Brilliant take-down of Michel Houllebecq

in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t believe in criticism for the sake of showing off how clever you are. I also think if you are interested in the arts, you will be more satisfied at the end of your life if you worked to support artists rather than take them down. But I also don’t believe solid criticism shouldn’t exist and that negative opinions should never be stated.

Michel Houellebecq’s books have garnered enough attention that they won’t be destroyed by close, critical, rather devastating examination. James Wood isn’t intimidated by Houellebecq’s Frenchness. He exposes his writing as misogynist, pseudo-philosophical, and worse, not that well written:

“Is Michel Houellebecq really a novelist, or is he just a novelizing propagandist? Though his thought can be slapdash and hasty, it is at least earnest, intensely argued, and occasionally thrilling in its leaps and transitions … But the formal structures that are asked to dramatize these ideas – the scenes characters, dialogue, and so on – are generally flimsy and diagrammatic. Characters, usually women, are killed off with flippant dispatch, backstories pencilled in with bald strokes, scenes cursorily sketched, conversation often ludicrously implausible or monotonously self-therapeutic.”

Ouch… I get the feeling people read Houellebecq because of the dramatic nihilism and the “pornographic fervor of his writing and for the theorizing he likes to do around his sex scenes”. It makes you feel cool. And it’s translated from French, he’s a compatriot of Barthes, Lacan, Foucault…

James Wood became my critic-hero when he took down Paul Auster in The New Yorker a few years ago. I had always thought Auster was overrated and formulaic, so much post-modern posturing. I got tired of seeing his books around – so many better novels people could be talking about! I suspected he was big in Europe because his translators were better writers than he was and because they take place in New York City. I kept scouring the web for like-minded readers, to no avail. Wood wrote a wonderfully lucid, analytical and devastating critique of Auster, the essay I had been hungry to read.

Other vastly overrated novelists (in my humble opinion): Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Ayn Rand (right? NOT GOOD WRITING, plotting, dialogue, etc.), Tao Lin, Brett Easton Ellis (though I’ve only read Less Than Zero, so perhaps that’s unfair).

Incidentally, there’s another brilliant take-down in this week’s issue. Peter Schjeldahl on Damien Hirst: “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort.”

He has two very incisive sentences (on Hirst’s spot paintings) that could apply to so much contemporary poetry I encounter: “His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction. The more you know of that, the cleverer the paintings might make you feel. Buying one, you can hang it on your wall like a framed diploma from Smartypants U.”

“Never have I seen as clearly as tonight

that my diary-writing is a vice. I came home worn out by magnificent talks with Henry at the café; I glided into my bedroom, closed the curtains, threw a log into the fire, lit a cigarette, pulled the diary out of its last hiding place under my dressing table, threw it on the ivory silk quilt, and prepared for bed. I had the feeling that this is the way an opium smoker prepares for his opium pipe. For this is the moment when I relive my life in terms of a dream, a myth, an endless story.“

–Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1

What’s coming through in my reading is that even as she was writing the diary, she did not think of it in the traditional mode as a secret, an intimate diary. She hired a young woman to transcribe what she wrote with a typewriter, she showed it to the people she was hanging out with. She used parts of it in her fiction writing. The diary was the place for everything, her "realism” as she called it. But she wrote it conscious that others might read it, though it is very intimate at times.

Writers do not live one life, they live two. There is the living and then there is the writing. There is the second tasting, the delayed reaction.

Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1

Bolaño’s rising “North American” Star

I’m a little late to this literary fracas, but I read The Savage Detectives last year & am interested in its success in the U.S…

I came across this essay in Guernica by Honduran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya today… It’s extremely critical about the way Bolaño was marketed and canonized in a most calculating way by the U.S. (“North American”) publishing industry, starting with the publication of The Savage Detectives. According to Moya, they reduce him into a typical image of a James Dean, Jim Morrison, Jack Kerouac-type character, South American style. The novel was anointed as the next go-to impression for Americans to have of Latin America, because Garcia Marquez was getting old. Moya relies quite a bit on a paper written by a professor at City University of New York, Sarah Pollack:

“The novelty for the American reader is that he will come away with two complementary messages that appeal to his sensibility and expectations: on one side the novel evokes the ‘youthful idealism’ that leads to rebellion and adventure. But on the other side, it can be read as a morality tale, in the sense that ‘it is very good to be a brazen rebel at sixteen years old, but if a person doesn’t grow and change into an adult person, serious and established, the consequences can be tragic and pathetic.”

And the last paragraph: 

“What isn’t the fault of the author is that American readers, with The Savage Detectives, want to confirm their worst paternalistic prejudices about Latin America, as Pollack’s text says, like the superiority of the Protestant work ethic or the dichotomy according to which North Americans see themselves as workers, mature, responsible, and honest, while they see their neighbors to the South as lazy, adolescent, reckless, and delinquent. Pollack says that from this point of view The Savage Detectives is ‘a very comfortable choice for U.S. readers, offering both the pleasures of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.’ And I repeat: nobody knows for whom it works. Or as the poet Roque Dalton wrote: ‘Anyone can make the books of the young Marx into a light eggplant puree. What is difficult is to conserve them as they are, that is to say, as an alarming ants’ nest.’”

