Friday, August 31, 2007

Verre Perdu

Miles and I went to see local trio The Verre Perdu this evening, only to discover that they were only a duo tonight. But they were great anyway.

Check out their website, which is all in German, but you can still hear a couple of the songs from their wonderful CD. I especially recommend "Lovely When You Sleep." Once you've listened to that, then order the CD from them!

(XTC fans should definitely check these guys out. Smart pop. Matt, Rob: this means you.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Goethe's birthday

Thanks to Greg Rappleye for the reminder!

Terni, October 27 [1786], evening
I climbed Spoleto, and was on the aqueduct, which is also a bridge from one mountain to another. Through all their centuries, the ten brick arches which reach across the valley have stood there so quietly, and the water still flows in every corner of Spoleto. I have now seen three works by the ancients; they all have the same great meaning, a second nature serving civic ends. That is how they built, and there they are: the amphitheater, the temple, and the aqueduct. Only now do I feel how justified my hatred of all willful things was, the winter barracks on the Weissenstein, for example, a nothing around nothing, a monstrous layer of icing. It is the same with a thousand other things. They are now all as if stillborn, for whatever does not have a true inner existence has no life, and cannot be great, and cannot become great.
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey, tr. Andrew Shields)

On the plaque by the aqueduct in Spoleto, there is an ellipsis in this quotation. The passage about "den Winterkasten auf dem Weissenstein" and the "thousand other things" has been omitted, presumably because nobody in Italy knows what the "Winterkasten" is. In my edition of Goethe's Italienische Reise, however, there is a note which identifies the "Winterkasten" as the Octogon in the Wilhelmshöhe Park in Kassel (my wife's hometown). The baroque buildings in Wilhelmshöhe, especially the grandiose Octogon topped by a towering statue of Hercules, would presumably seem "willful" to Goethe because they do not "serve civic ends."

Being a poet, writing poems

"... most poets seem to look at the writing of poetry not as an activity but as the basis for an identity."

I remember my friend Geoff Brock saying once that he did not like to say, "I'm a poet." He preferred to say, "I write poems." Being a "poet" was something, he suggested, that one should not claim for oneself, because it had a value attached to it.

My quotation above from Robert Archambeau suggests that "poet" in the U.S. today is no longer a "value" but instead a "profession" like any other, or within the academy, a "specialty." As RA concludes:

"I'm not even sure if we've got a name for someone who writes poetry and criticism, indulges in literary theory, teaches and writes about literature from a wide range of countries and periods, and does so for both specialized and non-specialized audiences."

How about "intellectual"?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mimesis 2, Summer 2007

My contributor's copy of Mimesis 2, Summer 2007, arrived while I was in the U.S. in July, so I have only just gotten around to reading it. The highlights for me are "Better to Be Horses," by Salli Shepherd, and "Veress," by Todd Swift, especially the latter: "this is joy, this is a good day."

TS's poem is about Sandor Veress, whose work I can wholeheartedly recommend. Andras Schiff and Heinz Holliger have both recorded wonderful CDs of Veress's music. I first heard Veress's work when Holliger conducted "Hommage à Paul Klee" in Basel with Schiff on piano. It was a breathtaking performance.

Since it was my contributor's copy, the issue also has my work in it: three poems, to be precise: "Reach," "The Baghdad Poet," and the first three "sides" of "A Three-Record Set on a Double CD." It's a pleasure to see my work between such fine poems by Shepherd and Swift.


While playing her four-key toy piano, Luisa (3) started singing a song of mine that she calls (after its first line) "She walks the walk" (I call it "Then It's a Duck"). She knew some of the lines well:

She walks the walk ...

She finds the finds ...

She slams the slams ...

And then came:

She rutschbahns the Rutschbahns ...

I burst out laughing: a "Rutschbahn" is a "slide," and the real line is, of course, "she slides the slides."


She walks the walk.
She talks the talk.
She finds the finds.
She minds the minds.
She's got what she's got;
She's not what she's not.
She walks the walk.

She tries the tries.
She cries the cries.
She sighs the sighs.
She lies the lies.
She's got what she's got;
She's not what she's not.
She talks the talk.

She takes the takes.
She fakes the fakes.
She slips the slips.
She trips the trips.
She's got what she's got;
She's not what she's not.
She walks the walk.

She jams the jams.
She slams the slams.
She slides the slides.
She rides the rides.
She's got what she's got;
She's not what she's not.
She talks the talk.

Ruefle, footnotes, Sebald

Thanks to Karin, who sent me the link in the comments to one of my posts on Coetzee's Youth, I read Mary Ruefle's short essay "Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World."

Here's the bit about footnotes that I liked:

'For years I planned a theoretical course called "Footnotes." In it, the students would read a footnoted edition of a definitive text--I thought it might as well be The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge--and proceed diligently to read every book mentioned in the footnotes (or the books by those authors mentioned) and in turn all those mentioned in the footnotes of the footnoted books, and so on and so on, stopping only when one was led back, by a footnote, to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.'

Now that is a beautiful idea for a course!

And here's the bit about Sebald that I liked:

'I had recently one of the most astonishing experiences of my reading life. On page 248 in The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald is recounting his interviews with one Thomas Abrams, an English farmer who has been working on a model of the temple of Jerusalem--you know, gluing little bits of wood together--for twenty years, including the painstaking research required for historical accuracy. There are ducks on the farm and at one point Abrams says to Sebald, "I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind." It is an odd thing to say, but Sebald's book is a long walk of oddities. I did not remember this passage in particular until later the same day when I was reading the dictionary, where I came upon the meaning of the word speculum: 1) an instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection; 2) an ancient mirror; 3) a medieval compendium of all knowledge; 4) a drawing showing the relative position of all the planets; and 5) a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds. Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks' plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one's heart and the long years that have led to the moment. I am a writer, and the next step is inevitable: I used what had been revealed to me in my own writing.'

