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

Archive for November 4th, 2008

November 4th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’

 Image from Lightlinks

This in the NYRB (via readysteadybook)

"A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland,our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done-in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait."

is irritating enough to make me want now to read O’Neill’s book.

I wasn’t ‘taught’ to love the exquisite use of words, or imaginative plots, or funny lines.  I learned, to some degree about ‘how fiction works,’ but it has been through my own reading that I have come to identify that which brings joy; which warrants praise. Is Smith suggesting that Netherland is so textbook perfect, that it does everything exactly as proponents  of ‘realism’ consider right, and yet in doing so, somehow fails to capture our condition? And that this is cause for crisis? Like the camera which undermined the painted portrait’s claim to represent reality? Isn’t this a confusing comparison? Wouldn’t the motion picture gifting a nervous breakdown to the novel, be more in line with what she is suggesting?

Seems to me, the only people who might see crisis here are those like Smith…and before her Robbe-Grillet, who criticize work that uses traditional techniques to approximate reality, as being unrealistic, simply because they are traditional, without providing any superior alternatives.

And then there’s this:

Netherland is only superficially about September 11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity. Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis-the Anglo-American liberal middle class-meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called "the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’" they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go "back to the things themselves!"; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

…Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?"

which brings up this from a previous post:

All Robbe-Grillet proffers is fatuous, though admittedly articulate and at times beautiful, drivel, condemning art’s search for ‘meaning’ as an ‘illusory simplification,’ suggesting that the novelist has traditionally and mistakenly sought to unearth fragments ‘of a disconcerting secret’ triumphantly describing the mystery ‘he had actually touched with his own hands’, reassuring readers ‘as to their power of domination over the world’ with the word functioning as a ‘trap in which the writer captured the universe in order to hand it over to society.’

A revolution he says, has already occurred against this ‘domesticate-able’ world, against belief in its ‘depth.’ And his glorious solution? Rejection of words of a ‘visceral, analogical, or incantatory character, and replacement of them with ‘the visual or descriptive adjective, the word that contents itself with measuring, locating, limiting, defining, indicates a difficult but most likely direction for a new art of the novel." In other words, with ‘realism.’ What a joke.

If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?

Evidently with a book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which "recognizes, with Szymborska’s poem, that we know, in the end, "less than little/And finally as little as nothing," and so tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control-the ultimate marker of which is Death itself."

If nothing else, Smith has succeeded in motivating me to read two books, which should at least keep the publishers happy.

November 4th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

Six First Editions for $1.3 million


 Lord Jim Joseph Conrad $97,685.62


Jane EyreCharlotte Brontë $122,107.03


The Maltese FalconDashiell Hammett $125,000.00



The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway $175,000.00


On the Origin of SpeciesCharles Darwin $179,090.31


Emma Jane Austen $529,130.46

I find it impossible to resist posting this kind of information when  abebooks sends it my way, as they did this afternoon. Of course it is just a smidgen suspicious that all British titles happen to be linked to the same bookseller…but hey, they’re nice to look at aren’t they.