Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for November, 2008

November 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Joan Armatrading: The Weakness in Me

I’m not the sort of person who falls in and quickly out of love
But to you, I give my affection, right from the start.
I have a lover who loves me – how could I break such a heart?
Yet still you get my attention.

Why do you come here, when you know I’ve got troubles enough?
Why do you call me, when you know I can’t answer the phone?
And make me lie when I don’t want to,
And make someone else some kind of an unknowing fool?
Make me stay when I should not?
If you’re so strong then resolve the weakness in me.
Why do you come here, and pretend to be just passing by?
I need to see you – I need to hold you – tightly.

Feeling guilty,
And I’m worried, and I’m waking from a tormented sleep
‘Cause this old love, you know it has me bound,
But this new love cuts so deep.
If I choose now, I’m bound to lose out;
One of you is gonna have to fall…
I need you, baby.

Why do you come here, when you know I’ve got troubles enough?
Why do you call me, when you know I can’t answer the phone?
And make me lie when I don’t want to,
And make someone else some kind of an unknowing fool?
Make me stay when I should not?
If you’re so strong then resolve the weakness in me.
Why do you come here, and pretend to be just passing by?
I need to see you – I need to hold you – tightly.

And if you liked that, try Rosie, and Willow.

November 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Pritchett on Beckett


Photo from Images of Beckett

This from ‘An Irish Oblomov’ in the great V.S. Pritchett’s book of New Statesman essays entitled The Living Novel & Later Appreciations:

"Beckett’s anti-novels, like all anti-novels, have to deal with small areas of experience because their pretension is to evoke the whole of life, i.e., life unfixed by art; the result is that these verbose books are like long ironical, stinging footnotes in small print to some there not formulated. But there is a flash of deep insight in the madenss he evokes: it is strange that in a gerneation which has put all its stress on youth and achievement, he alone should have written about old age, lonelines and decrepitude, a subject which arouses perhaps our deepest repressed guilt and fears.He is the product of a civilization which has become suddenly old. He is a consdierable, muttering, comic writer, and although he coveys unbearable pain, he salos conveys the emement of sardonic tenacity and danger that lies at the heart of the comic gift."

 I met this afternoon with Canadian actress Tanja Jacobs who played Winnie in a recent NAC production of Beckett’s Happy Days. We talked about what it was like to inhabit this character. Stay tuned for the audio.

November 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Awesome Authors from Rockcliffe Park Public School

 Students in my daughter’s grade six class at Rockcliffe Park Public School in Ottawa recently wrote and produced their own books. These photos from Thursday morning’s launch party.

Here’s a young man after my own heart 

This project is the brainchild of Barbara Brockmann, an award winning teacher at RPPS


 Nice to see the appreciation of books being instilled at an early age.

November 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Lazarus Project


Listen to my interview with Aleksandar Hemon on his National Book Award nominated novel The Lazarus Project here at The Quarterly Conversation.

November 27th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

A conversation with William Deresiewicz’s article in The Nation…Following James Wood into the Desert…

 Found in deserts.

 The following exerpts from William Deresiewicz’s "How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood" in  The Nation, are here interspersed with my rigorous commentary.

"Wood’s unapologetic commitment to literature’s transcendent value and criticism’s high calling is his most important virtue. The charge of that commitment is transmitted by the electricity of his style. Wood’s writing is stretched taut by his command of syntax, made brilliant by his virtuosity of metaphoric coloration."


So far so good


In all this, Wood is centrally concerned with the ways novelists tell the truth about the world, how they "produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are,’" and it is here that we begin to see both his project’s deepest motives and the first of its limitations. Wood’s ideal authors are those, like Chekhov and Mann and the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, who are able to invent characters who seem to break free of their creators’ intentions, who feel "real to themselves" –and thus to us–because they "forget" they are fictional. A novelist’s ultimate achievement is to enable us to know a character so well that we catch a glimpse of his inviolable unknowability, his singular quiddity–in other words, though Wood doesn’t use the term, his soul.


