June 20, 2010

Unfamiliar Quotations - Harry Mathews

- Tlooth, Harry Mathews, 1966

June 17, 2010

Beckett Entire

The list of recommended readings Donald Barthelme gave his writing students includes one particularly laconic entry - "Beckett Entire;" no other writer on his list was awarded this honor. Since Barthelme's death in 1989 (almost five months to the day before Beckett's death) the definition of "entire" has grown, with the 1992 publication of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Beckett's first novel, and the first volume of his letters, from 1929-1940, published in 2008.
Unrelated to Barthelme's list, I also decided at some point that I wanted to read Beckett's entire oeuvre (probably sometime in 2004/5 after reading the Molloy and Waiting for Godot), though in my case there were other writers I wished to read everything by (Kafka and Borges, both mentioned in earlier posts, as well as Pinter, Coetzee, Raymond Carver, Nathanael West, and Nabokov, some of which I assume will come up in future posts). The following list is for people who wish to do the same and want to know which books they should get, or people who just want to know which of his books are worth reading (unlike Barthelme, though I aim to read Beckett's complete works, I wouldn't recommend all of it).
You might assume that getting a hold of The Grove Centenary Editions of Samuel Beckett Four Volume Boxed Set is a simple, albeit expensive, way of getting all his works, but these editions do not include the posthumously published letters or first novel. Besides, what fun would that be? Wouldn't you rather discuss 17 books than 4?

In the following table books marked V under Bloom were included in Harold Bloom's inescapable Western Canon; books marked V under Me were read by me and are discussed below.
Books Bloom MeNotes
Proust- -Essay
Dream of Fair to Middling Women - - Novel
More Pricks than Kicks- - Stories
Mercier and Camier V Novel
Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) V V Also known as The Trilogy
Waiting for Godot V Play
Endgame V V Play
Happy Days - V Play
How It IsV - Novel
Nohow On-V3 Novellas
Disjecta - V Various writings and a dramatic fragment
Complete Short Prose- V Stories and texts
Collected Shorter Plays"Krapp's Last Tape"VShort plays and scripts
Collected Poems in English and French-V Poetry
Letters Volume 1 --Letters

Molloy is my personal favorite, and though the other two (Malone Dies and The Unnameable) gradually become more solipsistic and repetitive, all three novels are definitely at the top of my recommended list. The writing is brilliant in all three, funny and at times poignant, though very little ever seems to happen (and if something does happen the narrators often focus on its minutest details).
The other novels I've read are Murphy, which was enjoyable but didn't impress me as much as the others, and Mercier and Camier, which for some reason I found rather annoying and uninteresting (though written in 1946, Beckett withheld the novel from publication until 1970; perhaps he knew what he was doing).
The three novellas collected in Nohow On (Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho) are often set up in relation to the "Three Novels," as a further exploration of the same themes with even less of a plot and context, which is perhaps why I found them to be too abstract. Though some of the passages exhibit wonderful prose, without any real characters or events it's very hard for each of these pieces to coalesce into a recognizable whole.

Short Stories and Texts:
The Complete Short Prose includes all of Beckett's short fiction - excluding the ten stories concerned with the character Belacqua Shuah that make up the collection More Pricks than Kicks - spanning his entire career, from 1929 to 1989, thus offering an interesting view of his development. The stories "First Love," "The End," "The Expelled," and "The Calmative" are among his best fiction and, being short, offer the best introduction to his non-dramatic work. Later works in the collection, as in the case of the novels, tend towards greater abstraction and could often not even be classified as "stories" in the traditional sense - they are texts, fragments, "fizzles." This collection reveals, all within the space of a single volume, Beckett's movement from Modernist stories to Postmodernist fragments, where stories are no longer required, as one of the texts explicitly states:
...once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not cumpolsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.
Of these later writings the best are the 13 "Texts for Nothing," "Heard in the Dark" 1 & 2, and "Stirrings Still."

