VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Confederacy of Dunces (1981) by John Kennedy Toole

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New Orleans is a major star of A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy toole.
Book Review
A Confederacy of Dunces  (1981)
 by John Kennedy Toole


   A Confederacy of Dunces has a publication history that perpetuates myths about the romantic artist-creater.  John Kennedy Toole, the author, committed suicide in 1969, and A Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until 1980 (and then on a small, regional university press) and subsequently became a sensation, earning a rare posthumously awarded Pulitzer Prize.  A Confederacy of Dunces is still in print, is still read and is even the subject of protracted "only in Hollywood" type stories about a mythical film version that has never been actually made.

  Dunces is a rare thing: A late 20th century example of the picaresque novel, a genre last current in the mid 18th century, when it helped to define the parameters of what a novel would or would not be.  In the 19th and 20th century, the picaresque evolved into the English coming-of-age novel and the German bildungsroman, but the difference between the 18th century picaresque, and later novels influenced by the picaresque, was the lack of a moral purpose in the original picaresque.  Things happened, but people did not change or evolve.  This lack of moral center dovetails nicely with the 20th century existentialist novel, and Toole successfully evokes both, along with a level or erudition that resembles the James Joyce of Ulysses.  He also very successfully evokes the New Orleans of 1962, which scholars have pinpointed the year of the events of the novel based on films that the main character, rotund Ignatius Reilly, views in local movie theaters.

  This combination of 18th century and 20th century influences with a memorable location is a heady mixture, and then you add the "published 12 years after the untimely suicide of the brilliant author" and you have a recipe for box office magic!  Dunces is also notable for his grasp of New Orleans dialect- also something you don't see much of outside Tennessee Williams plays when it comes to literature.   This rich and heady stew seems so potentially intoxicating that the failure of it to gain an audience initially seems even more puzzling.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The World According to Garp (1978) by John Irving

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Robin Williams played Garp and John Lithgow played the memorable character of Roberta, a transsexual who was formerly a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles
Book Review
The World According to Garp (1978)
 by John Irving

   The World According to Garp was a very much a book that was on the shelf at my parent's home.  I tried reading it when I was young, maybe 11 or 12, and I didn't get very far.  Frankly, I expected, with a title like The World According to Garp, something along the lines of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, science fiction, humor.    There is some humor in The World According to Garp, but no science fiction.   Irving was a student of Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, a fact which I became aware of halfway through Garp, when I thought to myself, "This books reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel" and searched the names of both authors on the internet.

  There are also elements of Tom Robbins and Ken Kesey as well as the additional element of post-modernism.  The plot of Garp is both loosely autobiographical AND about the ways in which literature contains and does not the biography of the author.  The protagonist (but not narrator) T.S. Garp is the son of a nurse who decides she wants a baby but not a man.  Working as a nurse in a New England towards the end of World War II, she inseminates herself with the help of a soldier in a vegetative state, and then repairs to her ancestral home of New Hampshire, where she works at a prep school and raises her son, little T.S. Garp.

  After graduation, Mother and son repair to Vienna, where Mom writes an auto-biography that becomes a touchstone of feminism.  Son writes a novella which is well-reviewed but doesn't sell. Garp and Mother return to the States, where Garp claims his bride with the help of his novella (proving he's a "real" writer to his bride, a the daughter of his prep school wrestling coach)  and things move on from there.

  "There" involves A LOT of events.  The major themes are lust, death and human relationships, in the same way that those are the central themes of every Kurt Vonnegut novel.   The World According to Garp has the first explicit discussion of the feminist "movement" of the 60's and 70's, that I have read so far in the 1001 Books project.  This portion very much reminds me of a similar theme in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, published in 1978 by Tom Robbins.  In 2016 it is cringe inducing to realize that a major literary investigation into the feminist movement was authored by the cissest of cis white males.

  The cringe inducing discussions of feminism, which also explicitly treats the issue of transsexualism in a way that was ahead of it's time, are balanced out by some astute observations about the nature of "popular" and "literary" fiction.  Unfortunately, I can't really discuss this portion of The World According to Garp without spoiling the third act,  but I found that part of the book highly satisfying, simply speaking as someone who has given ample time and thought to the issues surrounding art, artists and audiences.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786) by William Beckford

"Eastern" influences in 18th century popular culture influenced the literary output of that era, and embedded a strand of otherness in the emerging tradition of the ovel.
Book Review
Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786)
by William Beckford

   My initial take on Vathek, published back in 2010, wasn't even a take at all, just a block paragraph of the text with no added images or commentary

