James Wood on Atheism & Atheists

At the end of an interview in Slate, the critic James wood said something that resonated with my own experience:

I’m always amazed anew that there are quite so many atheists in this country, and that they are quite so completely fanatical. That is to say, if you are unwise enough, as I have been, to write a sort of plague on both their houses type of piece, in which you are mildly critical of certain elements of the new atheism as well as being fairly obviously critical of religiosity, you get no quarter from the atheistic camp. That always sort of surprises me. There really is no space for any—I won’t say middle position because it isn’t a middle position. I’m a nonbeliever. But that there is no tolerance for the remotest whisper of rational discourse about the fact of religious practice, about the existence of religious practice, is dismaying to me.


Herman Wouk’s WW2 Novels

I read Winds of War & War and Remembrance three decades ago on the recommendation of my friend & colleague Stanley Hodson. They struck me as good history and good fiction at the time, and I’ve recently listened to the audiobook versions of the novels narrated by Kevin Pariseau–all 102 hours. I still find them so. Does anyone ever compare these novels to War and Peace? Both are panoramic narratives of families & individuals caught up in the tidal forces of historical events, yet I have the sense that Wouk’s books are commonly thought of as “popular” (as opposed to “literary”) fiction. Is this the case? If so, why? I can’t read Russian, so I cannot evaluate the beauties of Tolstoy’s prose, but the translation I’m familiar with, by Anthony Briggs, doesn’t seem qualitatively superior to Wouk’s prose in his pair of novels.

I was particularly impressed, this time through the narrative, with the dialogic inclusion of excerpts from a (fictional) memoir by a fictional German general, Armin von Roon, imprisoned after the war for war crimes, “translated” after his own retirement from the Navy by the novels’ main character Victor Henry, who occasionally responds to von Roon’s interpretation of events in “translator’s notes.” The excruciatingly drawn out tragedy of errors that takes Natalie Jastrow Henry & her uncle, a popular Jewish historian of Christianity, from the Italian hill town of Sienna to Auschwitz functions as a kind of danse macabre in counterpoint to the heroic struggles of the Allies against the Axis.

A Little Barb

The NY Times Book Review runs these fluffy little highly edited interviews with writers (and celebrities pretending to be writers) every week. The questions are always the same, or almost the same & the whole thing is actually kind of tiresome, but I’m a sucker for writer interviews & occasionally one finds gold in a worked-out claim. That is the case this week with Ursula K. Le Guin. Asked what general she particularly enjoys reading and which she avoids, she responds:

I read mostly novels, any kind of novels, and poetry, and all kinds of nonfiction, especially some kinds of science, biographies, some history, and books about and by Native Americans, and Tierra del Fuego, and Darwinian adaptation — oh, give me a book and if it’s interesting, I’ll read it. Avoidance? At the moment, I tend to avoid fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people written in the present tense. This makes it hard to find a new novel, sometimes.

I love that response, especially the way she slips in the shiv in the last sentence. I read (& re-read) a lot of Le Guin earlier this year: though it’s mostly a matter of my own taste, I think she’s best when she’s writing what I think of as “evolutionary science fiction.” 1 She tends to leave me cold when she moves over into fantasy & the supernatural.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The Dispossessed, Rocannon’s World, The Word for World is Forrest, etc.

A Perfect Novel?

I have just finished reading John Williams’ Stoner. It’s one of those books I’ve been vaguely aware of for many years without feeling compelled to read it, but I came across a copy the other day, picked it up & was drawn very quickly into the precision of its language & perfection of its portrayals of stymied disappointment.

Tim Greider’s 2013 New Yorker essay on the novel begins:

In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.

I am, then, a belated member, apparently, of the “bookish cognoscenti,” but a grateful one, for this is the closest thing to a perfect novel that I have read: in addition to the qualities mentioned above, the construction of the story–through the use of point of view & especially through the subtle presentation of the movement of time & consciousness–never once falters. Morris Dickstein’s 2007 NY Times essay begins:

Since academic novels usually focus on the nasty rivalries and inflated egos of their characters, they have served as vehicles for broad satire, not serious themes. One great exception is Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, “The Professor’s House.” Cather used the traditional calling of a scholar and the atrophy of his marriage to convey her own growing alienation from the modern world. Her novel has only one successor, another book that invokes the life of learning as a rebuke to the wasteful wars and cheap compromises of the wider world. John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

All true. The point of view of the novel is easy to describe, but its effects difficult to convey. Written in the third-person, the narrator’s omniscience is limited to the title character’s consciousness; the framing is also retrospective & elegiac–the reader knows that the story is being told after Stoner’s death. And at maybe half-a-dozen points in the novel, the narrator leaps briefly into the future before going on with the largely chronological presentation of a single life, from young manhood to a premature death. That span of time makes the various incidents of William Stoner’s life symbolic. Realistically described, the events of the novel represent the turning points in a human life and–I think this is true–in many, if not all, human lives: intellectual awakening, love & the failure of love, ambition & the failure of ambition, resignation (retirement) without despair. Life is impossible, this novel says, but must be lived honestly, which is to say heroically.