This perfectly captures one element of the magic of Sebald's work: his particular gift for spinning out associations leads the reader to spin out associations as well. The most uncanny feature of the Sebald reader's free association on his works is how often the process leads back to his work again, as if he had anticipated the reader's personal response to the book. For a memorable example, see Tim Parks's essay "The Hunter," in his collection Hell and Back.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Youth 10

Last one from Coetzee's Youth:

"What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail again and again?"

Coetzee continues: "What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail." At twenty-four, then, perhaps JMC did arrive at a moment of insight about his attempts at being a writer.

It's certainly a moment of insight that is useful for any aspiring writer: if you are not ready to write something bad, then you have little chance of writing anything good. Of course, the main thing is to write something.

I'm not sure about the value of the insight for the lover, although perhaps it is a version of this.

Youth 9

Later in the same passage as in my previous post on Youth, there is another moment that is quite thrilling for this reading of Coetzee:

"As for ruthless honesty, ruthless honesty is not a hard trick to learn. On the contrary, it is the easiest thing in the world."

Coetzee is often praised for his "ruthless honesty," but as he points out here, that should not be such a big deal: it's not something "hard won," as many might imply, but a trick—a technique, as it were, to generate literary effects. I would add that such praise is surely of the "damning-with-faint" variety, because "ruthless honesty" is also a bit of a code for "a hard read."

This goes back to my first post on Boyhood, where I cited the young John's understanding of himself: "His only excuse is that he is merciless to himself too. He lies but he does not lie to himself." There, the mercilessness is not seen as a trick or a technique, but rather as a move in his relationship with his mother.

Alarm bells are going off: I'm getting close to saying that here we can see the development of that technique in Coetzee's biography. The argument would be that the "ruthless honesty" of his literary work is a technique that derives not from his understanding of literature and art but from his early relationship to his mother. I sure hope that is not what JMC himself would argue, because that's all too close to Freud for my taste.

Youth 8

In my second post on Youth, I cited a passage about the morality of artists. Near the end of the book, Coetzee returns to the theme:

"The artist must taste all experience, from the noblest to the most degraded. Just as it is the artist's destiny to experience the most supreme creative joy, so he must be prepared to take upon himself all in life that is miserable, squalid, ignominious. ... It is a justification that does not for a moment convince him. It is sophistry, that is all, contemptible sophistry."

The context? His work at Aldermaston with the programming of the Atlas computer (see also the previous post on Youth), which he feels puts him on the wrong side of the Cold War (supporting the British military).

Here, the book's "youth" finds himself unable to justify his own behavior in terms of his position as an artist. His arguments in favor of the artist's position above morality (a position justified by "the artist's destiny") now seem like "sophistry."

It is worth keeping this in mind when considering Boyhood and Youth as "portraits of the artist as a young man": even within the two books, statements that may appear to be definitive comments about JMC's understanding of the artist and his role as a novelist end up getting called into question.

One could say that this is a sign of the "youth's" development, that we are reading a memoir as Bildungsroman. I'm almost convinced, but Youth does not arrive at the point where JMC is sitting down to write his first book (as one might hope on the model of Proust, say), so his memoirs do not present the complete artist, as it were.

As I pointed out before, Kakutani's reading of Boyhood as a book "that illuminates the hidden source of his art" is just not convincing. Boyhood and Youth are both fascinating books, but they do not illuminate something hidden. Instead, they add further dimensions to the house of mirrors that is Coetzee's oeuvre.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Youth 7

Here's one bit of Coetzee's Youth that I will just cite without comment. Coetzee worked in the early sixties with a British supercomputer (or what then passed for a supercomputer) called "Atlas":

"Although Atlas is not a machine built to handle textual materials, he uses the dead hours of the night to get it to print out thousands of lines in the style of Pablo Neruda, using as a lexicon a list of the most powerful words in The Heights of Macchu Picchu, in Nathaniel Tarn's translation. He brings the thick wad of paper back to the Royal Hotel and pores over it. 'The nostalgia of teapots.' 'The ardour of shutters.' 'Furious horsemen.' If he cannot, for the present, write poetry that comes from the heart, if his heart is not in the right state to generate poetry of its own, can he at least string together pseudo-poems made up of phrases generated by a machine, and thus, by going through the motions of writing, learn again to write? Is it fair to be using mechanical aids to writing — fair to other poets, fair to the dead masters? The Surrealists wrote words on slips of paper and shook them up in a hat and drew words at random to make up lines. William Burroughs cuts up pages and shuffles them and puts the bits together. Is he not doing the same kind of thing? Or do his huge resources — what other poet in England, in the world, has a machine of this size at his command — turn quantity into quality? Yet might it not be argued that the invention of computers has changed the nature of art, by making the author and the condition of the author's heart irrelevant? On the Third Programme he has heard music from the studios of Radio Cologne, music spliced together from electronic whoops and crackles and street noise and snippets of old recordings and fragments of speech. Is it not time for poetry to catch up with music? / He sends a selection of his Neruda poems to a friend in Cape Town, who publishes them in a magazine he edits. A local newspaper reprints one of the computer poems with a derisive commentary. For a day or two, back in Cape Town, he is notorious as the barbarian who wants to replace Shakespeare with a machine."

Youth 6

"He has not played cricket since he left school, when he decided to renounce it on the grounds that team sports were incompatible with the life of a poet and an intellectual."

Near the end of Youth, Coetzee's "youth" makes this discovery: cricket (his sport of choice as a child) is too much fun to renounce on the grounds that it lacks intellectual seriousness.

