web counter VISITORS SINCE JUNE, 2006

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Man in the Dark" by Paul Auster, Part 001

The religious communion of self with self has begun. "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" by Haruki Murakami and "Man in the Dark" by Paul Auster are the central books of my literary well-being and mental health at the present time. And while I have placed "Great Expectations" on hold, and "The Midnight Disease" on temporary leave, the joy I am getting right now from reading both Auster and Murakami at the same time is only equaled by the fact that this is my second experience in which both my favorite authors have new books out at the same time. (Two years ago, Murakami and Auster also published weeks apart). I am lost--despite my tendencies to feeling guilty about work--in a meta-world where only literature is once again "the great escape." There are other challenges that occupy my mind, some far more serious than others, but all in all, I am in a place far away from all of the mundane.

"Man in the Dark" received terrible reviews from the now defunct "New York Times Book Review." I will have to say that while some of the criticism was mostly ad hominem in nature, the difficulty of understanding this masterpiece by one of the top (if not the top) pound-for-pound best writers in the world today stems from the fact that "this is not for everyone." Paul Auster is beyond money-making plot-boilers. Hats off to Henry Holt and Faber & Faber (his European publishers) for keeping Paul Auster out there. They know that there is a strong following of readers out in the real world that live off substance rather than plain thrilling entertainment. Case in point: "Man in the Dark" is as surrealist as it gets. The lines between reality get tripled and made to run layered on top of one another. An old literary critic (a Pulitzer Prize winner in criticism no less) is recovering from an accident. He realizes he is in his last years, and suffers from terrible insomnia. All the while, he has created the story of Owen Brick in what becomes an alternate reality rather than a fiction. Make a long story short (since I haven't finished reading it, and I am savoring every single word), Brick needs to return to "this" reality and "kill" August Brill (the book reviewer/literary critic) because the story deals with a second Civil War in America in which millions of people have already died. Kill August Brill, end the war and the suffering. Owen Brick has little or no alternative. Why him? Why not? The action goes back and forth between "Second Civil War America" and present time. The narrative is not straight forward, and perhaps this is the reason why people who are used to the vintage Auster (Leviathan, Music of Chance, The New York Trilogy, etc.) cannot handle this type of confusing yet highly artistic narrative. I used to be one of them, although I worship everything "The Great White Jewish One" writes. "Man in the Dark" is a revolutionary book dealing with blends in time and narrative, vision and imagery that makes people think they've just walked into a Salvador Dali painting (a comment I usually reserve for Murakami). I am off to finish some work for this week... I've got tons of grading to do and some prep for this coming week. Other news are keeping me down and not being quite myself, but I will struggle on.

NaNoWriMo begins in exactly 31 days. I already signed up for it again, and I am hoping that despite the fact of a busy schedule, I can complete my project again this year. 2007 taught me a great deal in terms of writing, and I want to build upon that. It is a magical thing to turn out a 50,000+ word draft, even if it's in desperate need of a life-line of revision. They've got some new exciting things planned around the NaNoWriMo central idea, and it's a community thing.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Literary Bias in "The New York Times" Confirmed

With the news of the Brooklyn Book Festival out on Sunday, September 14th, and the announcement on the "News" section of the "Paul Auster Definitive Website," it was with some excitement that I ventured over to the NYT Book Review to seek out news of "The Great White Jewish One." Well, a total omission of Paul Auster from the reported festivities has now confirmed with long-standing-rag-passing-as-a-newspaper" status (at least in my mind). You'll have to forgive my Ad Hominems, but I just can't understand. It's almost like the case of Jim Carrey not winning an Oscar for many of his absolutely brilliant performances. I am not a fan of Jim Carrey, but I've heard speculation from people who know that he must have really pissed off some people over at the Academy. Fans continue to wonder why Carrey hasn't won an Oscar for the performances he gave in "Man on the Moon," "The Truman Show," or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Could it be because he started out as a comedian? Not enough serious for the Academy to consider? Just like Paul Auster (who has ventured into other art mediums), Carrey seems to have stepped on some toes. Paul Auster's only fault is to write first-rate literary novels (and write and direct some of the top meaningful films today)... guess that's enough to throw people into fits of jealousy. Case in point: Tom LeClair. I guess I can't throw the same accusation at him that I threw at Kakutani, that of Hemingway's blow to his critics... something to the effect that "they [the critics] take something you've done and worked hard and tear it apart but couldn't bring themselves to create something like it in a million years." I can't level this at Mr. LeClair because he is a novelist and should know better.

