Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jenny Offill / Dept. of Sepeculation / Review


Jenny Offill
Photograph by Nicolas Latimer
Dept. of Speculation review – intense vignettes of domestic life

John Self is charmed by Jenny Offill's fragmentary novel about marriage and parenthood



John Self
Friday 14 March 2014 09.00 GMT

A book this sad shouldn't be so much fun to read. But contradictions are what you might expect from an author whose first novel was called Last Things. Fifteen years later, this is her second, and it was worth the wait. Dept. of Speculation is a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity and sweetness.
There aren't many characters, and no one is named: there is the husband, their daughter and a few acquaintances. The story is told in fragments, like memories that float in when you're trying to think about other things. "Memories are microscopic," the woman says. "Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them." Her thoughts and recollections have an aphoristic neatness to them, enhanced by the way each paragraph is set alone on the page, white space above and below. They are like your cleverest friend's Facebook updates. She describes how an ex-boyfriend appears on her doorstep. "He seemed to have come all the way from San Francisco just to have coffee. On the way to the diner, he apologised for never really loving me. He hoped to make amends. 'Wait,' I said. 'Are you doing the steps?'"
There is a risk in charming the reader early on like this – unless you can keep it up. Jenny Offill can keep it up: almost every one of these vignettes is interesting and perfectly put. Because they come to the woman's mind unbidden, they are often stripped of context, making the reader work to find out what is happening. Elsewhere, we learn details only as she does, giving moments of surprise and joy. Her mother tells her to "whack" her choking baby on the back – choking on what? – "and I do until the leaf, green, still beautiful, comes out in my hand".
Offill is particularly strong on the strangeness of parenthood, as a time when the years roar by but the days within them can drag. "What did you do today, you'd say when you got home from work and I'd try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing." We learn that she never intended to be a mother, nor a wife: she wanted to be an art monster. "Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him." The closest she gets to being an art monster is to ghostwrite a memoir for a businessman who almost became an astronaut. She sums up how their lives differ in a few words. "He made a fortune selling bug zappers. Last year, I got one as a Christmas present."
Sharp as all this is ("Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I'd say"), it would seem limited if there weren't texture added by the shadows beneath the sunshine. The woman is unforgiving of herself, persecuted by thoughts of her own inadequacy as a wife, as a mother, in her job as a teacher. "There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it." And a crisis takes hold in the story, gradually and then suddenly, which is reflected by a shift in the narrative angle, as the woman increases her distance from her family and from herself. Her distracted state is reflected in the book's skittish structure. Dept. of Speculation is a shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don't quite understand, until they give in and read it too.
 John Self blogs at The Asylum





David Duchovny / I’ve more self-doubt as an actor than as a writer


David Duchovny: ‘I order up to four books every week.’ Photograph: Armando Gallo/Camera Press

David Duchovny

‘I’ve more self-doubt as an actor

 than as a writer’


David Duchovny talks about his debut novel, his fear of ageing, and the prospect of a reboot for The X-Files

