The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Literary Criticism’ Category

Hurray for statistics and psychology!

As a science and humanities student I find this article rather quaint (this person is hardly the first to suggest this). (Oh and are any of the theories he so manfully takes down en vogue anymore?) As one specializing in neuroscience (bioethics) I’m sighing at yet someone else rushing to the infant field (comparative to all other sciences) to provide all the answers. No doubt he’ll want to study brain images of a men and women reading Jane Eyre and then come to some farcical conclusion. I just e-mailed it to my biology professor (who loves fiction) and I think I still hear him laughing through my computer speakers…

Anyway, you tell me what you think about this delightful man’s attempts to humble the humanities before the great Science Gaze while retaining “what makes literature special”. (You will find no mention of what that is, btw.)

Measure for Measure by Jonathan Gottschall

Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.


The alternative is to let literary study keep withering away, and that would be a tragedy. Homo sapiens is a bizarre literary ape – one that, outside of working and sleeping, may well spend most of its remaining hours lost in landscapes of make-believe. Across the breadth of human history, across the wide mosaic of world cultures, there has never been a society in which people don’t devote great gobs of time to seeing, creating, and hearing fictions – from folktales to film, from theater to television. Stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature. Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition – no full understanding of art, culture, psychology, or even of biology. As Binghamton University biologist David Sloan Wilson says, “the natural history of our species” is written in love poems, adventure stories, fables, myths, tales, and novels.

Don’t they do this sort of thing in “Culture Studies” already?

The most terrible irony in all the Idylls is that there is no real cause for this loss of humanity. As Northrop Frye says, “Tragedy’s ‘this must be’ becomes irony’s ‘this at least is’ ” (p. 285). Jacob Korg also argues that there is no real cause, that the kingdom “unaccountably” (p. 10) dissolves. He goes on, however, to ascribe this causelessness to an overriding “fatalism,” a tragic principle, I would suggest, that is unrelated to ironic action. Instead of the convincing reasons given in tragedy we have a multiplicity of reasons, all inadequate. There are no resounding causes for the fall and no important forces at work against Arthur; he is defeated by triviality. His greatest enemy, in fact, is the natural process of oversimplification, The balance he tries to maintain between the physical and the spiritual, for instance, is destroyed on one side by Tristram and the naturalists, and on the other by the well-meaning search for the Grail. The failure is not one of morality but a pathetic failure of understanding; the world is lost not because it is evil but because it is stupid. [154/155]

Arthur is magnificently heroic, but there is about him the ironic shadow of the relentless and ludicrously ineffective pedagogue whose star pupils misunderstand: the king’s grandest and simplest words are presented by a good-hearted reporter, Percivale, whose only comment is, “So spake the King: I knew not all he meant” (“The Holy Grail,” l. 916). The entire poem mixes the heroic and the preposterous, the grand and the trivial. The final effect is not to deny the importance of Arthur and Camelot, but rather to insist on both the greatness and the impossibility – even the absurdity – of this dream. The dream is shattered for no particular, or at least no important, reason; most men did not even realize what it was: “the wholesome madness of an hour,” according to Tristram (“The Last Tournament,” l. 670).

Kincaid, James R. “Introduction to Idylls of the King.” Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. 1975 Yale University Press. 28 Mar. 2001

See, that’s exactly what I was getting at with far less eloquence.

On a completely unrelated note I think I finally got rid of a pesky undergrad who’d picked up the annoying habit of following me everywhere since early February. He was ok looking with a great German accent and all but he was always hanging around my regular haunting spots all the time and we always had to meet up every day and even when I was sick he kept texting me with soup-making offers which was sweet but I can’t even escape you when I’m locked in my room, jesus, am I your first real live girl or what? And now when I was in the middle of juggling work and personal interests in about a million Firefox tabs he couldn’t seem to get that I was busy and would make the most pathetic attempts to subtly get my attention and write stupid notes in garbled Jamaican patois. So I gave him the glare and ignored him for 2 hours (that’s right! that’s how long he sat there idling–doesn’t he have work to do?). I think he finally got it.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.