Reasonable assumption…


What he finally seems to want from fiction is that it recapture his lost faith without spilling a drop. In order to do so, it must be, as it were, "literally" true–transparently true. It must feel exactly like life, must exhibit not, as he puts it, "lifelikeness" but "lifeness: life on the page."


…the possibility of a perfect transmission from world to work, from life to "lifeness," as if the artistic medium could function like a clear pane of glass. Wood knows, of course, that realism is a set of conventions, but like a liberal Catholic who understands that Jesus wasn’t really divine, he would prefer to forget it. Hence his discomfort with the artful distortion, the allegorical dislocation…


If artful distortion interferes with the relationship/connection established between reader and character, if it makes suspension of disbelief difficult, if it appears contrived or forced or phoney…then certainly this seems reason enough to condemn or criticize it


Almost all the great 20th-century realist novels," he says, "are full of artifice," which makes artifice sound like a kind of optional ingredient, sort of like sugar, that novelists are free to add in greater or lesser amounts. Of course, everything, in every novel, is artifice. The only distinction to be made is between artifice that is flaunted and artifice that is concealed.




Wood’s unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters–to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person–points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one.


Your choice of exemplifiers exhibits a decided lack of rigour . Here’s what Wood says in the introduction to How Fiction Works: "If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities. That is why I have tried to give the most detailed accounts of the technique of that artifice, — of how fiction works – in order to reconnect that technique to the world."


Is something true (or beautiful, or good) just because James Wood says so?


No, nor is it when anyone else simply says so. Wood’s authority rests on an impressive ability to argue opinion with both authority and elan, neither of which are evident in your review.


For so imperious a critic, Wood is surprisingly sloppy.


For so sophisticated a reviewer, your tone is surprisingly insulting.


The language of literary criticism, Wood says, must be literary, "which is to say metaphorical." This is a provocative idea, but it is based on several false premises and, indeed, faulty metaphors. Literary criticism may share its subject’s language, but unlike music or painting, words can also be used to form concepts. Language is not only representational and emotive–that is, literary–it is also logical and analytic–that is, critical.


Wood’s distinction between "thinking through" and "thinking about" (both prepositions are also spatial metaphors) is another rhetorically attractive statement that turns out upon examination to be logically void. If Wood’s work cannot be described as "thinking about" books–making conceptual statements about them–then neither word has any content.


This is tiresome pedantry.


And the reason criticism needs to make use of the conceptual resources of language is that while it does indeed deal with what art is like, it also deals with what it means.


Thank you Sherlock.


But beyond his theological preoccupations, Wood never shows much interest in what novels mean. His criticism shuttles between the largest scale and the smallest, the development of fictional technique over the course of novelistic history and the minute particulars of authorial style. His brilliance in describing both is unequaled, but he ignores just about everything that lies in between.


The book is a primer…


He ignores the broad middle ground of novelistic form–narrative structures, patterns of character and image, symbols that bind far-flung moments and disparate levels of a text–and he ignores the meanings that novelists use those methods to propose. (This explains his factual mistakes and interpretive blunders; he simply isn’t paying attention at a certain level.)


…not a magnum opus.


For all his interest in fiction’s ability to tell the truth about the world, there is something remarkably self-enclosed about his criticism–a sense that nothing exists beyond the boundary of his consciousness, and that his consciousness contains nothing but books.


It’s called focus.


Wood treats the novelistic canon like one giant Keatsian urn, a self-sufficient aesthetic artifact removed from commerce with the dirty, human world.


What Wood is doing is examining what matters most to those who love literature.


What made Wilson, Trilling, Kazin. Howe and Hardwick distinguished, significant, was not great learning, or great thinking, or great expressive ability, or great sensitivity to literary feeling and literary form, though they exhibited all of these, but a passionate involvement with what lies beyond the literary and creates its context.


So great literary critics, in order to warrant the accolade, must also be great sociologists, political scientists, economists?


