On Enthusiasm

Just finished a fairly literary book by someone highly influenced by William Gibson. I am generally ambivalent to his trend-spotter’s enthusiasm for the weird future, but to get it in an emulated form is worse, it’s like enthusiasm about enthusiasm. It helps me realize I am very suspicious of enthusiasm generally. And I particularly don’t think it’s a great impulse to start from in a work of art.

Livid misanthropy and world-darkening pessimism just feels more true than a gee-whiz attitude about how weird and portentous the signs are becoming, and what kinds of cool ramifications that might have.

In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché. 📚I used to eschew political poetry, probably because I was pretentious or callow, but now I am ready for Forché, anyway. Perhaps it is the elegiac tone, and the scrupulous distance.

Design Fiction

Currently reading The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. 📚 I have read a few of Robinson’s other books and found them wanting, but here I realize I may have been approaching them incorrectly. They don’t work by the usual rules of literature, or here even really by the rules of genre fiction. This book is a design fiction about the potential ways in which we will or will not respond to the climate crisis. As such it is free to move from character to character, place to place, and even from year to year within the 21st century. The first chapter is a somewhat notorious set piece involving a heat wave in India which exceeds the survivable wet bulb temperature. So, it seems Robinson is going to give it to us straight. But no, here’s what’s mystifying: in the first half of the book there are plenty of notes of scientific skepticism about carbon capture, cap and trade, and other mitigation strategies, including refreezing glacial runoff, which is noted might only reduce sea level rise by a centimeter or so, if boundless resources were put behind it. But then later in the book CO2 levels begin to drop dramatically, and quite quickly, without good explanation. It’s not that the book is too optimistic — it simply avoids realities of which Robinson has already signalled he is well aware.

On Brahmins

Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty 📚 Much of the bulk of this long book is statistical details to back up his forward-thinking outline of a sustainable way forward, centering on the idea that wealth belongs, foremost, to the community, and to the community it must return. But the concept that is likely to stay with me the longest is that of the tripartite society, divided between the nobles, who are often aligned with or controlling the military, the brahmin, who are the religious or intellectual elite, and the commoners, which include the petit bourgeois. The notion of the brahmins setting up a smaller set of castles to one side of real power is… highly salient for this American.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. 📚 Meanders for a long while, but my interest picked up most of the way through, when it is revealed that the first person narrator has been withholding central information from the reader. Which seems a little unfair.

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh. 📚This one inhabits a drunken, psychotic delirium, where her earlier “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” was a portrait of drugged, schizoid delirium. Quite a trip.

The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier. 📚One hundred short-short ghost stories — but these are Brockmeier ghost stories, so akin to Saramago or Millhauser. Good short-shorts like these have a form a little like a sonnet, with a turn near the end that complicates.

Ordesa, by Manuel Vilas

An “autobiographical novel” about a middle-aged Spanish man contemplating the state of his own life, and the lives of his deceased parents and other elders. Vilas’s style — reading in translation — is straightforward and concise, which somehow feels a bit odd in an elegy. We get ruminations that… aren’t very ruminative. Late in the book comes a brief aside that seems to acknowledge this bluntness:

If that old woman were speaking English, we’d get to enjoy a scene of American realism, full of steely poetry, but in Spain, and in Spanish, and in a Zaragozan accent no less, we end up without steely poetry, without transcendence, without epic, without anything at all. We are left merely with the exoticism of the inferior bloodlines.

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📷 Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati. April 2021.

Vineland, Thomas Pynchon

A craft note — perhaps the aim is something overtly bullshit, but also compelling. To induce a feeling of awe at mentally inhabiting a thought castle of ornate bullshit. For me, it’s still important there be a truth to arrive at on the far shore of the bullshit. But maybe that truth is just that bullshit can be felt to be real.

And Pynchon feeling his way toward the next order of simulacra:

“There’ll never be a Thanatoid sitcom,” Ortho Bob confidently predicted, “cuz all they could show would be scenes of Thanatoids watching the tube.”

The last emotion available to Thanatoids, Pynchon writes presciently, here in 1990, is resentment.

Also thinking about the Pynchon > DeLillo > Wallace triad. Predecessor: Vonnegut. To one side: William Gibson. Gibson hooks in through the “shadowy conspiracy riding alongside pop culture” channel of Pynchon, as does DeLillo. DeLillo is always careful to leave the central macguffin completely empty however.