What is the cause of the sea storm? It is the anger of the god Poseidon. How wrong this is, but yet, how understandable! It is wrong as an answer to the question asked, and wrong in a radically uncorrectable way. We know this now. Animistic explanation of natural phenomena, the extension to nature at large of the kind of purposive causality man is familiar with in the case of his own actions, will not work. Yet it is an easily understood mode of explanation, for if one were a sea god and were angry one would create precisely this turbulence. The immediate intelligibility of the explanation counts for it, and makes it resistant to falsification. Nor need we wonder why the recognition of the inadequacy of the explanation was delayed. The action prompted by the explanation is some ceremony of propitiation: make sacrifice of appropriate animals or cast treasure into depths. This ceremony will not work but, given the kind of explanation, nonefficacy in particular cases can always be explained. The sacrifice was inadequate, the ritual was wrongly performed, the anger was too great, and, as a final resort, who can read the mind of a god? But there is more to it than this. The animistic view is appropriate to the human experience of undergoing a sea storm.

We can bring this about by changing the question from: What is the cause of the sea storm? to: What might the human experience of undergoing a sea storm be like? Now we speak mostly aptly when we say: “The sea is angry.” Anger, threat, menace are apprehended as phenomenally objecting, “out there” in the sea. The struggle of the mariner with the storm is experiences as combat. The force opposing him is felt as similar in kind to the force with which he battles it. The ship itself is now a live thing that leaps and shudders and labors in the waves. Now we feel the power of the god, and this is why Poseidon is still relevant even in an age of science.

Although it is a matter of historical record that literary artists and lovers of literature have, from time to time, nourished and voiced resentment against natural science, seen as “the destroyer of rainbows,” yet it appears by now to be generally recognized that the scientific and the literary approach to natural phenomena cannot possibly be rivals. Rivals must go battle on common ground and there is here too little common ground for genuine contention. The poem that tells us that the moon is a goddess, or love-sick, or lunatic, is as intelligible and valid as it ever was. Natural science cannot be direct help or hindrance to the literary artist although, of course, the artist who happens to take an interest in it may derive from that interest the stimulus of new perspectives, above all, perhaps, material for metaphor. Lunar landscape, understood in terms of contemporary astronomical theory, may well provide the raw material out of which reanimated metaphor might be forced. The literary importance will, of course, reside in the reanimation, not in the fact that what has been used for this purpose is something more scientifically “up to date”. Any branch of natural science, biology, crystallography, or whatever, may stir the imagination of the literary artist, and anything that stirs his imagination is potential raw material for artistic exploitation. “Raw material” and “exploitation” are the operative words. If you wish to receive the best account to date of the structure and operation of natural phenomena, you must turn to the scientist. It is useless to expect that the literary artist will submit himself to the discipline necessary for science. As private person he might do this, but as literary artist he will not. As artist he has, of course, his own discipline, but this is something other than the discipline of science.

From Literature and Knowledge (1969) by Dorothy Walsh.

Lately, I’ve had a renewed interest in books about literature. Last year it started (and ended) with The Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. What impact that text has had on my reading is unclear. I don’t remember the definition of a sicilian tercet but I have a stronger grip on poetry metres because of Beowulf and other Old English poems. Yes, the formalist chapter probably made the most impact on my poetry readings but less on novels. The theories that the writers most emphatically applied to novels, and about which I did recall a thing or two, were the ones I had little use for — feminist (All that Lacan semiotic vs symbolic, what?), psychoanalysis (still flogging Freud?) — and the others tested my patience so much that I did not complete the relevant chapters (some cultural rebels wanting to analyse literature as one would a chair or a bloody restaurant menu). Mikhail Bakhtin was a flickering glimmer in that land of nonsense but the writers did not spend much time with him and I did not follow up because the libraries either had one or two of his books in translation (and always on loan).

It did not have a chapter on postcolonial criticism but if it did it’s likely I’d have skipped it. No matter, though, since Adrian Hunt’s introduction to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner gave a detailed analysis of how some characters’ use of Scottish dialect not only helped to establish a Scottish identity, individuality, and complexity in opposition to English condescension and simple prejudice but how in certain scenes, it was used to tell entirely different versions or give particular point of views to the same story an English character attempted to analyse. That seemed to feasibly fall within postcolonial theory, as I imagine it, despite the novel’s publication date and Scotland’s present political status.

