Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1993) by Mark Rose

Book Review
Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1993)
 by Mark Rose
Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press

   One of the major things I've learned in the last decade are the many ways that insubstantial, "intellectual property" can be worth as much, if not more, than the real thing (property).  The details of the beginnings of treating intellectual property similar to real property is not "the way it has always been."  Quite the opposite.  Up until the 18th century, artists typically created at the request of royalty or clergy, and any resulting property rights from such works were granted as a "privilege."    In other words, you write an Opera for King Charles and he gives you a scroll giving you the exclusive rights to print copies of the score for some period of time.

  This was just the way things were until the 18th century, specifically, the 18th century as experienced by the English/Scottish/Irish book selling trade, which was undergoing a rapid expansion as the audience for printed matter grew by leaps and bounds.  This set off a struggle over who could print what- typically quite independently of the authors themselves, who would usually simply sell their right in their own work to a publisher for a small sum.

   Basically there were the existing Publishers, working under a royal grant that pre-dated the 18th century and stretched by to the London Stationers guild.  On the other side, there were rogue publishers- often located in Ireland and Scotland, who would churn out cheaper editions of current titles, and then sell them for much less than the price set by the London based publishers.   The London Publishers wanted a tool that allowed them to stop this trade, and that led to the introduction of a Copyright law.

   The major issue at the time is whether the copyright would be forever or for a fixed term- and the victory of the fixed terms-  typically "the life of the artist" plus some fixed term of years- was a victory for the outsiders.  It is also the way copyright continues to function until this day.  Rose also points out how much the copyright idea of the author coincides with the 18th century cult of Shakespeare, who became the ideal romantic Artist, despite the fact- as Rose points out- he himself was nothing like the ideal of the Romantic artist- taking all of his plots, and some of his actual language from other sources.

  Rose points out that these assumptions about the nature of authorship (a Romantic, creative ideal) remain embedded in the legal system for copyright, even as literary theory has moved far, far beyond 18th century Romantic ideals about artistic creation.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Heart So White (1992) by Javier Marías

Book Review
A Heart So White (1992)
 by Javier Marías

   The absence of Spanish (from Spain) authors from the 1001 Books list is a little unexpected, but I attribute it to the dominance of Latin American writers and "magical realism," combining with the fact that the traditional Spanish literary perspective, that of a professional, white, male adds little to the list of works by similarly situated authors who write in English.  In fact, Spain, outside of Barcelona, remains a staid, traditional society circa this past decade (when I visited).  The influence of fifty years of the soft facisim of Franco was stulifying on the development of the international culture that is necessary for literary fiction to achieve prominence in translation.

  Marías himself is an exception that proves the rule.  He spoke fluid English, taught in both England and the United States and the international tone of A Heart So White is made explicit through the narrator- a translator/interpreter (don't get him started on the difference between the two, nor on the difference between simultaneous and consecutive translation) who speaks four different languages fluently.  Although A Heart So White is written in Spanish and translated into English, it seems fair to say that nothing, or almost nothing is lost in the translation, since the narrator/author is himself aware of the ambiguities that translation presents and draws the attention of the reader when it occurs in the text.

   In other ways, A Heart So White resembles the continuation of the European Philosophical novel tradition.   The narrator narrates obsessively, working through different logical permutations of events and the possibility of future events.  In other ways, A Heart So White resembles the "existential" Detective fiction of early Paul Auster- where a loose who-done-it provides the skeleton for the philosophical musings of the protagonist.

  As a criminal lawyer who deals daily with translators in the precinct of Federal Court, I am well familiar with the interpreter/translator culture, which, at the highest levels, attracts an almost insane percentage of people who have come from Spain or the tonier countries of Latin America to translate in the American court system.  The number of "official" Court interpreters in Federal Court who come from either the USA itself or border cities like Tijuana and Mexicali is almost non existent.

  But- there is nothing ground breaking to read here- no Spanish equivalent of "Magical Realism" or "historical metafiction" to draw a wider critical or popular audience outside of Spain and the Spanish language- despite that it may have well been written in English, for all the difference it makes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (2007)by Edward Bahr

Weimar on the Pacific:
German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (2007)
by Edward Bahr
University of California Press

  I like the University of California Press, but I don't love it. It's respectable, particularly when it comes to titles about California but almost everything I read from there is intended for specialists, general readers need not apply.  Such is the case with the very interesting Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism, a thorough treatment of the nuts and bolts of the writing and activities of German exiles like Horkheimer and Adorno, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and others- including non-exile immigrants like architects Neutra and Schindler.

