Category: Review

W. G. Sebald, Humorist

James Wood writing for the New Yorker
WG Sebald from the New Yorker

In the New Yorker, James Wood explores the eccentric sense of playfulness in W. G. Sebald’s writing.

I met W. G. Sebald almost twenty years ago, in New York City, when I interviewed him onstage for the PEN American Center. Afterward, we had dinner. It was July, 1997; he was fifty-three. The brief blaze of his international celebrity had been lit a year before, by the publication in English of his mysterious, wayward book “The Emigrants.” In a review, Susan Sontag (who curated the penseries) had forcefully anointed the German writer as a contemporary master.

Not that Sebald seemed to care about that. He was gentle, academic, intensely tactful. His hair was gray, his almost white mustache like frozen water. He resembled photographs of a pensive Walter Benjamin. There was an atmosphere of drifting melancholy about him that, as in his prose, he made almost comic by sly self-consciousness. I remember standing with him in the foyer of the restaurant, where there was some kind of ornamental arrangement that involved leaves floating in a tank. Sebald thought they were elm leaves, which prompted a characteristic reverie. In England, he said, the elms had all but disappeared, ravaged first by Dutch elm disease, and then by the great storm of 1987. All gone, all gone, he murmured. Since I had not read “The Rings of Saturn” (published in German in 1995 but not translated into English until 1998), I didn’t know that he was almost quoting a passage from his own work, where, beautifully, he describes the trees, uprooted after the hurricane, lying on the ground “as if in a swoon.” Still, I was amused even then by how very Sebaldian he sounded, encouraged thus by a glitter in his eyes, and by a slightly sardonic fatigue in his voice.

During dinner, he returned sometimes to that mode, always with a delicate sense of comic timing. Someone at the table asked him if, given the enormous success of his writing, he might be interested in leaving England for a while and working elsewhere. (Sebald taught for more than thirty years, until his death, in 2001, in Norwich, at the University of East Anglia.) Why not New York, for instance? The metropolis was at his feet. How about an easy and well-paid semester at Columbia? It was part question, part flattery. Through round spectacles, Sebald pityingly regarded his interlocutor, and replied with naïve sincerity: “No, I don’t think so.” He added that he was too attached to the old Norfolk rectory he and his family had lived in for years. I asked him what else he liked about England. The English sense of humor, he said. Had I ever seen, he asked, any German comedy shows on television? I had not, and I wondered aloud what they were like. “They are simply . . . indescribable,” he said, stretching out the adjective with a heavy Germanic emphasis, and leaving behind an implication, also comic, that his short reply sufficed as a perfectly comprehensive explanation of the relative merits of English and German humor.

Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with Sebald’s work, partly because his reputation was quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, and is still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with that catastrophe: “The Emigrants,” a collection of four semi-fictional, history-haunted biographies; and his last book, “Austerlitz” (2001), a novel about a Jewish Welshman who discovers, fairly late in life, that he was born in Prague but had avoided imminent extermination by being sent, at the age of four, to England, in the summer of 1939, on the so-called Kindertransport. The typical Sebaldian character is estranged and isolate, visited by depression and menaced by lunacy, wounded into storytelling by historical trauma. But two other works, “Vertigo” (published in German in 1990 and in English in 1999) and “The Rings of Saturn,” are more various than this, and all of his four major books have an eccentric sense of playfulness.

Rereading him, in handsome new editions of “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” and “The Rings of Saturn” (New Directions), I’m struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Consider “The Rings of Saturn” (brilliantly translated by Michael Hulse), in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around the English county of Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two World Wars. He tells stories from the lives of Joseph Conrad, the translator Edward FitzGerald, and the radical diplomat Roger Casement. He visits a friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, who left Berlin for Britain in 1933, at the age of nine. The tone is elegiac, muffled, and yet curiously intense. The Hamburger visit allows Sebald to take the reader back to the Berlin of the poet’s childhood, a scene he meticulously re-creates with the help of Hamburger’s own memoirs. But he also jokily notes that when they have tea the teapot emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine.”

(…)

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture Was Worth the Wait

Sam Adams writing for Slate
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Sam Adams reviews Bob Dylan’s long-awaited Nobel Lecture for Slate.

Bob Dylan’s reluctance to even acknowledge he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature, let alone show up to accept it in person, produced plenty of accidental comedy—to say nothing of a pronounced debate over whether songwriting could be considered a branch of literature. But his acceptance speech, which was delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, was charming, and his Nobel Lecture, released in both print and audio form, is thoroughly engrossing.

