VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

W or The Memory of Childhood (1975) by George Perec


Book Review
W or The Memory of Childhood (1975)
by George Perec

   The Oulipo movement, a loose association of (mostly) French writers and academics who were the vanguard for experimental French fiction in the mid 20th century, is largely unknown outside of the academic specialty audience in English.   The major formal innovation of the Oulipo writers was to impose constraints on their fiction writing.   That is an approach which has found disciples outside of fiction, you can think of the Dogme movement spear headed by Lars Von Trier (mid career Harmony Korine was an adherent) and the career of American artist Matthew Barney, who literally built his career on a performance art series called "Drawing Restraint" where he physically restrained himself in different ways and then struggled for the Audience.

  It's natural to think that experimental fiction written in French would lose "something in the translation," since it is written to be difficult to understand in the original French.   From this perspective, W or The Memory of Childhood is an accesible entry point for readers exploring the works of Perec and the Oulipo school.  It is both a straight forward narrative written from the perspective of the author, who is a Jewish child in Nazi occupied France, and an equally easy to understand parable about a fictional island nation off the coast of Chile, where everyone is engaged in an endless athletic struggle.

  The details of the fictional athletics obsessed society are part Thomas More's Utopia, part Gulliver's Travels and part 1984/Brave New World, and of course, directly inspired by Nazi Germany and would I presume are the Author's dim memories of the so-called Nazi Olympics.  I'm not sure if, by 1975, Perec was still operating under the voluntary restraints of the Oulipo movement.

  By comparison, Things: A Story of the 60's, is obvious the product of  conscious restraint, with first-name only protagonists who lack any sort of inner life.   Although the stylistic restrictions are absent, there is still an obsession with rule in order, manifesting in the detailed descriptions of the horrific rituals of the fictional athletics-obsessed society of the parable half of the book.

  There's also an interesting overlap with another 1001 Books title, V by Thomas Pynchon.  In V, Pynchon writes a plot that hops back and forth, combining at a point, the V of the title (who is also a mysterious character in the book.)   In the version of W or The Memory of Childhood that I read, the author includes a foreward where he explains that the proper English translation of the title is, "Double V" not the English letter W, and this is because the inclusion of two parallel but related stories.  2 V's, in other words.

  This approach is also echoed by the common film grammar of creating narrative tension in action sequences by moving between two separate locations without making clear the temporal relationship of the two sequences. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Yes (1978) by Thomas Bernhard

Austian writer Thomas Bernhard
Book Review
Yes (1978)
 by Thomas Bernhard

  Austrian author Thomas Bernhard is up there in your top 5 post Word War II German-language novelist/writer discussions.  He's not Gunter Grass or Krista Wolf famous, but his deeply weird and obsessive novels continue to resonate with aficionado's of post modern literature.   Like Correction, the other Bernhard penned book I've read thus far, Yes features an obsessive protagonist and is centered around suicide.

  Bernhard's prose resembles the experimental prose of writers in other languages, the constant rephrasing of mid career Beckett and the works of French writers from the Oulipo movement like Raymond Queneau and George Perec.  His narrators have a habit of repetition and rephrasing that is annoying, on purpose, I imagine.  It seems in terms of his themes and styles that Bernhard wants to challenge the reader, that he would be fine with an unhappy reader, because unhappiness is the natural state of the universe.

The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Image result for autumn of the patriarch
Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Book Review
The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    The Autumn of the Patriarch is probably Marquez's third most famous title behind One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.    The Autumn of the Patriarch is more challenging than either of the two other books.   It is more of a "prose-poem" then a novel.  The sentences are long and opaque, the plot thin to non-existent.  What it does contain is atmosphere, loads of it.  The atmosphere oozes from the walls of the decreipt Presidential palace, the location of the even-more decrepit Patriarch in question who is, "in reality" a dictator of an unnamed Latin American backwater, but who bears a marked resemblance of several of the uniformed"Caudillo's" (strong-men) of Latin American politics in the post World War II 20th century.

   In that sense, The Autumn of the Patriarch is a minor-key in the ballad of literature about 20th century dictatorships, ranging from the experience of German's under Hitler, the victims of Hitler, the experience of Russians under totalitarian Communism, the experience of the Chinese under Mao and assorted other victims of power-mad single-person state governments.   What makes it worth while is the attempt, with however much poetic license, to get inside the head of the perpetrator, rather than his victims.   Nothing is pointed enough to constitute a specific criticism of a specific person, rather The Autumn of the Patriarch is an attempt to make the reader feel the stench of corruption engendered by a totalitarian regime

  It is an irony of 20th century history that regimes that are imposed with the specific idea of instilling discipline, purity and respect for authority so frequently obtain the opposite result, as citizens passively resist edicts they've had no part in formulating.   I was surprised at times by the gross-ness of the imagery.  It seems like few people have actually made it all the way through to the end, because there are scenes of De Sadian depravity towards the middle-end that really blow your hair back.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: The Shining (1977) by Stephen King

Image result for calumet the shining
Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's film adaption of The Shining by Stephen King.

