Archives: October 2014

Why Read the Classics?

A classic essay by Italo Calvino in the New York Review of Books

Suffice to say that this piece by Italo Calvino, published in 1986 in the New York Review of Books, is very good indeed:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.

1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”

This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.

The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it was completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmogonical family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

Why nobody knows what to think about Patrick Modiano winning the Nobel Prize for Literature

Leo Robson in the New Statesman

‘By 1974, Modiano had already been typecast as the Occupation novelist, and he didn’t do much to vary things,’ writes Leo Robson in a good piece on the reaction to Patrick Modiano winning the Nobel in the New Statesman. He also attempts to make sense of his oeuvre (yes, oeuvre), although  we’ll have to wait a while for someone to do that properly and extensively as only five of his thirty-one works of fiction have ever been translated into English. On that note, the passage below on his publishing history is particularly interesting. Gallimard will make a lot of money from this.

If the French are indeed astonished, as Sturrock says, they might nevertheless be feeling that a justice has been done. The novelist Edmund White tells me that Modiano’s work was “always highly respected” during the 1980s, when he lived in France. People even talk of “le phénomène Modiano”. His books, published by Gallimard, often linger in the bestseller lists. “(The initial print run of his new novel, published earlier this month, was 100,000.) John Flower ascribes this success partly to “the continuing and very real interest in the period of the Occupation and Resistance” and partly to “the popularity of the detective novel”, a form that Modiano often deploys.

In England and America, where few obsess over the Occupation but detective novels are devoured in their millions, Modiano has received almost no attention in the last thirty years. There are twenty-eight Modiano books that have been published in Spanish, twenty-one in German, twelve in Swedish, but the five British editions of his work, the product of four publishers and five translators, are all unavailable. At the time of the Nobel announcement, the only English-language publisher with Modiano books in print was the Boston-based David R Godine.

Visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair in the early 1990s, the company’s founder had asked Gallimard to recommend their best French writers who were not much published in English – and was given the names Sylvie Germain, J M G Le Clézio, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008, and Modiano. Godine have sold just enough copies of their Modiano titles, Missing Person and Honeymoon, a translation of Voyage de Noces (1990), over the last two decades to keep them in print, as part of their Verba Mundi series, which also includes celebrated novels by Germain (The Book of Nights) and Le Clézio (Desert). Otherwise, the record is patchy, with all British editions long out of print. Yale University Press, an Anglo-American publisher, had been planning to publish, as part of their own translation series, a book comprising three Modiano novels in the spring, but the publication date was brought forward, presumably one or two seconds after the historian Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, read Modiano’s name from a piece of crinkled A4 paper.

If Modiano has struggled to gain a following in England, collaborators or detectives probably have little to do with it. This has been the case with virtually all French fiction since the post-war high of Oulipo, whose spokesman Raymond Queneau taught Modiano geometry and encouraged his writing, and the nouveau roman. Without ever being a gang, a move that might have helped them, Modiano, Le Clézio, and Tournier –who referred to the “impasse du nouveau roman” – initiated what has been called the “narrative turn” in French fiction. Writing in 1975, the novelist François Nourissier, casting around for new French writers “of consistently high quality”, named those three. But this turn or return – the resumption of normal narrative service – has struggled to replace the strictures of Oulipo and the nouveau roman, offering little to compete with Robbe-Grillet’s headline-grabbing claims that the Balzac model, and “the old myths of depth”, had expired.

But while Modiano has never been internationally popular, he is nevertheless widely studied. Although Flower recognises Tournier’s The Erl-King as a book that took off in a way that Modiano’s books haven’t, he says that his student always offered “a very enthusiastic response” to Modiano. Gerald Prince tells me that his work-in-progress, a guide to the French novel between 1951 and 2000, so far contains more entires on Modiano than on any other writer. There are over twenty books devoted to Modiano’s work, often with titles containing the words “self”, “myth”, “postmodern”, “biography”, “memory”, and “history”, and by no means all of them are French. Modiano specialists are to be found in Australia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Holland, and the Modiano industry was busy enough to inspire, in 2004, an international conference at Kent, organised by Flower, who later edited a collection of the papers. Chapter titles include “La mémoire de la Shoah: Dora Bruder”, “Fade-Out: Patterns of inconclusion in Modiano’s novels”, and “Les biographies imaginaires de Patrick Modiano : entre mythe et histoire”.