Not surprisingly, Dylan’s Nobel Lecture is largely concerned with the relationship between literature and music, tracing, in what he admits is “a roundabout way,” a path through the songs and the novels that made the deepest impression on him. Dylan writes (and talks) about internalizing the vernacular of the folk and blues music that first inspired him:

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

And he goes on to pay tribute to three of his favorite written works: Moby DickAll Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. A great storyteller himself, he approaches Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel not as a critic or an analyst, but by slipping into the story and taking his place among his characters:

All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom—Plato, Aristotle, Socrates—what happened to it?  It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.

(…)

‘Immediate Family’

Hilton Als on Maggie Nelson for the New Yorker
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Writing for the New Yorker, Hilton Als paints an intimate profile of Maggie Nelson — “the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale” — and the bodies closest to her:

May 5, 2015: that was when Maggie Nelson’s ninth book, “The Argonauts,” came out. Published two months after the author turned forty-two, the slim, intense volume, which tells the philosophical, sometimes comic tale of Nelson’s ever-developing consciousness, combines—like a number of other masterpieces of American autobiography—memoir, literary analysis, humor, and reporting with vivid instances of both the familiar and the strange. Central to “The Argonauts” is the story of Nelson’s great love for Harry Dodge, a West Coast sculptor, writer, and video artist who is fluidly gendered. As Nelson embarks on her intellectual and emotional journey, Harry also goes on various excursions in order to become the person he is now, whom Nelson describes, quoting a character from Harry’s 2001 film, “By Hook or By Crook,” as neither male nor female but “a special—a two for one.”

Sara Marcus, in an elegant and concise review of “The Argonauts,” for the Los Angeles Times, notes the way that Nelson circles “away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love.” What Nelson is asking, throughout the book, Marcus says, is “How does anyone decide what’s normal and what’s radical? What kinds of experience do we close ourselves off to when we think we already know?” Last month, the book won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, but long before that it was passed around and praised by any number of readers who knew nothing, or next to nothing, about Nelson’s interest in queerness, let alone lives like the ones her memoir grew out of and embodies. What those fans responded to most viscerally, perhaps, was the fact that it’s a book about becoming, both mentally and physically—about what it takes to shape a self, in all its completeness and disarray.

In “The Argonauts,” at the time that Harry is taking testosterone and having a double mastectomy, Maggie is pregnant with their son, Iggy, who is now four. It’s one of the rare moments in modern literature where the pregnant woman does not stand alone, wondering what will become of her or her child; Papa’s going through some fairly significant shit, too. But before the reader can settle into any kind of cozy acceptance of all that, Nelson shifts course again, asking what family can mean when the body is no longer a body but dust and then a memory. Is memory the tie that binds? Is love?

When Harry talks about his life—as he did, with great affability, one evening last August, at a corner table in a dark Los Angeles restaurant—the diminutive, auburn-haired Nelson listens with quiet seriousness. Her pale face turns nearly as red as her hair when Harry says something about their connection, or when she interrupts him to interject an idea or a detail about his own life which he may have forgotten. Afterward, Nelson may blush again or quickly smooth down her hair or say, even more quickly, “Right, right, right,” as a way of marking time, before continuing on with, or going deeper into, whatever she was talking about.

Speaking freely but thoughtfully is important to Nelson, in part because as a kid she was teased for being a “Chatty Cathy,” and in part because she finds ideas irrepressible and exciting to explore. Not surprisingly, Nelson has a very precise relationship to language—and to the vicissitudes of personal history, including the self-mythologizing that goes into making a transformed self. She has published four volumes of accomplished verse, but it’s her prose works, which cover an array of intellectual and social issues, that have brought her a wider readership: the devastating “The Red Parts” (published in 2007 and reissued this month, by Graywolf), for instance, focusses on the aftermath of the 1969 murder of Nelson’s aunt and the trial, thirty-six years later, of a suspect in the case; in “The Art of Cruelty” (2011), Nelson explores the role of the body in an age of extremity; and in “The Argonauts” she questions what it means to be a lover, a parent, someone’s child—“heteronormative” roles—when you don’t feel heteronormative, let alone comfortable with such traditional labels as “gay,” “straight,” “female,” and “male.”