I said in my previous post regarding the review of "Man in the Dark" that I must really sound like a high school girl defending her crush on the varsity quarterback 20 years after the fact, but I can't help to question the NYT absolute hostility to Paul Auster, a New York (and Brooklyn) institution in his own right. Here's the most recent review from the NYT Book Review, this time written by Tom LeClair. HERE is the link. Contrary to the previous one by Michiko Kakutani, this one levels covert and subversive criticism over Auster's "audacity" to in turn criticize the critics. The protagonist of "Man in the Dark" happens to speak, not very fondly about his own life as a literary critic. So, that's the reason why this book is "not as good as previous work by Auster?"

I submit the following: Tom LeClair's novel has just been published. Is he perhaps fishing for a nice review from a fellow NYT reviewer? Is he doing this because--as far as I know--he can't hold up to the genius level of Paul Auster's work. If you are reading this, Mr. LeClair, and you think that I am hiding behind a blog and talking tough, you can send me an email and we can arrange for a meeting. I'd be happy to show you how we (back in the day) used to deal with this type of unfair character assassination down in the South Bronx where I grew up. You may take the boy out of the South Bronx, make him a teacher, a literary man, and a deep thinker, but you can't take the South Bronx out of the boy. If you ever decide to be a real man, gimme' a call, or else, "fuggetaboutit."

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pip Comes Home Like Truth... Dickens and Hypergraphia

A lot has been written about Pip as a likable character. As a matter of fact, all the research I've done in my reading of "Great Expectations" yields very little (actually close to nothing) regarding Pip as an unlikeable character, or a self-centered, selfish, etc. persona. It is so perhaps because he speaks to us, and about us. Who hasn't at one time or another felt that the whole world is looking down on us from a high place, and that the worst of our actions are continuously put to trial by unyielding judges. I think early on Pip is aware of this fact--that his actions are, for better or worst, being judged continuously. Who could possibly live like that? And yet we all seem to have managed to survive that terrible age of indecision and loss. Here's a passage of Pip's torture:

Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden down the leg of his trousers, it is (as I can testify) a great punishment. The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe--I never thought I was going to rob Joe, for I never thought of any of the housekeeping property as his--united to the necessity of always keeping one hand on my bread and butter as I sat, or when I was ordered about the kitchen on any small errand, almost drove me out of my mind. Then, as the marsh winds made the fire glow and flare, I thought I heard the voice outside, of the man with the iron on his leg who had sworn me to secrecy, declaring that he couldn't and wouldn't starve until to-morrow, but must be fed now. At other times, I thought, What if the young man who was with so much difficulty restrained from imbruing his hands in me should yield to a constitutional impatience, or should mistake the time, and should think himself accredited to my heart and liver to-night, instead of to-morrow! If ever anybody's hair stood on end with terror, mine must have done so then. But, perhaps, nobody's ever did?

And it really doesn't end there. Pip moves on to his episode with Ms. Havisham at her estate gives entry to Pip's most challenging interlude (a crast understatement, since this is the entire plot line... delayed a bit, perhaps, but masterfully introduced by Dickens). Meeting Estella is another example of the excruciating part of our own personal growing pains. The things we do for that early crush of love, how seemingly unaccountable we think we are... how it is readily dismissed as "puppy love." I felt that pain written all over Pip's face... reading this story has been an experience, really. Ms. Havisham cross-examines Pip about Estella: "Is she pretty... do you find her proud, nice, etc.? Do you wish to come back, if not then, do you think you can deal without seeing Estella again? I mean, didn't you just say she was pretty? Then why not see her again?" Ms. Havisham strikes me dead, really, because I knew (or may even know presently) people like her. It is Pip's young pride that is hurt in the end, and his reaction to Estella's behavior makes me think of those early days of tormenting emotions:

She [Estella] came back, with some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry,--I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart--God knows what its name was,--that tears started to my eyes. The moment they sprang there, the girl looked at me with a quick delight in having been the cause of them. This gave me power to keep them back and to look at her: so, she gave a contemptuous toss--but with a sense, I thought, of having made too sure that I was so wounded-- and left me. But when she was gone, I looked about me for a place to hide my face in, and got behind one of the gates in the brewery-lane, and leaned my sleeve against the wall there, and leaned my forehead on it and cried. As I cried, I kicked the wall, and took a hard twist at my hair; so bitter were my feelings, and so sharp was the smart without a name, that needed counteraction.