I sincerely hope that I don't have to tell you how great Waiting for Godot is, or actually tell you anything about it. Even if I did need to acquaint you with this play I wouldn't say anything about it, I would just advise you to go read it. Or better yet, watch it (I was lucky enough to see it last summer at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon). Endgame is also a masterpiece, though bleaker (I only fully appreciated it after seeing it on stage - at BAM in 2008, with John Turturro as Hamm).  Happy Days is also enjoyable, and if you can find the video version from Beckett on Film it's worth viewing.
The Collected Shorter Plays includes all of Beckett's dramatic work excluding the three plays mentioned above. It also includes his radio and television plays, mimes, and the screenplay for Film (a 25 minute movie starring Buster Keaton, which you can find on YouTube). Some of these texts are barely readable - consisting of a series of instructions for actors, directors, or lighting technicians, making it difficult to visualize exactly what Beckett was going for, and at any rate having much less of an effect than one would probably get from the actual performance. Of the 29 pieces collected here "Krapp's Last Tape" stands out as the best; other works worth reading are "Rough for Theater" 1 & 2, "Rough for Radio" 1 & 2, "A Piece of Monologue," "Ohio Impromptu," and "Play" (In the UK Beckett's Complete Dramatic Works are available in a single volume published by Faber & Faber).
All of Beckett's plays and playlets (a total of 19 works) were filmed as part of the Beckett on Film project (available as a DVD Box set) and videos of many of the other works can be found online.
Scene from Krapp's Last Tape, part of the Beckett on Film project,
directed by Atom Egoyan and starring John Hurt

The Rest:
Disjecta collects Beckett's miscellaneous writings, including "Dante ... Bruno . Vico ... Joyce" which he originally wrote for Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a 1929 volume of laudatory essays about James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (at the time published serially under the title Work in Progress). Other works include essays on writers, artists, his own work, and a single scene from an unfinished (or mostly unwritten) play about Dr. Samuel Johnson. It is well documented that Beckett himself didn't think much of these pieces and nor do I. Some critics claim that these texts, particularly "Three Dialogues," provide a sort of self-commentary on Beckett's struggle with expression, but I find them superfluous - that struggle is expressed clearly enough through his fictional works.
I have not yet read Beckett's long essay Proust, perhaps because I was uninterested by the nonfiction pieces collected in Disjecta, perhaps because I have not yet read Proust (that's right, string me up!). Beckett's Collected Poems in English and French are decidedly minor, and the ones in French are not always translated, but a few are quite fun, such as the one with which I'll conclude my overlong brief survey, "gnome":
Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning

June 11, 2010

What I've Been Reading - There's Got to be a Morning After (Hebrew Book Week)

