New Essay Online

Hey everyone, I’ve got a new essay up at the Los Angeles Review of books site (check it out here). This one takes a look at Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

Serge is ultimately a literary figure, in the sense that watching the push and pull between his unsentimental practicality and the unabashed idealism on display in the Memoirs is essential to understanding his appeal. He can be quite blunt on the weaknesses of human nature, writing, “Totalitarianism is within us,” while at the same time insisting, “The future seems to me, despite the clouds on the horizon, to be full of possibilities vaster than any we have glimpsed in the past.” He is upfront about his inability to turn Soviet society against Stalin, admitting that he was “too much of an intellectual” to be an effective activist. The Memoirs tells a harrowing story — Serge spent most of his adult life in prison and/or exile and saw the Russian Revolution, which for him was the pinnacle of his life in radical activism, lead to one of the most brutal dictatorships in human memory. But it also is a forward-looking book, committed to recording the history of an era in the obvious hope that others will learn from it. It is both realist and idealist, an attitude that is essential to any functional left-wing, or even liberal, movement

Longtime readers might remember I also took a look at Serge’s fiction a few years back. If you haven’t had a chance, you can read that essay here.

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A Few (Quick) Thoughts on Norman Mailer

I’m making my way through Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night. I’ve never been a particular fan of Mailer (to put it generously), but I was curious about the book itself, which is a “nonfiction novel” about an anti-Vietnam-War protest he participated in.

1. Harold Bloom has a concept he uses called “period pieces”–a fancy way of describing a book that doesn’t age well. Though Armies won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, it seems like the very definition of a period piece. It isn’t a bad book–there’s some interesting observations about both the country and the era, and Mailer was unquestionably talented–but it does feel dated now, at least to me.

2. The book’s key point comes as an aside, about halfway through: “(Mailer’s habit of living–no matter how unsuccessfully–with his image, was so engrained by now, that like a dutiful spouse he was forever consulting his better half.)” (Parenthesis in he original.)

3. It’s no great observation to say that Mailer’s primary subject is himself…but it’s true. The style of the book in particular–Mailer’s use of the third person; the tension between irony, self-awareness, and self-glorification that inhabits almost every page; the way Mailer focuses over and over on how others perceive him (and how he perceives them perceiving him)–all read as a dialogue with Mailer’s persona. Mailer of course inhabited a very particular kind of literary fame common at the time: originally famous as a novelist, he became a kind of provocateur, to the point where the fact that he would be arrested at an antiwar protest was genuine news. The book’s style–the way it inflates and deflates Mailer’s persona–adroitly plays with his reputation, and this is by far the most compelling part of the book (seemingly intentionally so).

4. The problem, of course, is that Mailer’s persona is largely gone now. First, Mailer, while still read, hasn’t been a pop culture figure for quite a long time (he really stopped being a celebrity, as opposed to a “literary celebrity” during his own lifetime). Plus, Mailer’s persona–the macho, antagonistic strut he made famous–has been parodied so much (by Neal Pollack, etc al) that doesn’t read the same way as Mailer intends it to. To put it simply, it’s now obvious just how contrived Mailer’s persona is–which means the irony Mailer uses to describe himself now feels so necessary that the reader can’t give him credit for it.

5. But most importantly, the book speaks to a particular audience in a particular moment (middle-aged literary intellectuals in the 1960s). And it doesn’t really challenge that audience. Throughout, it’s impossible not to get the sense that, with his snappy portraits of fellow lit stars Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell, or his carping on his (then ongoing) feud with Paul Goodman, Mailer is working the room. But the room has changed. And now it feels like…well, shtick.

6. For some reason, the book made me wonder about contemporary novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Fortress of Solitude, which engage with pop culture. Mainly, I wonder if Chabon and Lethem are working the room in their engagement with comics or pop music. That they know the educated, middle-class audience they write for also grew up with the same comics and pop music, and that they will immediately identify not only with that world, but with how Chabon and Lethem use that world. To put it another way, I wonder if engagement with pop culture (at least in a straightforward way that takes a particular set of pop culture markers for granted) risks tying a novel to a particular audience at a particular time. I also wonder if that approach makes things to easy for that audience.

7. In the end, I feel like Armies of the Night doesn’t push its readers hard enough. There are some decent political observations–“Just as the truth of his material was revealed to a good writer by the cutting edge of his style…so a revolutionary began to uncover the nature of his true situation by trying to ride the beast of his revolution.”–but the reader is never threatened by them. Mailer’s own style doesn’t so much reveal the truth of his material as tame it, make it something a reader can look at from a distance. As a result, at no point does the reader feel like this revolution is going to ask anything of the reader himself.

