Books, culture, and life

Two articles not directly related but nonetheless dealing with similar issues regarding American culture caught my eye. The first, Ron Charles’ Harry Potter and the Death of Reading, recites the now-familiar statistics about the relatively small number of people who read and how their ranks thin among the young. The articles details the usual litany about illiteracy and slips in an important sentence that struck me: “Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn’t encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands — and rewards.” If we no longer want contemplation or independence and indulge in marketing hysteria, perhaps novels are truly being marginalized. One reason I still love the form is that it’s among the few means of entertainment in which one isn’t constantly being advertised at. The reader usually isn’t overtly manipulated toward a particular view, whether of products or politics, and in the novel I find the kind of expansiveness that comes from unfettered stories.

That ties into Dana Gioia’s recently piece in the Wall Street Journal, The Impoverishment of American Culture, which argues that the arts—music, dance, painting, and, yes, literature—are worth experiencing and saving, the implication being that most people believe otherwise. I’m struck by how a paragraph of Gioia’s resonates with what Charles wrote: “But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing–it puts a price on everything. The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.” I ask whether our culture fails us or we fail our culture—the arts he’s describing continue to be created even as their supposed deaths have been lamented for years if not decades. Their wide availability for those who choose to seek them continues, and the Internet only makes finding books, music, or performances easier. While I don’t agree with all of Gioia’s article—another problem is his eagerness to create binary categories of people who experience art and those who don’t—it’s an interesting reading reading, especially because it argues for the value of the independent thought available through the arts.

The main problem with both is that, to the extent they speak to anyone, they are in a conversation being carried on by a self-contained elite, much like the readers of this blog. The T.V.-loving majority probably knows little if anything of the debate and knows less of the pleasures of Cryptonomicon or The Mind-Body Problem. If they are not engaged, do the shrinking number of participants have a duty to reach them, as though we’re saving souls? In writing about Ravelstein I recounted something from How To Be Alone: “[...] Jonathan Franzen made a similar point [when] he admits that he has mellowed since his apocalyptic treatise on why the decline in reading is also a sign of End Times and compares his love for words to the beliefs of religious fanatics.” Maybe we aren’t living in the end times and the times are just changing; poets might have wondered the same thing in the first half of the twentieth century, when poetry began its long slide toward society’s margins.

If people no longer read, perhaps subversive writers will not be as feared. I watched the film The Lives of Others three nights ago, and the insidious East German police extensively monitored writers, as dictators have long feared the power of words. They blacklisted, tortured, and killed writers to achieve ends that, to hear Charles and Gioia, may be accomplished in the West without guns or terror. he culture may be heading in that direction anyway. What the Stasi and an army of censors through the centuries could not accomplish may come through torpor or sloth. Both articles say we need to protect reading and arts, but neither asks a question that may be more important: what happens when no one cares?

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a good novel—good even without the modifier “crime,” in front of “novel” though not quite as good as some think. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it’s slightly too long and goes mushy two-thirds through (how again did Landsmen end up in a training camp for religious terrorists in the middle of Tlingit country in Alaska? And is it bad that I give nothing away by saying so?), but I forgive because I like Landsman. I forgive because Chabon never stops playing with words, with dialog, with ideas, even while his characters make improbably erudite references or use literary terms—”‘You need me to hold your hand,’ she says. ‘In a deep dark nasty old tunnel.’ ‘Only in the metaphorical sense,’ he says.” Detectives refer to tautologies and adverbs, and very occasionally professorese slips into the cursing and backbiting I normally think of as the detective’s domain. The rare one-liners that misfire are still more than compensated for by the ones that work: “She leaves the door open and Landsman standing there on the thick coir mat that says GET LOST. Landsman touches two fingers to the mezuzah on his way in and then gives them a perfunctory kiss. This is what you do if you are a believer, like Berko, or a mocking asshole, like Landsman.”

Chabon sometimes stays lowbrow, classic detective, but also goes much higher than Chandler, whose shadow stays on the page even when I read in direct sunlight, and who also sometimes left one confused (who killed who and why?). The Chandleresque metaphors appear—”[...] its coffee fresh from a stint as a barium enema at Sitka General [...]” Then again, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is more political than Chandler, and it criticizes the fanaticism of our time by mixing some religious conspiracy elements into a detective novel, making a pastiche of genres that disoriented at times and, towards the end, made me roll my eyes as events reached an unlikely confluence. Chandler never went that route, but then again Chandler arrived in a time blessedly before The Da Vinci Code.