Sayed Kashua is an Arab-Israeli journalist and novelist whose third book, Second-Person Singular, came out recently, just in time for Hebrew Book Week. In this week's edition of his regular column, Kashua recounts his experiences at Tel Aviv's central book fair, taking the understandable albeit slightly hypercritical stance of "don't think of me as an Arab-Israel writer just because I'm an Arab-Israeli who writes about Arab-Israelis."
Being almost compulsively anachronistic, I chose to purchase and read his second novel, Let it be Morning. Before I go on to discuss the book let me give you the obligatory spoiler alert, though I find it somewhat irrelevant when reviewing literary fiction (can you really spoil The Brothers Karamazov or Under the Volcano by revealing what happens in the end?), the following review will tell you exactly what goes on in the book, including that ever-crucial plot twist at the end, though in this book you could see it coming a mile away.
The novel begins with the quasi-autobiographical story of a journalist returning with his wife and daughter to the Arab village where he grew up - this is an interesting touch since it roots the average contemporary reader, probably familiar with Kashua's biography through his personal column, in the very real world and leads him to expect the novel to be thinly-veiled autobiography, thus increasing the level of surprise when the events around the narrator/protagonist get gradually crazier. This approach, however, has its price since the story is written in a rather plain and colloquial style, which works fine for the breezy column and the mundane events of the earlier parts of the book, but falls short in the more dramatic scenes, and ultimately makes the whole book feel less like a carefully-considered and plotted work of fiction and more like a really fascinating idea executed almost haphazardly.
The fascinating idea at the core of this work is that, shortly after the journalist's return, the whole village is closed off from the rest of Israel, surrounded by tanks, its power and water cut off, and anyone trying to escape is shot. The story then advances as the protagonist and his family try to survive in this new situation, all the while trying to figure out what exactly is going on around them, and dealing with the problems of food and water shortages, (graphically) overflowing sewage, and eruptions of violence by street gangs and neighbors. I thought this set up had a lot of potential, and consistently wanted for it to develop and expand, thinking of works like Albert Camus's The Plague and even Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939, but Kashua doesn't venture too far into speculative territory, settling for several days of discomfort and strain, culminating in a violent confrontation between the protagonist's family and their neighbors, which is diffused relatively quickly. 
Then, just as the situation becomes untenable, it is resolved by the sudden restoration of water and electricity, which makes way for the surprising (but predictable) twist - the reason for the siege was secret negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, who have now signed a peace agreement under which the village is transferred, in exchange for some Jewish settlements, to the Palestinian authority. Lieberman's dream has come true. And then... that's it. The book ends. Except for a couple of mild hints and incredulous reactions, there's no exploration of life under Palestinian authority. I agree this is a totally different issue and calls for a totally different novel to be written (a sequel perhaps? Let it be Night?), but the desire for a continuation of the narrative tells me something else about the novel - all through reading it, I was waiting for it to start. The book did provide a brief glimpse of what happens when the social order collapses, but it didn't go far enough, halting the plot with a sudden deus ex machina before things got too extreme, and failing to deeply explore the issues it touched upon.

So much for my general criticisms, now let me get a little more nitpicky and fanciful (which is always more fun). In the final scene the journalist talks with his editor at the Israeli paper he worked for, who wants him to write about the events of the last few days and become their regular correspondent in what is now Palestine. He promises him a regular job, but says: 
"Listen, there might be a problem with the payment, because we're having crazy cutbacks. So it won't be as much as we used to pay you, but now the cost of living for you there is going to be much lower than here, no?"
This line, which is the final line of the book, made it clear to me that Kashua is more of a columnist than a novelist, or that at least his columnist instincts have taken over and he couldn't resist an easy joke (or a jab at Israeli hypocrisy). There are many things that could have been done differently in the book, but looking at the book on its own terms this last scene could have easily been done better, with the final line serving as both a joke and a sly metafictional wink, and here's how:
Since the book starts by presenting what we suspect is a thinly-veiled version of the author's life before gradually drawing us into the fictional world, I thought the best thing to do at the end would be to throw us back into the author's real world. Thus, when the editor asks the journalist if he could write a few words about what he'd been through, his response should be something like:
"Buddy, I could write a book."
The End.

Unfamiliar Quotations - Nathanael West

- The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939.

June 10, 2010

Hebrew Book Week - Part VI: The End(?)

This week the city of Ramat Gan awarded a lifetime achievement award to Prof. Menachem Perry, cantankerous and venerable editor of the "New Library" ("Hasifriya Hahadasha") imprint, who had some harsh words regarding the state of Israeli literature:
Today this complex known as Hebrew Literature, the literary system coming into being, no longer exists... The end of literature, the age of "like literature" and "like publishers," predates by far the end of good books. we have books, but we don't have literature. More than a few good books are published in Israel, sometimes even by the cynical commercial publishers, but they appear stealthily one by one, into a literary desert, and are decreed to exist, like a fish out of water, out of any context of a cultural-literary system, following the collapse of the literary republic's walls.
Books in the "New Library" imprint, clockwise from top left: Textile by Orly Castel Bloom, Friendly Fire: A Duet by A. B. Yehoshua, To the End of the Land by David Grossman, Finale by Hanoch Levin.