Claude McKay’s used Jamaican patois far more frequently in Banana Bottom and in a purer form, than Roger Mais did in his novels and Andrew Salkey in A Quality of Violence, which tended to a more creolised English. It made me hesitate when I began to write my post on the McKay because I wondered how difficult the lines would be for a non-Jamaican reader, knowing that people read my blog for recommendations and that my audience isn’t predominantly Caribbean. Did this impede its universality? Yet, there was a glossary in the back, as there was in the Hogg’s, and I’ve become more and more distrustful of this “universal” quality used as a criteria for great literature. Too often I find that it is used to erase the local qualities of non-Western text, probably to save a poor critic/academic from doing more research and forcing students to look beyond Greek archetypes. Anyway, that’s another post.

I was too hard on my feminists. I did appreciate the various theories about whether any female characteristics are inherent (biological) or acquired from socialization, and the argument as to whether there was such a thing as a female text ie novels written by women have certain particularities that would not be produced by a male. I just never think like this when I read a novel and so have no use for it. Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s feminist analysis of Desire and Its Shadow by Ana Clavel made me hastily scan for what information I needed before beating a hasty retreat in the face of Lacan’s mirror stages.

Recently, I noted a brief resurgence in online discussion on why litbloggers supposedly hate James Wood and why they are hopelessly wrong to do so in such an inflammatory, pathetically argued manner. Wood is awesome; their critical skills quail before his awesomeness. I felt I possessed insufficient knowledge (and interest) to judge the matter so I read only to see what others had to say. I had not read much from Wood beyond his London Review of Books contributions which I found persuasive enough that I acquired books by the authors reviewed (Edward St. Aubyn and E.P. Jones) but at no time then did I feel as if I were in the presence of a critical god (or misguided nincompoop).

Nigel Beale led me to Wood’s New Republic review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which partly acted as a manifesto on hysterical realism, a term which I often came across without having much of a clue about what it referred to. I’m somewhat clearer now. Some authors’ fictions that are identified as magic realism — Thomas Pynchon (oh? had no idea), Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith (for White Teeth) — should be properly called “hysterical realism” because of their inauthenticity and internal disunity. Working in the service of ideas rather than literary expression they throw in a lot of wacky and weird characters in multiple zany stories without making the effort to convince the reader of their plausibility in the novel’s world.

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character…By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion.


Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith’s hot plot which has had its way with her.

I’m not sure that I agree with him, partly because I’ve not read the authors under scrutiny and intend to read only one (Pynchon). It certainly pushed me one step closer to Mason & Dixon. I have ever been reluctant to boo a book because it does not contain psychologically realistic characters. I acknowledge that there are books to which such characters help to create a marvellous text, and that though an author may have written his book in such a way that such characters would be necessary to make it convincing (even if he did not think so), I don’t look to it as a standard. The examples he gave made me think that he could be right or he could be wrong. I believe that novels, by nature, must deal with some aspect of human experience but I do not think a great one’s defining aspect should be how well it probes human consciousness as Wood has conveyed it.

(I was not heartened by this post which claims that Wood chastised Tristram Shandy for being too “lively”, which is just…what? Would it be indulging in mean pooterish blogger speak to say that all through that Green’s post I imagined Wood as an old man on his porch, holding Bleak House, waving his crane at the hyperactive novelists writing about talking cheeses, wheezing, “Get off my damn high quality (realistic!) lawn turf, you’re gonna give me a heart attack!”)

There’s also been some discussion on This Space, Jacob Russel’s Barking Dog and The Reading Experience, too, about “realism”: what the word means precisely and whether current literary fashion over favours it. It was spurred in part by James Tata’s series on…perhaps it was realism in 20th century American fiction. (I’m not sure because he doesn’t allow direct linking to his posts and I could find it nowhere on the first page, so I assume he is that rare breed of bloggers who doesn’t like to be linked to.) I found this one more engaging but again I could find no one definition to hold on to, in part because it was debatable (and that some said it was being confused with naturalism, another term I should know more about, especially since I reviewed Kokoro).

Finally, The Wooden Spoon‘s running commentary last year on NBCC members selections for books every critic should read, and Esposito at Conversational Reading who occasionally ruminates on his quest to become a better, more insightful reader by reading critical works about literature and close reading, made me idly consider picking one or two such books for myself. The problem is that when I weigh the choice of reading about fiction vs. reading fiction 99% of the time I chose the latter. Life’s too short! I think. I’ll pick it up as I go along.