Book Review:
The Shining (1977)
by Stephen King

  You could argue that Stephen King was the most successful writer of fiction in the 20th century, and sixteen years into the 21st century, he is still a formidable figure both in genre fiction and popular film.  He also figures prominently in almost any serious discussion of the boundaries between "high" literature and "low" fiction.  Certainly, in the mid 1970's the idea of a genre author transcending genre and ascending into "literature" was not entirely foreign.  What is amazing about the extent of Stephen King's popular audience is not simply that he has sold over 350 million copies of his books, but also that more than 30 feature films have been made, and several of those have achieved classic status.  I'm thinking of The Green Mile, Stand By Me, and of course, The Shining.

    Any discussion of The Shining (novel) needs to start with a discussion of The Shining (movie).  I would say that like all Stanley Kubrick films based on literary sources, the movie is better than the book, but only because the movie is world class, and the underlying source material is, at best, above average. The Shining (novel) makes it onto the 1001 Books list as King's only representative.   The Editors probably figure that like The Odyssey and The Bible, enough people are familiar with his work to omit all of his books but for The Shining.  

  Kubrick clearly came to King's source material with his own agenda, and the eye of a film maker, vs. the concerns of a genre novelist, albeit a transcendent genre novelist.   Of course, literally any human being reading The Shining in 2016 will have seen the movie and therefore know the broad outlines and even the details of the book.   People riding the wave of recent interest in the meaning of the Kubrick film can find much to debate in the book.  Specifically, I think the only valid interpretation of the book is that the area on which the hotel is built is occupied by a malevolent spirit, which compelled the initial builder to build the hotel in the first place, and this spirit has maintained the existence of the hotel by manipulating the behavior of the owners and occupants of the hotel.

   This malevolent spirit maintains the souls of it's past victims, and it is interested in new victims.  Kubrick, of course, was interested in expanding on what is essentially a ghost story, and it is he who added the spatial manipulation that fans of the film seem to focus on.   There isn't much.., style... in King's fiction.  It's amazing stuff, but clunky and awkward, with dozens of pages that seem included specifically to manipulate the emotions of the reader, but that is probably why he is so successful. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Stagecoach Festival 2017 Announces Line-Up:

Official Stagecoach 2017 festival


   Goldenvoice just announced the line up for the 2017 edition of the Stagecoach Festival or "California's Country Music Festival" as they are sub-titling it.  I've been going for several years, now and I highly recommend the experience, particularly in direct comparison to Coachella, which is essentially a non-starter unless you have artist level passes.    Staqgecoach works with three stages instead of five, and basically the main headliners have no direct competition.  The main attraction for me is the third stage, or the "Americana" stage, which usually has the majority of the non mainstream country acts worth seeing.

 The down-bill line up is particularly strong this year, and I'm not just saying that because homegirl Margo Price is playing Saturday.  If you look at the bottom lines of the poster you've got Cowboy Junkies, Terry Allen, Brent Cobb, Tommy James and the Shondelles, John Doe, Son Volt, Justin Townes Earle and The Zombies.  That's in addition to Los Lobos, Cyndi Lauper and Willie Nelson getting headliner status this year.


    I encourage people to give Stagecoach a try if they are "over" Coachella.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Song of Solomon (1997) by Toni Morrison


Book Review
Song of Solomon (1977)
by Toni Morrison

  One of the pleasures of a Toni Morrison is that she writes in the grand tradition of the 19th century novel.  Which is not to call her technique unsophisticated.  Morrison is a technician as well as a visionary, and this really comes into focus during Song of Solomon, the first Morrison novel in the 1001 Books list to be written largely about male, rather than female characters.   Here, the protagonist is Macon "Milkman" Dead, the scion of an upwardly mobile African American family in small-town Pennsylvania.  Like all of her novels, the characters are extraordinary in terms of their depths.  Unlike her earlier works on the 1001 Books list, Morrison has Macon Dead take a straight journey through time.  The story is a more-or-less conventional coming-of-age saga, albeit one adopted to the delayed adulthoods that many Americans experienced in the 20th century.

  Song of Solomon was Morrison's commercial and critical breakthrough.   It's hard not to think that some of this was due to her consciously "dumbing down" her style and writing a book with a man as a lead character.   But like all of Morrison's books, petty criticisms are drowned by the overwhelming power of her work.  

The Hour of the Star (1977) by Clarice Lispector


Book Review
The Hour of the Star (1977)
 by Clarice Lispector

   Clarice Lispector is the only female Latin American representative on the 1001 Books list up to this point.   The fact that she was Brazilian and Jewish tells you all you need to know about the state of women writers in Latin American countries.  Lispector is firmly within the tradition of 20th century experimental fiction.  She was famously difficult to read in her native Portugese, and the translator includes an afterword to explain that the weirdness in Lispector's English translation accurately reflects original weirdness in her prose.

