Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Modern romance and transformations of the novel by Ian Duncan

Modern romance and transformations of the novel
by Ian Duncan
p. 1992
Cambridge University Press

  Modern romance and transformations of the novel has been parked in the depths of my Amazon Wish List since 2012 and I was like, "Fuck it, let's knock this puppy out."  Get another label tag for Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, 18th century literature, 19th century literature.  That's five reasons to read this book.  This title is not for the casual reader.  I maybe grasped forty percent of the material. The author is well immersed in the critical literary theory of the 80s and 90s, with tons of references to French theorists.

   The thesis tracks with that espoused by the Authors in The Invention of Tradition, which also discusses the role that Sir Walter Scott had in inventing the tradition of the Scottish highlands.  Sir Walter Scott was a second generation Edinburgh attorney, and a member of the lesser Scotch/English nobility.  He was not from or of the Scottish highland locale that he popularized.  Scott was also well familiar with the literary genre of Romance.

 If there is one single fact I've learned about the "Rise of the Novel" in the 18th and 19th century, it's that the closest literary antecedent was the Romance. The Romance was not a primarily English genre- with the leading exponents coming from France and Spain. Also, the beginning of the move from Romance to Novel was also from Spain, with Don Quixote being widely read in English translation shortly after publication.

  Duncan argues that it was Scott who, by and large, performed this transformation.  His work had a complex relationship with history and politics, and this relationship is only comprehensible if one understands Scott's relationship to his English audience.   Duncan also discusses the relationship between Scott and Dickens, and argues that Dickens success was spurred by his careful attention to Scott and his wielding of Romance to other popular genres of literature.

 For specialists only, and those with an interest in critical theory.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Call It Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth

Author Henry Roth wrote Call It Sleep in 1934 and THAT WAS IT.

Book Review
Call It Sleep (1934)
by Henry Roth

  The 1934 publication date of Call It Sleep should come with an asterisk, because it wasn't until a mid 1960s revival that this modernist bildungsroman of the Jewish-American experience in the Bronx and Brooklyn was hailed as a classic.  Call It Sleep is also a famous 20th century one off- Roth didn't publish another novel for forty years. The main aspects of Call It Sleep to understand is that Roth was familiar with James Joyce and the tenets of literary modernism, in terms of utilizing stream of conscience narrative and the incorporation of non-standard English into his writing. For Roth, the other languages include Aramaic (the language of the Old Testament), Hebrew and Yiddish(Hebrew and German language spoken by many Jewish immigrants from Germany/Eastern Europe.)

  So, the narrative style (stream of consciousness) combines with multiple languages, all rendered phonetically in English, and it tells the important story of what it was like to grow up a Jewish-American immigrant in New York City in the early 20th century.  Perhaps Roth's biggest mistake was writing it so close to the time period depicted.  What read in the 1960s as a lost modernist classic may have read as a pale imitation of Joyce in 1934.  My sense is that Call It Sleep was probably favorably noticed upon publication but didn't permeate into the general population the way that the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald did.

  I don't believe that Call It Sleep is widely read these days, certainly I'd never heard of it outside of the 1001 Books project, and I am a Jewish-American myself.  I would have expected my parents to have a copy, or for it to have been mentioned by a classmate in school in the context of books like The Basketball Diaries or Catcher in the Rye.  Henry Roth's status as a one hit wonder has also likely contributed to his general neglect as an Author.  I think some Authors obtain classic status with later works and then people go back and look at earlier books and elevate them, but if an Artist only has one major work, that project is impossible and there is no interplay between works.  This interplay between various works of a single Artist is something that can contribute to the maintenance of a larger audience years after publication.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays by Isabel Rivers

Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays
 edited by Isabel Rivers
p. 2003
Leicester University Press
A Continuum imprint

 Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays should NOT be confused with the original Books and Their Reader in Eighteenth-Century England, published in 1982.  This volume revisits the same area of inquiry with the benefit of two decades of additional research.  This volume is a compilation of essays around the theme.  There are chapters on The Book Trades, The English Bible and its Reader in the Eighteenth Century, Theological Books from The Naked Gospel to Nemesis of Faith, The History Market in Eighteenth-Century England, Biographical Dictionaries and their Uses from Bayle to Chalmers, Review Journals and the Reading Public, Literary Scholarship and the Life of Editing and OF COURSE, The Production and Consumption of the Eighteenth-Century Poetic Miscellany.