Carathis, Morakanabad, and two or three old vizirs, whose wisdom had hitherto withstood the attraction, wishing to prevent Vathek from exposing himself in the presence of his subjects, fell down in his way to impede the pursuit: but he, regardless of their obstruction, leaped over their heads, and went on as before. They then ordered the Muezins to call the people to prayers ; both for the sake of getting them out of the way, and of endeavoring, by their petitions, to avert the calamity: but neither of these expedients was a whit more successful. The sight of this fatal ball was alone sufficient to draw after it every beholder. The Muezins themselves, though they saw it but at a distance, hastened down from their minarets, and mixed with the crowd ; which continued to increase in so surprising a manner that scarce an inhabitant was left in Samarah except the aged; the sick, confined to their beds ; the infants at the breast, whose nurses could run more nimbly without them. Even Carathis, Morakanabad, and the rest, were all become of the party. The shrill screams of the females, who had broken from their apartments, and were unable to extricate themselves from the pressure of the crowd, together with those of the eunuchs jostling after them, and terrified lest their charge should escape from their sight; the execrations of husbands, urging forward and menacing each other ; kicks given and received ; stumblings and overthrows at every step ; in a word, the confusion that universally prevailed rendered Samarah like a city taken by storm, and devoted to absolute plunder. At last, the cursed Indian, who still preserved his rotundity of figure, after passing through all the streets and public places, and leaving them empty, rolled onwards to the plain of Catoul, and entered the valley at the foot of the mountain of the four fountains.


   The longer I continue the 1001 Books project, the more convinced I become that the most interesting literary period is 18th century English literature, the place and time of the birth of the modern novel.   Using the term "birth" is a hard opinion that the novel did not exist as an art form before the 18th century, and that after the 18th century, all novels would be created in the image of the 18th century English novel.   It also means that examining the surrounding culture (English popular and literary culture in the 18th century) is more worthwhile than examining the surrounding culture of the 19th and 20th century novel, because the novel was created in the 18th century.

  Vathek: An Arabian Tale is a typically eccentric non-novel of the 18th century that is a good illustration of one important strand of 18th century popular culture: The translation into English, for the first time, of A Thousand  Nights and a Night, early in the 18th century.  When Vathek: An Arabian Tale was published for the first time in 1786, the early elements for modern literary culture were in place:  A network of reviewers located in different markets, a distribution network for new works and most importantly, an Audience.   This Audience was well familiar with Arabian Tales by 1786, both as a work and a cultural category synonymous with the Middle East.

  Vathek can be judged the best of a whole category of 18th century novel-narratives directly influenced by the Aesthetic of Arabian Nights, but ditches the format of  fabelism for the more restrictive constraints of the novel. This "Arabian nights" strand of 18th century popular culture of which Vathek is a prime example, exists alongside the separate but related Aesthetic of Gothic, which also produced several notable 18th century early novels.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

July's People (1981) by Nadine Gordimer

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A young Nadine Gordimer

Book Review
July's People (1981)
 by Nadine Gordimer

     I'm still a little bit shocked that Nadine Gordimer's 1974 Booker Prize winning novel, The Conservationist, didn't make the cut.  Especially when you consider the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 1991, providing the crest of a career that lasted until 2012 (she died in 2014.)  A third, Booker Prize winning Gordimer novel in the first edition of the 1001 Books list?  No.  But eight Coeteze novel's is totally, totally, cool.

  July's People is a real winner- an alternate history where South Africa collapses into a racial civil war in the late 1970's.  Her rich imagining I think inaugurates the idea of South Africa in a post-apocalyptic milieu.  It is a vein of culture that has had some success at the widest general audience level in the United States, witness the rise of South African film maker Neil Blomkamp in movies like District 9.

  Like many other books that are set in a post apocalyptic/alternate future, the chaos around serves to focus the story on a few characters, as people become isolated from one other after the collapse of society.  The tension between July, an African house servant for a wealthy (and liberal) white couple with children, as he rescues them from the unrest by taking him to his native village.  Despite the possibility of violence in every page, July's People ends up with a slow pulse rate, nothing erupts into madness, and in that regard, I was a little disappointed.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Names (1982) by Don DeLillo

Photo of the Vintage Paperback edition of The Names, by author Don DeLillo.  DeLillo's early books were republished after the smash success of Underworld.
Book Review
The Names (1982)
 by Don DeLillo

    Don DeLillo is another over-represented author from the first edition of the 1001 Books list: six books, three of which were dropped in 2008, including The Names, his seventh novel.  Any time you make a list that extends backwards in time, the list makers will over-represent the importance of recent events vs. older events.  It's a bias which favors the present over the past.   Essentially 30% of the 1001 Books list is novels written between 1980 and 2006, a twenty six years period in a date range between 1700 and 2006.  So 8% of the timeline occupies a third of the number of titles in the 1001 Books list.    For most of that more recent time period, critics and authors were actively debating whether the novel, as an art form, was "dead."

