Reading Log

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.

📚

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.

📚

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.

📚

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.”

📚

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.

📚

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.

📚

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.

📚

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.

📚

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.

📚

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

I’m old enough to have some books in my tsundoku pile whose pages have turned yellow with age while waiting their turn to be read.

This week I took one of the oldest volumes off of that pile, Gravity’s Rainbow, in the first paperback edition from Viking Press. But to be fair, the yellowing started when it landed on my dad’s tsundoku pile way back in 1973. I took it to college with me and have moved it from dwelling to dwelling ever since.

I’m finally reading it for us, Dad.

So far so good, if a bit little-k kabbalistic for me. And I admire that Pynchon can take an idea which others might just, these days, make into a brief tweet — ”supersonic missiles seem to reverse time, explosion arriving before its engine noise does” — and elaborate on it endlessly, making every possible connection.

📚