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Archive for February, 2008

February 29th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Author vs. Work; Sainte-Beuve vs. Proust; Dorothy vs. Dan


There’s an interesting conversation ping-ponging back and forth right now between Books and Bicycles and The Reading Experience on the utility of biography in analyzing and understanding the works of an author. This discussion is not new. It was famously undertaken, albeit posthumously, by Sainte-Beuve and Proust. Here’s a glimpse at what the debate looked like 100 odd years ago. It plays nicely into what Dorothy and Dan, and all the various comment contributors have been saying during the past several days. 

First Sainte-Beauve, from his Selected Essays (Anchor, Doubleday, 1963), written in the 1890s:

"I may enjoy a work, but it is hard for me to judge it independently of my knowledge of the man who produced in, and I am inclined to say, tel arbre, tel fruit –the fruit is like the tree. Thus the study of literature leads me naturally to the study of human nature."

"It is very useful to begin at the beginning and, whenever possible, to place the superior or distinguished writer in his own country, among his own people. If we knew his lineage thoroughly, physiologically speaking, including his remoter ancestors, we should gain much light on the essential hidden quality of his mind, but these deeper roots most often remain obscure and elusive. Whenever they do not escape us completely, we gain a great deal by observing them. "

We surely recognize the superior man, at least in part, in his parents, especially in his mother, the more immediate and more certain parent; also in his sisters, in his brothers, even in his children."

"Once we have learned as much as possible about the origins of an eminent writer, his parents and nearest relatives, an essential point to be determined, after examining his education and studies, is his first milieu, the group of friends and contemporaries among whom he was living when his talent first manifested itself, took shape, and matured. Whatever his subsequent achievements, he will always show the influence of this early group."

"…in order to gain insight into a talent it is useful to determine the first poetic or critical center in which he was formed, the natural literary group to which he belongs, and to relate him to it exactly. That will supply the true date of his beginnings."

"Every work of an author seen in this way, after it has been situated in its framework and studied in the light of all the circumstances that attended its birth, takes on its full meaning – historical and literary – and discloses its true degree of originality, novelty, or imitation; and in judging it we do not run the risk of admiring it for qualities it does not possess, of missing the mark, as is inevitable when we are guided solely by rhetorical considerations. This is not to imply that I reject rhetoric entirely, nor do I exclude judgments based on taste, on sharp, immediate impressions. I do not denounce Quintilian, I merely assign him his proper place."

"Criticism based on a first reading, on first impressions, will always be important, as well as the opinions of the fashionable and academic criticism. Such passion for thoroughness, as all this implies, is no cause for alarm: there are times and places for it, as well as times and places where it would be inappropriate."

"However, analysis involves a kind of emotion, too; indeed, one might say that it has an eloquence of its own and even a poetic quality. Those who know a writer of talent and appreciate him only when he has been fully developed, or in his last works, who did not see him in his youth, at the moment when he first took wing, will never form a complete and natural idea of him, the only living kind."

"Nothing gives us as good an idea of a man’s range and elevation as to see what antagonist, what rival, he chose at an early date. One serves as measure of the other. Calpe is as high as Abyla."

"What were his religious ideas? How was he affected by the spectacle of nature? How did he behave toward women? What was his attitude toward money? Was he rich, poor? What was his routine, his daily life? Finally, what was his vice or weakness? Every man has one. None of these questions is immaterial when it comes to judging the author of a book or the book itself (unless it is a treatise of pure geometry) –above all, if it is a literary work, for no aspect of human life is alien to literature."

"Superior minds tend to put their seal on the corner of every page they write; others seem to use a mold, into which everything they do falls indiscriminately, over and over again. Up to a certain point it is possible to study talents through their descendants, their disciples and natural admirers."

"If it is right to judge a talent by his friends and natural followers, it is no less legitimate to verify one’s judgment by the enemies he makes without intending to, those who are antipathetic to him or those who instinctively cannot suffer him."

These are passages that Proust targets in his Contre Sainte-Beuve, written exactly 100 years ago. The truth is, according to the editors of this volume at least, these considerations play a subordinate role in Sainte-Beuve’s criticism, serving mainly to confirm or illustrate insights obtained from a close study of the works themselves.