Rachel Cooke
Sunday 22 February 2015 08.15 GMT


David Duchovny is best known for his role as FBI agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files, and as dissolute writer Hank Moody in Californication. He has a BA in English literature from Princeton, where he wrote a dissertation on the early novels of Samuel Beckett, and an MA from Yale. He has now published a novel, Holy Cow, in which a cow called Elsie, a pig called Shalom and a turkey called Tom escape a farm in upstate New York in search of a better life.
How did you get the idea for Holy Cow?
I had an idle idea while driving one day that if I were a cow I’d probably do my best to get to India. I thought that was funny. But then I thought: what else could happen? If I were a pig, I’d try and get to a place where kosher laws were enforced and I wouldn’t be eaten. And… a turkey might think that Turkey would be safe. So then we’ve got our three… This sounded to me like it could be a kids’ movie, so I wrote up a treatment and pitched it as an animated film. But the story includes some Muslim-Jewish political discussion, some drug-taking, and the circumcision of a pig. They politely passed. So I shelved it until, a year and a half ago, I thought: why don’t I write it up as a novel?
It seems to come with a message about how we treat farm animals, and perhaps that we eat too much meat.
I’m not a polemicist. I’m not a proselytiser for vegetarianism or climate change. I don’t force my personal morality on others, and I don’t like books that try to. To me, it’s a work of entertainment first and foremost. A decent work of art raises more questions than it answers. If it answers questions, it becomes propaganda. The book really comes out of my earliest reading: I grew up on Aesop’s Fables… the first stories I ever heard involved talking animals.
Which is harder, writing or acting?
I can’t say that I enjoy writing; it’s difficult. I would say I enjoy having written. But I’ve way more self-doubt as an actor – I come from more of a writing background than a performing background. My sense of myself from an early age was as an observer, a thinker. I didn’t even see that many movies as a kid.
What about reviews? When you act, you’re part of a team; you can hide. But as a writer, your name’s the only one on the jacket.
I don’t read any reviews of anything I do. I haven’t for 10 years, and it has made life a lot better. So much criticism today is snarky and ad hominem. I’m of the school that says: judge the work, not who did it. It’s hard for actors; it’s their body and face they’re using. As a writer it should be easier, but I don’t think it is. I didn’t want to use a pseudonym: I want people to read the book, so why not use whatever celebrity I have to bring attention to it? But reading reviews is like finding your beloved’s journal: the only reason you’re going to open it is because you want to hurt yourself.
You abandoned your PhD at Yale… what was it about?
The title of the dissertation that never will be was: Magic and technology in contemporary fiction and poetry. The writers I was going to discuss were James Merrill, Norman Mailer, Ishmael Reed, Robertson Davies, Thomas Pynchon. I didn’t finish it because I’m a lazy piece of shit. I started acting, and once I left the halls of academia, it was hard to keep the focus on something so rarefied.
Did you regret giving it up?
I still have regrets; I’m a regretful person. Before I had any success as an actor, when I was receiving rejection after rejection, I thought: what the hell are you doing? You worked your ass off, you were at the best places, you were set up to have an interesting and nice life teaching and writing, and now you’re auditioning for a potato-chip commercial in your bathing suit.
Do you buy a lot of new books?
I order up to four every week. The last two I enjoyed were Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which I found to be devastatingly sad, and Outline by Rachel Cusk. She writes beautifully about things that are very difficult to write about.
Both those novels are about women who are getting older and feel invisible, a subject the movies don’t ever touch on. This isn’t a problem for men, is it? They just get (supposedly) more attractive, especially on screen, where their wives and girlfriends only get younger.

Well, that’s the cliche, and there is a standard that is kinder to men than to women. That’s unfair, though I don’t know how you legislate against it. But of course I worry about ageing. I don’t want to get old. I’d have a facelift if they ever worked… But it seems to me they don’t look good.
What’s coming up for you next?
I’m writing another novel, and I have an album coming out, Hell Or High Water. I also have a new show on NBC, Aquarius. It’s set in late-60s LA, and I play a homicide detective who’s watching the world change and isn’t so happy about it. An old flame of mine calls me and says that her daughter has run off with this guy, Charles Manson. This is before that name rings anybody’s bell. So I get caught up in the counterculture, a world I don’t understand, because I grew up in the 20s and 30s.
Why don’t you come to London and do a play by your beloved Beckett?
[Laughs] Well, Gillian [Anderson, his X-Files co-star] has done so well in London. But she’s a proper actress. She studied; I taught myself on the job. Doing theatre wouldn’t be a return to my roots — that would be going back to grad school. I do love London, though. If you came to me with a brilliant play, I imagine I’d try to do it.
There is still talk of a Mulder and Scully reunion. Aren’t you done with The X-Files?
If you’d asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have said: yes, I’ve had enough. But at this point, it’s almost like going out on a greatest hits tour. It would be a lark. And I think it’s going to happen pretty soon.
Holy Cow is published by Headline (£9.99).


Friday, February 27, 2015

Balzac / Colonel Chabert


COLONEL CHABERT

By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell




DEDICATION

To Madame la Comtesse Ida de Bocarme nee du Chasteler.





