The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

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Is it bright where you are?

The Death of Elizabeth (1828)

The Death of Elizabeth (1828)

Portrait (1909) by Henri Le Fauconnier

Portrait (1909) by Henri Le Fauconnie

(Google translate for link)

Music: “Absence” from Les Nuits d’Été Op. 7 by Hector Belioz, lyrics by Théophile Gautier
Mezzo-soprano: Dame Janet Baker
Conductor: Herbert Blomstedt.
Orchestra: Danish radio symphonic orchestra

(Info about the cycle) (Lyrics)

It’s a new month and close to spring which means new updates from favourite literary websites. The Quarterly Conversation released its Spring issue with major features alongside the usual reviews. I zoomed in on the article about the French author, of course. François Monti reviews the latest from Eric Chevillard, and author who followed in the wake of the Noveau Roman movement and proved that there were still more ways to subvert convention. Monti also assesses the apparently dismal state of French literary criticism where page length, thumb-up-thumb-down analysis dominates. Huh.

Scott Esposito reviews Elizabeth Ladenson’s Dirt for Art’s Sake, one of my more notable non-fiction reads from last year, although I’m a bit disappointed that he didn’t touch on her point that the academy played a role in taming and obscuring of some controversial classics’ objectionable elements. Sam J. Miller does a corrective autopsy on short stories’ alleged corpse, shifting the fatal assessment to the format not the content. And the contributors get to share with us what they consider to be underrated and overrated novels. One dares to put a Borges work in the latter (and I agree with him in regard to the merits of the book’s arrangement). Lee Rourke’s choices were my favourite, although Richard Grayson’s take on Leviticus is amusing. There’s lots more, of course, do go and have a look around.

Open Letters Monthly opens with a header image that reminds me of a Gabriella Dellosso painting. (Creeeeeeepy.) Anyway, OLM‘s March 2008 must be one of the biggest issues they’ve offered so far. I haven’t read even half of the selections yet I can vouch for Adam Golaski’s third installment in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I printed out the first three and handed it over to my English major roommate he took one skim through the pages and had about the same initial reaction I did: “Whoa.” (Include a questioning lilt when you read that.) Sam Sacks chides two debut authors who were absent minded enough to forget that the assumption behind publishing a book is that it will have readers. I own one via the limited free download of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children which I would have ignored otherwise because of all the hype. Garth Risk Hallberg verifies whether The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt really was the “cult classic” the publisher’s marketing department said it was and I took a look at whether print reviewers provide the excellence they claim to in a Peer Review for Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee. Giles Harvey did a review of the Coetzee too but, lawks, I don’t want to have anything to do with that book for at least a year. (I’m sure it’s a good piece though!.)

Judging by the clicks it received I may not need to point many to Brother Man – Part I an old post I did from last year. Steven Augustine revived the comments section and what ensued was a dialogue on whether writers “of colour”, specifically those of predominant African descent, can or should produce art that leans more towards an “art for art’s sake” ideal. Geoffrey Philp gave a response on his blog: Art for Art’s Sake & the Reggae Aesthetic. Augustine replied in comments.

4:38 PM: In The Paris Review No. 155 (summer 2000) one of the main features is Como Conversazione: On Translation, a private, secluded roundtable that took place at a villa belonging to the publisher of the magazine, Drue Heinz. (Yes, those Heinzs.)

The meetings, to which neither the press nor the public is invited, take place over a weekend — interspersed with trips on the lake and visits to the restaurants in the hills.

Well, la di daa! (Maybe I need to apply for a job at Paris Review, eh?)

I prepared to be unimpressed, expecting the usual “well, you can’t get it perfect, Sisyphean task etc.” and there was that along rich exchanges, helped by the fact that more than one language and literary form (novels, poems, stage and radio plays) was represented, they weren’t all American, and one, Richard Stokes, translated librettos.