Proust disagrees. No subordinate role, he says:

"To have written the natural history of minds, to have looked to the biography of the man, to the history of the family, to all his peculiarities for an understanding of his work and the nature of his genius, that is what everyone recognizes to have been his originality, and what he recognized himself, in which moreover he was right."

"But in art there are no initiators or precursors (at least in the scientific sense). Everything is in the individual, each individual starts the artistic or literary endeavour over again, on his own account; the works of his predecessors do not constitute, unlike a science, an acquired truth for which he who follows after may profit. A writer of genius today has everything to do. He is not much further advanced than Homer."

"Sainte Beuve’s is not a profound oeuvre. [His]…method fails to recognize what any more than merely superficial acquaintance with ourselves teaches us: that a book is the product of a self other than that which we display in our habits, in company, in our vices. If we want to try and understand this self, it is deep inside us, by trying to recreate it within us, that we may succeed. This is an effort of the heart from which nothing can absolve us. IT is a truth every bit of which we have to create and…It is too easy to suppose that it will arrive one fine morning among our mail, in the form of an unpublished letter imparted to us by a librarian friend, or that we shall gather it from the lips of someone who knew the author well."

"At no time does Sainte-Beuve seem to have grasped what is peculiar to inspiration or the activity of writing, and what marks it off totally from the occupations of other men and the other occupations of the writer. He drew no dividing line between the occupation of writing, in which, in solitude and suppressing those words which belong as much to others as to ourselves, and with which, even when alone, we judge things without being ourselves, we come face to face once more with ourselves, and seek to hear and to render the true sound of our hearts – and conversation! ‘Writing…’

"…he continued not to understand the unique, enclosed world, incommunicado with the outside, which is the soul of the poet. He believed that others could offer it advice, could excite or repress it…"

"…in order to understand the poet or writer, in questioning avidly those who knew him, who frequented him, who may be able to tell us how he behaved in the matter of women, etc., that is, on all those very points where the poet’s true self is not involved."

Proust goes on to conclude his essay saying that all of Sainte-Beuve’s ‘vast, marvelous, ebullient oeuvre as a critic’ amounts to nothing. "Mere appearance…" That all he’ll be remembered for is a handful of poems.

Based on what we have here, what I know of Proust’s life, and my experience reading Holmes and Coleridge, Marchand and Byron, Ellmann and Joyce, Steegmuller and Flaubert, for example, I’m with Sainte-Beuve. Knowing about Coleridge’s life struggles, his politics, his relationship with women (and I’m relying on the accuracy of Holmes’ research), knowing Coleridge this way, enriched my experience of his work, influenced the way I understood it, and increased my appreciation and enjoyment of it. The text remains the same. Its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same, what changes is my reception of them. Because of the biographical information additional layers of interpretation open themselves up to me. Because of the new tenderness I feel for the man, my reading is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn’t replace close reading, it augments it.

Text and the social life of the author may never touch in Proust’s cork-lined world, but they do, I’d say, in the normal, communal one in which most authors and people live. It seems to me that the more facts one can solicit in the search for truth, the better one’s chances are of finding it.

February 28th, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

Anti-Semitic Nazis and Slanderous Democrats attacked Charlie Chaplin

The Telegraph reports that a rare book of Nazi propaganda listing Charlie Chaplin as a "pseudo-Jew" will go under the hammer next month.

Juden Sehen Dich An (The Jews are Watching You), is one of the most notorious works of anti-Semitic propaganda ever written. Published in Berlin in the 1930s, it runs 95 pages and contains the names, photographs and pen drawings of Jewish activists, bankers, economists, journalists, performers, artists, authors and academics, including Albert Einstein, from around the world. Written by Dr Johann von Leers, the book warns Germany "that these people were forming an international network aimed at world domination."

The fact that Chaplin was included, despite not being Jewish, proves that they saw him as a threat. In 1940, Chaplin directed and starred in ‘The Great Dictator’ which was described as an act of defiance against Hitler and Nazism. I’ll never forget that great scene where, playing Hitler, he flounces around the room, tossing and nonchalantly kicking a balloon globe in the air. In fact, thanks to the miracle that is Youtube, you can watch it here, to the tune of Sergeï Prokofiëv’s "Dance of the Knights" from Romeo and Juliet.