In all of her books, Nelson picks at the underbelly of certainty and finds scabs—the white-male-patriarchy scab, the smug-female-thinker scab, the academic scab—and yet she gives these voices a place in her work, because, as her friend the novelist Rachel Kushner put it, “she knows exactly what kind of language, at this moment, what kind of views, are important, but she also understands that people are vulnerable and they get things wrong, not through malicious intent. Sometimes it’s just a misstep, or they’re too far from the other person’s subjectivity.” Matthew Barney, an artist known for his high-risk, epic exploration of American masculinity, told me that, for him, “The Art of Cruelty” was “the missing piece of a puzzle,” in terms of analyzing a world saturated with pornography and torture. “Maggie’s voice had a certain level of doubt and a self-reflective vibe that made me trust her, even when she was criticizing stuff that I really love.”

It’s Nelson’s articulation of her many selves—the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale, in which the protagonist goes from darkness to light, and then falls in love with a singular knight—that makes her readers feel hopeful. Her universe is “queer,” fluid, as is Harry’s (tattooed on the fingers of his left and right hands, respectively, are the words “flow” and “form”), but this sense of flux has little to do with the kind of sentimental hippiedom that emerged, say, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of Maggie and Harry’s home town in the sixties. Nelson is just as critical of the politics of inclusion as of exclusion. What you find in her writing, rather, is a certain ruefulness—an understanding that life is a crapshoot that’s been rigged, but to whose advantage?

[…]

Gerry Adams’ Baffling Book of Tweets

Mark O'Connell for the New Yorker
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Sinn Féin have published the collected tweets of Gerry Adams, perennial president of the Irish republican political party. Words such as ‘bizarre’ and ‘incongruous’ are simply too light for such an occasion: we advise that you read Mark O’Connell’s brief review of the book for The New Yorker and, as a companion piece, read Patrick Radden Keefe’s article, Where The Bodies Are Buried.

A man is sitting at a desk. He is gray-bearded and bespectacled, and his shirt sleeves are rolled smartly to the elbows. He is sucking on a lollipop, this man, and momentarily adrift in quiet reflection. He pulls the stick from his mouth and evaluates the diminished state of the confectionery, sucked down to a mere glistening fragment. There is a strange look now in his eyes, an expression of melancholy whimsy. Or is it something darker? We can never know the minds of others, but the mind of this particular man is especially unknowable. He sucks the last of his lollipop, places the stick gently on the desk before him. His current state of lollipop-induced wistfulness leads him to think of a song from long ago, a children’s song by the variety entertainer Max Bygraves. On a whim, he takes out his iPhone, and opens up Twitter, and types the lyrics of the song:

When u come 2 the end of a lollipop. 2 the end. 2 the end of a lollipop. When u come 2 the end of a lollipop. Pop goes ur heart. Xo TGBE.

He presses send, and he leans back in his chair, taking his own advice (“TGBE” presumably stands for “Tóg go bog é,” a phrase which means “Take it easy” in his native Irish). He watches the likes and retweets roll in, and he is, for all we know, at peace.

Grey

Jon Day in the Financial Times
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‘EL James is Teflon-coated.’ So begins Jon Day’s review of Grey (the new addition to the Fifty Shades festering corpus): a highly entertaining, review-cum-quotation exercise in the Financial Times.

… Grey is told from the perspective of Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire with what he calls a “dark, dark soul”. If it sounds like an interesting metafictional project, it isn’t.

The change in perspective hasn’t altered James’s style very much. Other than in the obvious way, she seems uninterested in penetrating the insides of her characters. Everything is told rather than shown. The closest thing we get to real introspection is when Grey thinks about himself, which he does often, sometimes in the third person. He looks in the mirror a lot. “My hair is wet from the shower, but I don’t give a shit,” he thinks. “One glance at the louche fucker in the mirror and I exit.” Occasionally he even thinks about himself thinking about himself: “I stop my wayward thoughts, alarmed at their direction. What the hell are you thinking, Grey?

Christian is forever commenting on his own prowess, in bed and elsewhere. “Flaunting my erudition,” he says, “I quote the words of Andrew Carnegie, my favorite industrialist.” He doesn’t just say things; he says them “emphatically” or “sardonically” or “dryly”. “My smile is ironic,” he thinks, again and again, as if to convince himself of the fact. He commends himself on the articulacy of his inner monologue: “She’s oil on my troubled, deep, dark waters. Hmm . . . flowery, Grey.

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