  If a reader is actually looking for a discussion of any of the above subjects, Books and Their Readers is a must.  For a general reader, there isn't much there. Of the eight included essays, the only one with some general reader value is Review Journals and the Reading Public by Antonia Foster.  This essay gives a succinct summary of the origins of literary criticism, and anyone who writes or reads literary criticism or any of its descendants would do well to take the half hour it takes to read this brief essay.

  In Foster's telling, literary criticism was invented because of an upsurge in both titles available and readers.  This development happened in England, in the mid 18th century, although Foster does reference a French journal from the 16th century that inspired the English writers.  The origins of literary criticism are tied to publishers- several of the early critical journals were founded by publishers themselves.

  The original justification for literary criticism was to provide a guide to the public as to whether they should spend their money or not on a particular book.  When one considers the self-righteous path that criticism took into the 20th and 21st century, the financial/practical considerations which lay behind the origins of literary criticism are worth taking into account. bv

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Relative Popularity of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf

The Relative Popularity of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf
Book Review
The Waves (1931)
by Virginia Woolf

 That chart above tells you all you need to know about who the boss modernist novelist be. Virginia Woolf is tops over Gertrude Stein and James Joyce according to that there Ngram.  It wasn't always the case- as late as 1960, Stein was writing a decade long hot streak that started in the late 50s,  while Woolf was in a slump after her own period of popularity in the earlier 1950s.

         If we drill down to the period between 1930 and 1950, we see a sharp spike for Gertrude Stein between 1942 and 1944, while Woolf and Joyce both appear to be on a slower but still upward trajectory.

  Further along, the period between 1950 and 1980 is a crucial one for Virginia Woolf, with a take off point in 1970.

   Finally, between 1980 and 2000, nothing much changes, with all three writers maintaining their relative popularity in comparison to each other and absolute popularity.

    What do these graphs tell you about the Audience for each of the three authors: Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.  First, that as far as the popularity of each of the Authors in terms of mentions in the English language, the rise of all three is related to the expansion of university level English departments in the United States and England.   The period of growth and flux trickled off as the generation of students who preferred Virginia Woolf to Gertrude Stein and James Joyce moved into teaching positions and were able to select their own, Woolf heavy syllabus.  This is also a time when Woolf gained popularity with graduate level writing programs, creating a steady stream of Woolf fans who made their living writing book reviews, magazine articles and other works of fiction.

   What is clear is that all three Authors continued to gain new Audience members after they either stopped writing, died or both. It is also clear that the immediate audience for the work of all three authors was dwarfed by the Audience they obtained in the decades after they finished writing.  This probably points to the role of American undergraduate education in generating Audiences for "serious" Modernist writers, since the popular appeal of all three combined is essentially limited to Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Other than that one book you would be hard pressed to find anyone who casually reads Joyce, Stein or Woolf without some prior academic connection.

  I'm doing this bit about Modernists and their relative and absolute popularity because The Waves is a kind of high modernist apotheosis, both technically challenging AND "teachable" at fewer than 300 pages, making it a kind of Holy Grail for anyone trying to TEACH Virginia Woolf.  And I can certainly see where this one of those books that would make a big impression if it was the centerpiece of an undergraduate class on "Modern Literature."    But personally, all of Woolf's novels are a struggle, even the ones that don't have six  characters doing simultaneous stream of consciousness and conversational dialogue across the span of their entire lives without any "guiding" text whatever.

  The first couple Woolf novels I read I tried to take with me to Court and Jail in an attempt to read them casually, as I have done for many, many, many books in the 1001 Books Project.  That was a disaster, so now when I read a Virginia Woolf I have to be sitting down in a quiet room with NO distractions in order to "follow" the text.  The copy I read also contained fifty pages of end notes that basically explained all the allusions in the text, which you are liable to miss unless you are a classicist, a hundred year old English citizen or both.  There is also a twenty page introduction for which I am thankful, for without it, I greatly fear I would have been lost entirely.

  But yeah, unless you are a student, teacher, writer or professional narrative crafter in film, theater or what have you, how and why would you ever read The Waves, which is almost literally impossible to follow without foreknowledge of what happens- AND NOTHING HAPPENS.


Monday, October 27, 2014

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings witnessed an enormous expansion of Scandinavian settlement around the edges of Europe and into Russian Asia.

Book Review
The Age of the Vikings
by Anders Winroth
Princeton University Press
Published September 7th, 2014

  This is a slim (320 pages including footnotes, index and bibliography) that gives an overview of "The Age of the Vikings" that incorporates recent discoveries in the fields of archeology and linguistics.  In archaeological terms this means incorporating what scholars in the field have learned about the health and causes of death of long dead Vikings. In linguistic terms it means incorporating the advances in reading Scandinavian runes.  Winroths works fits within the decades long project to rehabilitate the so-called "Dark Ages" in favor of a more balanced view that takes the positives with the negatives.