Chandler is not just on my mind, and Chabon mentioned him, though not explicitly the anxiety of influence detective writers feel regarding master, when Chabon visited Seattle recently. During his initial comments Chabon delivered like a standup comic or TV show host, with a speech pattern unlike the professorial tone many if not most authors adopt, and what his characters sometimes hit by accident. He wore a pink shirt and was well-coifed in an unruly, Bohemian sort of way, the young intellectual king who has conquered a small territory in the land of literature, yet turned into something closer to a cantor or rabbi in reading his own work. He spoke slowly compared to most authors. Hearing him roll with his languid sentences made them gorgeous, or sound more so than they already are, and the crowd, myself included, loved his elocution, “The rest of Sitka’s homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of alcohol and firearms” on page eight, causing even more laughs than his opening routine.

At the reading I also I realized what’s so odd about book readings: they’re often not really about the book so much as the apparatus around the book, or the way the book was formulated, or what kind of computer the writer used. The same is true of weaker interviews, which is one reason I liked so many of the pieces from Conversations with Robertson Davies, a book I mentioned, perhaps not coincidentally, regarding John Banville’s visit for Christine Falls.

This time, the questions directly about writing habits and where Chabon got his idea were mostly preempted—the former in the Author’s Note of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where we learn it was composed on Macs using Nisus Writer Express and DevonThink Pro (I like DevonThink Pro, but prefer Mellel for obscure word processors), and the latter when he described finding a travel guidebook of Yiddish phrases published in the 1950s. World War II demolished any communities where such a guidebook would be of any use, and so he began to imagine an alternate universe where a Yiddish-speaking community might have grown. The ultimate result he signed at the end of the night, impressed with the number of stickies festooning the long edge. “A future graduate student’s compulsion,” I said before the line moved. During his talk Chabon did have one great bit about writing, instead of what he had written, which was paraphrased advice from a former teacher: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog.

I wish he had been able to talk more about the religious aspects of the novel and how he employs chess as a metaphor. Religion played an enormous role, to a much greater extent than his earlier big novels, and Landsman goes from the specifics of him as a Jew to the general problems of being a Jew to back to the specific again, making him the microcosm of the larger issues. The novel also discusses his family, or lack thereof, and how the Jews have been forced into being peripatetic, contributing to the feeling of being lost that is so prevalent in many detective novels but seldom as well-supported as it is here. Landsman is lost because of his absent family, while the Jews are lost because they cannot find a home. For Landsman, as if it’s not enough being left by a woman (a standard detective fiction trope) and being an alcoholic and being cynical (as we’re too often explicitly reminded), he also has to contend with being kicked out of Sitka with the rest of the temporary residents. The people don’t belong there, and Landsman is the detective, so he doesn’t belong either, and he’s trying to find a home through solving his case, just like John Wayne was trying in some sense to belong through his adventures in his Westerns, like The Searchers. Being Jewish makes for unusual references, though, as when “The daily sight of [Bina, Landsman's ex-wife] is going to be torment, like God torturing Moses with a glimpse of Zion from the top of Mount Pisgah every single day of his life.”

Not all the religious references are Jewish: “Berko comes back to the table, looking like he has just liberated a soul from the wheel of karma.” We’re dealing with Jewish intellectual detectives, evidently, but this is a bit much, as with some of the intellectual matter I talked about above. Chabon also has Landsman speaking for the people when “Landsman’s voice comes out sounding every bit as hollow and hopeless as he feels [...]” He feels hollow, and so do the people; they feel frustrated, and so does he: “[Landsman] tries [to drive the game he found at the murder scene] from his mind, to expunge it, to sweep aside the pieces and fill in all the white checkers with black. An all-black board, uncorrupted by pieces or players, gambits or endgames, tempo or tactics or material advantage, black as the Baranof Mountains.” I like the use of chess and color to describe Landsman’s existential frustration, and the reversal of white and black as traditional symbols of good and bad. Reverses like that occur throughout the book, as does commentary on politics, which only become more explicit as it goes on and work at many levels. Landsman could be describing an individual, a state (especially Israel), or humanity here: “Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss.”