The subsequent comments make excellent points, and I am probably subsuming some of them into my thoughts on this essay:

(1) I don’t think anyone who actually read The Savage Detectives has paternalistic prejudices against Latin America. Readers of Isabel Allende might be better cast in this role. 

(2) What’s wrong with a literary, rather dazzling Latin American novel becoming a (relative) blockbuster? Don’t all literary novels that sell well depend on the mythologizing of their authors? The criticism of marketing might be valid if the book was not so good, or if the author hadn’t participated in his own mythologizing (not via the publisher, but the way he handled the relationship between his life & his fiction).

(3) If his problem is that Americans he meets can only name 1 or 2 Latin American writers, his beef with the publishing industry shouldn’t be the marketing of Bolaño but the fact that publication (& promotion) of literature in translation is so rare in the U.S.

(4) The publishing industry in Latin America engages in the same nefarious marketing practices.

(5) Moya complains that the publisher never mentions that Bolaño wrote the novel when he was a stable family man, and instead promotes the image of him as rebellious youth…. But Bolaño himself began his mythologizing. And there IS so much of his early, rebellious youth in the novel – the biographical similarities aren’t an invention of the publishing industry. He inserts so much of himself into Savage Detectives, it’s difficult not to think  that so much of it is about Bolaño the person when you’re reading it (the character Arturo Belano even has a similar name and background).

6) Talk about paternalistic. The tone of the writing is so insufferable, he is so unequivocally right in his own mind – it’s intended to make the reader feel inadequate & ignorant (if the reader is “North American”) or smug about how awful capitalistic Americans are (if the reader is an Argentine reading it in the Argentine newspaper where it was originally published). I am writing that as someone who grew up in Latin America & the U.S. & is therefore bicultural & bilingual…

(7) OK, yes, he does raise a good point that it would be nice if U.S. publishers, media & readers looked beyond what was fed to them. If U.S. readers like Bolaño, they would probably like a lot of other Latin American writers & wouldn’t just have to refer to him or Garcia Marquez…

For anyone interested in this discussion, many U.S. journals (The New Yorker, Harper’s, etc.) responded to Moya’s essay. The translator of the essay, Robert P. Baird, has compiled links to them on his website.

What I would really like to read is some insight into the novel. Friends I’ve talked to who have read it liked it, but find it difficult to talk about what makes the novel good, or what it made them think about. I was overwhelmed by it myself, felt like I needed to revisit it.

There are some things one cannot seize by realism, but by poetry. It is a matter of language.

Anais Nin, the Diary, Volume 1

I have a feeling that man’s fear of woman comes from having first seen her as the mother creator of men. Certainly it is difficult to feel compassion for the one who gives birth to man.

Anais Nin, the Diary, Volume 1

“I have learned from Henry [Miller]…

…to make notes, to expand, not to brood secretly, to move, to write every day, to do, to say instead of meditating, not to conceal the breaking up of myself under emotion.“

Anais Nin, from the Diary, Volume I

Sounds like sound activity to keep writing…

Paragraph like a poem from Anaïs Nin

“It was not only that June had the body of the women who climbed every night upon the stage of music halls and gradually undressed, but that it was impossible to situate her in any other atmosphere. The luxuriance of the flesh, its vivid tones, the fevered eyes and the weight of the voice, its huskiness, became instantly conjugated with sensual love. Other women lost this erotic phosphorescence as soon as they abandoned their role of dance-hall hostesses. But June’s night life was internal, it glowed from within her and it came, in part, from her treating every encounter as either intimate, or to be forgotten. It was as if, before every man, she lighted within herself the lamp lighted by waiting mistresses or wives at the end of the day, only they were her eyes, and it was her face which became like a poem’s bedchamber, tapestried with twilight and velvet. As it glowed from within her, it could appear in totally unexpected places, early in the morning, in a neglected café, on a park bench, on a rainy morning in front of a hospital or a morgue, anywhere. It was always the soft light kept through the centuries for the moment of pleasure.”

From the Diary, Volume I, writing about June (pictured), Henry Miller’s wife.

I especially love "the lamp lighted by waiting mistresses or wives at the end of the day” and “a poem’s bedchamber, tapestried with twilight and velvet” (the idea that a poem is like a little mansion, with different rooms for different functions). “In a neglected café, on a park bench, on a rainy morning in front of a hospital or a morgue” also calls up Paris to me…

I have always believed in Andre Breton’s freedom, to write as one thinks, in the order and disorder in which one feels and thinks, to follow sensations and absurd correlations of event and images, to trust to the new realms they lead one into. “The cult of the marvelous.” Also the cult of the unconscious leadership, the cult of mystery, the evasion of false logic. The cult of the unconscious as proclaimed by Rimbaud. It is not madness. It is an effort to transcend the rigidities and the patterns made by the rational mind.

Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume I

Parts marked in The Bell Jar

“The same thing happened over and over:

I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.

That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows froma Fourth of July rocket.”

***

“Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one.

At first nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down.

The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.”