   Criticisms of the 1001 Books 2006 list aside, I do enjoy Don DeLillo.  I read Underworld in hard cover, and I made some feints towards his back catalog- I remember an unread copy of Mao II haunting my apartment during law school.  The DeLillo of The Names is recognizable as the same DeLillo of Underworld, a man obsessed with the intersection of the 20th century white people relationship novel and the newer concerns of authors like Bellow and Pynchon, authority and control, and the way that influences those same relationships.

  In The Names, the setting is Athens at the turn of the decade from the 1970's and 1980's.  Jim is a freelance writer who works for corporations, writing annual reports and promotional materials.   His soon-be-divorced wife, Kathryn, is nearby on a Cycladic isle, volunteering her time with a moribund archaeological dig while she minds their 9 year old son, a precocious fellow whose main occupation in The Names is the writing of a "non-fiction novel."

   Jim take a new job with a shadowy outfit that specializes in "risk management" on behalf of nameless "large corporations" in the Near East.  Jim's job is to liaise with the local operatives, and obtain his own confidential information from his friends in the Athenic expatriate community.  The quotes used above hint that all is not what it seems with his new gig, but he spends little of the book on that topic, instead becoming obsessed with what may be a series of "alphabet inspired" cult murders taking place near various sites in the Near East.  Like many contemporary novels that dwell in a Pychonian air of mystery, the ending is never as significant as the writing would seem to demand.   Ultimately, the conspiracies and unseen machinations of the late 20th century novel function as a visible mirror to the unresolved tensions of the characters. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Comfort of Strangers (1981) by Ian McEwan

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Christopher Walken plays the mysterious stranger in the movie version of The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan.  The film was directed by Paul Schrader , 
Book Review
The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
 by Ian McEwan

  Ian McEwan lost an astonishing five titles (of eight) that were deemed worthy of inclusion in the 1st edition of the 1001 Books list in the 2008 revision.   This decision tells you all you need to know about the flaws of the first list: An over-representation of late 20th century authors who achieved a measure of popular and critical success as judged by editors in the very early 21st century.  Ian McEwan and J.M Coetzee allegedly represent 2% of the books one needs to read before one dies, according to the first edition of this list.  That is insanity.  You can't tell me that during 2000 plus years of literature, EIGHT Ian McEwan novels make the list and The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno and The Canterbury Tales are all found wanting.

  Perhaps the justification is that a large majority of readers are likely to have read books like The Odyssey, and therefore they don't need to be included, but how many people who bought the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die book had read either Atonement or Amsterdam, McEwan's huge critically acclaimed, prize winning, spectacular novels?  I would bet that is over 50% of the potential  audience for the 1001 Books list.

  Which is not to say that The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's second novel, isn't worth a read.  This novel, along with his first, earned him the nickname "Ian Macabre" and based on this novel and the Cement Garden it's not hard to see an alternate universe where McEwan turned into something like an English version of Stephen King.    The Comfort of Strangers follows a middle-aged English couple on holiday in a nameless city.  They come into contact with a strange local couple and what happens next... will shock you.  Suffice it to say that Christopher Walken plays the husband of the shadowy pair the English couple encounter in the movie version.

    

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Life A User's Manual (1978) by George Perec

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Life A User's Manual was the last novel published by Georges Perec, he died of lung cancer aged, 45, in 1979.
Book Review
Life A User's Manual (1978)
 by Georges Perec

  Life A User's Manual was French author Georges Perec's last novel, and it is also considered his best.    Checking in at 500 pages, with an additional 100 pages of appendices, Perec manages to embrace both his life long obsession with writing under a system of constraints (a characteristic of the Oulipo movement, of which Perec was a life-long affiliate.)  Unlike some of his other novels, the scheme does not eclipse the narrative, making Life A User's Manual enjoyable to read.

  The idea behind Life A User's Manual is to completely describe the lives (and things) of an entire apartment building of Parisians.  It is the novelistic equivalent of removing the front of a children's dollhouse and making up a story for each of the inhabitants and then describing all of the things inside the dollhouse.  According to Wikipedia, this approach was something of a life long obsession with Perec.   All of the rooms of each of the apartments is described in turn at a single point in time, moments after the death of the owner of the building, Bartlebooth.

  Bartlebooth is a wealthy Englishman who has spent his entire life in a single project.  First, he spends 10 years learning to paint watercolors.  Then he travels the world, painting one watercolor almost every week and then sending them back to Paris, where they are turned into 750 piece jigsaw puzzles by Gaspard Winckler (another resident of the described apartment building.)  Bartlebooth returns from his travels and then spends the rest of his life reassembling the puzzles, after which he returns the finished puzzle to the place where it was painted and has it chemically washed, the idea being that his entire life's work will be obliterated.