Emmanuel Carrère on writing Limonov

In the Paris Review

Emmanuel Carrère is a writer who doesn’t get enough attention. He is one of France’s best, a kind of Geoff Dyer-figure who blends fiction and non-fiction to great effect (although he is less comically inclined). The Adversary, in which the author recounts his attempts to write the true story of a pathological liar who ends up murdering his entire family to cover up his lies, is a good place to start. Limonov, his latest book published in English about the Russian dissident writer Eduard Limonov (pictured above), is also an excellent book. Carrère’s Paris Review interview, published last autumn, provides a good introduction to his work:


We come to your last book, Limonov, which is again nonfiction. Who is Limonov?


Eduard Limonov is a Russian writer who is about seventy. I knew him in the eighties in Paris. The Soviet-era writers at the time were mostly dissidents with huge beards. Limonov was more of a punk. He was an underground prodigy under Brezhnev in Moscow. He had emigrated to the United States, been a bum and then a billionaire’s butler. He had a kind of Jack London life, which he wrote about in autobiographies that are actually very good, very simple and direct.

Then came the fall of the Soviet empire and things got strange. He went off to the Balkans and started fighting with the Serbs. He became a kind of crypto-fascist. It was a little like finding out a friend from high school had joined al-Qaeda. But time went by and I didn’t give it much thought. Then the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, and I went to cover it. I was amazed to discover that in the little world of liberal democrats around Politkovskaya, Limonov was considered a fantastic guy. It was as if Bernard-Henri Lévy and Bernard Kouchner suddenly said, Marine Le Pen, now she’s great. I was so intrigued that, in 2007, I decided to go see Limonov. I spent two weeks with him trying to understand this strange political and personal trajectory.


The mystery of fascism? Was that what intrigued you?


I remember the exact moment I decided to go from reporting to writing a book. Limonov had spent three years in a labor camp in the Volga, a kind of model prison, very modern, which is shown to visitors as a shining example of how penitentiaries have improved in Russia. Limonov told me that the sinks were the same ones he had seen in a super-hip hotel in New York, designed by Philippe Starck. He said to me, Nobody in that prison could possibly know that hotel in New York. And none of the hotel’s clients could possibly have any idea what this prison was like. How many people in the world have had such radically different experiences? He was really proud of that, and I don’t blame him. My socioeconomic experience is relatively narrow. I went from an intellectual bourgeois family in the 16th arrondissement to become a bourgeois bohemian in the 10th. So these trajectories of the little boy in the African village who becomes the UN secretary-general or the little girl from east bumfuck in Russia who becomes an international supermodel fill me with wonder. I have to admire that amplitude of experience, the ability to integrate completely different values and ways of thinking. Limonov’s story, from that point of view, is fabulous. It’s a picaresque novel that also allowed me to cover fifty years of history, the end of the Soviet era, and the mess that followed. I’m surprised that the book has received the unanimously warm reception of the last one.

Frankfurt Book Fair

From 7-10 October

Fitzcarraldo Editions is at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week. Normal blog activities will resume on Monday, 11 October. In the meantime, here’s a link to Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. 

The next morning came.

“Bartleby,” said I, gently calling to him behind his screen.

No reply.

“Bartleby,” said I, in a still gentler tone, “come here; I am not going to ask you to do any thing you would prefer not to do—I simply wish to speak to you.”

Upon this he noiselessly slid into view.

“Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born?”

“I would prefer not to.”

“Will you tell me any thing about yourself?”