Adam Czerniawski felt that he was the only one there for whom translating was a political act, because he translates a minority language into a major one — Polish to English — but Seamus Heaney reminded him that Ireland has its own troubles with Gaelic being a second (dwindling) language in its own country. Barbara Bray boldly suggested that not all translations are sacrosanct and should be done with an eye on posterity, presenting her experience with the BBC and its “haute vulgarization” policy of prioritizing accessibility to the masses. And, on the topic of the impossibility of perfect translations, that words were the problem as no one tries to translate paintings or music (!) Czerniawski gently, indirectly remarks on the re-scoring of piano pieces into full orchestra arrangements.

I’m maybe only half way through and there’s other excellent stuff I have not mentioned, including Heaney’s explanation for starting his Beowulf translation with “So”, but I wanted to quote my favourite panel participant, Massimo Bacigalupo. He expresses his opinion with an authority, a whiff of the didactic that gives the (not entirely erroneous?) impression that he’s schooling some younglings.

Italian, of course, is a language that has long words, so if you’re translating poetry, as I have done with The Prelude, you have to choose whether to break up Wordsworth’s pentameters to keep the lines short or, as I do, maintain a roughly line-to-line correspondence.

In Italy (unlike France) it always has been customary, with poetry, to print the original facing the translation. So a translator should modestly seek to perform a service (we call it “traduzione di servizio“), offering a “guide” to the original rather than “poetry.” At least, I find that the more unambitious the approach the better. Quasi-poets should not use translation as a means of expressing their poetic souls. The closer you look into an original the more poetry you find — even in a translation. When I tackled The Prelude, it took me several years to do. I published some of the sections as I went along in little magazines, and it was amazing how readers were fascinated by what was to them a new poem. This is one of the possibilities of translation — you can reveal a great unknown quantity to a readership that was unaware of it. Quite a responsibility.

1:25 PM: Whenever I become interested in a literary magazine I always take a look through their archives in order to get an idea of how its developed through the years; especially if it’s had a supposed distinguished history.

I’ve been doing it with The Paris Review and I began to do the same with Bookforum. I tried the Spring 2001 issue, could not get enough, then went for the Dec/Jan 2007 and was a bit disappointed. They’d changed the dimensions of the magazine and now it fell in with all the other old racehorses. Gone were the gorgeous photographic covers and instead the more expected artistic sketch or what have you. Even the tone of the reviews seemed to have gone more genteel. I couldn’t imagine Nick Tosches brash, slightly insolent voice among the neat and proper, searing white pages.

The fun returned in 2008! And in looking back to its Fall 2003 I see that the art and design staff are committed to change, not just in the cover choices but with the column layouts as well. That creates a more stimulating reading experience for me as I tend to notice such things, being young and of short attention span.

I haven’t finished it yet but one of my favourite articles was James Surowiecki’s review of Where I Was From by Joan Didion. I only knew him for his financial analysis for the New Yorker so it was something of a shock to see him reviewing Icelandic Sagas in the aforementioned spring issue. I thought he did it so well though: he was discerning, engaging, and was able to precisely pull from the literature its most attractive qualities. I went hunting for the book, immediately. The same thing didn’t happen for Didion because I already have one of her books and until then will not join her adoring worshippers, but at the end of the review I marvelled again at how informed and harmonious it was. Michael Dirda, James Wood and Adam Kirsch are the names most often praised in lit crit circles, but as for me, I can never get enough of Surowiecki and Colin Burrow (who writes for LRB).

I don’t like much contemporary art, or more precisely, I don’t like much (if any) of what has been deemed the best of the modern, post-modern, postpost-modern art periods. I get very hostile towards people who dismiss Edward Burne-Jones, for instance with silly, ignorant teenage girls, but can write 23 pages about the socio-cultural realism of a pile of garbage with pieces of a dirty porcelain toilet seat sprinkled on top.