  The German exile artists were, to a man, west-siders.  Bahr provides a useful list of addresses where the exiles lived, none are further east then Brentwood.  As Bahr makes clear, the "Los Angeles" that these leftist intellectuals experienced was the west side. He grounds the book in the study of German "exile literature" and Weimar on the Pacific functions more as a work of literary criticism than the social history one might prefer (though Bahr doesn't skirt concrete details like the address and description of their homes.)  With the exception of Thomas Mann, who had already won a Nobel Prize for Literature, none of the profiled exiles were particularly famous or wealthy during their time in Southern California.

   Bertolt Brecht comes off as the most entertaining of the big four: Horkheimer, Adorno, Brecht and Thomas Mann. He has an austere reputation, and although he didn't coin the term "culture industry" like Horkheimer and Adorno, he was well aware of their work.  Brecht did things like write poetry complaining about the Southern California movie industry.  All except Mann had a hugely negative view about the United States.  Bahr points out lengthy efforts by Horkheimer and Adorno to equate the market capitalism of America with Nazi Germany.   Perhaps they were just anticipating the rise of Donald Trump, but up until last year it seemed like a strange comparison.

  There are many moments, large and small, that make for entertaining reading, but there is also much discussion of the actual works that were written while the exiles were in residence.  Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann gets particularly lengthy treatment- which is useful for a difficult to understand book, but not really what I was looking for in terms of the social history angle.

  This book also has the aforementioned list of addresses and a professional grade bibliography for anyone interested in the subject. 

The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up! (1992) by Jonathan Coe

Book Review
The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up! (1992)
 by Jonathan Coe

  The Winshaw Legacy is one of the more specifically English books on a 1001 Books that is well stocked with representatives of all eras of English literature.  It is, thankfully, a comedy, about a fictional family that embodies the worst excesses of Thatcherite England and their entanglement with the novelist who, in a moment of weakness, takes a paid gig at a vanity press to write the history of the Winshaw family.

   By "comedy" I mean satire, and by satire I mean dark satire.  Coe does an excellent job of integrating reportage style material about subjects like the sales of arms in the Middle East, and the dismantling of the National Health System.   These portions are often more convincing then the in-book plight of the characters who, at times, seem like they exist merely to fulfill the needs of satire.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Heather Blazing (1992) by Colm Tóibín.

Book Review
The Heather Blazing  (1992)
 by Colm Tóibín

  1992 might be the single busiest year for the 1001 Books Project- 16 titles.  To put that in perspective, the entire 18th century- 1700-1800- only has 53 entries on the list.   So in other words, the century that invented the novel has 50 listings, and 1992 has 16.   That is as clear as an example of "presentism," or favoring the present at the expense of the past, as you are likely to see in any canon forming exercise.  The first version of 1001 Books was published in 2006, meaning that 1992 was roughly 10 years before 1001 Books was put together, and 10 years prior is probably the point at which experts start losing confidence about their canonical picks.

  The major literary trends in 1992 are meta-fiction and regional fiction.   1992 had Irish fiction, Scottish Fiction, English Fiction, Spanish Fiction, American Fiction, African American Fiction, LGBT Fiction, French Fiction, German Fiction. A movie version is almost required.   The Heather Blazing represents one aspect of the growth of regional fiction- retelling the stories of privilege and inner turmoil which characterize English fiction in the early to mid 20th century, but from the perspective of non-English elites.  Here, the perspective is that of an Irish High Court Judge from a revolutionary Irish family.   The Heather Blazing is no doubt interesting and well written, but there can be no question that it's canonical status is based on it being about an IRISH High Court Judge.  

The Stone Diaries (1993) by Carol Shields

Book Review
The Stone Diaries (1993)
 by Carol Shields

   The Stone Diaries is a very subtlety existentialist fictional "auto biography" of a very "average" woman: born in the Canadian Mid-West, raised in the American Mid-West, returns to Ottowa to live as a stay-at-home Mom and raise three kids.  Survives her older husband, writes a gardening column for the local paper, retires to Florida, dies after a short illness.

   Daisy Goodwell Flett is touched by tragedy:  A Mother who dies in child birth, a first Husband who dies on their Parisian honeymoon by falling out a window.  She is not the stereotypical woman of literary fiction- she does not live in a city, does not struggle (except briefly) with neuroses, does not make a radical break from convention.   In fact, despite this being an "auto biography" about her life, we hardly learn anything about Daisy at all, except, perhaps, that she experiences a kind of life long alienation from her surroundings.   She is from the generation of women that did not directly experience "women's liberation" while benefiting from the pre-conditions which led to the feminist uprising of the late 1960's and 1970's.

  In the end, the reader is left questioning whether any of it matters at all.  It's the same kind of feeling you get from reading 20th century European philosophical novels.  Shields adopts distancing techniques which extend beyond the feelings of Ms. Flett.   Chapters skip entire decades, and some chapters are simply letters or newspaper articles, making The Stone Diaries a series of snapshots, from birth to death.

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