“I would prefer not to.”

“But what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me? I feel friendly towards you.”

He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.

“What is your answer, Bartleby?” said I, after waiting a considerable time for a reply, during which his countenance remained immovable, only there was the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth.

“At present I prefer to give no answer,” he said, and retired into his hermitage.

Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi)

A 1953 film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker

The opening section in Duncan Campbell’s video work It for Others, shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, is a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s film Les statues meurent aussi. It turns out the latter is on YouTube: it’s well worth a half-hour of your time. Duncan Campbell’s video is also worth going to see. Here’s the film, with English subtitles.

And here’s Jonathan Rosenbaum on the film, the second half of which was banned in France for fifteen years:

Marker begins his two-volume collection of offscreen commentaries, Commentaires (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961 and 1967)—filmed as well as unfilmed, and long out of print—with his dense, haunting, and blistering text for Statues Also Die, recited in the film by Jean Négroni. Here is how it begins, the words spoken over darkness: “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” And then, as if to prove his point, the film’s image lights up to show us the ruins of a few outdoor sculptures, speckled with sunlight and wizened by age and corrosion—strange botanical specimens.

What follows, over a striking montage of indoor specimens and some of their strolling museum spectators (first white ones, then a single black woman), is a kind of existential poetics of both art and history: “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum.” Resnais’s Eisensteinian editing meanwhile peaks as an accelerating succession of graphic images reaches a gorgeous crescendo and epiphany in a cut to the head of an African swimmer rising from underwater to the surface of a river. (Resnais’s best work abounds in ecstatic cuts of this kind, nearly always tied to sudden, unexpected human gestures and movements.)

This gradually turns into a remarkable duet between Marker’s literary fervor and a detailed as well as despairing political vision—a combination of speculative art history, precise journalism, and a grim meditation on the various places and functions Africa and its separate cultures have assumed within white civilization—and Resnais’s musically and rhythmically orchestrated illustration of and counterpoint to this extraordinary text. Both of these strains can be said to embody, empower, and enhance as well as accompany the other, but it would be pointless to try to synopsize either Marker’s multifaceted argument or Resnais’s elaborately composed and articulated assembly of images, much less attempt to describe how effectively they complement one another. It appears that this film took years to put together, but it moves with a fluency and directness that is never labored.

It was the final third of this half-hour film that eventually led to the film’s suppression by the French government. Marker’s passionate and angry polemic builds an indictment not merely of white colonialism but of the suppression, degradation, and in some cases irreversible extermination of black culture, taking on such ancillary topics as black athletes (including boxers as well as basketball players) and black musicians in the U.S.

Chris Kraus on Kathy Acker

In The Believer

If anyone has the credentials to write (well) about Kathy Acker, it’s Chris Kraus, taking the publication of I’m Very Into You as a starting point for a wider discussion of Acker’s life and work:

I’m Very Into You is a collection that includes 103 pages of emails that Acker and Ken Wark exchanged over seventeen days at the dawn of the internet era. Acker met Wark in Sydney during the summer of 1995, and the two had a brief but intense affair before she returned home to San Francisco. Wark, now a professor at the New School for Social Research and a renowned media theorist, was thirty-four when he met Acker (she was forty-eight). At the time, Wark was part of a Melbourne-based post-Marxist anarchist group that produced the political and cultural journal Arena. He had just published his first book, Virtual Geography, about the emergence of global media space and the transmission of world events as media spectacles. He was enjoying a precocious career as a national media commentator in Australia and advising government ministers on media access, while still living a kind of post-student life among artists and activists. He had boyfriends and girlfriends, often concurrently, and wondered about his identity, queerness and straightness, performance, butch/femme-ness, masculinity. Of course he’d read Acker. He’d been following her work since the ’80s.