Me, I've never been good enough at any sport to have to renounce it on intellectual grounds, but I have always been a sports fan, and being a fan has always given me aesthetic pleasures that both resemble and differ from those provided by art ("It is not beautiful, yet it speaks like beauty, imperiously"). Resemble: the beauties of drama and narrative (and sometimes of comedy) are what make sports work. You have to follow them for a while to really experience this. (One reason I only tangentially follow baseball in Basel is that I have nobody to share the drama with.) Differ from: the beauties of sport are always subject to one significant determining factor that is lacking in art: in sports, the goal is always the same. Roger Federer and J. M. Coetzee may both abide by the rule "just do it", but in Roger's case, the "it" is defined in advance; in Coetzee's, it is not.

Recently I have had two striking experiences playing sports. Since last year, my son Miles has gone crazy for soccer (I have to write "soccer" for Americans reading this!), so I have played lots of soccer with him. But that was not striking. It was playing a bit of basketball with him earlier this year, and then in the past few days ping pong, that was striking: those are sports I grew up playing, and though I make no claims to being especially good at either (my basketball skills are especially rusty), when I play them, it feels natural in a way that soccer does not (which I only played regularly for a year as a child, when my family lived in Leamington Spa in England when I was nine).

Coetzee: "Does there not also exist a poetry of ecstasy, even a poetry of lunchtime cricket as a form of ecstasy?"

Youth 5

After getting glasses for the first time (at around 20), the "youth" in Coetzee's Youth experiences a sudden revelation that moves me every time I read it, because I had the same revelation when I was 12 and got glasses for the first time:

"... looking out through the window, he is amazed to discover he can make out individual leaves on the trees. Trees have been a blur of green ever since he can remember."

I've spoken with many people who wear glasses about this moment, and almost all of them have agreed with me about it: a fascinating revelation.

Youth 4

"It is not beautiful, yet it speaks like beauty, imperiously."

In Youth, Coetzee writes this of Robert Motherwell's "Elegy for the Spanish Republic 24" (which I was unable to find on the web; this is no. 34 instead).

There's something about this statement that makes it feel different than many other statements about the tastes of the "youth" at the center of JMC's memoir; here, it does seem like something JMC would like to have his work be: not necessarily beautiful, but as imperious as beauty — as many paintings by Abstract Expressionists were and are.

But for me, the most beautiful feature of this statement is not that it points toward a way to understand the effect of art works that are not beautiful but that generate emotions that resemble those we have when do experience beautiful works. No, for me, the most beautiful thing here is the idea that beauty is imperious.

Youth 3

"On the basis of the poems he has heard on the radio and nothing else, he knows Brodsky, knows hims through and through. This is what poetry is capable of. Poetry is truth. But of him in London Brodsky can know nothing. How to tell the frozen man he is with him, side by side, day by day?"

I love the image of the young Coetzee listening to the BBC in the early sixties and discovering Brodsky's poetry. Who was broadcasting the one future Nobel Prize winner's work so that another future Nobel Prize winner could hear it? — Note, though, that when Youth was published, JMC had not yet won his.

Even here, though, JMC manages to mock his young self a bit: at least I read him as gently poking fun at his youthful passion for Brodsky's work, with his sense of identification with "the frozen man" (at the time, Brodsky was in Archangel, serving five years hard labor). "Poetry is truth": it's hard for me to believe that JMC believes that now (and easy for me to believe that he believed it then).

Youth 2

"... artists do not have to be morally admirable people. All that matters is that they create great art. If his own art is to come out of the more contemptible side of himself, so be it."

In both Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee's decision to write in the third person repeatedly proves useful. Imagine the last sentence above in the first person: "If my own art is to come out of the more contemptible side of myself, so be it." Instead of a claim that is both distanced and ironized by the third person, it becomes a pathetic attempt at self-justification, the kind of claim one would expect from someone implicated in fascism, say.

The distance and irony are, as I suggested in my first post on Youth, stronger in this book than in Boyhood. Without ever actually criticizing his twenty-year-old self, JMC manages to make him seem ridiculous over and over again, as happens here with the young man's grandiose claims about himself and his ambition.

But suddenly I see a different way of looking at this. There are two different issues here: being immoral (that is, not "morally admirable") and having a "contemptible side" that one creates with. "John" (that is, Coetzee's self as a young man) has conflated the creation of art from one's darkest impulses with the acting out of those impulses. Surely one can see an artist as creating from "a dark side" while also expecting the artist to not follow through on the impulses that come from that dark side. Artistic works about contemptible acts are one thing (the torture scenes in Waiting for the Barbarians, say); such contemptible acts themselves are another. We do not expect writers to have committed the crimes they write about!

Or to go back to The Master of Petersburg: "... reading is being the arm and being the axe and being the skull." Writing is also a matter of being all those things—but one does not have to have murdered someone with an axe in order to imagine murdering someone with an axe.

In the end, then, the point about art and morality is another comment in JMC's memoirs that one might be tempted to turn into a general statement about his work (that is, JMC commenting on his own work). But such claims in his memoirs are as unstable as markers of how he works as similar claims are in his fiction.


"The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary and what kept forever shrouded goes to the heart of all his writing."

Coetzee's Youth is the second volume of his memoirs. Like Boyhood, it is written in the third person and in the present tense.

There is a gap between the two books, of several years. There is also a gap in the implicit relationship between the author and the main character of each book, if you will: Coetzee seems to ironize his youthful self (about 19 to 24 years old) more than he does his childhood self (up to about 15 years old?).

Even so, this being a memoir, there are still moments, as in Boyhood, in which the adult author seems to be commenting on his development as a writer. Here, near the beginning of Youth, the main character (only later identified as "John") has written about his affair with an older woman in his diary—specifically, about how discouraging he finds the whole relationship to be. When his lover reads his diary, she leaves him, of course, and he wonders about what one should write and what one should not write.

