will be gracious in victory to Elizabeth May (they seem to get along pretty well) and the NDP.  (However, I am not sure how long Mulcair will stick around as party leader.)

There is a short story in Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town that seems quite relevant.  In the story, pretty much all the voters in the small town wait until it is clear who is going to win an election and then they all rush in to vote, so as to be on the winning side.  I think there was definitely some of that here.  There were a significant number of undecided voters who were ABC (Anybody But Conservatives) and they were petrified on the vote splitting issue.  When the last two or three respectable polls showed that the Liberals were consistently outperforming the NDP, they went Liberal en masse.  So Trudeau definitely picked up a lot of voters who would normally be NDP.  And yet, even with this push and the huge win (gaining over 100 seats for 184!) the Liberals still collectively got just under 40% of the vote.  This is a pretty shameful outcome of FPTP elections in a multi-party system.  I could write a lot more about the difficulty of getting truly fair electoral system (look up Kenneth Arrow and his impossibility theorem for details), but this is definitely an electoral system that needs to be improved.  Whether Trudeau will follow through with this, or any number of other promises remains to be seen.  I'll be thinking positive for the time being.

While I don't really have a lot of time, I had the strangest dream last night.  I had been elected as a representative (perhaps even as a MPP), which I thought was odd, given that I didn't remember taking the Canadian citizenship oath!  Anyway, all the MPPs stayed in this large house in Ottawa, a lot like a frat.  After a reshuffling (or another election, it wasn't clear which), I was going to be moved up into the room with the more important leaders.  Unfortunately, this was a particularly crowded room, mostly filled with bunk beds whereas I had been in a slightly more open room before.  (Looking over the huge number of folks Harper had stuffed in his cabinet, I guess this is relatively true to life!)  What made this particularly challenging was that I had the kids with me, so I was going to have to negotiate to get an entire bunk bed to myself.  I agreed to take on some tedious task, like typing up all the bylaws, to get enough "credit" to make a play for enough space for the family.  This actually has some comic potential, so I'll have to decide if I want to actually write a sketch along these lines.  And with that, I really do have to get going.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Restless Supermarket

It is somewhat rare to encounter a book where the title just does not give you any indication of what is actually inside.  Ivan Vladislavić's The Restless Supermarket is a consummate case of a novel just being really hard to pin down (with the title not helping at all).  David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System is another.

Surprisingly, it has gotten relatively easy to get Vladislavić's books in North America.  It used to be quite difficult, and I actually ordered this one and a few others from a bookseller in South Africa when I was researching Johannesburg and its suburbs.  (This actually led to 2 or 3 conference papers and a chapter published in Suburbanization in Global Society, so I suppose it was all worth it.)  I will say that I like the original cover (below) a lot more than the reissued version, but otherwise I would certainly encourage people to get the newer, more convenient edition.

Should I be chagrined that I had ample opportunity to scoop all these reviews that only came out in 2014 in conjunction with the reissue (and its wider availability)?  Perhaps, but I really only started blogging seriously in 2012.  In fact, I probably only got the book in 2009, and, while I had read a few of Vladislavic's earlier books such as his short story collections and The Folly, I wasn't able to get a copy of this one in time during the period when I was reading quite a few books set in Johannesburg and its suburbs (particularly Sophiatown/Triomf and Hillbrow).  Given that The Restless Supermarket is set in Hillbrow, I almost certainly would have read it to further buttress the arguments put forth in those papers.  After the chapter was published, I moved on to other things and didn't actually read this novel until last June.

I'm having trouble keeping this post under control, since there are a few tangents I want to go off on.

I guess I will first just list the main books by this still fairly obscure writer:

R Missing Persons (1989)
R The Folly (1993)
R Propaganda by Monuments (1996)
R The Restless Supermarket (2001)
R The Exploded View (2004)
O Portrait with Keys (2006)
  Double Negative (2011)
R The Loss Library (2012)
R A Labour of Moles (2012)
R 101 Detectives (2015)

I believe everything written before 2010 has either been republished (the two short story collections Missing Persons and Propaganda by Monuments were collected as Flashback Hotel) or is still in print, which is actually quite impressive.  I'm quite surprised that the Toronto Public Library has so many, including all the books published or republished since 2010.  (I actually paused writing to go put a couple on hold.)  Vladislavić is quite well-known for engaging/indulging in post-modern writing that calls attention to its own artifice, which is fine in small doses (the short pieces in The Loss Library for example or the "Deleted Scenes" he put at the end of 101 Detectives) but gets kind of wearying over long stretches (say David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which I kind of doubt I will ever tackle).  While the tone is quite different, I do see Vladislavić as a bit of a kindred spirit to Robert Walser.  The other thing that Vladislavić is well-known for is merging pictures and writing and sometimes writing fictions about the images (or even the artist!), which he did in Double Negative, as well as part of 101 Detectives.  This playfulness and blurring of art and narrative reminds me a bit of Audrey Niffenegger, when she is in art student mode and not trying to write thrillers.