Reading a batch of review on J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year forced me to reconsider. A few were very, very bad. Many were bad or depressingly mediocre. Of the 13 I’ve read so far I would only rate three as being worth your time not because you have a polished and refined taste for the highest tiers of literary criticism, dear reader, but because you are likely a living, breathing human being with a brain; a brain active enough that when a stranger tells you that something is bad or good you wonder why she thinks so, and the stranger’s is active enough to explain. It’s a real shame that the reader who isn’t inclined to read 3 or so pages of Hilary Mantel wax on (and on) is left with 750 words of plot summary + I’d give him a free hand job that’s how great it is!/No, no I didn’t really get into it.

I’ll save most of my ire for the assigned piece. One good thing out of the experience, I guess, is that it made me look harder at how I do things. I was not too worried about my blog reviews, but I scurried to reassess my Quarterly Conversation piece, and I am now more committed to doing better at other future submissions if they do turn up. Still, I was appalled enough at what I read that I’m tempted to put up a page entitled “Spot the difference?” in which I’ll place examples of erudite newspaper reviews beside regular ol’ blog ones. My god, if that’s the drivel these people think is acting as a gateway for quality, if that is the processed baby food they’re serving to adults…I don’t know whether to laugh or…

Anyway. This rather long post was supposed to be a kind of introduction for my thoughts on Dorothy Walsh’s Literature and Knowledge, a book in which she seeks to establish what sort of knowledge literary art can provide separate from other art and more pointedly from scientific inquiry. I’ll put up an excerpt and then save the rest for Sunday Salon.

A link

Posted on: September 1, 2007

Good lord, look what’s happened here, a new Quarterly Conversation issue. I wonder why I’ve linked to it so quickly with no accompanying overview? I also wonder why I cannot spell. Is my brain already sub par at age 23?

Incidentally, I finished part one of Don Quixote! *applause, band plays, confetti falls* It was comical how shocked I was when I finished the sonnets and then there before me was a new title page. I checked twice to make sure. Go team!

Apologies for splitting this excerpt into two posts. I did the first one on a different computer which made the first part look a lot longer.


Let us take three types of men walking through the same landscape. Number One is a city man on a well-deserved vacation. Number Two is a professional botanist. Number Three is a local farmer. Number One, the city man, is what is called a realistic, commonsensical, matter-of-fact type: he sees trees as trees and knows from his map that the road he is following is a nice new road leading to Newton, where there is a nice eating place recommended to him by a friend in his office. The botanist looks around and sees his environment in the very exact terms of plant life, precise biological and classified units such as specific trees and grasses, flowers and ferns, and for him this is reality; to him the world of the stolid tourists (who cannot distinguish an oak from an elm) seems a fantastic, vague, dreamy, never-never world. Finally, the world of the local farmer differs from the two others in that his world is intensely emotional and personal since he has been born and bred there, and knows every trail and individual tree, and every shadow from every tree across every trail, all in warm connection with his everyday work, and his childhood, and a thousand small things and patterns which the other two — the humdrum tourist and the botanical taxonomist — simply cannot know in the given place at the given time. Our farmer will not know the relation of the surrounding vegetation to a botanical conception of the world, and the botanist will know nothing of any importance to him about that barn or that old field or that old house under its cottonwoods, which are afloat, as it were, in a medium of personal memories for one who was born there.

So here we have three different worlds — three men, ordinary men who have different realities — and of course, we could bring in a number of other beings: a blind man with a dog, a hunter with a dog, a dog with his man, a painter cruising in quest of a sunset, a girl out of gas — In every case it would be a world completely different from the rest since the most objective words tree, road, flower, sky, barn, thumb, rain have, in each, totally different subject connotations. Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence. The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality. We may taste in it a particle of madness if a lunatic passed through that locality, or a particle of complete and beautiful nonsense if a man has been looking at a lovely field and imagining upon it a lovely factory producing buttons or bombs; but on the whole these mad particles would be diluted in the drop of objective reality that we hold up to the light in our test tube. Moreover, this objective reality will contain something that transcends optical illusions and lab tests. It will have elements of poetry, of lofty emotion, of energy and endeavour (and even here the button king may find his rightful place — of pity, pride, passion — and the craving for a thick steak at the recommended roadside eating place.

From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.