COLONEL CHABERT


"HULLO! There is that old Box-coat again!"
This exclamation was made by a lawyer's clerk of the class called in French offices a gutter-jumper—a messenger in fact—who at this moment was eating a piece of dry bread with a hearty appetite. He pulled off a morsel of crumb to make into a bullet, and fired it gleefully through the open pane of the window against which he was leaning. The pellet, well aimed, rebounded almost as high as the window, after hitting the hat of a stranger who was crossing the courtyard of a house in the Rue Vivienne, where dwelt Maitre Derville, attorney-at-law.
"Come, Simonnin, don't play tricks on people, or I will turn you out of doors. However poor a client may be, he is still a man, hang it all!" said the head clerk, pausing in the addition of a bill of costs.

Balzac / Eugenie Grandet


EUGENIE GRANDET

by Honoré de Balzac

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

DEDICATION To Maria. May your name, that of one whose portrait is the noblest ornament of this work, lie on its opening pages like a branch of sacred box, taken from an unknown tree, but sanctified by religion, and kept ever fresh and green by pious hands to bless the house. De Balzac.

I


I

There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.
Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.

Balzac / Father Goriot

FATHER GORIOT

By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Ellen Marriage


Mme. Vauquer (nee de Conflans) is an elderly person, who for the past forty years has kept a lodging-house in the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, in the district that lies between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marcel. Her house (known in the neighborhood as the Maison Vauquer) receives men and women, old and young, and no word has ever been breathed against her respectable establishment; but, at the same time, it must be said that as a matter of fact no young woman has been under her roof for thirty years, and that if a young man stays there for any length of time it is a sure sign that his allowance must be of the slenderest. In 1819, however, the time when this drama opens, there was an almost penniless young girl among Mme. Vauquer's boarders.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The 100 best novels / No 75 / Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)




The 100 best novels 

No 75 

 Lolita 

by Vladimir Nabokov 

(1955)



Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee

Robert McCrum
Monday 23 February 2015 05.45 GMT


In 1962, almost a decade after its first appearance, Nabokov told the BBC that “Lolita is a special favourite of mine. It was my most difficult book – the book that treated a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”
The author’s passion for this erotic tragicomedy is part of its charm and its appeal. Nabokov knows he is crossing boundaries of good taste but he exults in his truancy from convention anyway. Everything, and everyone, is up for grabs. From the famous opening line, Lolita is the work of a writer in love with the potentiality of the English language: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Nabokov’s novel is both a comic tour de force and a transgressive romp. As Martin Amis, a devoted advocate, has written, Lolita is “both irresistible and unforgivable”.


Subtitled “the confessions of a white widowed male”, the novel is an intoxicating mix of apologia, prison diary and urgent appeal to the members of a jury by a 38-year old defendant, Dr Humbert Humbert, a professor of literature. Humbert, who is obsessed with “nymphets” (Nabokov’s coinage), girls on the edge of puberty, has been charged with the murder of Clare Quilty, a playwright. As Humbert’s confession unfolds, in two unequal parts – the latter a travelogue that prompted Christopher Isherwood to joke that it was “the best travel book ever written about America” – the reader discovers that his defence is “crime of passion”: he slaughtered Quilty out of love for Dolores Haze, his “Lolita”.
Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is hardly debauching an innocent. In a twist that makes for uncomfortable reading in the context of contemporary anxieties about child abuse, Nabokov establishes that Lolita is sexually precocious already. When it comes to the moment when she and Humbert are “technically lovers”, it was, in Nabokov’s brilliant and clinical reversal, “she who seduced me”.

 


A note on the text

Nabokov’s mother tongue was Russian, just as Joseph Conrad’s was Polish. But, like Conrad, he takes his place here as a master of the English (and American) language. Nabokov’s own retrospective account, dated 12 November 1956, “On a book entitled Lolita”, provides the essential narrative of his novel’s gestation.
He writes that “the first little throb ofLolita went through me late in 1939, or early in 1940, in Paris.” At the time, he says, he was “laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia”. The upshot of this “little throb” was “a short story some 30 pages long”, written in Russian. But Nabokov was displeased with this preliminary sketch and says he “destroyed it some time after moving to America in 1940”.