While I found something of interest in all of his books I have read to date, my favourites were Propaganda by Monuments and The Restless Supermarket.  The reviews I saw of The Restless Supermarket seem uniformly positive.  I'll link to a few, though warn you that there might be some spoilers embedded within: here and here and here.

Now I'll circle back to some history regarding Hillbrow.  It's actually unclear whether Hillbrow was technically a suburb or simply a very well-defined district within Johannesburg, since it was described variously, even in government publications.  I usually went with the second definition.  Today, this is a moot point, as the boundaries of Johannesburg expanded dramatically in 2002 with all the neighbouring suburbs becoming part of the central city.

Curiously, Hillbrow had quite a number of multi-story residential units, as well as Hillbrow Tower, a radio tower that is still one of the tallest structures in all of Johannesburg, and indeed all of Africa.

While at one point, Hillbrow was quite a chic place to live, in the mid to late 80s, many whites had started moving to the northern suburbs such as Sandton and Randburg, leaving landlords desperate to fill their buildings.  They turned Hillbrow into one of the first "grey areas" where Asian and coloured, i.e. mixed race, tenants were able to live (illegally) in areas reserved for whites.  (At this point, they still were not renting to Blacks, as that would have been too much for the authorities.)  Some scholars actually contend that the growth of these grey areas made evident the internal contradictions of Apartheid and somewhat accelerated the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

What is not contested is that after the ANC came to power, whites fled Hillbrow and migrated north.  This was repeated in most neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, though it wasn't quite as extreme as it was in Hillbrow.  Many of these multi-story buildings became the equivalent of run-down public housing projects, as seen in so many of America's inner cities.  Maintenance was deferred, and the elevators broke down.  Dealing with drugs and crime, as well as the spectre of AIDS, become a recurring theme in fiction about Hillbrow, such as Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow and Kgebetli Moele's Room 207.

Presumably some parts of Hillbrow are better/safer than others, and Aubrey Tearle, the protagonist of The Restless Supermarket, seems to be living in a relatively stable area, though becoming the victim of violent crime is always a looming possibility.  While in some ways, Tearle is a bit of an outsider, observing from a somewhat elevated, remote position (despite his quite humble economic status as a pensioner/retiree), at heart he is a racist, openly longing for the certainties and relative security of the Apartheid era.  It would be one thing if he simply wanted to return to the time when the streets were clean and there was less crime, but no, he clearly wishes to return to a whites-only policy at Café Europa, the restaurant he frequents on a near daily basis, and he has a few unpleasant things to say about Madiba (Nelson Mandela).  This last is a bit too much even for his friends at the restaurant, and they warn him to keep himself in check.

In the early goings of the novel, I had hoped that Tearle would be a bit like Charles Reznikoff, a poet who observed the racial turmoil of New York in the 1960s and 70s and wrote spare, powerful poems about the city (not all were focused on race).  However, Reznikoff wrote from the position of being Jewish, another minority in America, though certainly one more privileged than Blacks or Puerto Ricans.  So he was far more sensitive to their struggles, and wasn't trying to keep them "in their place," which is Tearle's main goal.  Actually, the opening scene is quite strange with Tearle coming across a drunken man trying to bugger the pink plastic elephant, which is like a mascot for the Jumbo Liquor Store.  His slightly more sober companion tries to stop him, and, in the confusion, another wino comes over to mount the elephant.  One of the elephant's ears breaks off and the three end up sprawled on the sidewalk.  Later on, Tearle recovers this ear and returns it to the store.  So this sets up expectations of the novel being largely about strange goings on in Hillbrow, so not so different from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, though observed through the unsympathetic eyes of a white man.  However, this novel ends up being far different from that.  It is a much more interior novel with a narrator who is largely stuck in the past.  But the author takes many opportunities to undercut his main character, most notably in the playfulness of the language.

I'm not sure it is really possible to SPOIL the plot of this novel, but just in case, I will soon be talking about the events towards the end of the book, so

SPOILER alert...