The Elegant Variation beats me to the punch again with reporting on Chabon in L.A. Mark Sarvas wrote:

Chabon cited the influence of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald … determined that he needed an “unobtrusive conveying of information” about this alternate society, which could be handled via a detective … He “felt strongly that I wanted to keep the sentences short,” which he acknowledged is contrary to his more normal style.

Unobtrusive? In one scene, one supposedly blue-collar character remarks to another about the adverb used in the preceding sentence of dialog, and there is no way of “unobtrusively” mentioning an enema. I liked The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s style, but it is not unobtrusive. Perhaps unobtrusive compared to The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay, but not at all compared to Elmore Leonard, or to the writers who seem to have one eye towards the screen.

In addition, The Guardian writes about Chabon and even mentions novels here.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a good novel—good even without the modifier “crime,” in front of “novel” though not quite as good as some think. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it’s slightly too long and goes mushy two-thirds through (how again did Landsmen end up in a training camp for religious terrorists in the middle of Tlingit country in Alaska? And is it bad that I give nothing away by saying so?), but I forgive because I like Landsman. I forgive because Chabon never stops playing with words, with dialog, with ideas, even while his characters make improbably erudite references or use literary terms—”‘You need me to hold your hand,’ she says. ‘In a deep dark nasty old tunnel.’ ‘Only in the metaphorical sense,’ he says.” Detectives refer to tautologies and adverbs, and very occasionally professorese slips into the cursing and backbiting I normally think of as the detective’s domain. The rare one-liners that misfire are still more than compensated for by the ones that work: “She leaves the door open and Landsman standing there on the thick coir mat that says GET LOST. Landsman touches two fingers to the mezuzah on his way in and then gives them a perfunctory kiss. This is what you do if you are a believer, like Berko, or a mocking asshole, like Landsman.”

Chabon sometimes stays lowbrow, classic detective, but also goes much higher than Chandler, whose shadow stays on the page even when I read in direct sunlight, and who also sometimes left one confused (who killed who and why?). The Chandleresque metaphors appear—”[...] its coffee fresh from a stint as a barium enema at Sitka General [...]” Then again, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is more political than Chandler, and it criticizes the fanaticism of our time by mixing some religious conspiracy elements into a detective novel, making a pastiche of genres that disoriented at times and, towards the end, made me roll my eyes as events reached an unlikely confluence. Chandler never went that route, but then again Chandler arrived in a time blessedly before The Da Vinci Code.

Chandler is not just on my mind, and Chabon mentioned him, though not explicitly the anxiety of influence detective writers feel regarding master, when Chabon visited Seattle recently. During his initial comments Chabon delivered like a standup comic or TV show host, with a speech pattern unlike the professorial tone many if not most authors adopt, and what his characters sometimes hit by accident. He wore a pink shirt and was well-coifed in an unruly, Bohemian sort of way, the young intellectual king who has conquered a small territory in the land of literature, yet turned into something closer to a cantor or rabbi in reading his own work. He spoke slowly compared to most authors. Hearing him roll with his languid sentences made them gorgeous, or sound more so than they already are, and the crowd, myself included, loved his elocution, “The rest of Sitka’s homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of alcohol and firearms” on page eight, causing even more laughs than his opening routine.

At the reading I also I realized what’s so odd about book readings: they’re often not really about the book so much as the apparatus around the book, or the way the book was formulated, or what kind of computer the writer used. The same is true of weaker interviews, which is one reason I liked so many of the pieces from Conversations with Robertson Davies, a book I mentioned, perhaps not coincidentally, regarding John Banville’s visit for Christine Falls.

This time, the questions directly about writing habits and where Chabon got his idea were mostly preempted—the former in the Author’s Note of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where we learn it was composed on Macs using Nisus Writer Express and DevonThink Pro (I like DevonThink Pro, but prefer Mellel for obscure word processors), and the latter when he described finding a travel guidebook of Yiddish phrases published in the 1950s. World War II demolished any communities where such a guidebook would be of any use, and so he began to imagine an alternate universe where a Yiddish-speaking community might have grown. The ultimate result he signed at the end of the night, impressed with the number of stickies festooning the long edge. “A future graduate student’s compulsion,” I said before the line moved. During his talk Chabon did have one great bit about writing, instead of what he had written, which was paraphrased advice from a former teacher: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog.