Nothing like humour to deflate what you fear.

Sadly ironic that Charlie, after being targeted by the Nazis would later have to put up with accusations of being communist. Particularly in light of this. I suppose he must have been doing something right to attract the hostility of both fascist dictators and slanderous, megalomaniac democrats.

February 27th, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

The Home of Interesting Bookshelves

 This from ‘The home of interesting bookshelves, bookcases and things that look like them’ (via Scott Pack). Given all the distractions I’m sure I’d fall ass over tea kettle on these stairs.

February 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Nigel Beale’s Top Ten most Bedazzling Madame Bovary Quotes


In a critique of James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self, Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading cites this fine Flaubertian metaphor from Sentimental Education: "the smoke of a railway engine stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away."

Scott continues: "…I don’t think Wood believes there is much value in metaphors like Flaubert’s because as a reader he doesn’t appreciate what use they have in a novel. Wood is comfortable dissecting how an author attaches character traits to realistic people, but when an author tosses in an enigmatic metaphor, Wood finds it too fuzzy, and therefore meaningless. I think, perhaps, if he were better at imagining his way into the psychology of a work, he might better understand the value of metaphors like Flaubert’s."

It is odd that Wood would criticize what to my mind is the best feature of Flaubert writing. Perhaps what he is getting at is that too much metaphor spoils the broth…that great novels use metaphor in ways that don’t interfere with the reader’s connection to character and story. In other words, if one must introduce valuation or ranking of some kind, then one has to look at the kind and quality of experience the book in question provides. The ones which most make us feel as if we’ve lived the experience of the characters come out on top in Wood’s mind. By this measure, War and Peace is a better novel than Madame Bovary.

But sometimes I don’t want the experiential, I just want drop dead delicious metaphor and succulent style, like what Madame Bovary delivers. Like these truffles, in order of bedazzlingness:

10. Life was as old as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

9. Emma felt vaguely astonished that there should be such calm around her and such turmoil within.

8. Charles’ conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

7. Speech acts invariably as an enlarger of sentiments

6. There was about her that indefinable beauty which comes of joy, of enthusiasm, of success, and which is simply the harmony of temperament with circumstances.

5. …wishing for a thousand eyes to gaze upon each other.

4. Idols must not be touched; the gilt comes off on our hands

3. To feel nobly and to love what is beautiful – that’s our duty. Not to accept all the conventions of society and the humiliations society imposes on us…No! Why inveigh against the passions? Are they not the one beautiful thing there is on earth; the source of all heroism and enthusiasm, poetry, music, art, everything?’

2. The universe, for him, was contracted to the silken compass of her petticoat.

and the best quote in drum roll Madame Bovary…

1.They had the complexion of wealth, that clear white skin which is accentuated by the pallor of porcelain, the shimmer of satin, the finish on handsome furniture, and is maintained at its best by a modest diet of exquisite foods … Their nonchalant glances reflected the quietude of passions daily gratified; behind their gentleness of manner one could detect that peculiar brutality inculcated by dominance in not over-exacting activities such as exercise strength and flatter vanity – the handling of thoroughbreds and the pursuit of wantons.

February 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Ten Commandments for Small Press Publishing

Trinity College LIbrary, AKA, The Long Room, Dublin, Ireland

This as much for the photo as the content, from the National Book Critic’s Circle (I’m now a member) blog Critical Mass:

"Around Frankfurt, I kept hearing about a list of rules German publisher (and novelist) Michael Krugercompiled. It was a sort of secular ten commandments for small press publishing. Here they are. In a world of small press consolidation, and independent bookstore closings, it would seem they are more important than ever." –JF (John Freeman, President of the NBCC.  Our interview here)

1. Publish only the books you really love.
2. Publish only the books you love read yourself.
3. Never publish more books than you can read.
4. Never publish a book that bores you, even if you think that you can sell it.
5. Only publish books that make you wonder.
6. Do not publish only fiction
7. Never think that books make people better.
8. Always be happy that you do not have to publish the books of your competitors.
9. Always be aware that too much reading is bad for your eyes and bad for your back.
10. Publishers who are only interested in books, are dangerous.