If this is a comment on Coetzee's own fiction, it's hard to say exactly what claim is being made about that fiction; after all, when we read his books, all we have is what they contain and not what he has "forever shrouded." In his books about novelists (The Master of Petersburg and Elizabeth Costello), though, this point might be touched on (as in the passage quoted at the end of my third post on The Master of Petersburg).

Perhaps what I am slowly getting at as I comment on JMC's memoirs is how the two books undermine one's hope that they will provide a reliable "portrait of the artist as a young man." In fact, my edition of Boyhood has a quotation from Michiko Kakutani on the cover: "Fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental ... a telling portrait of the artist as a young man that illuminates the hidden source of his art." Every time I read that, it seems like she could have written it without even having read the book: it's such a cliché about memoir writing.

Revelation and unsentimentality are themes in JMC's memoirs; that is, the idea of revelation and the idea of an unsentimental approach to oneself are circled around, but revelation and a "bluntly unsentimental" approach are not the tools JMC is simply "using" here.

Boyhood 3

"What he would write if he could, if it were not for Mr Whelan reading it, would be something darker, something that, once it began to flow from his pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky."

As in the quotation in my second post about Boyhood, Coetzee here seems to be making an indirect comment on his own writing. I found several citations of this passage on the web; interestingly, all of them omit the phrase "if it were not for Mr Whelan reading it." Here, Coetzee is remembering his boring and frustrating school in Cape Town (not the school in Worcester that had been more fascinating, even if the fascination was a matter not of the teaching and learning but of an education in cruelty and pain) and the teacher of his English classes.

By taking out the reference to the teacher, those who cite this passage can more easily read it as an allusion to Coetzee's later authorly goals. But the reference to the teacher highlights the role of the expected audience in writing: the young John's knowledge of his audience prevented him from being able to write what he wanted to write. It is not a creative ambition that is at issue here but the self-censorship that arises when an author is aware of the limited range of expectations that a specific reader (or readers) may have. It almost reads like a warning to would-be writers: don't write for a specific audience; don't let the limitations of your audience limit you.

Boyhood 2

"Yet school was fascinating: each day seemed to bring new revelations of the cruelty and pain and hatred raging beneath the everyday surface of things."

As I mentioned in my previous post about Boyhood, one of the things one looks for in a novelist's memoir is a set of clues to how the author's childhood and youth made him or her into the writer he or she became. The "mercilessness to himself" that JMC ascribes to his boyhood self can then be read as a generalization about the author's own self-understanding.

Here, then, JMC's memories of school in Worcester (in fact, his pubescent self's own memories of that school after a move to Cape Town) point toward what could be considered a standard pattern in JMC's work: his attention focuses on what "rages beneath" the everyday. Still, even as I think and write that sentence, it feels like a cliché: "oh, things are never as idyllic in the suburbs (or in a small town, or in childhood) as one thinks." The contrast with school in Cape Town, though, which is just boring and frustrating rather than revelatory, might redeem the idea here. Further, the sentence may read like a comment on the adult author's literary attitudes, but in fact, he never seems to be tracing out a "surface-depth" figure, whereby the surface is innocent and the deeps are cruel. His characters are never involved in "keeping up appearances despite everything"; they may look away from horror, but they do not try to "paper over" it.

Friday, August 24, 2007


"His only excuse is that he is merciless to himself too. He lies but he does not lie to himself."

Coetzee's Boyhood is a memoir, but as the above shows, it both does and does not provide what a memoir is supposed to offer.

It does not provide what a memoir is supposed to offer because, instead of being written in the first person and the past tense, it is written in the third person and the present tense. Still, try the above in the "normal" form of a memoir: "My only excuse was that I was merciless to myself too. I lied but I did not lie to myself." — The distance created by the third person allows JMC to say things that would sound awful in the first person, while I think the present tense (which I dislike in narratives, usually) is supposed to provide an immediacy that the third person undermines.

At the same time, Boyhood does provide what a memoir (at least a novelist's memoir) is supposed to offer: a "portrait of the artist as a young man" that points toward the artist's own later works.

I have often heard JMC been admired for his obvious writing talent but simultaneously criticized for being cold, cruel, heartless, distanced — this is often connected to a complaint that his main characters are completely unsympathetic. The above passage from Boyhood reads like a response to such a complaint: "I may be merciless, but I am most merciless to myself, so I have earned it." Or rather, "he may be merciless ..." :-)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

August 23

I've been reading Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. Thanks to my Mom, I found out that he shares my birthday (or I share his, if you prefer): today, August 23. He's a bit older than me. In any case, I just realized it's a prime birthday (43), which means nothing, but is touching anyway (an Austerlitz reference, for you Sebald fans).

Life and Times of Michael K

"The stories they tell will be different from the stories I heard in the camp, because the camp was for those left behind, the women and children, the old men, the blind, the crippled, the idiots, people who have nothing to tell but stories of how they have endured. Whereas these young men have had adventures, victories and defeats and escapes. They will have stories to tell long after the war is over, stories for a lifetime, stories for their grandchildren to listen to open-mouthed."

This contrast between two types of stories, between two ways of experiencing civil war, appears in Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. Michael K, one of "those left behind" during a civil war (a gardener who is at times reminiscent of the Peter Sellers character in Being There), contrasts himself with the militiamen who come across the abandoned farm that he has planted a few pumpkins on. The observation is fascinating, especially given that Michael K often seems to those who meet him like one of the "idiots" he imagines here. But the general point does not seem to be ironized by MK's limited perspective: a story of endurance is much different than a story of adventure, and the story of adventure has the potential to last much longer than the story of endurance. (I made a stronger version of that claim at first, but then I thought of Homer: the Iliad is a story of adventure, the Odyssey a story of endurance.)