I want to discuss fantasy and reality, and their mutual relationship. If we consider the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story as an allegory — the struggle between Good and Evil within every man — then this allegory is tasteless and childish. To the type of mind that would see an allegory here, its shadow play would also postulate physical happenings which common sense knows to be impossible; but actually in the setting of the story, as viewed by a commonsensical mind, nothing at first sight seems to run counter to general experience. I want to suggest, however, that a second look shows that the setting of the story does run counter to general human experience, and thatUtterson and the other men around Jekyll are, in a sense, as fantastic as Mr. Hyde. Unless we see them in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is beautifully constructed, but it is an old one. Its moral is preposterous since neither good nor evil is actually depicted: on the whole, they are taken for granted, and the struggle goes on between two empty outlines. The enchantment lies in the art of Stevenson’s fancywork; but I want to suggest that since art and thought, manner and matter, are inseparable, there must be something of the same kind about the structure of the story, too. Let us be cautious, however. I still think that there is a flaw n the artistic realization of this story — if we consider form and content separately — a flaw which is missing in Gogol’s “TheCarrick” and in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. The fantastic side of the setting — Utterson, Enfield, Poole, Lanyon, and their London — is not of the same quality as the fantastic side of of Jekyll’s hydization. There is a crack in the picture, a lack of unity.

“The Carrick,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “The Metamorphosis”: all three are commonly called fantasies. From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. But when people call these three stories fantasies, they merely imply that the stories depart in their subject matter from what is commonly called reality. Let us therefore examine what reality is, in order to discover in what manner and to what extent so-called fantasies depart from so-called reality.

From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

I thought this would be an interesting excerpt in light of the posts I’ve been doing recently on so-called “obscene” novels. It features one of the longest questions I’ve ever come across in a Paris Review interview and is entirely the fault of the floundering interviewer, the playwright’s pal.


A critic recently wrote the following paragraph, “Mr. Albee complained with Tiny Alice that people asked questions and would not let the play merely occur to them. He complains of those critics who judge a play’s matter and do not restrict themselves to its manner. Both of these statements tend to a view much in vogue — that art consists principally of style, an encounter between us and the figurative surface of the work. This view reduces ideas to decoration, character to pageant, symbol and feeling to a conveyor belt for effects. It is to shrink art to no more than a sensual response, one kind or another of happening. To some of us this modish view is nihilistic, not progressive.” Now the critic in question has come fairly close to defining a theory that might be got out of, say, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation or her essay on style. I wonder how closely the critic’s interpretations of your remarks — of the remarks, I guess, that you made most specifically at the Tiny Alice press conference — are true to your own understanding of them.


Well, this critic is a sophist. What he’s done is to misinterpret my attitudes, Miss Sontag’s attitudes, and the attitudes of most respectable creative people. What I said is that I thought it was not valid for a critic to criticize a play for its matter rather than its manner — that what was constituted then was a type of censorship. To give an extreme example, I was suggesting that if a man writes a brilliant enough play in praise of something that is universally loathed, that the play, if it is good and well enough written, should not be knocked down because of its approach to its subject. If the work of art is good enough, it must not be criticized for its theme. I don’t think it can be argued. In the thirties a whole school of criticism bogged down intellectually in those agitprop, social-realistic days. A play had to be progressive. A number of plays by playwrights who were thought very highly of then — they were very bad playwrights — were highly praised because their themes were intellectually and politically proper. This intellectual morass is very dangerous, it seems to me. A form of censorship. You may dislike the intention enormously but your judgment of the artistic merit of the work must not be based on your view of what it’s about. The work of art must be judged by how well it succeeds in its intention.


In other words, what you’re saying is that a critic should separate what he takes to be the thematic substance of a play from the success or lack of success that the author brings to its presentation.


It’s that simple. And critics who do otherwise are damn fools and dangerous, even destructive people. I don’t think it can be argued.

From “The Art of Theater” No. 4 interview with Edward Albee, The Paris Review No. 39, 1966

The latest Penguin Classics edition of Paradise Lost has a 43 pages introduction. Typically this sort of thing would make me groan out loud, and I did sigh a bit when I flipped through them. But I am happy to say that John Leonard of the University of Western Ontario (imagine Western having anything academic to brag about :P) wrote an useful, informative, inviting introduction. He places the work in historical, theological and political context, only mentions the relevant parts of Milton’s life, and familiarizes the reader with the “universe” of Paradise Lost (for eg. what Milton means when he uses the word “universe” vs “world” vs “Chaos” etc.). And he gives a nice run down through some of the poem’s major themes, what critics like C.S. Lewis and William Empson have opined and what he thinks about it all. He is careful to leave a lot of room for the reader.