Not a bad set of rules for reading either.

February 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with author Sally Cooper: Tell Everything

Sally Cooper’s second novel, Tell Everything,delves into the darkest regions of the human soul, and lends credence to Kipling’s line: "The female of the species is deadlier than the male."

During our conversation about Tell Everything we discuss topics including: the media and murder, Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo…


body parts in ponds,  Rapunsil and crime plays, three way sex, the blurred, complicated lines of consent, the fear of self revelation, and love, self protection, shame and acceptance, boxes and cameras, novel writing as catharsis, iguanas in snow drifts, crime scene photographs, facing moral issues, true crime magazines, Michael Redhill‘s short story The Victim, and women being every bit as predatory as men.

Sally Cooper grew up in Inglewood, Ontario, population 400. She has an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Guelph, and has published in such places as Shift, Blood & Aphorisms, Carousel, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and eye weekly. Her first novel, Love Object, came out in 2002 to critical acclaim. She currently teaches creative writing at Humber College and lives and writes in Hamilton, Ontario.

Listen here:


February 25th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Movie Review of There Will Be Blood, by Nigel Beale.

There Will Be Blood

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Scott Rudin
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Novel:Upton Sinclair
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis Paul Dano Dillon Freasier
Music by Jonny Greenwood


(This review also appears on Good News Film Reviews

‘Let us now praise this film’ is the cry unanimously heard from critics around the globe. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 91%. Scores, if not hundreds, have placed it on their 2007 top ten lists.

Strange, given that it is such a God awful slog of a movie, one that has little plot, and no dialogue worth speaking of. Watching this movie is like wading through miles of waist deep sludge. It would much better have been presented as a short art-house documentary, which, in fact is what we get for the first thirty odd minutes. The problem resides in the remaining 128.

There will be Blood starts off well, palpably portraying the grime and toil of turn-of-the-20th-century oil-crazed California. Dirt, drive and ambition depicted in the early sequences, without dialogue, is reminiscent of that dusty classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Desolate loneliness is captured masterfully in scenes of dry cacti-spotted hills and wild skies. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood scored the film’s original music. At turns wretched, hypnotic, tense, and grating, it too expresses time and place, ambient mood with haunting beauty. The film also contains Fratres by the great Arvo Pärt and the third movement from Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

A shadow of paternal emotion spreads through early scenes of a young father with his baby son. A son, protagonist Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) adopts, and shows affection, when the boy’s father is killed in a work accident.

To this point the film breathes a genuine, almost quaint silent movie air. There’s also an angry, uncompromising feel to it, documenting the struggle to overcome a God forsaken place; a feel reminiscent of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and photographer Walker Evans.

Left at this point, when storyline intrudes, the film could have been a successful, albeit less ambitious work of art. But it doesn’t stop. The story opens with silver prospector Plainview accidentally discovering crude oil. He begins extraction operations, designing his own rigging equipment, and soon earns enough money to launch a small drilling company. One of his men is killed at the bottom of an oil well in a work accident, and as mentioned, Plainview takes the man’s orphaned child, W.H., as his own. By 1911 Daniel is one of the most successful oil men in California.

He buys up drilling rights to oil producing land around Little Boston, California, exploiting poor ranch owners in his path, double crossing Eli Sunday, a young Evangelical faith healer set on establishing a church. He eventually hits a large "ocean of oil" underneath the town. A blowout and fire occur. His son, who he has used to delude townspeople into thinking he is a family man, loses his hearing in the blast.

The rest of the film is mostly noise, a boring slide into pathetic tormented old age. Daniel Day-Lewis contributes a worthy performance. An intense pressure boiler of evil bursting to be good, a capped gusher of malignant selfishness. Jed Clampett gone bad.

He does a lot, with little, in his portrayal, which is probably why he won the Academy Award. The film is entirely, claustrophobically about Daniel, his blood vessel bursting conflict with religion and young Charismatic Eli, his psychopathological urge for oil, his self loathing megalomania. A family man with no family, a community builder building solely for himself; living in a furnace of guilt, a dirty hole.