For the New York critics, novelists are people; for Wood, people, including novelists, are ideas.


So biography is more important than the texts?


No one is doing what the New York critics once did. The real question is why. The first answer, it seems to me, has to do with a general loss of cultural ambition. We no longer have anyone who aspires to be the next Joyce or Proust either. The Modernist drive to remake the world has given way to a postmodern sense of enfeeblement.


We are immensely fortunate to have him–his talent, his erudition, his judgment–but if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.


Spoken like a true disdainer of serious, unalloyed  literary study

November 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

The role of Artists; Writers as Magicians; and Zadie Smith versus reactionary Critics

Many ‘Modern’ writers and artists have sold out, says Alan Moore. They treat art simply as entertainment to be fed to apathetic, bored audiences who live only to die. The role of the artist is to give the audience not what it wants, he claims, but what it needs: to transform individuals, and more generally, society at large.

I’d add that artists might also actively question accepted norms, stretch perceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad; re-define the beautiful, the ‘real,’ the true; see and expose the unseen in society, know the unknown; provoke, astound; challenge the accepted.

Perhaps Zadie Smith agrees with this. Perhaps she may, however obtusely, be alluding to this role in her attack on Josepj O’Neill’s perfect ‘lyrically real’ novel Netherland.

I agree that much of what passes for good literature these days, isn’t, and that this is partly due to the accepted wisdom that nothing surpasses the aesthetic value found in ‘realism’ and its capacity to convey feeling and understanding. Perhaps all Smith is saying is that artists/novelists are today failing us in their duty to provoke and astound precisely because capitalism undermines the experimental, and ‘reactionary’ critics like James Wood — by eulogizing what exists and perpetuating the status quo,  condemning or at least undermining attempts to stretch, see and expose, — foster a climate inhospitable to the creation of genuinely innovative works of art and literature.

Perhaps this is what she is saying. Then again, given all the subtle shadings and layered logic that adorn her argument, how’s a clueless prole to know. 


November 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Paris Review’s Philip Gourevitch on the worth of Author Interviews


Philip Gourevitch, editor of The Paris Review, in the Williamette Weekly, on the worth of author interviews:

In William Gaddis’ opus The Recognitions, his character Wyatt once said that if an author had more to say than was in the art, he would have put it in the art. So what’s the worth of an author interview?

That’s what William Gaddis said, but then he gave us a Paris Review interview. Talking about one’s art is irrelevant to the art; the art and the writing speak for themselves. But that doesn’t mean that the writing life and the question of craft-which are what’s essential to Paris Review interviews-aren’t a matter of interest. It’s not theorizing about the art, but relating how the writer goes about it, what they do physically, their daily routines, their annual routines, how characters come from you. This demystifies the creative process. When Wyatt says what he says, it’s a mystification and romanticization of the artist-not that I’m against that. Most writers know that writing is labor, craft and toil. Some things are learnable, and some things are unlearnable and have to be confronted again and again. These interviews are not biographical, and they are not literary criticism, but they do address what it is to be a living writer. There is quite a bit of humor in these interviews. They are essentially spoken essays about the nature of the undertaking. And obviously they do have value, interest, and merit, because generations of writers have used them as sort of a starter kit for how to be a writer.

I’d say this holds if the intended audience, as Philip suggests, is mostly prospective writers. If listenership tends to possess a more general interest in books and literature, this approach I think is best broadened, so that questions focus primarily on the text itself, secondarily on its  recognized form or genre, thirdly on technique, then political/social context and finally on the life of the author him or herself.

Then again, the opposite could be true. What’s most important is the connection established between those involved in the process, which usually requires a lot of listening, genuine interest, curiosity and respect.