Like the "wooden slips" in Waiting for the Barbarians, Michael K's story becomes material for interpretation by others, based on the fragments of the story that they know. When he is later interrogated, his interrogators know enough about his little pumpkin-farming operation to make a "reasonable inference" that he has been farming for the soldiers who crossed his land. The idea that, as a gardener, he was growing pumpkins for himself would be incomprehensible in the light of that inference.

Those interrogations are referred to by the anonymous narrator of part Two of the novel (parts One and Three are third-person limited narratives focused on MK himself). That narrator is a doctor at a labor-training camp where MK lives for a while. Starting from the same fragments of MK's story available to the interrogators, the doctor tries and fails (largely because of MK's silence) to come up with an alternative version of the story. The second section ends up reading as another allegory of the difficulties of the interpretation of narratives, even those (like parts One and Three as a unit) which are more complete than what the interrogators and the doctor have to work with.

A few pages before the end of the book, MK provides his own interpretation of his story:

"... the truth is that I have been a gardener, first for the Council, later for myself, and gardeners spend their time with their noses to the ground. / K tossed restlessly on the cardboard. It excited him, he found, to say recklessly, the truth, the truth about me. 'I am a gardener,' he said again, aloud. On the other hand, was it not strange for a gardener to be sleeping in a closet within sound of the beating of the waves of the sea? / I am more like an earthworm, he thought. Which is also a kind of gardener. Or a mole, also a gardener, that does not tell stories because it lives in silence. But a mole or an earthworm on a cement floor?"

Even the interpretation of MK's story that ought to be privileged (his own, of course) ends up being unstable: even as he enjoys the idea of saying "the truth about me," his train of thought disrupts the stability of that truth. It is as if he were his own interrogator, calling his own claims into question because they contradict the "reasonable inferences" one can make about his possible story, given that he is, after all, sleeping in a closet on a piece of cardboard.

Waiting for the Barbarians

"A reasonable inference is that the wooden slips contain messages passed between yourself and other parties, we do not know when. It remains for you to explain what the messages say and who the other parties were."

A secret policeman presents you with "a reasonable inference" while interrogating you. The inference is a complete misinterpretation of the matter at hand. What do you do?

Colonel Joll of the "Third Bureau" of the "Civil Guard" makes the above statement to the anonymous Magistrate who is the narrator of Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. The "wooden slips" that he refers to were collected by the Magistrate from an archaeological site near the frontier city where the Magistrate works and lives. The Magistrate never makes any progress deciphering the writing on the slips.

Thus, Colonel Joll's "reasonable inference" is completely off base: no messages are being passed, no conspiracy is occurring. The problem for the Magistrate, of course, is that Colonel Joll may well not believe the truth, given that he finds his inference "reasonable" and has actually already concluded that the Magistrate is involved in a conspiracy with the "barbarians" of the book's title.

This situation reads like an allegory of the difficulties of artistic interpretation: the interpreter's "reasonable inferences" of various fragmentary elements of a work (especially those inferences that have to do with the artist's intention) may well be as misguided as Colonel Joll's "reading" of the "wooden slips."

What to do, if you are the one being misread? The Magistrate's response is quite surprising: he begins to translate the slips for Colonel Joll, making up complex stories to give the Colonel what he wants. Give the interrogator what he wants? Is that we should do, confronted by such interrogations? I won't pursue the implications further.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Max Roach

One of the more startling musical performances I ever saw was when Max Roach played a hi-hat solo as the encore to his concert with his quartet in Oakland in the mid-eighties (which was also the only time I ever saw Dizzy Gillespie and Sam Rivers, Dizzy's quintet with Rivers being the second part of that double bill). Max brought his hi-hat down to the front of the stage and played a whole piece of music just with the hi-hat and two drumsticks. I was later told that this was a standard trick of his, but so what? It was brilliant.

And the wondrous tune "A Little Max," on Duke Ellington's Money Jungle (a trio recording with Charles Mingus)—what a player Max was.

Max Roach, 1924-2007

In the Heart of the Country

"When one truly means what one says, when one speaks not in shouts of panic, but quietly, deliberately, decisively, then one is understood and obeyed. How pleasing to have identified a universal truth."

In the Heart of the Country stands out in Coetzee's work as the book most laden with statements that cry out for interpretation and analysis, either images that are so suggestive that they feel like they must be meaningful for the work as a whole, or statements like the above that seem like they must be intended as "universal truths." His second novel, it represents a style that he seems to have then moved away from: an approach to fiction in which everything is presented as a puzzle piece—the novel as jigsaw. Perhaps the above passage suggests how to get around the problem—through the identification of those passages in which the narrator (a white South African spinster living far out in the country, nameless in the book until one of her farm servants calls her "Miss Magda") speaks "quietly, deliberately, decisively," rather than in other tones (of which there are many).

To make matters worse, as it were, Magda slowly goes crazy. The last section of the book presents her as hearing voices that "speak to me out of machines that fly in the sky." Here, she becomes an interpreter herself, looking for the hidden meanings in the statements made by these voices:

"The innocent victim can only know evil in the form of suffering. That which is not felt by the criminal is his crime. That which is not felt by the innocent victim is his own innocence. / ... I would be happier if these dicta were less sibylline. Do the voices here define crime and innocence or do they tell me of the modes in which victim and criminal experience the crime?"