Speaking of holes, There will be Blood recalls a much better film written produced and directed in 1951 by Billy Wilder. Ace in the Hole is about a man trapped in a cave collapse and the cynical seedy manner in which a reporter manipulates this event. Kirk Douglas portrays self-centered ambition with a difference. Unlike Day-Lewis, he has a script to work with, as did Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

That so many ‘critics’ find this movie so good is a mite disturbing in view of the fact it’s so bad. There is undeniable artistry here on the screen, and an impressive, emotive performance. But more than this, I’m afraid I can’t fathom. Good movies don’t fire on two pistons alone.

February 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

British Dust Jackets kill American…Mostly


 All this fanatical book cover photoing lately reminds me of how I met my favourite spaceman/friend Gianni Montanaro (front row, second from the right) in Antigua last year. Turns out we rum soaked wretches were both reading Memoirs of my Melancholy Whore on the beach at the time. We figured this was a sign from God, and immediately celebrated with more rum. He ended up giving me his Italian edition. It was interesting to compare it to the British. The covers didn’t look anything alike.

While the differences may be less pronounced, British and American dust jacket design frequently parts company. I prefer the former. More elegant, understated, aesthetically pleasing…and other better reasons that I can’t think of right now…so let’s use our eyes. Faber on the left. Random House on the right:


Sometimes however the U.S. surprises:


Faber left, New Directions right.

Are we in agreement?

February 24th, 2008 • Posted in Boston

Audio Interview with Kenneth Gloss, Proprietor, Brattle Book Shop.

The Brattle Book Shop was founded in the Cornhill section of Boston in 1825 and has been in the hands of the Gloss Family since 1949. Over the years George and his son Kenneth built this shop into one of the largest in the United States.

Housed in a three-story building in the heart of downtown Boston, The Brattle Book Shop carries an impressive stock of over 250,000 books, maps, prints, postcards and ephemeral items in all subjects. In addition to its general used and out-of-print stock, it also maintains an inventory of antiquarian collectibles, first editions and fine leather bindings.

Best known to those outside the greater Boston area as a book appraiser on the Antique Roadshow TV program, Kenneth talks to me here about how to appraise the value of a book, the importance of experience and dealer reputation, reasons why books are appraised, never saying ‘no’ instantly, the misspelling of was and saw in Huckleberry Finn, always checking for signatures, the advantages of owning versus renting, the convenience of on-line buying and how it affects book shops, poorly made dust jackets, ebbs and flows of values as determined by the life cycles of book owners, the Great Gatsby annotated by T. S. Eliot in his own hand, and the danger Google Book Search poses to rare book dealers.  

Listen Here: 

February 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with Larry McMurtry, Author/Bookseller, by Nigel Beale


Book and Word Ranching:  

Novelist, screenwriter and essayist Larry McMurtry is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 novel Lonesome Dove, a sweeping historical epic that follows ex-Texas Rangers as they drive cattle from the Rio Grande to Montana.

He grew up on a ranch outside of Archer City, Texas, which is the model for his fictional town of Thalia. A book collector, McMurtry purchased a rare book store in Washington, D.C.‘s Georgetown neighborhood in 1970 and named it Booked Up. In 1988he opened a second Booked Up in Archer City, establishing the town as a "Book City." This store is arguably the largest single used bookstore in the United States, carrying somewhere between 400,000 and 450,000 titles.

McMurtry is well-known for the film adaptations of his work, especially Hud (from the novel Horseman, Pass By), The Last Picture Show; James L. Brooks‘s Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove, which became an enormously popular television mini-series. In 2006, he was co-winner (with Diana Ossana) of both the Best Screenplay Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.

I interviewed him as part of a project I’m doing for the Canadian Booksellers Association. We talk about his latest book Untitled Fiction, his life as a book rancher, having the right books, junk, the fun of the hunt, book scouting, catalogues, bookstores and cultural vitality, keeping stock fresh, burning out on fiction and movies, the Oscars, the declining number of used book stores, and optimism for the future.