Small Demon
Aug 052012
 

Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in  the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

 Posted by at 12:16 am
May 202012
 

Just finished reading Katharine Haake’s formally adventurous post-industrial dystopian nightmare, The Time of Quarantine. It’s a genre I’m attracted to, both as reader & teacher — I’ve taught Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Butler’s Parable of the Sower many times, finding them particularly effective with my first year students at Clarkson. I bought Haake’s book with these ideas in mind, but was quickly disabused of the notion that I could use this book with first-year students: the language & especially the shifting point of view & non-sequential presentation of events would throw them for a loop. It takes training to read this sort of fiction!

Imagine a novel set entirely inside Second Life. All of the characters are avatars, in the sense we now use the word, of actual people who also populate the novel, though the avatars are more “real” than the human beings they represent. That’s how The Time of Quarantine feels & it has interesting & troubling consequences that affect narrative technique & what I suppose I’d have to call fictional ontology. I found it difficult to track the shifts between flesh & blood & avatars, which I think is the point: in the world of the novel the cyberworld has begun to engulf the physical world. Under such circumstances, human agency beaks down & the characters behave like half-conscious puppets.

There are four central characters, Peter, Lyda, Helen, & Will. All but Will (get it?) have implants in their brains that connect them into the network, though how the internet is stiff functioning at a time when virtually all the rest of the world & its institutions have have gone kerflooey stretches plausibility. Peter is the puppetmaster. Removed by his neurologist father to an Intentional Community (IC) during the time of quarantine, he watches everyone in his small community die off of a plague he has himself brought in from the outside. After that, he is “raised by computers” that have been programmed by his father to entertain & deceive him. Not sure why. And that’s the big problem here: it is very difficult to track any of the characters’ motives for doing what they do, to the extent that they act on their own at all, for it is Peter, ultimately, from his defunct quarantine community, who goes out onto the net, finds, Lyda, Helen & Will & draws them to himself. They will start over. It’s not exactly Eden, but that’s where the story ends. Peter insists that they must remain in this eden of his making of their own free will, but how can that be, since he has lured them there & made it impossible for them to leave. Peter’s solipsism is quite monstrous.

The tone of these comments belies a good deal of exasperation, I know. Haake often writes beautifully, but so much of this story is spent inside the characters’ heads — actual events almost always being remembered or dreamed — that the narrative develops virtually no forward momentum. I’m not demanding a page-turner; I can appreciate modernist fiction; but the gravitational force of interiority ultimately causes this fiction to collapse in upon itself.

 

 Posted by at 12:26 pm
Mar 202012
 

The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative – NYTimes.com. Sentences are hot right now. The writer’s Chronicle had a terrible essay, Stanley Fish wrote an okay book, but this series of articles looks promising. I’m always trying to get my students to pay attention to sentences, but they mostly take them for granted, just the plastic cup that holds the beer.

 Posted by at 1:51 pm
Mar 162012
 

Just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Kindle Single short story, “Starved for You” & while I am a great admirer of her work, I have to say Atwood seems to be coasting here, or that it is the first chapter of something longer that didn’t pan out. It certainly ends as if there could & probably should be something more. But beyond that relatively superficial level of plot mechanics, the fictional world seems a little thin here. One might compare it, for instance, with the opening chapter of Oryx & Crake, where Atwood is writing at the very top of her form, to see what second-level Atwood looks like. The writing in this story remains graceful & stylish, but the imagination falters.

The story is set in a near-future dystopia in which prison communities run by a corporation  have been developed in which citizens spend half their time living as prisoners and the other half as “prisoner-civilians” in the gated community that surrounds the prison. For the residents, once you sign up it’s a lifetime commitment. One month as a prisoner, one month as a civilian tending the prison & surrounding town — for the rest of your life. As in Oryx & Crake, life outside the confines of the corporate community has degenerated into a nasty amalgam of poverty, criminality, and disease. People go into the Conciliance (for so the town is called) program because it offers them security, though at the cost of their freedom. Instead, they are given a simulacrum of freedom.

Predictably, for some characters the simulacrum proves insufficiently stimulating & it is from that dissatisfaction that Atwood fashions her plot, which revolves around unapproved sexual desire. But the characters, particularly Max, are cartoons. (Ah, it just occurred to me writing that last sentence, this would have made a good graphic novella.) In an interesting twist, one of the characters whose sex drive seems to be trying to compensate for her loss of freedom, has the job of euthanizing prisoners who cannot be reformed. It is a job she takes seriously & performs responsibly, feeling no conscious remorse. No sense of guilt or complicity clouds her idealism in performing this task & the scene in which we see her at work is deeply creepy, certainly the strongest in the story. Would that the sex scenes rose to this level. Perhaps if this story gets developed into something more, that will happen. The final scene of the story certainly suggests kinky possibilities.

Mar 022012
 

I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.

In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

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 Posted by at 8:18 pm