It is tempting to take this passage and use it as a tool to consider two of the problems in Coetzee's work that I have identified in his other novels, especially in Disgrace. First of all, as I discussed here, David Lurie, the main character of Disgrace, may "feel" his crime when he is charged with sexual harassment at the beginning of the book, but he does not understand his daughter's Lucy's failure to "feel" her innocence after she is raped. In this light, Magda's second interpretation is more appropriate: the voices are telling her about the "modes of experience" of criminals and victims. Secondly, though, Magda's two interpretations of the statement exemplify two ways of interpreting what people say: as "universal truths" or as less general statements about "modes of experience."

Magda uses this second type of interpretation in her response to the next "sibylline" statement the voices make, something that sounds like a quotation from Hegel (and perhaps is, but Google is not aware of it):

"It is the slave's consciousness that constitutes the master's certainty of his own truth. But the slave's consciousness is a dependent consciousness. So the master is not sure of the truth of his autonomy. His truth lies in an inessential consciousness and its inessential acts. / These words refer to my father, to his brusqueness with the servants, his unnecessary harshness."

Instead of reading the voice's remarks as "universal truths," Magda sees them as commentary on her own experience, as an interpretation of her father's behavior. This is her defense, it seems, against the oracular voices: "I am gagging on a diet of universals."

"Are not all these dicta from above blind to the source of our disease, which is that we have no one to speak with, that our desires stream out of us chaotically, without aim, without response, like our words, whoever we may be, perhaps I should only speak for myself?"

That last phrase beautifully captures the tension in Coetzee's work between the generalizable statement (what "we" can say or know) and the particular experience ("speaking for myself").

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ron Carter

There's a nice article about Ron Carter here:

"Jazz has got a lot of humor ... It's not always dark glasses and a big frown on your face."

Walser and Bernofsky

There's a lovely essay by Benjamin Kunkel on Robert Walser in the August 6, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. Check it out, but more importantly, read Walser. He's good for you.

Kunkel raves about my German-English translator colleague Susan Bernofsky's translation of "The Assistant":

'Walser’s clerks and layabouts are perhaps the nicest, most considerate people you can meet in modernist fiction, but they can also be cuttingly ironic in the way of only the very polite: that “cozy” bridge to sleep under, that “masculine and human” rationality. Susan Bernofsky reproduces this effect and others with impressive fluency and naturalness, and she must also have enjoyed dusting off words like “swillpot” and “thunderation.” It’s only too bad that, for want of such a translation, Virginia Woolf never learned that the desire she expressed in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction” for a more impressionistic and less narrowly empirical modern novel, a novel of floating sensibility rather than fixed characters, had been, to such a remarkable degree, anticipated a dozen years earlier by a Swiss writer living in Berlin.'

Swillpots and thunderation! Actual praise for a translator in an article about a translated work!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Denver and Coltrane

Here's a nice point from a post on Ron Silliman's blog:

"Do we want every musician to be John Denver? Can’t somebody be Pete Seeger or John Coltrane or Bela Fleck or Meredith Monk? And wouldn’t that, actually, be more interesting? What if you want Lou Reed & Tuvan throat-singing? The world becomes very monochromatic the instant you want the same level of accessibility everywhere."

RS is making this point in the context of accessibility and difficulty in poetry. I would find it more convincing if RS himself were a bit more flexible in the range of poetry he is willing to recognize as legitimate (which is much different than the issue of aesthetic judgment). But it is true that he is responding to an article that is unwilling to accept his poetry's right to exist, so the argument is understandable.

The Master of Petersburg 3

As I mentioned in the comments to my first post on Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg, JMC's Dostoevsky is not as forgiving of his stepson's story as he suggests in the passage I quoted in that post. Here's what comes up later in the book:

"There was more real life in the filthy, waddling old bear in his story — what was his name? Karamzin? — than in the priggish hero he so painfully constructed."

Here, JMC's Dostoevsky is clearly "at a distance and jeering" rather than "giving himself up" to the story at hand.

Later, he argues with Pavel's anarchist friend Nechaev, who appeals to the writer's own work to make a point:

"'We are on the brink of a new age where we are free to think any thought. There is nothing we can't think! Surely you know that. You must know it — it's what Raskolnikov said in your own book before he fell ill!' / 'You are mad, you don't know how to read,' he mutters."

Again, JMC's Dostoevsky claims that another character does not "know how to read," but the combination of these two passages with his own "reading" of his stepson's story make clear that these statements about "how to read" are ironized by the complete context of JMC's book.

So as so often in his work, ideas are argued about, but it becomes nearly impossible to pin them down as having any validity as generalizations. As in Kundera, the ideas are as much "thought experiments" as anything else: what kind of person would have such ideas? And how would that person use these ideas in argument to persuade others? What kind of life might be connected to those ideas?

For the ultimate example of such a book, I just reread Notes from Underground for the first time since the spring of 1983 (freshman year at Stanford). I thought about posting some comments, but everything in the book is so unstable because of the narrator's claim to extreme unreliability that the only way to comment on it is to write a long essay about it! Little tidbit observations like my JMC comments over the past few weeks just don't feel right.

So here's one last tidbit from The Master of Petersburg:

"He sits with the pen in his hand, holding himself back from a descent into representations that have no place in the world, on the point of toppling, enclosed within a moment in which all creation lies open at his feet, the moment he loosens his grip and begins to fall. / It is a moment of which he is becoming a connoisseur, a voluptuary. For which he will be damned."

One last moment of "holding himself back", here not as reader but as writer, only to then "give himself up" to the writing, as he asked Maximov to do when reading. What comes out, in JMC's version of Petersburg, is Dostoevsky's Demons, but what strikes me here is the sensuality and physicality of the act of writing itself, of becoming lost in it, of being able to write what "has no place in the world" not because it is something transgressive but because you are creating the place for it through what you write.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Disgrace 3

"When did a sheep last die of old age? Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and fed to poultry. Nothing escapes, except perhaps the gall bladder, which no one will eat. Descartes should have thought of that. The soul, suspended in the dark, bitter gall, hiding."