John Rajchman’s article on Francis Bacon via Gilles Deleuze…did not hawk that sort of nonsense. For one thing, from the paintings printed, Bacon did not have much use for rubbish scraps. 😉 No, what I had here was something all together different: visual art criticism of the most high falutin’ sort. My brain leapt across the room and engaged in all sorts of acrobatics as I read

In Nietzsche Deleuze had found a new way of playing the game of thought or of art, in which “no throw of the dice ever abolishes chance,” since each new configuration changes the rules by which the game is played. In the great stochastic universe of statistical probabilities there thus arises a new kind of wild or untamched chance, which Deleuze associates with Bacon’s own uses of chance in his painting. Unlike the still probabilistic role chance plays in heteroclite surrealist juxtaposition or in Duchamp’s “standard stoppages,” Bacon would use it to sketch “possibilities of fact” through which the Figure frees itself from illustrative space and narrative time.

Indeed. I was not used to such a vigorous approach to paintings so it took some getting used to. I think I actually understood what he wrote (most of the time) and Rajchman even helped me appreciate Cézanne a bit more.

There was a Lydia Davis interview done before the release of Swann’s Way. Interestingly enough, at this point Davis had chosen to title in The Way of Swann and went into more detail about her reasons for that along with a book club’s reaction to her “pointless” writing style.

After the ridiculously full reading month of July I crashed right at the end. Not only did I not want to re-read any books I had waiting for deadlines, I wasn’t up for writing the four reviews I wanted to (and still do) about novels with which I had so much fun. (You saw how the Radclyffe Hall novel sorta got short changed.) Poetry and fluffy novels have lead me on the path to recovery. A new release from Shannon McKenna was a nice surprise; it certainly delivered on its promise but was wholly predictable with no spark. Either McKenna will have to find a new narrative arc in which to stretch her muscles or I’ll settle with re-reading old favourites.

Diana Wynne Jones provided a bolstering quick fix with Eight Days of Luke, a random choice from the meagre offerings the on-campus libraries had on the shelves. As usual it took me about thirty pages to get involved. (I try to stay within her more YA offerings and though this book supposedly had a reading level of *9-12 years I’m pretty sure I stopped reading books with such simple diction when I hit that age group.) There aren’t many who can write such consistently winning books. I kinda wish she were my grandmother so that I could get her to tell me stories all the time. (Is she old enough to be my grandmother?)

Demons by Dostoevsky is proving surprisingly readable. Surprising because he is supposed to be one of those frighteningly intimidating authors, no? Complicated subjects, yes, especially for one a bit light on Russian history, but of the manageable sort, the inner workings of which remain within reach. Something with which you can wrestle. At least so the lively narrative voice persuades me to think.

I think I’ve discovered the sort of graphic novels I prefer. Ian at Upper Fort Stewart praised the talents featured in the Flight series, volumes 2 and 3 in particular. I remembered the name of the series when I made the weekly hop and skip from Starbucks to Chapters, but when I happened to stop by the “graphic novels” section I spied volume 4 and picked it up. I was a goner after a rousing opening with “The Saga of Rex: Castaway” by Michael Gagné, which made me gasp in dismay, laugh and sigh at various moments. It hadn’t a single line of narrative or dialogue. Flight does what Blankets and Fun Home do not: it takes full advantage of the visual medium. Hmm, now that I’ve written that I don’t think it’s fair. Certainly Thompson’s and Bechdel’s stories were not possible without the accompanying images; what I really mean is that both felt constrained by their narrative models. The Flight stories by Amy Kim Ganter, Israel Sanchez and Jon Klassen (his story was one of the most visually distinctive) display the kind of dynamic, forceful imagery that scream “graphic” to me, that more fully embody the promises of the medium than their “literary” counterparts. Neither do all of the stories stick to traditional story telling (beginning-middle-end, expected resolutions, use of words etc.). Reading the collection reminded me of my first flip through one of Frank Miller’s Sin City books, after I saw the film adaptation. I was amazed at how alive, un-static the images were, how the film truly imitated the series’ stylistic sensibility. (I wasn’t going to do more than a flip because the skinny sucker cost over $20.)

Flight is so so good I now have volume 2, which opened with another Rex story! Update: I just read the craziest visual interpretation of a T.S. Eliot quote:

What we call the beginning is often
the end, and to make an end
is to make a beginning: The
End is where we start from.

