Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll - All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.

One of the new books I read last year, Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (2017 in German, 2020 in Ross Benjamin’s English) was from the future.  I accidentally bought an Advanced Reader’s Copy – “Not for Sale” the cover declares.  But surely at this point I can think of myself as an Advanced Reader, in English, at least.  Maybe an Intermediate Reader in French still.

Tyll is the merry prankster, a German medieval folklore figure who wreaks havoc with his honestly not-so-merry pranks.  He has some importance in German literary history because Tyll stories were among the early products of German printing.  Some old Tyll leaflets appear on page 4, along with those about “the Ship of Fools and the great priestly folly and the evil Pope in Rome and the devilish Martinus Luther of Wittenberg and the sorcerer Horridus and Doctor Faust and the hero Gawain of the Round Table and indeed about him, Tyll Ulenspiegel, who had now come to us himself.”

In the novel Tyll is about the archetype Tyll come to life for another tour of central Europe, this time during the Thirty Years War (a new round of the evil Pope versus the devilish Luther).  Perhaps the spirit of Tyll inhabits a boy with a talent for juggling and tightrope walking.  Perhaps that boy consciously takes on Tyll’s identity.  If the spirit of Tyll has returned, it is not clear why.  The world of the Thirty Years War is irredeemably awful.  Juggling and ventriloquism can’t solve that problem.  But the novel puts Tyll in the background, mostly, of a number of other people’s stories.  He gives them little nudges, sometimes just by existing.

If I understand Michael Orthofer’s more thorough review, he would like the novel to have been more about Tyll himself.  But it is not.  It is more about the meaning of Tyll.

All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.  (126)

The world was once enchanted, and then became disenchanted, by science and bureaucracy and so on, argued Max Weber and many others.  The world of Tyll is still enchanted, in the sense that everyone believes in magic and religion, and the representative scientists are experts in crystals, or dragons, or, in the case of Athanasius Kircher, literally everything.  Kehlmann has some fun with Kircher’s cat piano; I would include an illustration if I could stand the cruelty.

Using the irony of a novel about a magician, Kehlmann seems to be arguing for disenchantment, for a little less magic in the world, for less religion, or at least less religious war, and for modern science, not Kircher’s science:

Kircher had grasped early on that one had to follow reason without being flustered by the quirks of reality.  When one knew how an experiment had to turn out, then the experiment had to turn out like that, and when one possessed a distinct conception of things, then, when one described them, one had to satisfy this conception and not mere observation.  (264)

A good novelist is likely all right with mere observation.  It is not so “mere” in the hands of an artist.  We can have as much enchantment as we want, by means of art.

The book I read begins with a letter to the Dear Reader from Dan Frank, the Editorial Director of Pantheon Books, that is filled with guff, especially the closer: “Whether you are a fan of Neal Stephenson, Jorge Luis Borges, George R. R. Martin, or Margaret Atwood, you will be captivated by the unique and original vision of Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll.”  Stephenson wrote books set in the same century, which is something, although leafing through Quicksilver I will say that Kehlmann is rather lighter on his feet; Borges has me stumped; I have not read Atwood but looked up descriptions of her most famous books and am again baffled; as for Martin, Tyll does not have much in common with the only book of his I have read, the morally instructive Sandkings (1981) but does feature a Winter King and a Winter Queen and lots of characters who are murdered in the usual horrible ways.  I guess Martin fans like that?

I assume this letter is just part of the ARC, not the soon to be published version?  You people who get free books, do they usually come with this nonsense?  How can you stand it?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A “new book” ramble - caves, Zurbarán, Proust, French nursing homes

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (2019) is as good as everyone says, so what do I need to say.  It’s a travel book where the locations are caves, mines, and the tunnels of Paris.  The chapter describing Macfarlane’s three-day trek under Paris is completely insane.  Like much great travel writing, the stories of the people who work in, explore, and learn about the caves and mines and so on are really the highlight.