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The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig had the good fortune to be born in Austria in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a Jew in an enlightened Viennese society that prided itself on being the crown jewel of European civilization. He was a best-selling and well-connected writer in a culture that highly valued writers, and he knew he had been born into lucky times, calling it “the Golden Age of Security.” But then the golden age came to an end. This memoir documents how he witnessed the destruction of the culture that had afforded him such privilege.

Zweig’s literary reputation has fallen over time, to the point where his fiction isn’t so widely read, but this book is very good, full of candor and lament for a vanished life. It’s worth reading because Zweig wound up in the first row for many of the main events of European self-destruction in World War 1 and 2, and his insights especially about Nazism are keen.

On a lovely summer day in 1914, Zweig is reading a book in a park in Vienna, the most cultured city of all Europe, while a band plays music under a pavilion off in the distance.

…I heard the melodies distinctly without being disturbed by them, for our ear is so capable of adapting itself that a continuous din, or the noise of a street, or the rippling of a brook adjusts itself completely to our consciousness, and it is only an unexpected halt in the rhythm that startles us into listening. And so it was that I abruptly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly.

The band had stopped playing because an announcement had just been posted on the pavilion: Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Zweig lays low in Belgium as European governments gird for what is to come. He and his friends mull over the possibility that Germany might invade Belgium, but he concludes naively that the sanctity of treaties would always hold. Then he hears that Austria intended to declare war on Serbia, and he takes the last train out of Belgium, thinking that he was leaving a country at peace to return home as a loyal Austrian. But as soon as the train crosses into Germany, it is halted to make way for German trains going in the other direction. As he watches out the window, he clearly sees the silhouettes of cannons under tarps on the open freight cars, and knows that war will be all around him.

Coincidentally, he has another historical encounter on the rails just a few years later, in March of 1919, again returning for a visit to Austria, this time from Switzerland. He is stopped at a border station when a train pulls in on the opposite side of the tracks. It is Emperor Karl 1, leaving in disgrace, dethroned, forever putting an end to the rule of the Habsburgs.

By the time that Hitler arrives on the scene, Zweig’s sanguine faith in overarching European civility has been lost, and he is not surprised when he comes to the Nazis attention as a Jewish writer. At this point his house in Salzburg was so close to the German border that “with the naked eye I could view the Berchtesgarden mountain on which Adolf Hitler’s house stood, an uninviting and very disturbing neighborhood.” He is clear-eyed enough to see that he must put more space between the two of them, and thus begins the wandering which will be his fate for the rest of his life, first deciding on London as a base.

In 1938, when news breaks that Chamberlain and other Western European leaders have come to an accord with HItler in Munich, Zweig finds that he can’t speak to the optimistic Englishfolk of the calamitous betrayal which he sees coming, as he is now merely “a stranger, a tolerated guest” who must remain on good manners. Conversely, taking a final farewell visit to Austria, he feels that as one who has abandoned his family and compatriots, he can’t speak the dire truth about their situation. Trapped between worlds, cut off from his people, banned in his own language, the world in which he was an accomplished public figure is now the world of yesterday.

The book ends with a short postscript from his publisher, noting that one of Zweig’s last acts was to post the manuscript to him from exile in Brazil, before committing suicide with his wife.

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Strikingly internet-age insight from Musil. Epigraph to Elizabeth Goodstein’s Boredom and Modernity which will take me an age to get through.

Bartleby, The Scrivener; Herman Melville

The story is ultimately a bit of a disappointment because of the conventionality of the framework through which Melville relates his tale. One can imagine a version where the idea is blown out into a shaggy novel about the legal trade, with chapters on ink and paper consumption, and on the philosophy of the law. Bartleby; or, The Whale.

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Kissa By Kissa, Craig Mod

An interesting limited edition photo/narrative documenting a 960 kilometer walk from Tokyo to Kyoto. Mod is an American who has lived in Japan for his whole professional career, which seems to be that of a freelance thinker.

The book is a bit eccentric: As a travelogue, it doesn’t have all that many details. As a chronicle of an arduous solitary journey, there’s not much interiority. The author stops in at 29 different Kissa, an eccentric, forgotten style of Japanese roadside diner which specializes in an American-inspired specialty called “pizza toast.” A particular way of life, ordinary, but unique, is documented just before it vanishes.