It involved elephants, flying boats, cranes, innocent city dwellers and a cliff made of fossils. It blew my mind. I kept on mouthing, What, what? as each page took the concept further and further. I’m still thinking, what? to myself, but in an amazed tone. It’s called “Twenty-four Hours” by Andrea Offermann who may have stolen the crown from Klassen for visual distinction, not so much for style but for content: how she rendered the results of the elephants’ last meal; and the cliffs. Oh, and 98% of these stories? Effortlessly re-readable. (I’m not sure why I didn’t put it at 100%; waiting for the glow to fade so I can give a more measured response, I guess.)

*Worse, Publisher’s Weekly rated the reading level as ages 12 and up. Huh?? At that age I was in grade 8 reading Animal Farm and Smile Orange (Commonwealth Prize winner by Olive Senior). The Amazon page has a Search Inside feature so you may sample the writing for yourself and assess whether my perspective is irrationally skewed. Or something.

That is and will be, by far, the coolest title to ever be on a post here; and Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity by David Brakke is and will be, by far, the coolest book I read this year.

It starts with the cover. I’m not a fan of Franciso de Goya’s portraits, with the one or two exceptions, but the etchings for his book Los Caprichos, are endlessly fascinated. (If we’re gonna talk portraits then it’s William Bouguereau.) I’ve always been attracted to narrative illustrations, both as companion to the text and on their own terms. The best of them not only complement but illuminate and complicate their verbal origins and I never get tired of exploring exactly how they work.

The etching on Spiritual Combat is Tale-Bearers: Blast of Wind, plate 48 from Caprichos, perfect for the book as it depicts an air-borne demon, air being the space between earth and heaven in which even an exceptional monk could never meet with it, harassing two hapless mortals. I’ve never read the Caprichos but the background in the painting ,combined with what I’ve read in Brakke’s, is suggestive of a desert. Deserts were seen as the particular dwelling place of demons and other evil spirits, at least in 3rd and 4th century Egypt.

David Brakke’s book focuses on the demonological narrative in monastic biographies and writings of this period because they were the most influential on the Byzatine east and Medieval west. Shenoute, a leader of a large community of monks in Upper Egypt, faced the dilemma of how to discipline a small group of monks who had committed a grave sin. In the middle of the night as he mused over what course of action to take, a man dressed as a “middle-ranking government official and accompanied by a subordinate” appeared out of nowhere and attacked him. Shenoute asked whether he was an angel, and asked for help with his current crisis but received no answer, and ultimately he defeated the stranger. His victory proved to him that the foe was a demon because he could not have defeated an angel, and the governmental garbs showed that the true source of his hesitancy to mete out full punishment to the monks was based on their high ranking family connections. They were expelled.

This is what it’s like to be a god-fearing monk living the ascetic lifestyle, every day!

Or not quite. It was far more likely for demons to insinuate themselves into your thoughts, to actually be the evil thoughts beckoning you from the path of the straight and narrow, reminding you of familial and gustatory pleasures, rather than actually try to sucker punch you. Brakke conscientiously charts the different ideas about the origin of heavenly beings, humans and demons from the writings of Valentinus and Origen to Antony the great, as we see through both his letters and his biography by Anthasius.

Unlike Alistair Sooke’s review in the TLS I haven’t it found Brakke’s diction particularly specialised at all, so far. You’ll never have to turn to Google as he lucidly explains the ideas of every figure relevant to his study, and shows how they merged together and evolved in Antony’s philosophy to influence the wider world of monasticism. It’s one of the best things about the book.

I may try to do a post on each chapter as I go along, or at least any section I find of particular interest. Although it not written in a “popular” style or seemingly aimed at a wide audience, the various Christian philosophies mentioned, the ideas of what is what to be a martyr at the time, how Christianity was set up against the pagan religions, and how that has echoed into the present day should be of infinite interest to any curious individual who is or was raised as a Christian.

Also, monks fight demons!

Watch as I suck blood from blogs and other sites. Don’t show this to your children, pets or spouse!