I wish he had been able to talk more about the religious aspects of the novel and how he employs chess as a metaphor. Religion played an enormous role, to a much greater extent than his earlier big novels, and Landsman goes from the specifics of him as a Jew to the general problems of being a Jew to back to the specific again, making him the microcosm of the larger issues. The novel also discusses his family, or lack thereof, and how the Jews have been forced into being peripatetic, contributing to the feeling of being lost that is so prevalent in many detective novels but seldom as well-supported as it is here. Landsman is lost because of his absent family, while the Jews are lost because they cannot find a home. For Landsman, as if it’s not enough being left by a woman (a standard detective fiction trope) and being an alcoholic and being cynical (as we’re too often explicitly reminded), he also has to contend with being kicked out of Sitka with the rest of the temporary residents. The people don’t belong there, and Landsman is the detective, so he doesn’t belong either, and he’s trying to find a home through solving his case, just like John Wayne was trying in some sense to belong through his adventures in his Westerns, like The Searchers. Being Jewish makes for unusual references, though, as when “The daily sight of [Bina, Landsman's ex-wife] is going to be torment, like God torturing Moses with a glimpse of Zion from the top of Mount Pisgah every single day of his life.”

Not all the religious references are Jewish: “Berko comes back to the table, looking like he has just liberated a soul from the wheel of karma.” We’re dealing with Jewish intellectual detectives, evidently, but this is a bit much, as with some of the intellectual matter I talked about above. Chabon also has Landsman speaking for the people when “Landsman’s voice comes out sounding every bit as hollow and hopeless as he feels [...]” He feels hollow, and so do the people; they feel frustrated, and so does he: “[Landsman] tries [to drive the game he found at the murder scene] from his mind, to expunge it, to sweep aside the pieces and fill in all the white checkers with black. An all-black board, uncorrupted by pieces or players, gambits or endgames, tempo or tactics or material advantage, black as the Baranof Mountains.” I like the use of chess and color to describe Landsman’s existential frustration, and the reversal of white and black as traditional symbols of good and bad. Reverses like that occur throughout the book, as does commentary on politics, which only become more explicit as it goes on and work at many levels. Landsman could be describing an individual, a state (especially Israel), or humanity here: “Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss.”


The Elegant Variation beats me to the punch again with reporting on Chabon in L.A. Mark Sarvas wrote:

Chabon cited the influence of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald … determined that he needed an “unobtrusive conveying of information” about this alternate society, which could be handled via a detective … He “felt strongly that I wanted to keep the sentences short,” which he acknowledged is contrary to his more normal style.

Unobtrusive? In one scene, one supposedly blue-collar character remarks to another about the adverb used in the preceding sentence of dialog, and there is no way of “unobtrusively” mentioning an enema. I liked The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s style, but it is not unobtrusive. Perhaps unobtrusive compared to The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay, but not at all compared to Elmore Leonard, or to the writers who seem to have one eye towards the screen.

In addition, The Guardian writes about Chabon and even mentions novels here.

Günter Grass at Critical Mass

Critical Mass published a short interview with Günter Grass on the subject of memory. He recently published his autobiography, Peeling the Onion (translated from German by Michael Henry Heim). I responded with a comment reposted here:

The gap between the way we remember ourselves and the way we perceived ourselves at an earlier age can be vast, and this piece on Grass calls to mind a story published last year in the New York Times called Speak, Memory, about a woman given a diary she kept as a teenager. The article states: “[Florence Wolfson's] reunion with her diary seemed to help her discover a lost self, one that burned with artistic fervor. ‘You’ve brought back my life,’ she announced at one point.”

Biographies — and novels — can do the same, and many novels ask question memory and its vagaries: In Search of Lost Time, The Sea, Ravelstein, all of the Ian McEwan novels I’ve read. They deal with the lost self as, it appears, Grass does, and though I’m not familiar with his work, I appreciate the point he makes in his answers and, apparently, his autobiography.

(Links added later.)

Life

“When they come across something wise or witty, or fond, or funny, or something obviously necessary to the whole, warmed readers make a little vertical mark on the page with their bookside pencils. Accordingly, then, the perfect novel would have perfect verticals running down the length of every margin. It never works out like that, because the novel is a tangled thing, and shifts its shape over the years.”

—Martin Amis, “Nabokov’s Grand Slam,” from The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 – 2000

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