8. It’s not that the book should be more “political”–it should just be…stranger. Really good writing doesn’t work the room–it opens a new one. That’s why a book’s longevity is (though imperfect) such a good measure of it’s quality. A book that does something genuinely new, that doesn’t cater to its audience’s prexisting ideas/tastes/interests stands a better chance with future audiences, if only because they will come to it on more or less the same (unfamiliar) terms as the book’s original audience.

Thoughts on Werther and “A Lover’s Discourse”

One of the reasons I wanted to restart the blog is I missed having a place to sort through ideas about books that I read, without writing full-on essays about them. One thing I wanted to try is to put together skeletal, more fragmentary posts that record certain ideas and impressions, without necessarily exploring them as fully as possible–“blog as notepad.” This is a bit of an experiment on my part, an attempt to use the format of the blog to create a different kind of writing than I usually do. I’m curious to see how it turns out.

I recently got done reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse back-t0-back. The two are related–“love” sits at the center of both works, and much of Barthes’s book is given over to the discussion of Werther and his story. Since A Lover’s Discourse is a seminal “fragmentary” work, I figured this would be a good place to start my digital notebook…

1. Werther falls in love with a woman named Charlotte. She is engaged to (and eventually marries) someone else. Werther leaves for a time, but ultimately returns. Eventually he commits suicide. This is an inadequate summary–and the book encompasses much more than this–but ultimately, this is his story in its most basic sense.

2. Barthes quotes Andre Gide saying of Werther “I had forgotten how long it took him to die…He keeps going on and on until you want to give him a push, right into the grave.” Barthes calls this comment “silliness,” but in put in mind of the inevitability of Werther’s situation. Once he returns to Charlotte’s village, there is a certain inevitability to his ending. In effect, Wether’s decision to return is his decision to die. And so, in one sense, he does die slowly.

3. In Kafka’s The Trial there is a famous scene where Joseph K learns the parable “Before the Law.” In the parable, a man from the country tries to gain admission to the law. He waits before the door of the law, which is opened, but guarded. Over time he attempts to persuade the guard to let him in–eventually giving up all his worldly possessions in the process. The guard accepts these bribes only as a matter of course, telling the man “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.” (Needless to say, the man never passes through the door.)

4. Werther, like that man, omits nothing. He returns to Charlotte, knowing she is already married. He visits her, even after she has expressly told him not too. His end is set as soon as he makes the decision to return. It is hard not to see him as someone who has decided to see things through to the end, though he already knows the end. I am tempted to say Werther dies as soon as he returns to the village, and the rest of his story is posthumous (in effect if not in fact), though that isn’t really true. He simply sees his story through to the end; no one can say that he didn’t see things through to the end.

5. What strikes me most is how much more I prefer A Lover’s Discourse to Werther; it’s not just that I enjoy the book more aesthetically–ultimately, Barthes discusses love in terms that veer closer to my own. I recognize a certain manner of thinking about love, the way the book both immerses itself in love and yet holds love at a certain distance.

6. Barthes also omits (almost) nothing. His book looks at every word or phrase associated with a lover’s discourse (“I love you,” “alone,” “compassion,” obscene,” etc.).

7. The difference between the two is the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Werther enacts the story of love–Werther’s discourse in some respects presents himself as love–where Barthes ruminates over love, or more precisely over the language of love.

8. I have traditionally preferred fiction to nonfiction for precisely this reason–it seems more visceral, more rooted in the emotionally “real” moment. The story. The essay (and ALD is an essay first and foremost) is more indirect. Rather than embody his subject, Barthes picks it up, looks at it, thinks it over. And yet, there is just as much feeling in ALD as there is in Werther. It just appears at different angles. Reading the two in succession, I find those angles more compelling, more realistic. I don’t know if they shed more light on “love” (as if that were the point), but they do offer more consolation for the anxieties, pains, and confusion that love often engenders.

9. Werther’s story is so much his own–his story so set–that there is little room for the reader to think differently. We watch Werther, we feel with Werther, but we don’t add much to Werther. Barthes’s angles leave the reader more space. They let the reader think. There is no spectacle in Barthes, pulling us out of ourselves.

10. This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on fiction (far from it). Or that I don’t think Werther is compelling (it is). I’m only noting that by reading the two back to back, I realized that I’ve undervalued the essay as a form. Which is an odd realization–especially since for quite some time now, writing essays has been more interesting to me than writing fiction. But there it is.