"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Better a Dead Sparrow than No Birdsong At All

Jeffrey Eugenides on love, love stories and his new collection thereof, at the Guardian.

Here he is on Nabokov's Spring in Fialta:
Not only does the story impart to the reader a profound wistfulness, in which the evanescence of love expands to suggest the fragility of life and time and memory itself, but Nabokov manages, at the same time, to weave into the story secondary and tertiary levels of meaning. There's what's happening with the weather, for instance, the "cloudy and dull" spring of Fialta that, in the background of the narrated events, is slowly transforming, thawing, dripping and brightening, in order to flash out at the end with the story's tragic revelation. Along with this, Nabokov has studded the story with recurring details - of the circus coming to town, of speeding automobiles - all of which will figure in the denouement. The literary craft in all this mirrors the literary imagination (the seeing of patterns, the orchestrating of fate) that the narrator brings to his random meetings with Nina throughout the years, a literary imagination that every lover possesses. "Spring in Fialta" isn't only about a love fated never to be. It reenacts the story-making we inevitably engage in whenever we fall in love.

Here is a link to the Alice Munro story he mentions, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, in which the wife of a serial philanderer has the last laugh, albeit as an Alzheimer's patient. The recent movie, Away From Her, is based on it.

I agree, btw, with the philosophy of the title of this post.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Savage Detectives a Little Too

When an English translation of The Savage Detectives, by the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, was published last year in the United States, New York Times critic Richard Eder judged the work "complex, numbingly chaotic and sinuously memorable." In the Sunday Times Book Review, James Wood, a famously exacting literary critic, compared Bolaño's novel favorably to the work of Stendhal and Gide. The literary thriller's content, however, falls outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's publication-review guidelines as spelled out in its Offender Orientation Handbook (see excerpts on Pages 2 and 3). The disqualifying passage, which appears on Page 39, describes an oral-sex contest in a nightclub that ends when the champion vomits after nearly choking to death on the penis of a particularly sadistic and well-endowed customer.
At Slate.

I happened to have a library copy of The Savage Detectives on my desk waiting to be read when I saw that, so of course I went immediately to page 39. To give the author credit, the story of the blow job contest is related by a whore in a nightclub, and it stars her pimp, a "real man" who sometimes deliberately cuts his enormous penis with the knife he uses to measure it and make sure it isn't shrinking.

Although I suppose someone somewhere will believe anything.

Midlist Oblivion

Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author, at Salon.

Jane Austen Doe tells us that writing is no way to make a living, for those of us who hadn't already heard, but she goes farther than usual -- she tells us how much she made on each of her books, how her advances affected things, and what good and ill befell her. It certainly makes one feel sympathetic to her, and other midlist authors, as well as oneself, one's friends, etc. A friend, for example, waits tables with writers who have published several books. Makes you kind of glad you took your parents' advice and finished your degree in something vaguely practical. If you did.

"I Sleep Way Too Much and I Read Tremendously."

Junot Diaz, writer after my own heart (and cute, besides), at the Guardian.

Oh, and here is Alma, at The New Yorker.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Maya Angelou Goes for Hillary,

Toni Morrison for Obama. But, do the writers in any way reflect the candidates? At Salon.

The two writers do match their chosen candidates, then. Angelou, with a well-known and colorful life story featuring odds overcome and the triumph of the human spirit, has been embraced as an icon of middlebrow empowerment. With her, you know exactly what you're getting because you've gotten it so many times before, and yet you can congratulate yourself for (mildly) bucking the system. Electing Clinton would make history, but it also promises to bring a familiar presence back to the White House.

Morrison, as the only living Nobel laureate in literature in a fundamentally unbookish nation, is a homegrown exotic, the embodiment of the American notion that if you can't quite understand it, it must be literature. She is an overwhelming presence, handsome and stately, with a magnificent voice. Like Obama, with his Harvard degree and pristine, international sleekness, she seems too good and too smart for us, the sort of American appreciated by foreigners with obscurely discriminating standards. The electorate famously prefers guys they can imagine dropping by for a barbecue over intimidating intellectuals, but that insecurity has been biting us in the ass for the past eight years.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

How Can You Get Ideas Off Salary?

Do you look like a writer? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald? Now that the writers' strike is over, this and other questions answered at the NY Times.

The reason Pat can’t (or won’t) write is that after dedicating his productive life to a 20-year maelstrom of constantly shifting opinions and producers, he has become so entirely rudderless that points of story or character or anything, for that matter, have been rendered entirely meaningless. At one point he goes so far as to propose giving a Civil War story a “Jewish touch.” He is, in other words, exactly the writer Hollywood would build if it could, minus the ideas.

Monday, February 4, 2008

What Is It You Plan To Do

With your one wild and precious life?

Poet Mary Oliver's appearance Monday at Benaroya Hall is the fastest sellout in the 20-year history of Seattle Arts & Lectures. It is sparking ticket action on the local Craigslist, where tickets to rock concerts and sports playoffs are regularly bought and sold, but rarely to poetry readings.

Take that, Minneapolis. The Twin City may have supplanted Seattle as the country's "most literate city" in an annual survey but the Oliver sellout demonstrates that Seattle still has its zealous literary enthusiasts. (At Seattlepi.com)

As if that didn't give us hope for mankind, as poet and friend GC Smith so kindly put it, farther on in the article, we came to this:
Oliver's "New and Selected Poems, Volume One" has been one of the all-time best-selling volumes at Open Books, the poetry-only bookstore in Wallingford.

There is a poetry-only bookstore somewhere in the world.

My favorite book of Mary Oliver's is still House of Light, and one of my favorite poems is The Kingfisher:

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water--hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

The poem mentioned in the article, The Summer Day, from which the title of this post comes, is also in House of Light.

The article goes on to say that there are three poets who can be expected to sell out like this, the other two being Billy Collins and Seamus Heaney. I just saw Collins read with Frank McCourt at the AWP conference in New York City, and they were funny, Collins with Bob Newhart-esque delivery and McCourt, the former NYC schoolteacher, giving dead on imitations of his vocational high school students and their forged excuse notes. Now I will be adding Oliver to the to-see list. I have been reading her work for 20 years, but haven't seen her read yet.

On the subject of McCourt, he said he'd read something about cows at a reading and then been chastised that the father of one of the attendees had just been trampled to death by cows. He thought couldn't he have had a heads up, for that? It made me think, in his brogue, that "trampled to death by cows" must be the Irish euphemism for, "He was drunk in the barn and fell asleep and the cow tripped over him. Fell on him. He suffocated. And such nice handwriting he had, he's with God now." There is the proof of the power of McCourt's voice, that it got right into my head and I had to write that down, with a reference to his memory of the nuns' love of fine handwriting. Which brings me to another memory, of receiving a letter from my father in my teens in reply to one I'd written, in which his writing reflected what I knew was my own voice, which evidently had power, at least over him.