One of the more subtly developed issues in Coetzee's Disgrace is that of animal rights. In Elizabeth Costello, JMC takes on animal rights head-on (and it is fascinating to picture him writing the two "Lives of Animals" sections of that book, fully aware that he would have Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer in the audience), but in Disgrace, though the theme is on the surface of the book, it is fully embedded in the story, as David Lurie moves from complete indifference to the issue to his involvement in the euthanasia of dogs at the end of the book (sick dogs, but also simply those that cannot find a home, excess dogs).

Here, I am struck by JMC's wonderful little barb against Descartes: the animal's soul in an organ that one can live without, the organ that nobody wants to eat. This passage is one to give serious consideration to in any complete analysis of "The Lives of Animals" from EC.

The Lives of Animals has appeared as a book, but I have never gotten around to reading it separately. The book also includes Nussbaum and Singer's responses to JMC's "lessons"; they must be fascinating.

Disgrace 2

"The real truth, he suspects, is something far more — he casts around for the word — anthropological, something it would take months to get to the bottom of, months of patient, unhurried conversation with dozens of people, and the offices of an interpreter."

Here, in Disgrace, Coetzee's David Lurie is pondering the implications of his daughter Lucy's having been raped on her farm by three black attackers. One feature of his pondering is that he thinks that Petrus, who used to work for Lucy but has now become more her neighbor, had something to do with the attack — at least that he was in the know.

What strikes me about the issue of Lucy's rape in the novel is that Lurie's response to it contrasts so starkly with his response to the harassment charges against him that I commented on a few weeks ago. There, he wanted to reduce the matter to an issue of pleading guilty or not guilty, without pursuing the details of the story or getting involved in any further atonement for his acts (such as going to counseling or some other such thing). But here, when his daughter is involved, he no longer treats the issue as purely legal (a matter of justice) but insteads treats it as moral, which involves telling a story.

He does not notice the contrast, of course: when he is the perpetrator, he does not want a story to be told; instead, he wants a verdict to be reached. When his daughter is the victim of a crime, he does want a story to be told. In the first case, a legal result; in the second, a matter of naming whose legitimacy he did not recognize in the first:

"Violation: that is the word he would like to force out of Petrus. Yes, it was a violation, he would like to hear Petrus say; yes, it was an outrage."


ADDENDUM: Later, Lucy responds to her father's demand that she press charges against her attackers: "... if there is one right I have it is the right not to be put on trial like this, not to have to justify myself, not to you, not to anyone else."

Here, the irony of Lurie's position is clear: he could have said almost the same thing in response to the harassment charges — that he did not have to justify himself, but only to file a plea.

Great Waters

Great Waters Folk Festival, August 3, 2007
Wolfeboro, NH

My sister Sara and I drove up from Northborough, Mass., to hear Greg Brown at the Great Waters Folk Festival. A drive that should have taken at most two-and-a-half hours ended up taking four because we were stuck in traffic so often: we counted seven accidents on the way up to the concert. Luckily, none of them involved us, but Sara told me the next day that, as a doctor, she had a bad conscience about not stopping at the last of them, where I saw a motorcyclist's head being cradled by others involved in the accident. But what could she have done, she added, since she had no medical bag with her. "Murdercycles," an ER doctor she once knew called them.

So we arrived in Wolfesboro with just enough time to locate our B&B, drop off our stuff, and pick up some sandwiches on the way to the festival. We arrived a minute or two before David Jacobs-Strain took the stage. He played a short solo set that featured his bluesy guitar-playing and singing. He is a sort of cross between a blues guitarist and Michael Hedges, deft with the slide and left-handed touch-tapping. His versions of Robert Johnson ("Come On In My Kitchen" and "Walkin' Blues") on National resonator guitar were strong, but he has the young virtuoso's tendency to overplay, to try to show off everything he can do in every song, rather than just play the music that the song needs. That said, his musicality still shimmered through all the way through the set; he just needs to relax and stop pulling out all the stops all the time! A cliché, of course, but he does overplay, and when he stops doing so, he's going to be a great performer. Check him out now, and then in about ten to twenty years.

Sara and I went to the festival to see Greg Brown, but Sara was also looking forward to hearing Alison Brown, whom she went to Harvard with back in the early eighties; they attended a sophomore History and Literature seminar together. After a spell as an investment banker, AB returned to music; her specialty is banjo in a bluegrass-jazz fusion that recalls David Grisman and Bela Fleck. She has technique to spare, but it never seems to take over the music, which is relaxed and spacey, with the piano solos by John R. Burr bringing in a more edgy element. Unfortunately, the electric bass was mixed to high at this show, so the interaction between Burr and Brown (which is wonderful on her albums, as I later discovered) was not as clear as it should have been. But the highlight of her show was when AB introduced her road manager, "who always makes sure we have breakfast and don't oversleep," and out came her daughter Hannah (who must be about six or seven) to sing "California, Here I Come."

Neither Sara nor I had ever heard Chris Smither before (although I knew his name as the author of "Love Me Like a Man," recorded brilliantly by Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall), and he floored us both. I had picked up "Leave the Light On," his latest CD, a few days before the show and had already become attached to it, but as the CD is with a backup band, I did not realize that he was such a brilliant fingerpicker. Virtuoso finger-pickers can often be a little stiff rhythmically, but Smither plays with a breathtaking fluidity that never ceases to swing and never descends into showing off. All that with a foot-tapping beat, even on ballads. His lyrics are sharp, too, and interestingly, his singing is much clearer live than on the CD (usually, after all, it is the other way around). His patter is also memorable, including this great line in the introduction to a song for his now 91-year-old father: "Your parents never forget how to push your buttons. That's 'cause they installed them." He played several memorable songs from "Leave the Light On": "Origin of Species," a hilariously funny take on "intelligent design"; "Diplomacy," an equally funny take on contemporary politics; and the utterly gorgeous title cut, one of the most beautiful songs to cross my path in several years. He closed with that one, and it left me in tears.