Throughout this edition I have endeavoured to annotate Milton’s allusions in a way that opens rather than closes a reader’s interpretative choice. I do this not because I am determined on indeterminacy, but because I want to provide readers with the materials that will enable them to determine interpretative matters for themselves.

His intro lacked the stuffy tone of the usual Oxbridge contributors. Not that I mind the tone so much, unless the intro is terrible and then I can’t bear to read another word. What I am finding a little bothersome is that the edition has endnotes instead of footnotes and there is no notation to tell you which word or line has been explained. The latter wouldn’t be such a problem if the notes were on the same page, but when every few lines you have to flipping back and forth to the end of the book….well! not the best reading experience. Does anyone know of a Paradise Lost edition that has the notes on the same page, like the Arden Shakespeare editions (oh, I love them so)? Maybe such a move would ruin the form of the poem or something…

It’s going to take me a very long time to finish The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. She has a knack for opulent descriptions of just about everything, from a mother’s wearied face, to the bloody phlegm that the tuberculosis patients cough up into buckets at a seaside hotel turned sanatorium. I had to take a break after one description, I thought I could Cory’s imagined sightings of mountains and castles that he saw in said bucket that he had to empty, then I had to stop when he peeked into a room he shouldn’t have, and Hall was going to take eager pen to describe in colourful, lurid detail an amateur surgery. (Have you seen Vera Drake? Then you know to what I’m referring.)

Amanda A. I can see what you mean about the over-writing: in some cases it exasperates, in others it doesn’t but I have not reached very far yet. We’ll see.

I’ve been reading a lot of on-line literary sites in the past few days. Do check out Estella’s Revenge which has a great set of articles this time around, including my favourite, the Book Tour. Stuart Sharp has written an entertaining overview of that most literary of sports: cricket. Open Letters Monthly has a lot of good stuff for this month, including a Peer Review of the critical pages devoted to Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, another review of Hermione Lee’s Wharton bio by Steve Donoghue (probably my favourite contributor right now) and translated goodness with a review of César Vallejo’s “unparalled” poetry. A browse through the archives turned up this gem, a peer review of the critics’ take on Robert Fagles’ “good” translation of Aeneid.

[There is a] deeply ambivalent undertone running through almost all the major reviews of this work. (A notable exception would be Thomas Cahill’s hysterical encomium in the Los Angeles Times, in which he mentions the work’s “inexplicable greatness,” calls it “magnificent,” and says “all I can do is point, like a child watching his first parade, at some of the delights he [Fagles] has bestowed upon us.” Lost in this childlike – more accurately childish? – wonder, Cahill seems unaware of the fact that when he says of Fagles’ Aeneid “classicists may fail to recognize it” he’s not, in fact, paying the book a compliment).

Donoghue’s reaction to the LRB book review mirrored mine.

A searcher for measured, intelligent praise of Fagles might think they’ve found it in Denis Feeney’s review in the London Review of Books. Feeney calls the work “a fitting cap to a distinguished career” (if I were Fagles, I’d be a little dismayed by the obituary tone of so many of these reviews) and goes on to say it’s “powerful,” “moving,” and “strikingly successful.” But the reader would then go on to read that Feeney is mentioned in Fagles’ acknowledgments with, as Feeney says, “characteristic over-generosity.” At which point the entire review goes to the bottom of the birdcage, and the reader continues the quest.

When you’re done cackling with glee — oh, that was only me was it? Maybe Sylvia joined in — trip over to The Quarterly Conversation which has reviews of Chris Abani’s Virgin of Flames, Murakami’s After Dark and three interviews with translators of Latin American works.

Let’s get the lame stuff out of the way. For some reason this issue has a bajillion page story by Alan Bennett complete with prominent ads for his books and play (last showing! last showing!). I’m not sure how Bennett hijacked the LRB but I’d like for another to take up the burden of peddling his wares. First we get his diary, now this? (Is he a god in England? I am lacking context.)