November 25th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

The Book Collector by Tim Bowling


Received this irresistible little volume in the mail today from Nightwood Editions. The title poem is dedicated to famed young book collector Harry Elkins Widener (1885-1912) who drowned on the Titanic in April 1912. (Derick Dreher, Director of the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia spoke about Harry to me in a recent interview here if you’d care to listen). Here’s a excerpt from Tim Bowling’s poem The Book Collector:

Young Mr. Widener, Sir,
you didn’t go back for the book,
you didn’t even think of it
or of Shakespeare of Gutenberg
as the ship tilted like a parched throat
beneath a cracked glass. Romance
is a luxury of the living and you were several staircases down on your way to death,
and we who have made a start behind you,
gathering and spending, turning the rare pages
with delight, shelving and reshelving the accumulated wisdom
of the world, adherents
to the faith in permanence,
sniff the Alexandrian smoke
and turn over in our first-class berths
and steerage bunds or play another hand of poker
as the lights flicker
and at last go out.


November 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with Rivka Galchen on her first novel Atmospheric Disturbances


Rivka Galchen was born in Toronto. She grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, where her father, Tzvi Gal-Chen, was a professor of meterology at the University of Oklahoma. Her novel Atmospheric Disturbances features a character with the same name, Tzvi Gal-Chen, a professor of meterology and a fellow of the (fictional) Royal Academy of Meterology.

Galchen attended Princeton University, where she was an English major, and applied in her sophomore year to an early-admissions program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She received her M.D. from Mount Sinai in 2003, with a focus in psychiatry. After completing medical school, she completed an MFA at Columbia University. Farcically, Atmospheric Disturbances was nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for fiction (she left the country when she was four years old). No way she was going to win; still, on the flip side, provides nice exposure for both prize and author.

We talk here among other things about denial, death, fathers, unreliable narrators, James Wood, Walter Benjamin, science, consensus knowledge, and being stoned.

The Biblio File © Nigel Beale 2008

Please listen here:

November 22nd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Arts Funding (1): City of Ottawa cuts will cost Life


At the end of his open letter to Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien, rob mclennan muses — after reiterating what many have pointed out: that arts funding produces a return of investment to a community of some ten to twenty dollars per $1 spent — about leaving the city.

This musing, I think, touches on the most serious danger represented by Ottawa’s proposed 100% cut to arts funding: loss of life.

Though loss to the city of someone like Rob might not show up as a line item in the budget, it signals the start of slow decline. Without the vitality and industry of people like Rob, arts culture dies. And without the arts, a city becomes little more than a drab, purposeless collection of roads and buildings.

What is a community if not a place where life is made better, easier, more enjoyable for the people who live in it? Why do most of us work? So that we can closet themselves up each night watching American sit coms? Thrill to the sound of police, ambulance and fire engine sirens keeping streets and citizenry safe? Drive in awe along snow cleared, chronically re-constructing roads?

Safety and security are obviously important. Without them, it’s difficult to enjoy much else. But, isn’t there more to life than simply surviving? Why live if all you do is survive? The arts are life giving. Surely spending money on bringing life to the city is just as important as spending money on protecting it?

Ironic then, isn’t it, that if one so much as squeaks about the possibility that funds are being wasted by police, fire, health care, road maintenance services, you’re branded a borderline criminal, a nut living multiple removes from the real fiscal world. Who [he said ironically] could possibly argue that services which may save just one life, are not worth every cent spent on them? Who in their right mind would complain about the convoy of redundant cruisers, ambulances and firetrucks that often show up when 911 is dialed (false alarms or otherwise)? Who would have the nerve to complain about the constant, long term tearing up and re-paving of Bank Street and King Edward Avenue? Certainly not anyone concerned about living in a well run city…

But consider this…perhaps by spending that 1/5th of 1% of the budget that goes to the Arts, and even increasing it a smidgen, there just might be less crime…people might just be a little happier, fewer of them might be on the streets. Fewer might attempt suicide, drink or use drugs to excess, fall asleep with cigarettes in their hands…?

Without a lively arts sector, Ottawa will lose and repel exactly the kind of creative, interesting people that cities require in order to thrive, in order to ensure the well-being of everyone, in order to facilitate life that is not dull, but passionate.

By cutting arts funding, Ottawa will lose its life.