Perry did not exempt himself from criticism and admitted that his life's work is gone, did not survive, and accepted the award as "a consolation prize." Though it may seem that Perry is calling for a return to the canon and the dictation of tastes by a certain literary elite, he is actually lamenting the lack of active debate and argument:
Literature is not a democratic pile of books. It has a center and a periphery, it has judgments, rejections and revitalizations... Its hierarchies are never stable, they're always threatened. No one appointed its leading speakers, and no one grew them. These are critics that have won their status in the republic through hard work and constant activity; that have trained themselves by accumulating broad knowledge, and are tested according to the quality of their taste, the extent of their cultural responsibility, their ability to withstand constant challenges and ongoing debates.
Books have no life without the conversation around them. Without that kaleidoscope of creative narratives and competing narratives which the critical conversation supplies.
Perry's statements can be linked to global trends in literature,reading habits, and publishing, but they are also specifically related to the odd structure of the Israeli book market, wherein the two biggest bookstore chains are owned by the two biggest publishers, who in turn have a complex network of links to medium and small publishers, that are often reduced to de facto imprints of the bigger houses. The duopoly of the two bookstore chains (which makes up 80% of the book market) and the heated competition between them come at the expense of:
  1. Independent bookstores that can't compete with their discounts and omnipresence (and therefore hardly exist in Israel).
  2. Independent publishers that have to compete with the books published by the bigger, store-owning publisher, that are usually cheaper, more widely promoted, and always in stock.
  3. Authors whose writing has to meet broad commercial standards and whose royalties are calculated as a percentage of the sale price, which due to excessive discounts amount to very little.
  4. Readers who face a narrower, lower quality, and less diverse selection of titles to choose from.
Major publishing houses and bookstore chains in Israel (click image to enlarge)

Recently, one of the chain stores separated from its owner/publisher, and its CEO is now advocating the separation by law of publishing houses from book store chains, but even if this were accomplished the duopoly would remain, as would the intense competition which harms the authors most of all (already competing over a very small market). Other proposals include the limitation of discounts given by the chains (who sometimes have sales that offer as many as 3 or 4 books for the price of one), and setting the author's royalties at a minimum of 7% off the cover price (between $1.40-1.60, whereas now they average 18 cents per book sold at full price, and even less for books sold at a discount). The most ridiculous aspect of all this might be that there are still people like me who actually want to be published.