But I've got plenty left I've set my sight on.
Don't wait up; leave the light on;
I'll be home soon.

Northern Lights followed with a set of bluegrass, with Alison Brown sitting in on banjo. NL's extra twist is their approach to vocals: at times, they sound like a bluegrass band with old-style R&B harmonies ("Baby, I Love You"); at others, the singing is more like barbershop than anything else. Guitarist and vocalist Ben Demerath impressed me with the wide range of styles he turned his crystalline voice to; sometimes he even sounded like a Beach Boy. The highlight of their set for me was a rousing version of Little Feat's "Fat Man in the Bathtub", but there, especially, I noticed what was missing for me in their arrangements: extended soloing. This old Deadhead prefers his bluegrass with more room for the players to blow; half-chorus solo exchanges just don't let them develop any ideas. Perhaps NL kept the solos short because they were only playing a forty-minute set, but I suspect that they are "just" a bluegrass band (with short solos) rather than a jam band (oh would I love to hear Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain, or Hot Buttered Rum live in Basel).

So after four opening acts, one of whom immediately became someone I want to listen to extensively (Smither), Greg Brown finally took the stage. This was my second chance to hear him live in 15 years of fandom (after a February 1998 show at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA; basically, I only get chances to see him when he happens to be in New England at the same time as a visit to my sister), and his set, though short, was more than worth the extra trip up to Wolfeboro (and the seven-accident delays).

The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home
Louisiana 1927 (by Randy Newman)
Oily Boys
Jesus and Elvis
One Wrong Turn
Billy from the Hills
Here in the Going, Going Gone
Joy Tears
He Reached Down (by Iris Dement)
Two Little Feet
Wash My Eyes

A few comments:

— The opening pair of songs moved me as much as Smither's "Leave the Light On." Greg dedicated the first to Northern Lights and Alison Brown (whom he first referred to as Alison Krauss, before correcting himself and apologizing that he had just been talking about A. Krauss with A. Brown) and the second to Chris Smither. "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline": Greg sang this song with such power and beauty that I thought, "This is the song that was worth the whole trip."

— "Oily Boys," GB's indictment of the Bush administration, received a huge round of applause, and it has received much praise from Greg's fans on the Greg Brown Yahoo group, but the song leaves me flat. I have 703 tracks of Greg's music in my I-Tunes library, and only two of those tracks are songs I don't like, this one and "My Famous Friends" from the 1999 live CD "Solid Heart." I wholeheartedly endorse Greg's politics here, but he has written much better political songs, ones that address issues more with more irony and poetry, as in "Spring Wind":

Oh to clean our dirty planet,
now there's a noble wish,
and I'm putting my shoulder to the wheel
'cause I want to catch some fish.

— "Jesus and Elvis" was preceded by a lengthy introduction explaining the origins of the song. Greg once found himself at a display of black-velvet paintings in a Missouri parking lot, the centerpiece of the exhibit being two huge paintings, one of Jesus and one of Elvis. Instead of seeing this as a symbol of a choice between Jesus and Elvis (which would be "Jesus or Elvis"), he saw it as a chance to accept both: Jesus as a symbol of gratitude that one is alive and Elvis as a symbol of rock-n-roll. Or as he put it: "We're so grateful that we need to shake our ass."

— After "He Reached Down," Greg asked for requests. I called out "Letters from Europe," and he said in a surprised voice, "Letters from Europe?" I was not really disappointed that he did not play the tune (I did not really expect him to have that old one at his fingertips or on the tip of his tongue), and the rousing version of "Two Little Feet" was definitely wonderful. After the show, Sara and I hung out by the stage, and eventually Greg came out to fetch his guitar. I explained my request to him; as a resident of Switzerland, I have a soft spot for that song, and we chatted about my chosen country for a bit. His great insight from his visits here back in the eighties and nineties: the Swiss have a great country and always downplay it, as if they don't recognize what a beautiful place it is. Sara and I later realized that we should have asked Greg to sign the CDs we had bought! And I wish I had asked him if I could take a picture of him and Sara. (And none of my photos of the performers came out well. Oh well.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Master of Petersburg 2

"So many seeking justice, each with a story to tell."

As Coetzee's Dostoevsky leaves the police building after his talk with Maximov (see my previous post on this novel), he notices all the people waiting in "the crowded ante-room" and makes the above observation (actually, the narrator makes it for him, but it reads as free indirect discourse, D's thoughts paraphrased by the narrator). There's something about this observation that does not seem to me to be subject to the irony of generalization in fiction that I discussed in that previous post. But I cannot put my finger on why. Perhaps it seems less "contextualized" because the idea is not part of a dialogue in which, as Elizabeth Bowen once put it, a novel's characters are trying to do things to each other. It seems more "disinterested" than the comment I quoted before. Does that mean that it is more "at a distance and jeering"?

It is a very fascinating statement in the context of JMC's corpus: those who seek justice, it suggests, do so by telling stories. To be more precise, it is the victims who want to tell stories: perpetrators do not want to do so. So when David Lurie, in Disgrace, is confronted by his committee of inquiry (see my post here), he simply wants to enter a plea and be sentenced, while the committee members want him (the perpetrator who has been accused of sexual harassment, by a young woman who, of course, told a story) to tell them a story, the story of his crime, his remorse, and his willingness to atone for his crime.