I fear that Macfarlane is some kind of tyrant in England.  Literally every British book in the Travel and Nature sections of the bookstores had a blurb from Macfarlane.  One could read nothing but books blurbed by Macfarlane.  Good books, they looked like good books.  But pity the poor schlub who does not get the Macfarlane blurb.

Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (1944 in Polish, 1987 in the original French, 2018 in English) is as good as everyone says.  I suppose you have to enjoy reading about Proust and his novels.  How I love reading about Proust.  Here, though, there is no escaping the strange tension between the fine, enthusiastic, thoughtful essay about Proust and its circumstances, as described in the book’s subtitle, dictated and delivered in a Soviet prison camp for Polish officers as a way of distracting them from the almost certain, sudden death that awaited them.  Art and beauty against horror.  The essay would be outstanding without the horror, but there it is.  The notes and commentary added by the translator, Eric Karpeles, are also outstanding, but I love reading about Proust.

Hannelore Cayre’s La Daronne (2017) is as good as Book Around the Corner says.  The English translation (2019) picked the not quite accurate but necessary title The Godmother.  The narrator is a police interpreter, translating intercepted phone calls by Arabic-speaking drug dealers.  Some useful inside information falls in her lap.  She has an ailing mother with dementia in a nursing home, and can use some money.  She is one cool cat.  Thus, the novel.  The dry, sharp voice is really the appealing thing, as Emma describes.

Isabelle Huppert, perfectly cast, is starring in the movie, although that is the author herself, playing her character, on the cover over at Emma’s site. The author is what in the U.S. would be called a criminal defense attorney.  Emma met Cayre at the Quais du Polar festival; I think my wife did, too.  I must have had something else to do.

Florence Delay, Haute Couture (2018) – no idea what anyone has said about this smart essay in art history by the actress turned writer.  That title could be attached to about anything, but the carefully written book is in fact about the clothes worn by various saints in the paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, for example Santa Isabel of Portugal, from the Prado, to the left.  Detailed descriptions of the clothes blend into the lives of the saints, and the strange paths their stories take, with miracles and martyrdoms moving from saint to saint over time.  Thus, the book is as much about myth-making as about clothes or painting.  Yet the stories are always embedded in Zurbarán’s painting somewhere.

The book has no illustrations, which is irritating, but I have the internet.  One little bonus: Delay explains why I could not find the dang Zurbarán in the Louvre, despite the clear sign saying where it should be.  They’re locked away in their own room for some reason “because of a lack of personnel” (p. 86).  So Delay, a French Academician can arrange to see it (and even for her it’s not so easy), but a poor schmoe like me has to look at it on the internet, see right, Saint Apollonia.  You do not want to know too much about her martyrdom.  “Between the jaws of the horrible pliers that Apolline holds at the height of her face there is a little white tooth” (87).

With all of the fabrics, garments, and colors, Haute Couture did terrific things for my French vocabulary.  It will never be translated into English, right?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The pleasures of keeping up

One angle I might take, if I were to write something about reading not fewer books but fewer great books, would be a “pop” approach.  It does not come up much here, but I listen to a pretty good heap of current music, mostly jazz and popular music in its various forms, some of which is in no way actually popular.  In some sense I “keep up” with what is going on in contemporary music, and have done so for thirty years.

I understand the appeal of spending time with the art of right now, art that means something in the moment but is ephemeral, that looks cool now but will look like kitsch in a few years.  Maybe it looks like kitsch now.  Kitsch has its own interest and pleasures.

A real music critic may easily listen to a thousand albums from a given year.  I don’t do that, which is its own profession, or hobby, but I pay attention to music critics and what they recommend.  Some of it I love, some is junk; some seems important, some trivial.  That’s all part of the fun.

I don’t think that is how I approach literature, but I see why it would be enjoyable.  I do not quite understand how to transfer the idea of “keeping up” to books, except perhaps for the people who read 500 pages an hour.  Has a professional reviewer, Sam Sacks or Katherine Powers or someone like that, written about “keeping up”?  Maybe they don’t think that way.  I would enjoy reading that essay.