June 7, 2010

Hebrew Book Week - Part V: A Dissenting Opinion on Etgar Keret

Let me start by saying that I may not know what the hell I'm talking about. There's ample evidence of that, if one was to look for it. For example: I think Jonathan Safran Foer is a hack, and yet The New Yorker just chose him as one of the 20 best writers under 40. Another example: Yesterday I received yet another rejection letter from yet another publisher. A third and final example: I just finished reading Curriculum Vitae by Yoel Hoffmann, whom everyone has been swearing up and down is absolutely amazing, and I was utterly unimpressed. Hoffmann's seven or eight books, by the way, are all published by the same Israeli publisher that rejected me just yesterday.
So to reiterate - there's a very good chance I don't really know anything about literature, or at least good literature, and that no one is really interested in my meager appraisals or opinions, but that won't stop me from making them known. Isn't that what this whole blogosphere is about - voicing unpopular opinions?
And looking back on the long preparatory diatribe above, I now realize it might be a bit much for the none-too-harsh critique to follow, which could be summarized simply as: I don't think Etgar Keret is that great.
For the uninitiated, Etgar Keret is probably the most popular writer to come out of Israel in recent years. Thomas Beller, in a New York Times review of The Nimrod Flipout - Keret's second collection published in English - helpfully identifies him as a sort of latter-day Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame). Keret's stories often present a world that's off from our own by a few degrees, sometimes veering towards jokiness, sometimes towards modern fable, and almost always with a certain ironic wink, all within stories that are almost always very short, at times on the verge of flash fiction.
When Keret first started writing (and I'm a little flabbergasted to realize that his first book was published no less than 18 years ago) his colloquial language and breezy style were somewhat refreshing, and whatever occasional slip ups, or short pointless stories I came across were quickly forgiven (and forgotten), because he was young and cool and everyone was reading him. to criticize these things was to identify yourself as a stickler, and sticklers are no fun. But after reading his first three story collections, as well as some of his graphic novel collaborations (see Israeli Comix post below), I nevertheless grew tired of him - he never seems to develop, and aside from the originality and daring it took to write his first few stories, he never challenges himself anymore. That might be forgiven if he had spent this energy on perfecting and sharpening his style, but Keret has no style to speak of, or at least no literary style aside from a certain Israeli street dialect which almost all of his characters seem to share with the writer himself. review of The Girl on the Fridge, an English collection of Keret's earlier stories, states that, "from the beginning, the most unmistakable aspect of Keret’s style has been the length of his stories." So while other writers struggle endlessly to work out a surreal, naturalistic, Gothic, or baroque style, all that Keret has to do to maintain his style is to frequently consult the wordcount feature on his word processor.
But the brevity of his work shouldn't necessarily be a hindrance. Far greater writers like Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver were never better than when they were at their briefest. Keret, however, seems to be writing the same stories now that he did in the late eighties, and while he's not running out of steam, he might be running out of ideas. As a review in The Guardian once stated, "you get the impression that he throws three or four of these stories off on the bus to work every morning," and after a while you might also find yourself quickly breezing through one of his stories just because you want to know what it's "about" - what specific gimmick does he employ here, or what's the punchline (that has never been the case with even the shortest works of Barthelme or Borges, where every word counts). In my case at least, these gimmicks are often the only things I remember from the story afterwards - there's the one with the piggy bank, and the one with the super glue, and the one with the dead buses, and the one with the girl who turns into a fat guy, and the one where everyone's dead (that last one is "Kneller's Happy Campers", which some call a novella - though I think it's too short and slight - and has been loosely adapted into the movie Wristcutters).
It's also strange to realize that all of his characters are basically stupid, if not emotionally stunted. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that nearly all of his characters are, either literally or figuratively, children. Though Keret himself is a university lecturer, his characters are usually uneducated, a little backwards, and at times mindlessly violent (correct me if I'm wrong, I haven't read all of his stories), which allows him to maintain a constant ironic distance, even in the stories told in the first person, since the child or teenager narrating obviously isn't the sophisticated writer who also composed the stories before and after it (at least some of which involve gratuitous sex scenes, which are often, ironically, the most childish aspect of his writing).
Even in the face of the most extraordinary events and circumstances (death and madness, decapitated rabbits and dead babies, demons and angels)  the language of both writer and characters fails to rise above straightforward and hackneyed phrases. Perhaps it is this simplicity that makes him so translatable and popular - there's no grappling with the text here, it's all surface - an unpredictable, amusing, and even unsettling surface. His stories, or at least the ones chosen for translation, have the kind of appeal that's made the works of Aesop, the brothers Grimm, and La Fontaine last across generations and languages, and perhaps that's why the actual stories as they are written don't matter as much as their basic outlines or ideas.

I don't want to give the impression that none of Keret's work is worth reading. Taken for what they are, these short stories can be quite fun, especially when he doesn't try to go for pathos, and their brevity often works in their favor - it's kind of like reading a book of jokes - you get the joke, or not, and move on to the next - often you don't have time to ask yourself whether or not you're having fun (incidentally, Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Fun is the name of a graphic novel by Keret and artist Rutu Modan). Perhaps at some point in the future specific stories could be culled from all of his collections to form a single praiseworthy volume, and perhaps he might surprise us yet and produce something new and daring (though either option might take a while - Keret's most recent Hebrew collection, Suddenly a Knock at the Door, came out just last month, and of the four stories I've read, it's not much better or different from the previous ones).