Geoffrey Philp had been accepting submissions for the Top Caribbean Novel and now has twelve works up for voting. If you’re interested in fiction from the English-speaking Caribbean it’s a great list to choose from, including authors like Earl Lovelace, George Lamming and Nalo Hopkinson. The only book from the list that I’ve read is Brother Man by Roger Mais, of course. Check here for the complete list of submissions.

Sylvia at Classical Bookworm is endeavouring to get the word out on the reprehensible closing of the B.C. Legislature library and encourages everyone, in and out of B.C. to e-mail the province Premier Gordon Campbell to prevent the government from turning this important historical and educational institution into a ceremony room for 2010 Winter Olympic VIPs…or an office.

Though the surface excuse for the closure is “seismic upgrades,” the fact that half of the librarians have already been laid off and the irreplaceable collection is on its way to a warehouse in the hinterlands reveals the government’s true intentions. There is talk of turning the space into office and/or ceremonial space. Just the thought of turning that magnificent structure into offices is repulsive. And anyone living in B.C. should be able to interpret the supposed need for ceremonial space as code for “we want a fancy place, away from the rabble, where we can show off for all the foreign dignitaires who will be visiting B.C. during the 2010 Winter Olympics, at taxpayers expense of course.” The 2010 Olympics are the big prestige project for this government and they are ramming it through against vigorous community opposition while ignoring alarming social issues such as rising poverty and homelessness and overflowing hospitals.

After you’ve helped to deal a blow to governmental idiocy, reward yourself with an artistic rendering of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening at Japonisme.

I don’t know a thing about Woody Guthrie. Isn’t that awful? He’s a singer, right, from way back when? Whoever he is he hit my sweet spot with these “documents” The Paris Review published in its Summer 2006 issue. He took the union of visual art and words a step further, creating one on top of the other. It creates a fusion in which what connects the two is not immediately clear but I am drawn to look at the strikes, the loose, slapdash, crazy sketches to figure out the link. I keep going back to “F R EE  V E R S E” (1949) and the conclusions  I come to are kinda dirty. “Girl to which I’m Wed” (1949) is wonderful. I love how those thick curves of blue go through the lyrics. It emphasizes the scene of the toddler frolicking in the waves, its import changing when we read of the bathing beauties. It’s so fluid and the entire piece, on a whole, so fun and graceful. I just love it.

Guthrie had been drawing and painting for nearly as long as he’d been making up and singing songs. His sketches and watercolors serve as a kind of lifelong visual diary of enormous variety and vitality, blending political cartoons, erotic doodles, street scenes, and dreamscapes. Often his verbal and visual artistry cohabited on the same page, each mode of expression expanding on the other so that it is impossible to say whether the words are a caption to the pictures, or the pictures an illustration of the words.

In 1946, Guthrie–just discharged from the army and newly married to his second wife, Marjorie Mazia–set up house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. There, far from the Oklahoma that had shaped him but secure in the bosom of his new family (his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, lived around the corner), he embarked on one of his most productive periods. Guthrie’s passion for his family and their seaside bohemian life animates the work of his Coney Island years, from which the writings and drawings here are taken, with a goofy vigor. 


He was goofy but he certainly had some bite.

The Statue About Liberty, watercolour, 1947


Ideally I should have at least googled Guthrie to get an idea of what he was about so my commentary could be more “informed”. But I am a selfish blogger. I enjoy experiencing and discerning art by itself without any pertinent information that could provide context, unless I feel that I need it. Something close to a “pure” response I suppose.

I’m having a lot of fun with this issue, as you can tell, but I haven’t forgotten my novels. I’ll return to The Italian and Dr. Apelles soon and Roger Mais’ Black Lightning is proving to be so exciting. He gets better and better with each novel. The frisson provided by charted a great novelist’s progress cannot be beat. Maybe this will encourage to be more of a completist?

As promised here are close-ups of the miniature reproductions Sylvia sent me. They are quite lovely.


And as a bonus here is a picture showing a part of one of my book shelves located over my bed. You can see the beginnings of a “smile” in the wood; I occasionally wonder if a tumble of books will terrorise me out of sleep one night.


Here is my small pile of NYRB classics.