We all listen to music at the same speed.  We sure do not read at the same speed.  Maybe that is not the issue.

Still.  More time spent reading new books looking for their hooks, their energy, for what is new, that would be fun.  I spend a lot of my reading looking for the new, but the new of a hundred years ago, which now, honestly, is rather old.

Michael Orthofer and his Complete Review provide a model example of what I mean by “keeping up.” “There are currently 4509 books under review.” I am pretty sure he reads quite a bit faster than me.

My Best Album of 2019, by the way, is 400: An Afrikan Epic by Dr. Mark Lomax II, available for listening at no cost at his website.  This is a genuine “album” of music, a twelve volume jazz history of the African-American experience.  The first and last volumes are solo drums (Lomax is a drummer), and I cannot say I love those, but I love the rest.  The star performer is the saxophonist, Edwin Bayard, who plays in the idiom of John Coltrane.  For a literary connection, jump to part 8, “Blues in August,” a tribute to August Wilson.

I read, in 2019, roughly twenty books that were more or less new.  With music, I keep neurotic track of what music is really from 2019, but with books that seems silly.  Sillier.  Twenty recent books.  A long way from keeping up, but not total isolation from my own time.  I’ll write about some of them over the next few days.

Monday, January 20, 2020

As we are mock’d with art – a review and a preview – guest-starring Ian McKellen

How I enjoy “year in review” posts on book blogs.  I read all of yours.  Well, I was celebrating the holiday and then on vacation, and my reading of all kinds suffers, so I can say I looked at all of your “best books of 2019” posts.  I enjoyed them to the extent of my power.

The best book I read last year was The Iliad (8th century BC), an old friend that I have read four or five times.  That’s a lot, for me.  In London, I saw “Ian McKellen on Stage,” a one man show.  In the first half, McKellen made a running joke about everyone, including heores like Edmund Hillary, insisting on telling him that “I read The Lord of the Rings every year!”  McKellen said he had never read it at all until he was cast in it.

He seemed a little skeptical of the whole “every year thing.”  But this is a guy who puts on the same show every night, twice on Wednesdays.  It has never occurred to me to have a book that I read every year, but apparently I read The Iliad every ten years.

The next best “book” I read was the poems of Sappho (say 6th century BC), as translated by Guy Davenport in 7 Greeks.  Perhaps that entire astonishing book should fill this slot – Archilochos, Haraclitus, Diogenes.  And next would be The Winter’s Tale (1611, maybe), you know, Shakespeare.

McKellen spent the second half of his show talking about nothing but Shakespeare, reciting famous chunks, telling stories about productions, opinionating.  “I have nothing to say about Troilus and Cressida,” at one extreme, and quite a lot to say about Macbeth on the other.  About The Winter’s Tale, he said it was marvelous “until the action moves into the countryside and the play goes all” – and McKellen made a combination of deflating noise and wriggling hand gesture that I will interpret as “soggy.”  “But then in the last act” – yes, yes, in the last act.  I pulled the phrase in the post’s title from the last act, scene 3.

Last May, during the ill-fated readalong of Henrik Pontoppidan’s big Danish “tormented atheist” novel Lucky Per (1898-1904), I remember seeing a couple of readalongers say that the novel was the best thing they had read all year – they were not too far into Pontoppidan at that point, I guess – and I remember thinking that I had, earlier in 2019, read The Radetzky March (1930), The Age of Innocence (1920), The Tower (Yeats, I mean, 1928), prime Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, plus that Shakespeare play.  And that was just in January.

I read a lot of really great books.  Perhaps I read too many great books.  What do I think I am doing with it all?  What is the point?  I am mocked with art.  Maybe I should space the best stuff out more.  I would be interested in reading that argument.  Maybe I should write that argument.

Plans:  1. Last year, I read quite a lot of books from the 1920s, and felt that I learned a lot, so I suppose this year I will read mostly books from the 1930s, and if I am fortunate I will learn something from that.  2. Keep reading in French.  3. Read less, write more.