He Hasn’t Been Posting Anything: Maybe He’s Been Reading

Going into summer with a sabbatical (& trip to Hanoi) on the far side of it, I haven’t had much writing mojo, though that feels like it’s about to change. I have been reading voraciously & indiscriminately, however:

The Brothers Karamazov: One of those big 19th century novels I never got around to reading until now. Is it as great as The Idiot? Probably, but I’m still more drawn to Myshkin than to any of the three Karamazov brothers. I’ve always wanted to write a poem with the line “I am not Prince Myshkin nor was meant to be,” but have never found a context for anything so arch.

Incomplete Nature by Terrence W. Deacon: One of those big philosophical books by a scientist that confronts the big problems that science would like to pretend have been solved or don’t matter. Deacon proposes, with a great deal of detail & a series of rigorous arguments, to show how mind emerges from nature. I wish an editor had been a little more strict with the prose, but after finishing this long book I put it aside for a week, then picked it up & read through it again.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe at his most incisive & laconic. A work of genre fiction that confronts moral ambiguity as only a great work of literature can. The language is crisp & loaded with nuance. (This sounds like a book blurb because I’d have to write an entire essay to do justice to my admiration for Chandler’s novel.)

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré: Toby Bell, like all of le Carré’s good guys, is going to suffer terribly for doing the right thing, while the bastards who did the wrong thing will almost certainly find ways to slither to safety. It is le Carré’s genius to show the process by which an ordinary man (it’s almost always a man) achieves moral clarity, then to show how he will be punished for acting on that clarity.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson: Since undergraduate days I have had an equivocal relationship to Emerson (while absolutely loathing Thoreau). As an example of biography, Richardson’s volume seems a nearly perfect exemplar of the Big Bio genre, gracefully detailed but with strong narrative motion. Emerson was among the first Americans to really grapple with Cartesian dualism & while he comes down too close to Plato for me to find him convincing, he really made a run at finding how mind emerges from nature. Richardson’s portrait also frees Emerson from a lot of the Transcendentalist goo that has stuck to him over time.

Seveneves by by Neal Stephenson: I’ve only read one other Stephenson novel (Snow Crash), having given up on The Diamond Age because of the cloying cuteness of a central character & a general sense of undigested sentimentalism. Snow Crash invents a plausible near-future techtopia with characters as subtle as any in literary fiction; Seveneves also creates a believable world that makes the end of life on earth its dramatic backdrop. (Though in addition to the seven Eves & their eden, there is also a Noah’s Ark–more than one, actually. The action starts in the relatively near future, but then leaps mid-way some thousands of years into the future. Surprisingly, the plot survives this fast-forwarding. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Another space opera. The plot is pedestrian, characters flat, and the ending diffuse: as a novel, this book is a mess, but it is nevertheless compelling g as an argument for what might be called biological pluralism. Robinson argues that “life is a planetary phenomenon,” by which he means that organisms (including humans) cannot thrive–or even survive–in biospheres other than the one in which they evolved. Intersteller colonies will inevitably fail.


Buddha by Karen Armstrong

The problem with Armstrong’s little biography of Buddha is that the Buddha has no biography — that’s the whole point of being a Buddha. There are fragments of biographical material on Siddhartha Gotama, of course, & quite a lot of historical & cultural information about his place & time. That’s what Armstrong uses to write her “biography” of Buddha & though she lays this all out in her Introduction, she never really seems to understand the difference. But the more basic problems with the book are these: 1. Armstrong appears to have the sort of knowledge of Buddhism you’d get from taking a couple of undergraduate classes; 2. she has a thesis about the Axial Age that assumes a kind of religious universalism & that universalism pretty much has to erase Buddhism (& Christianity & Islam &Judaism& etc.) There is not much mention of the fact that Buddhism is the one non-theistic religious tradition to have emerged in the first century BCE. Not a very useful book for Buddhists because Armstrong doesn’t seem to “get” Buddhism & probably not very useful for non-Buddhists because the version of Buddhism presented here is filtered through the screen of a universalist ideology.