Last week I won a copy of Penguin Classics Jane Eyre at the Classical Bookworm. I am happy to report that it came in the mail with the most wonderful surprises!


There were little cards featuring women throughout centuries of art (most appearing to be from the 18th C (at earliest) to early 20th) reading, in groups or in solitude, books or letters, indoors or out. As I tore through all the careful packaging and unwound protective material one or two cards would fall out at a time, provoking joyous gasps and exclamations.

Here I am, early in the morning, ready to eat my literary breakfast.


Thanks so much, Sylvia!

I’ve come across some interesting pieces on writing recently. Zadie Smith’s two-part piece on “Failing Better” in reading and writing in the Guardian provoked much discussion. Many seemed to think that her first piece was little more than a bad effort at huckstering the high value of her novels as she lay the charge of intellectual laziness at her detractors. I don’t see any evidence of this in the article. Basically her reading philosophy is one of active participation and an (questionable) equal partnership with the writer in realising the potential of the novel. No where do I spy her giving authors an easy way out of the “two-way” street analogy by placing all of a novel’s failure on readers. (They aren’t even mentioned until near the end.) I can only surmise that the (apparent) media fixation with Zadie Smith in England has hopelessly tainted any reception of her literary comment.

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that readers can fail novels. A day or so ago I read a blogger’s post on Lolita in which she nonsensically advised that it must be read for pure emotion because her previous attempts at an analytical approach had failed. (Why this artificial separation of emotion and intellect? Why was she trying to ‘dissect’ the novel in the first place, why didn’t she just read the damn thing?) Then she contradicted herself by engaging in some clumsy reasoning of Lolita’s moral culpability in her abusive relationship with Humbert because at 15 she (the blogger) used to tease truck drivers. (That is what happens when you read for “pure emotional value”.)

Anyone who takes a utilitarian approach to fiction has already failed the novel, as far as I’m concerned. Smith pinned this when describing those readers who “want a novel to be the “last word” on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. Like good system-makers, we want a view from nowhere, a panopticon, hovering above the whole scene, taking it in, telling us “how it is”.” Orpheus, in a comment on his blog, mentioned that many people don’t consider Pamuk to be “representative” of Turkey or Turkish literature. I think that’s excellent. It’s not his duty to represent anything but himself and his ideas. It would be impossible for any writer’s country to not influence his art to varying extents and, that being the case, is enough for me. This is what I was trying to express in Brother Man I because it seems as if any kind of West Indian literature is immediately placed into the post-colonial box and every word is filtered through it; the work’s quality is judged through how well it expresses and supports Caribbean (black) ideals. So, you know, Derek Walcott isn’t all that because he writes in English too much (the White Man’s language!) and borrows their Greek epic forms–what does have to do with us? (Those limiting, oppressive boxes.) The danger of this, of course, is that once the artist is deemed politically “irrelevant” he is tossed to the side which is, apparently what happened to Roger Mais.

Readers can fail literature. We’re human, imperfect, the conclusion seems obvious.

So I don’t find much fault with most of Smith’s reasoning but there were things here and there that niggled. The implication that universities are responsible for the “system readers”, as she describes them, seems misplaced. Yes, literature is covered in theory at that stage, but do professors actually teach people to approach general reading by first thinking of which category it falls under? If the student is nothing but a sponge with no urge to actively do some close reading on his own, to formulate his own ideas, based on his readings is that largely the professor’s fault? It seems as if more and more of the burden for teaching basic critical thinking skills and close reading, all that high school stuff, is being pushed into the tertiary sphere. The general passivity of the public at large to engage critically with…well anything from the news, to credit card applications, to Kite Runner is part of a long-time trend, one not special to or rooted in theory robots trumping down the halls of academe.

I also thought that her tone in the second piece, “Read Better”, was more didactic and therefore vaguely off-putting. No longer was she an author stimulating a discussion but a moral teacher come to tell the flock what they must do to improve themselves and the literary fraternity. Eh. She tried to do a switch near the end by making it all “personal” and “just me” but it didn’t work. For all that it was still worth the read.