But the fever-germ of his masterpiece was lodged in his imagination. In 1949, he continues, “the throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to plague me again”. Now writing in English as a would-be American, he began a new version. Progress was painfully slow. “Other books intervened,” he writes, but still he could not reconcile himself to consigning his unfinished draft to the incinerator.
Meanwhile, the exiled Nabokov, a distinguished lepidopterist, could never resist the lure of errant butterflies. “Literature and butterflies,” he once said, “are the two sweetest passions known to man.” Every summer he and his wife would head out west to Colorado, Arizona or Wyoming in pursuit of Variegated Fritillaries and Polyommatus blues. It was there, out in Telluride, that he resumed writing Lolita“in the evenings, or on cloudy days”. By the spring of 1954 he had completed a longhand draft and “began casting around for a publisher”.
Dominique Swain as Lolita

It was now that the fun started. The immediate response of the four American publishers to whom it was submitted (Farrar Straus, Viking, Simon & Schuster and New Directions) was that they would not touch it with a bargepole. One editor, a timid soul, exclaimed “Do you think I’m crazy?” Others expressed fears about prosecution, and hinted darkly at the risk of prison. In despair, Nabokov turned to publication in France with Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, an imprint specialising in what has been described as a list of “pornographic trash”. Nabokov duly signed a contract with the Olympia Press for publication of the book, which would not appear anonymously (as had been mooted in America) but came out in volume form (two volumes, actually) under his own name.


Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks littered with typographical errors. Nevertheless, the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, though virtually no one had reviewed it. Then, towards the end of 1955, Graham Greene, choosing his books of the year for the Sunday Times, described it as one of the best books of the year. This statement provoked a reaction from theSunday Express, whose editor called it “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography”. The novel became a banned book, in a manner unthinkable today. For two years, copies of Lolita were proscribed by the authorities and hunted down by British customs. Eventually, the young publisher George Weidenfeld saw his chance. In 1959 he brought out a British edition, challenging the law. After a tense standoff, the attorney general decided not to prosecute. Weidenfeld made his first fortune, and Lolita entered British literary mythology. In America, the first US edition was issued by Putnam’s in August 1958. The book went into several printings and it is said that the novel became the first since Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind to sell more than 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.


One of Lolita’s first supporters, the great critic Lionel Trilling, addressed what is perhaps a central issue at the heart of this controversial novel, when he warned of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with such an eloquent narrator: “We find ourselves the more shocked when we realise that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents… We have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Time and format do not permit this entry to explore the many fascinating literary critical reactions to this book. It will never cease to horrify some readers and delight others. De gustibus non est disputandum.
James Mason and Sue Lyon
Lolita by Stanley Kubrick

Looking back, Nabokov declared Lolita to be a record of his “love affair with the English language”. His private tragedy, he declared, tongue in cheek, was that “I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions – which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage his own way.”
Second-rate ? We should be so lucky.

Three more from Vladimir Nabokov

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941); Pnin (1957); Pale Fire (1962).
THE GUARDIAN

THE 100 BEST NOVEL WRITTEN IN ENGLISH
007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  

Philip K. Dick / Prize Ship

Philip K. Dick

Prize Ship

(1952-8-14)



GENERAL THOMAS GROVES gazed glumly up at the battle maps on the wall. The thin black line, the iron ring around Ganymede, was still there. He waited a moment, vaguely hoping, but the line did not go away. At last he turned and made his way out of the chart wing, past the rows of desks.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Daniel Defoe / Preface to the Story of my adventures


Robinson Crusoe
PREFACE TO THE STORY 
OF MY ADVENTURES
by Daniel Defoe


Some have said that the story of Robinson Crusoe is feigned, that it is all fiction. They say there never was such a man, and never such a place or such circumstances in a man's life.
They say that the entire story is an invention imposed on the world.
I, Robinson Crusoe, being of perfectly sound mind and memory (and I thank God for this) do hereby declare that such objections are false and scandalous.
I affirm that the story, though allegorical, is also historical. It is the beautiful representation of a life of unparalleled misfortune and of varied experiences found nowhere else in the world. It has been adapted with the common good of the reader in mind. It was designed from the very first for the most serious purposes possible.
Further, I wish to affirm that there is a man alive, and well known too, whose life is the proper subject of these volumes and to whom all, or the most part of the story, directly alludes. This may be depended upon as truth, and to this I set my name.
The famous story of Don Quixote, a work which thousands read with pleasure, was an emblematic history of the Duke de median Sidonia, a remarkable person in Spain at that time. To those who knew the original, the figures were alive and easily uncovered, as is the case here also. 