The search for connection through sex is at the forefront of all of Acker’s writing. She was single for most of her life (and writing always from within her life, and around and beyond it). As passages from her novels show, on-tour flirtations and hookups and romances weren’t uncommon. While touring in the summer of 1995, something more compelling than a mere fling developed between her and Wark. His first email begins as a gracious note sent to a casual lover. He’d driven to work the next day in a daze; he’d enjoyed spending time with her and was starting to read the William S. Burroughs novel she’d talked about. But as he continues, he opens the door to something more complicated: “There are no words,” he writes. “I just want to say there are no words.… Bear with me. I’ll have something to say for myself sometime soon. When I remember who I thought I was in the first place. Even if I’ve been displaced a little from wherever that was.” She responds, delighted: through the exhaustion and jet lag of travel, “your message is changing the day… all the time there (in Sydney) that I didn’t know what was going on… what becomes/became present was how easy it is to be with you. Like: you are the one I want/wanted to talk to.”

In London, at the height of her fame, Acker had been involved in an increasingly maddening long-distance BDSM romance with a married journalist referred to as “the German” and “the reporter” in her 1990 novel, In Memoriam to Identity. “Being with him made me remember that I’ve always looked for my childhood,” she’d write to Wark. Still, his control of her, which began as sexual play, became increasingly total as he suspended contact for weeks and cut short their meetings. What began as a fulfilling and sexy relationship between her “bratty sub” and his “strict Dominant” evolved into a draining, old-fashioned affair between a distant and married straight man and his long-suffering mistress. As she’d write at the height of her correspondence with Wark, fearing their friendship might take a turn in that direction: “So. Regarding het shit. These games. To me, top/bottom is just stuff that happens in bed. Who fistfucks whom. Outside the bed, I do my work and you do yours. I fucking hate power games outside the bed and have no interest in playing them.”


Mary-Kay Wilmers remembers Karl Miller

In the London Review of Books (obviously)

Karl Miller, the founder of the London Review of Books, died last week. Mary-Kay Wilmers remembers him in a ‘Diary’ piece for the ‘paper’, as they both took to calling it:

I got to know Karl Miller in the 1960s, when I was in my mid-twenties and he was in his early thirties. He was the literary editor of the New Statesman and I was a junior editor – ‘a young editor here’, my boss used to say – at Faber and Faber. I didn’t know him well – a friend of mine, Francis Hope, was his assistant – but I talked to him at parties and once or twice I had lunch with him (I remember being told to eat my meat). He was a charismatic figure, tall, fair, slim, nattily dressed, flirtatious and a little wayward – a head-spinner. But severe too. You minded your words and that was part of the attraction. When he gave me a book to review I thought my life had met its moment. The book was by Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans, and it’s the obvious thing to say but true: I really thought my life would end, that I would have to end it, if I couldn’t get my sentences sorted.

Eventually I sorted them and took the piece to the Statesman’s office in Great Turnstile. When Karl had read it he said: ‘You’re a writer now.’ He was liable to make patriarchal remarks of that kind, and for better or worse – either way it’s a confession – I was very susceptible to them. When he gave me a second book and asked me to add a sentence at the last minute and I demurred he said: ‘You’re a journalist now.’ In his eyes it was a thing to be proud of, a calling of sorts. ‘You’ll be the laughing stock of Fleet Street,’ he used to threaten at the LRB when he thought someone had made a stupid suggestion, though by then the reference to Fleet Street just seemed quaint. (When at a later point I decided that I wanted to give up being a journalist and go to medical school instead he was nonplussed.)

John Sutherland’s obituary of Miller in the Guardian is also worth seeking out: he’s described as ‘the greatest literary editor of his time, and one of the greatest ever’. You might also look at Leo Robson’s in the New Statesman, which puts particular emphasis on Miller’s Statesman and Listener days.

The Resurgence of the Frankfurt School

Alex Ross on Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the critique of pop culture

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross argues that the Frankfurt School are ‘having a modest resurgence’ and that ‘in light of recent events … it may be time to unpack [their] texts again.’ 

If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized. The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.

The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

Fitz Carraldo Editions