  The Hour of the Star was Lispector's last book published during her life.  It is also on the more traditional side of her narrative range, about a woman from rural Brazil trying to make her way in the big city, told by a semi-omniscient narrator who sometimes seems to become the author (Lispector) mid-paragraph.  The depiction of an uneducated woman as a central narrative focus is itself unusual.  Even the characters written by other non-white non-male authors tend to be male, educated or both.

  Like many of the other titles from the mid to late 20th century, The Hour of the Star is hardly even a novella- 69 pages in the New Directions paperback.  With a list price of 12.95 USD!    Thirteen dollars for a seventy page book.   That's just nuts.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Delta of Venus (1977) by Anaïs Nin

Image result for anais nin
Anaïs Nin.
Book Review
Delta of Venus (1977)
by  Anaïs Nin

  This book of erotic short stories was published posthumously in 1977.  As the foreword by Nin recounts, she forced be economic circumstances to write erotica for a wealthy collector during the 1940's.   She remembers that he told her to be "more mechanical, with less emotion."  If you could accurately describe the difference between mere pornography and literature, that would be the formula.  Her main reference points (besides her imagination and the experiences of her various bohemian friends) are the 1000 Nights and a Night  and D.H. Lawrence.  The Arabian Nights influence is more in terms of the linking of stories within stories and the lack of main narrative focus.  D.H. Lawrence permeates the manuscript.  Also, one would imagine, Henry Miller, with whom Nin is forever associated.

  And it's also clear that Nin was familiar with 18th century writers like the Marquis de Sade and 19th century writers like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.   Delta of Venus somewhat systematically explores a catalog of perversions including every sort of intercourse, different brands of sexuality, fetishes and a deep emphasis on female character who want to be penetrated to the depths of their womb.
  

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ratner's Star (1976) by Don Delillo


Book Reiew
Ratner's Star (1976)
by Don Delillo

  The 1001 Books project is well into the present of literature.  Most of the authors on the list after this point in time are still publishing.   Don Delillo occupies a rank just below the rank of Nobel Prize for Literature:  He's well regarded by both audiences and critics, he's won national level book awards, at least one of his books is a staple of 20th century lit classes in colleges nationwide (White Noise).  The only thing Delillo is missing besides a major international award is a successful movie adaptation of one of his works.

  Delillo's place within the 1001 Books project is far from clear.  He had eight titles in the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  He lost four of those in the 2008 revision but gained a new listing, then he lost that new listing not two years later, leaving him with three remaining titles.   I would observe that Delillo hasn't had a hit since Underworld in 1997- he's published five other novels since then, so it's not from lack of effort.

  Ratner's Star is a famously difficult book, and it most closely resembles Grimus by Salman Rushdie- which was published in 1975.  Both novels take the framework of genre fiction- science fiction and fantasy, and then ornament that structure with similar accroutements:  A firm grasp on the "linguistic" turn in 20th century thought a la Wittgenstein and Beckett, a separate debt to Beckett for his exploration of language in the form of the novel and a playful idea that serious fiction can also be "fun" and/or "funny.'

 I say this because both Grimus and Ratner's Star are described as "comic" despite being wholly unfunny.  That is a characteristic of Beckett himself, but very much in evidence in the work of his followers as the "post-modern" period of the novel begins to arrive in the mid 1970's.  Ratner's Star revolves around a teenage mathematical prodigy who is whisked away to work on a mysterious radio transmission from a distant star.  His job is to decipher the meaning of the message.

  Like the work of his contemporary Thomas Pynchon, Delillo studs Ratner's Star with numerous, elaborate discussions of higher mathematical theory, astronomy and geometry.   These bodies of technical knowledge, analogous to the way Pynchon uses rocket technology in Gravity's Rainbow, are a distinctive characteristic of "serious" American fiction in the mid to late 20th century, and it is a development unique to American writers.   These is nothing of such a technical obsession in the work of the modernists.  If anything, they are anti-technology.

  Now I'm not actually recommending Ratner's Star to anyone as a fun read.  It literally is a combination of Beckett style linguistic dueling and complicated higher math and geometry.  The characters all have funny names.  It is, in a word, interesting but tedious, and at 420 pages, it is not a short book.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr


Book Review
Dispatches (1977)
by Michael Herr


  It turns out that Dispatches is the book from which every single Vietnam era cliche is derived.   Considering the extent to which the Vietnam experience has been depicted in popular film over the last several decades, it's surprising that such a rich source of material would have escaped any mention, but the fact that this copy of Dispatches is an Everyman's Library edition demonstrates that Dispatches is, in fact, a classic.

  Dispatches is most unusual in that it is one of the only non-fiction title on the list.  Most of the titles that appear on the list as "non fiction" are war memoirs, and perhaps that can be chalked up to the importance of the battle field experience in the western imagination, and the difficulty about describing the experience without first hand knowledge.

  You can't call Dispatches cliche because I'm sure that when Herr was writing none of the cliches about Vietnam had crystallized.  Still, you can't beat Dispatches for really nailing down the Vietnam War experience in 250 pages of crisp, clean, professional prose (Herr was a journalist.)

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