   Interspersed between episodes of this main narrative, necessarily (because of the restrictions of the approach) told as flashbacks, are dozens of interlinking tales about the lives of the people who have lived in the apartment building at various times.   These tales are voluminous and as entertaining as the central narrative concerning Bartlebooth.  Perec helpfully provides an index of these tales in the back of the book, with the numbers referring to chapter.

  It is tempting to describe Life A User's Manual as an early post-modernist masterpiece, but Perec is more like a modernist taking realist principles of description to an extreme and then cloaking it in his system of restraints.  Perec's fondest for lists of physical things is nowhere abated in Life A User's Manual.   What is different is the introduction of compelling narrative- both the central story about Bartlebooth and his puzzle paintings and dozens of the surrounding tales, which show an understanding of the appeal of genre fiction and genuine humor- rare in a European novel published between the end of World War II and today.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Media Links



  I added my social media links on the side column, since currently I only have an email address listed ha ha.  Here they are posted on the blog proper:

Facebook (personal)




Group Portrait with Lady (1971) by Heinrich Boll

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Heinrich Boll, OG meme.
Book Review
Group Portrait with Lady (1971)
 by Heinrich Boll


   Group Portrait with Lady is typically referred to as Henrich Boll's masterpiece.  In 1972, Boll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the accompanying Press Release issued by the Nobel Prize committee said, "Last in line comes his most grandly conceived book [,] Group Portrait with Lady, published only last year."  (Nobel Prize Official Website)  Later in the same statement, the committee refers to Group Portrait with Lady as his "crowning achievement."  Unlike his other books on the 1001 Books list, Group Portrait with Lady is lengthy, just over 400 pages in standard hard back format.

   Group Portrait with Lady  takes the form of an investigation of the main character, Leni, the daughter of wealthy construction magnate (at the beginning of the novel).   Leni lives in western Germany, and the spectrum of her experience in the wash of World War II ranges from people like her father who were Nazi's as a business opportunity to various Communists, Jews and Western Germany "separatists" who are trying to survive the war.   The investigation consists of dozens of interview's with Leni's friends and family, the narrative takes the form of the familiar "oral history" beloved by publications like Spin and Rolling Stone.  Boll is no stranger to a kaleidoscopic narrative with dozens of narrators, but in Group Portrait with Lady the introduction of a narrator/collector makes it much easier to read than his other books.

    The format- a post-some-undisclosed-event investigation of the protagonist, assumes that Leni requires explaining, that she has done something bad in the present of the book, and this misdeed is barely hinted at, let alone discussed.   This lends the narrative some weight, and unifies the dozens of separate interviews covering the whole of her life.   It is rare to see such a straight forward relationship between a single work and the award of a Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Nobel Prize for Literature has two major rules: 1. It doesn't award the prize for a specific work. 2. It doesn't award the prize to dead people.  Thus, for the prize and a single book to be tied so closely together is a notable achievement in the field of 20th century literature.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel DeFoe


Kim Novak played the licentious Moll Flanders in one of several movie versions.

Book Review:
 Moll Flanders (1722)
by Daniel DeFoe


      Moll Flanders was first published in 1722. It was written by Daniel Defoe, three years after he had a huge success with Robinson Crusoe. Defoe didn't start writing fiction until his mid-50s- before then he was a journalist/rabble rouser/terrible business man (the chapters in Moll Flanders that describe the debtors prison of Newgate are written with such accuracy because Defoe himself spent time at Newgate).
Poster for the Kim Novak starring movie version.
            DeFoe's protean "novel" is written in the form of an actual biography- writing fiction at that time and place was considered a sin.   The novel as an art form did not exist, and the idea of a novel as "high art" a la 20th century modernism (Think Joyce, Beckett and Proust) did not yet exist.  There are no chapter breaks, spelling and punctuation are intermittent. At first I was worried that the utter lack of form and structure would make Moll kind of a bummer but the unfamiliarity of the form was counterbalanced by the... bawdiness? The ribaldry? The lewdness?

         I tell ya'- Us Magazine and TMZ got nothing on ole' Moll Flanders. Moll is an orphan. She's taken in by a local town official. Both of the son's of the family fall in love with her, one takes her for his whore/mistress, the other one wants her to marry him. Then she gets married to her brother (unknowingly!). She moves to Virginia, moves back, falls for a banker, but marries a wealthy gentleman but it turns out he has no money, becomes a thief, gets caught and moves back to Virginia.

     It's no wonder that this story has been made and remade time and time and time again into movies, tv mini series and made for tv movies. Time and time again I found myself thinking, "this was published in 1722?" It's no wonder the Puritans were disgusted with English culture and left for America!

    Reading Moll Flanders rather put my conscience at ease about societies obsession with the tawdry details of "tabloid" culture. Apparently, it's been the same way since the very birth of the novel itself. Perez Hilton, TMZ, Jerry Springer & Moll Flanders. It just takes time for the appreciation to grow!

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