Through various hints, Vladislavić makes it clear that he does not agree with his main character or share his racist views.  He is writing him more as an Archie Bunker kind of character, though it is a bit unusual that Tearle is one of the better educated characters in the novel, but is definitely more racist than many of the other patrons of Café Europa, most of whom he looks down upon at least a little bit.  I am not entirely sure why Tearle is so explicitly racist, other than he was a proofreader and is obsessed with order, and the fact that one could explicitly carve up a city and place some races in some districts and others in other areas must have been incredibly appealing.  There is actually an extended metafictional section at the heart of The Restless Supermarket ("The Proofreader's Derby") where the plot is such that proofreaders and editors are the only people who can reorder the city and put things to right once various landmarks start moving around.  In fact, the first sign of the instability of the city is when a supermarket goes missing, which explains the title in a very roundabout way.  Actually, the cover is also quite apropos, since it shows a discarded phone book, and for most of his career, Tearle was a proofreader of phone books (who knew there was such a position?) though he longed to be a proofreader of dictionaries.

Given his general fastidiousness and somewhat uptight nature, it sounds like he would be an ideal volunteer Wikipedia editor.  He even writes letters to the editor all the time, so he sounds like he would fit right in with today's on-line culture, so filled with pedants and cranks.  While Tearle was somewhat frustrated at work as well as romantically (like quite a few of Machado de Assis's characters), his vision seems so crabbed.  All he really wanted was to move up to dictionaries...  It reminds me quite a bit of the Monty Python Vocational Guidance Counsellor sketch where Michael Palin starts off wanted to be a lion tamer, then a banker and then finally settles on remaining a chartered accountant.  There's a strong likelihood had that Tearle would still have been at least somewhat racist even had he started an autumnal romance with one of the women that joined them at Table 2 at the Café Europa.

In the extended first section of the novel, Tearle keeps flipping back and forth from the "degraded present" to an earlier era where there were four core friends at Table 2 (Tearle, Spilikin (another crossword puzzle addict) and two women: Merle and Mevrouw, a piano player employed by the Café Europa) and the Café Europa was still a classy joint with a piano player and not the jukebox that eventually replaced Mevrouw.  The group has scattered with only Tearle still a frequent visitor to the café, more than a little disgruntled at his new companion Wessels, who is a pun-lover (horror of horrors).  In the past, Tearle ended up confessing his desire to put together a text he calls The Proofreader's Derby, which would be composed of all kinds of errors drawn from newspapers and books where there is a misspelling that changes the sense of the text but slips through since the incorrect word is still spelled correctly.  Spilikin basically mocks him a bit for this, and this is one of several events that starts splintering the group.

The plot, such as it is, is that Tearle finds out that the new owner of the Café Europa is going to close it down and remake it into something else, probably a bar.  So Wessels decides to throw a huge bash and invite back all of the old crowd, and Tearle mostly goes along for the ride.  However, he decides that now he is retired, he will finally finish The Proofreader's Derby.

The entire text of this Proofreader's Derby is the second section, and it is quite odd.  Basically it is the story of how proofreaders and editors save the city, as I mentioned above.  (In a bit of extra meta-textuality, the powers that be actually set up a contest for readers to copyedit this text when The Restless Supermarket was reissued.)

The final section of the novel goes into the party and how everything goes awry.  I'm not sure it was directly inspired by the crazy nightclub scene towards the end of Tati's Playtime, but it has that same sort of manic energy, but with a bit more edge.  Tearle really does not like interacting with all the Black customers at the party and inadvertently gets into a scuffle with a few of them at the pool table.

At some point or other, one of the friends at his table has a serious talk with Tearle and basically says that they only tolerated him and his racist views but they never shared them.  In fact, they were never nearly as close friends as he was remembering. They basically indicate he has to find a way to open up to the new South Africa or he will never survive.  I'm actually having a bit of trouble remembering the exact sequence of events, but I think Tearle somehow ends up getting brown make-up on his face, goes outside (possibly a bit buzzed from more alcohol than he is used to), gets mugged and then is rescued by one of the younger Black women that had started hanging out at the Café Europa.  But I have probably scrambled this a bit.  Vladislavić has so much going on in this part of the book that I was a bit overwhelmed.  This final turn reminds me of Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where after all this manic energy leads to one character having a bit of a breakthrough and may become a more agreeable person after all is said and done.  I was also strongly reminded of Robert Coover's Pinocchio in Venice, where a respected professor loses his uptight identity as the long, long night goes on.

I'm not sure if I've made the novel sound appealing or appalling, given that it is about a fairly racist former proofreader shuffling about Johannesburg wishing for a return of the Apartheid era.  But this is definitely one of these novels where the plot is secondary (and you aren't expected to root for the protagonist).  Above all this is a novel about language.  While the wordplay never quite rises to say Nabokov's level, it is inventive throughout.  However, be warned that if you can't stand puns, this is probably a book to avoid -- better just leave it covered up...

Edit (10/25): I just had a chance to read The Loss Library, which basically completes my run through Vladislavić's work, though I will get to Portrait with Keys reasonably soon and some day I will most likely read Double Negative.  I added quite a bit of text, but it really merits a separate post.