The balance of about 400–500 words per photograph is just right, and the author’s Leica shots are fantastically reproduced on a hefty matte off-white paper. The production is clearly a labor of love. As the cartoonist Rory Blank recently noted: nostalgia used to be considered a disease.

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The Plague, Albert Camus

Camus keeps his philosophical agenda somewhat low key, but if a similar novel were written in America today about Covid, what overt philosophical interjections he allows, such as Father Paneloux’s sermon, would probably be omitted, and we’d wind up with something closer to a screenplay.

Cottard rejoined, “but what do you mean by a return to normal life?”
Tarrou smiled. “New films at the picture houses.”

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The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Bohumil Hrabal

I read the NYRB Classics edition, which contains two linked novellas about the same characters. The first, Cutting It Short, is from the point of view of the wife of a brewery manager in a small town in Czechoslovakia, and the second, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, is from the point of view of their son, but is primarily about the manager’s brother. Both narratives proceed recklessly, relating a series of slightly peculiar anecdotes about village life and leaving it to the reader to make of it what they will. In this way it feels a little like a fairy tale. Fairy anecdotes, really. I am a little reminded of the work of Jim Heynen.

Somehow I wound up admiring the seemingly undisciplined maneuver he makes in both novellas of slowly coming around to mentioning the phrase that gives each piece its title, then hammering on the idea hard a few more times to bring the pieces to their conclusions.

I thought it a sign of being written without much revising, really, in a state of exuberance similar to that of the characters he is writing about. But I misinterpreted the feeling — in the afterword, Hrabal writes that the book was written during a period of mortal illness in which he felt he might not live long enough to fill in the details.

Even more undisciplined is the way The Little Town Where Time Stood Still starts with a first person narration by the couple’s son, relating an incident from his own childhood, but then takes up the story of his rowdy uncle, who then crowds the narrator completely out the rest of the story, to the point where he is not present for any of the following scenes he relates.

But the book is animated by the strong feelings of the peculiar people within it, and this enchantment makes me forgive the formal lapses.

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Adam Curtis On the Unfolding Epistemological Crisis

After the violence and social experiments of the twentieth century, it made sense to give up on grand ideologies, but the result is that we live in societies without narrative coherence, with old myths boiling up. “There isn’t a big story,” Curtis said. “And that’s true in China as much as it is here. Everyone’s just trying to manage the now and desperately hold it stable, almost like in a permanent present, and not step into the future. And I don’t think that will last very long… . Because if you’ve got a story about where you’re going, when catastrophes like 9/11 or covid or the banking crisis hit, they allow you to put them—even though they’re frightening—to put them into a sense of proportion. If you don’t have a story about where you’re going, they seem like terrifying random acts from another universe.”

Adam Curtis Explains It All - The New Yorker

Metamorphica, Zachary Mason

I started to read Mason’s first book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a few years ago, and it quickly took its place on the small shelf of books which I had to put down because they were simply unbearably good. (This doesn’t reflect well on me as a person.) Mason is fully an heir to the John Barth tradition, and Calvino. I was able to finish Metamorphica, which I guess means it gets four stars from this reader instead of five.

I sometimes find reading the Greeks and Romans to be… unmemorable. But here Mason renders the work of Ovid and a few other sources into something frequently more urgent and striking, with stronger ironies and perversities. Probably worthwhile to read/reread Ovid before getting in to this one, so you can appreciate what liberties Mason is taking.

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The Door, Magda Szabo.

I always have high expectations when opening an NYRB Classics book, but this one felt a little slight. The relationship between the narrator and the subject, is interesting but the machinery of the narrative is really rather basic. A thing unfolds.

Update: Book is being praised on Twitter again, reminding me that that’s what led me to this book. Many smart and discerning people love it… de gustibus I guess.

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Life of the Party, Olivia Gatwood

Thoroughly investigating the predicament of being an attractive young woman in a misogynist society. Could easily be merely aggrieved or narcissistic material in a lesser poet’s hands, but Gatwood is clear-eyed enough to build a world of it.

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Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf

Lighthouses appear, as do waves. Sensibility has to come before style, is what I take away from Woolf. One has to apprehend the ephemerality of consciousness before one can write with such a light hand about the dark.

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