 In this case, the negatives are well known.  The Vikings are typically the darkest part of the dark ages, known for their violent depredations against Europeans and residents of the British Isles alike.  At the close of the Vikings age, they had spread colonies from North America  in the West to Russia in the East, and archeological digs have long established that the Vikings played an active role in trading with the Arab Caliphate, Central Asia and the Byzantine Empire.

  In defense of the Vikings, Winroth makes the valid point that the people who wrote about the Vikings were their most frequent victims: Christian Churches and Monasteries.  Obviously, literate monks and church men had a huge axe to grind with Vikings.  Winroth points out that the Vikings were not spectacularly violent when compared to their European contemporaries, their main difference is that they attacked using stealth tactics, and that they were unafraid to plunder churches.

   The newer translations of the long undeciphered Runes demonstrate a poetic tradition that tracks with larger trends in Indo European poetics, with internal rhyme schemes and complicated structures within individual stanzas. Winroth's main theme is that The Age of The Vikings began with SScandinaviabeing outside of "Europe" and ended with it becoming an acknowledged part of Europe with similar structures in government, religion and culture.  This included adopting central Monarchs in charge of proto-national states, and of course the Christian religion.

   Winroth also debunks at least one common misunderstanding- something that was actually prominently featured in the Vikings television show on the History Channel.  The notorious "Blood Eagle" punishment, which theoretically involved punching holes in the back of the victim and drawing out their lungs as "wings," is based on a long corrected mistranslation, and never existed in reality.  Too bad this book didn't come about before the first season, they could have edited that bit out or re-written it for greater accuracy.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Show Review: Broken Bells @ The Orpheum Theater Presented by Goldenvoice in Los Angeles, CA.

Broken Bells wrapping up their album promotional cycle for After the Disco by walking away from a space age type building in the California desert.

Show Review:
Broken Bells @ The Orpheum Theater
Presented by Goldenvoice
in Los Angeles, CA.

   Currently slotted at #304 in the list of top 500 artists on, Broken Bells pulled into LA for a two night stand at the Orpheum Theater near the end of their promotional cycle for their recent LP, After the Disco.  After a year of observation, I can safely say that the overriding value that characterizes Broken Bells and their art is dignity.  Dignity is in notably short supply within the music industry, whether you are a multi-platinum artist forced to clown and caper for the cameras on a reality television show, an artist selling hundreds or thousands of records forced to abandon any hope of making money actually selling their music to people other than Fortune 500 corporations for advertising jingles, or an unknown artist being asked to sign a five record deal with no advance from a label with no track record of market success.

  The impulse to essentially abandon ones moral and ethical compass in the face of the current conditions of the music industry seems almost irresistible, at least from my perspective of someone at the lower rungs of the ladder. Compromises are inevitable, and utter abandonment is perhaps the most seductively attractive position to take in 2014.  For if a multi national beer or soda company wants to pay an artist a half million dollars (or a hundred thousand) to use a recording in a national advertising campaign, how many are in a position to refuse?

  I'm sure if you asked Brian Burton or James Mercer directly, they would agree that they do not want to appear undignified.  Ultimately, this may be the reason that Broken Bells is the 300th biggest act in the world right now on instead of say, being the 150th biggest band.  A steadfast refusal to pander to the basest elements of popular culture is in effect a limitation on growth, since the largest artists all seem to have that dynamic of engagement with the celebrity-industrial complex on lock.

  Refusal to engage in clownish buffoonery aside, the actual music is memorable. I think Broken Bells are under engaged by music critics because of their (the music critics) bias towards ideas derived from romanticism and obsession with novelty derived from 20th century modernist precepts. One could plausibly make a comparison with the music of Broken Bells and the work of an Author like Charles Dickens, a popular success whose critical acclaim lagged multiple generations, only becoming fully canonized well into the 20th century.

  Certainly, seeing Broken Bells in a theater setting, with outstanding backing visuals and lighting, four piece backing vocals and horns, horns, horns is something of a best case scenario.  Also, the setting of the Orpheum Theater was memorable.  I've now been to the Orpheum three times, and the similar Ace Theater two blocks away.  Both theaters are great if you are sitting on the lower level, but the experience fades as you get into the middle and back of the balcony.  At the same time, it seems like the crowd is better in the balcony, and the people who sit on the lower level tend to be older and less enthusiastic.

  It was a successful conclusion to a well-exectued album promotional cycle, and I think it is fair to observe that there will be additional Broken Bells LPs in the future.

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