Pip comes home like truth, like a chain of memories wrapped around one's neck. They just won't go away... run away and hide all you want, Pip... it just won't stop. Which brings me to the other issue: Charles Dickens is a master because of his ability to sustain a story like this one. Critics who presently challenge his inclusion into the Canon say he is "too easy to read," or "not challenging enough." I think that's like something I heard while in Graduate School about how John Steinbeck is not taught at the college level because "he is over-done in high school." I found this to be an insulting reason for keeping an author out of the Cannon or the classroom altogether. At any rate, the other sort of critic claims that Dickens' ability to sustain a story for this long has nothing to do with mastery or genius, but more to the fact that he--Dickens--got paid by the word. I'd admit there might be a certain truth to that, but you still have to write the story and make it real, make it relevant and not repetitive or lacking in focus. Was it hypergraphia (a mental condition that makes people write profusely, a claim leveled at Dostoevsky, among other Classic authors)? I am still trying to determine that. At any rate, off to do some more reading (and writing, and grading, and class prep, and....)

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why Charles Dickens Still Matters...

I confessed to shooting and "killing" my "Reading List for 2008" nearly two months ago. It wasn't going well, I was way, way behind on my book count for the year, and it was actually beginning to feel like a chore of sorts rather than reading for pleasure. So I decided to call it off for 2008. That, of course, doesn't mean that I am not making an effort to complete it (Premise Contradictory to Facts). I picked up Charles Dickens "Great Expectations" and got into a tete-a-tete with young Pip, all of this reminiscing of my own feelings of guilt, insecurity and fear as a young child. The opening chapters display such a vivid universal experience... the young child navigating that narrow pass between rule and choice, ethics and fear of punishment. While many argue that Dickens has fallen out of favor with academia because "it is too easy to read," I still argue that we shouldn't throw out a classic for--and pardon my being specific about this--books like Jodi Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper." Now, mind you, Ms. Picoult's book made me cry this past summer (we had to read it for summer reading), and it was indeed a moral/ethical and critical plot, well organized and exceedingly thought-provoking... but Dickens it was not. Why do we continue to give in to young people's "demands" to make literature "relevant," when it in reality it is the ROLE and OBLIGATION of the teacher/instructor/professor to make the Great Classics relevant and insightful and human... oh, I forgot, that takes a great deal of effort and work (insert sarcasm here). I'll get off my rant here, sorry.

Young Pip is the archetypal child of wonder being beaten into submission (both physically and emotionally) by the adults around him. I wonder why Dickens chose not to give Pip's sister a name (she is referred to by her husband's name in the first few chapters)... could it possibly be because she is too ugly (in an emotionally abusive way) to portray? Uhmm, I wonder. So I read on with a sense of my own frightful childhood, fear based upon thinly disguised religious guilt and repressions, etc. I am happy for young Pip "being in my life." Dickens certainly STILL matters very much.

I picked up a copy of "Writing About Visual Art" by David Carrier and I am enjoy it tremendously. My students had a test today in one of my classes and between monitoring them and pacing around I got through the introduction of this fascinating book. I do need to learn to write about the visual art, and this book seems like the perfect instructional manual. It's more like essays than instruction but the wealth of knowledge is palpable and easily accessible. More on this later.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Nostalgia of New Things

It is with a sense of nostalgia for new things that I have to keep reminding myself of who I used to be, and who I became, after I left my beloved U.S. Marines in 1992. I was already a cellist before I enlisted. I became a "man of letters," and a "writer of sorts" (for the lack of better terms) after I left the military in 1992.

From 1996 to 1999/2000 I played with the Washington Symphony Orchestra and met an incredible number of amazing people. I taught cello privately on and off while in the DC area and then for a brief stint when I moved back where I am today. This past summer I got a brush with my past again when I gave a lesson to a former writing student who has recently picked up the cello in college. So she begins now to see me with different eyes, I suppose, and I get engrossed in this feeling of nostalgia in my new role with her. She is a fast learner, and has her own teacher where she goes to school, but we'll be having lessons on and off when she comes home to visit.
This morning I was listening to Mozart's Requiem, which was the last piece I actually played in DC with the orchestra. I remember feeling it was a fitting piece for my departure. I was giving my farewell concert, and it seemed that another stage in my life was coming to an end. That was in the spring of 2000!

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, September 06, 2008

On "Bushido: The Soul of Japan," and Going Back to "Pip."