The great news is that there were actually five, count it, five women listed in the table of contents–and only two were poetry contributors! (Band plays.) And they weren’t covering cooking or floral arrangements either. Keep it up LRB, I (and I hope others) do notice things like this.

I’ve already posted about the provocative Mumdani article which everyone should read. Another excellent one directly related to Africa and major urban areas worldwide was Jeremy Harding’s review of Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, It Migrates to Them. Davis wrote on the explosion of populations in urban areas in ways similar to the effects of the 19th century Industrial revolution: poor housing, poor infrastructure, generally sub-standard living conditions. In certain countries like Japan the rural dwellers did not even have to move closer to the city; the development came to them with highways cutting off their routes to the sea and the pollution killing the fish stock.

One of the major problems Davis identifies is that the populations far outnumber the economic opportunities offered in the cities; he disagrees with the idea that creating property rights will spur any development; and that too many people in these areas are forced to work in the same kind of jobs: “the informal sector…generates jobs not by elaborating new divisions of labour, but by fragmenting existing work, and thus subdividing incomes.” The IMF and the World Bank are implicated in sometimes causing and aggravating this problem in developing nations, along with the corruption of national governments.

The photographer Jonas Bendiksen took photographs of Kibera, an example of one of these slums, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya for the Paris Review Winter 2006. (The piece is in PDF format.)

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by the same author is also reviewed, the link formed by Davis intention to “focus on ‘slum-based resistance to global capitalism'”. Buda’s Wagon is an indirect way of addressing this (he plans a sequel to Planet Slums that will more thoroughly address the matter). For now he writes on this weapon that’s used by insurgents and secret services alike. Harding asserts that the “unwitting” overall picture Davis creates is the links between the outsider violent groups who use the car bombs and other tactics as weapons and the “state agencies” that taught them.

Peter Barnham’s review of the new translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, Rubbing Shoulders with Unreason, was really cool and interesting but at least 50% flew right over my head. I was clearly expected to have an idea of the concept of what “unreason” different from “madness” but I had not a fucking clue. It read real pretty though so once I actually, you know, find out what Barham was writing about I’m sure I’ll realise that I learned a lot.

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been making the rounds in journals and newspapers. Frank Kermode reviews it here, as well as Bernard O’Donoghue’s in Who has the gall? O’Donoghue takes his modern approach further than Armitage, abandoning the alliterative Middle English poetic style, but both don’t balk at throwing in the jolty contemporary phrase. “Armitage enjoys taking liberties. The knight’s dreadful weapon becomes ‘the mother of all axes,/a cruel piece of kit I kid you not'”.

Kermode occasionally compares both translations to the “authoritative” Tolkien’s and finds good and bad in all. Of the two he leans towards Armitage, observing that while he may “kick up his heels” ever so often he does “much justice” to the extraordinary work. O’Donoghue’s effort is “less sparky”. Frankly all the “modern” made me desperately yearn for the Tolkien translation, although if I had to I’d go for the Armitage as well, based on this review.

Julie Elkner was the only woman to pen a major piece this issue. She reviewed Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Tear off Masks! Identity and Imposture in 20th-century Russia.

Fitzpatrick has a long-standing interest in the ways in which ordinary Russians negotiated everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. Tear off the Masks! brings together a number of her studies from the past fifteen years, on a series of loosely connected themes falling under the broad rubric of ‘identity’ and its ambiguities, with notions of ‘masking’ and ‘unmasking’ as key motifs.

Elkner feels that Fitzpatrick can be too focused on deflating the idea of the omniscient, omnipotent Soviet bureaucracy, but he work on the different images people presented in their everyday lives, and the elaborate theatrics and mirrors devised by the secret service were lucidly described. I wanted to get my hands on it right away but some evil person did a term loan.

For the shorter pieces Uri Avnery wrote on the Israeli government’s dependence on the Arab world’s refusal of every ‘road map’ or ‘peace agreement’ and how Hamas agreement to the 1967 borders and the king of Saudi Arabia’s effort to unite the Palestinian government fills them with horror rather than joy. Peter Campbell covered the Turner’s Rigi exhibit (now ended) at the Tate Britain, stating the need for the three watercolours to remain together. (The threatened ‘Blue Rigi’ was saved.) Deborah Friedell connected Edith Wharton’s novels and the Herminoe Lee biography to her own experiences.