The Emblem and the Original
Without taking the reader into a closer explication of the matter, I proceed to let him know that the happy deductions I have drawn from all the circumstances of my life will abundantly make up for his not having the Emblem explained further by the Original. When in all my observations and reflections in theses volume I mention my solitude and allude to my lonely circumstances, every part of the story is a real fact in my history, by whatever borrowed lights that history may be represented.
So the way in which I was driven up on the shore by the surging sea, the ship on fire, the story of my man Friday, and many more incidents I relate and on which my spiritual reflections have been made, are all historical and true to fact. The fright and fancies which followed the discovery of the print of a man's foot, and the surprise of the old goat, are also real stories.
It is most real that I kept a parrot and it called me by my name. It is true that I had a servant who later became a Christian, that his name was called Friday, and that he was taken from me by force and died in the hands of those who took him. This is all literally true and there are many alive who could testify to the comfort and assistance he gave to me in my real solitudes and disasters. 

Desolate and Afflicting Circumstances
In a word, the adventures of Robinson Crusoe are one whole scheme of a real life of twenty-eight years spent in the most desolate and afflicting circumstances that a man ever went through. I have lived for this long a time a life of continual storms. I have fought with the worst kind of savages and have met with unaccountable and surprising incidents. I have been fed by miracles greater than that of ravens feeding Elijah, and have suffered all manner of oppression and violence, including the contempt of men, the attacks of demons, corrections from Heaven and oppositions on earth.
I have faced innumerable ups and downs in my fortune. I have been picked up at sea, rose again and fell again, and that oftener perhaps in one man's life than has ever been known before. I have been shipwrecked often, though more on land than at sea.
In a word, there is not a circumstance in the imaginary story that does not have its exact allusion to the real story and chimes part for part and step for step with the inimitable life of Robinson Crusoe.
In the same way, when in my reflections I speak of particular actions and circumstances which happened in the solitude of my island-life, the reader will be so kind as to take it as it is, that it is intended as a part of the real story, to which the island-life is an exact allusion. 

Moral and Spiritual Enrichment
Besides all this, there is here the proper and good purpose of all parables and allegorical history, that it is for moral and spiritual enrichment.
Here, invincible patience is recommended under the worst of misery, and undaunted resolution under the most discouraging circumstances. I say, these are recommended as the only way to work through these miseries. The fable is always made for the moral, not the moral for the fable.
Had the common writing of a man's personal history been undertaken and I had given you the life of a man you know, along with his misfortunes and infirmities, all I could have said would have yielded no diversion and probably would scarcely have obtained a reading. The teacher, like the Greater One, would find no honor in his own country. Thoughts that are designed to touch the mind must come from a great way off. Even the miracles of the blessed Savior of the world were met with scorn and contempt when it was seen that they were done by the Carpenter's Son, one whose brothers and sisters were ordinary people like themselves.
But I am far from being anxious about whether or not these thoughts of mine will be effective. I am certain that even if the obstinacy of our age should shut its ears against the meaningful reflections presented in these pages, there will come a time when the minds of men will be more open.

There will come a time when the guidelines of virtue and Christian living which I have recommended will be more gratefully received than they are now. One generation will be strengthened by the same teaching which another generation has despised.Robinson Crusoe, 1720

Robinson Crusoe


Daniel Defoe / My Thoughts on a Lonely Island


My Thoughts on a Lonely Island
Selected from The Adventures 
of Robinson Crusoe, Volumen III
by Daniel Defoe

A Blight on our Intelligence

We in our day have reached a level of knowledge greater than any which has been seen before. Or at least we imagine this to be the case.
But that very gift through which greater glory should accrue to the Author of all Wisdom, this brightest of all heavenly blessings is used even to deny His existence.
It is used to bring upon God's majesty the greatest contempt that mankind is capable of bringing. Even the heathen nations of the world stop short of this. The most refined philosophers acknowledge a First Cause of all things, a Something that is superior, whose influence governs all things and whose being is to be kept sacred.
The Devil himself, who is full of enmity toward the Supreme Being, has never prompted the most barbarous nations to deny the existence of God. The notion was too absurd to be imposed on the world. But our age has come even with him in his folly and denies his Devilship too, so that you have neither one nor the other.