Well, after much delay I finished reading "Bushido: The Soul of Japan." Perhaps this is the longest time I have taken to finish a book under 150 pages. Factors vary between the academic term just beginning two weeks ago, to simply too much to do and not enough time. At any rate, "Bushido" was written around the early 1900s, just as Japan was leaving its vestigial feudal system behind, and Bushido as an ethical form was left to wander the countryside without a path or a value system of its own, and Nitobe captured this with a sharp eye and an incredible manner of tying together the old and the new across different fields: culture, religion, economics, industrialism, etc. Modernism hit Japan hard--and with this I must explain that I don't mean the post-World War II type of modernism. To a strictly traditional and highly defined culture in the early 1900s, this was a kiss of death. Generational issues also caught on. Remember that America herself was breaking off from the Victorian age of formalism that led to the rampage of the Roaring Twenties... Japan was influenced, molded and even changed against her own will, plain and simple, by what was happening in the world: social upheaval, generational shifts, and industrialism (read: commercialism).

Nitobe concludes that the one thing that will survive into the future of Japan is stoicism, and he nicely ties it to the fact that it was a Bushido-driven virtue: "Who can say that stoicism is dead? It is dead as a system; but it is alive as a virtue: its energy and vitality are still felt through many channels of life-in the philosophy of Western nations, in the jurisprudence of all the civilized world. Nay, wherever man struggle to raise himself about himself, wherever his spirit masters his flesh by his own exertions, there we see the immortal discipline of Zeno at work."

I learned this early in my life. My father was a stoic of the foremost discipline. I grew up seeing a man not even blink at the fact that someone was pointing a gun at his face. While I always admired it in my father, I never quite understood the origins of such behavior. It wasn't until I lived in Japan in 1994 that I understood how my father--without self-conscious knowledge--was the embodiment of Bushido.

I am going back to Charles Dickens with a furious passion. I am reading "Great Expectations" and enjoying it tremendously. More on this later. I am also reading "The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block and The Creative Brain." More on this later as well.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The "Argument/Case" Against Paul Auster

Paul Auster's new book "Man in the Dark" was just recently published. If you know me, and if you visit this blog often, you'd know that this is a life-altering event for me. I am absolutely biased for the Great Master, but I am beginning to notice a trend against Paul Auster that is not only disturbing to me, but also (and from a purely objective stand point) bordering on the Ad Hominem/character assassination. Now, "fair is fair..." but this trend doesn't even reflect an ounce of fairness.

First, Paul Auster is "pound-for-pound" the best contemporary writer today. Most people would probably ask who he is, or how could he be such a good writer and not be rubbing elbows with Dan Brown, Dr. Phil, or Jodi Picoult? The most recent New York Times Book Review issue featuring the review for "Man in the Dark" might prove helpful in deciphering the new trend of Paul Auster Bashing. While the review was not favorable, I tried very hard to look deeply (and objectively) into it to see what the discontent is with this great writer. First, I need to point out that the previous effort by Paul Auster "Travels in the Scriptorium" suffered from the same lack-luster review, mainly based on personal attacks and distorted "artsy" language that tends to be more political than literary. Nevertheless, why would a reviewer risk such a personal attack disguised as an objective review, a review attacking the man, and not the work that is indeed of the highest caliber? Could it be personal and professional jealousy? (And I say this because Paul Auster's wife, Siri Hustvedt suffers from the same poor reviews). Could it possibly be because Paul Auster's reclusive life? (He lives quietly in Brooklyn, NY... he's no Dan Brown or Dr. Phil). Could it possibly be because of his most recent film, "The Inner Life of Martin Frost?" (oh, yes... I suspect that is part of the problem... 'What do you mean? He writes and directs films?'). Here are some other facts that might clear up the argument for or against the fact that other people are jealous of Paul Auster:

1--Paul Auster is admired, loved and considered a 'genius' in Europe. Considering the fact that the French view him as a literary "Second Coming" of sorts should win you enough enemies.

2--Paul Auster is an accomplished film director/screenwriter. "Oh, but I've never heard of his films!" Exactly.

3--Paul Auster has a following within the literary circles in New York. You know, those stuck up artsy types who think they are better than the rest of the world. The interesting fact is that Paul Auster's writing doesn't aim to cater to that group. If you are a voracious reader, and you like to think deeply about literature, then Paul Auster is for you. No artsy attitude needed.

4--Paul Auster's academic essays (collected, among other volumes, in "The Art of Hunger") are of the highest ranking among college professors who want to challenge their students with deep literary analysis. Want to read about The Book of the Dead, Celine, Kafka and Dada? This book is for you.

I realize I must sound like a teenage girl defending her high school "crush" 20 years after graduating. But taking aside the fact that I am a great fan, what's going on in the book review business is simply deplorable. I suppose it has to do with the Global Economy and 21st Century gaga... but give Paul Auster a break! To say he is running out of material is simply a personal opinion, not an objective assessment. When (and I say when because it is a goddamn matter of time) Paul Auster wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, I'll have the last laugh.

Labels: , , , ,