What I’ve been reading (December 2020)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: I deserved a break from the tomes I’ve wrestled recently – just a light novella about the nature of madness and evil, you know. Actually, its detached style of narration did make this a breezy read. For me, the story’s impact came partly from the contrast between the sober prose and the fever-dream content: an arduous trip up the Congo River through way stations held together by the barest of mercantile infrastructure and the questionable motivations of the men who while away their time there.

I was compelled to finally read it because the story was (heavily) adapted for the screen as Apocalypse Now, which I revisited last month in the context of Alex Ross’s new book Wagnerism. I’m interested in the tangle of references that link film and book, such as the parallels between the settings, the Vietnam war (in the film) and African colonialism (in the book). Alex hints that Wagner could be another link because of Conrad’s repetitive use of the word “darkness”, which looks a bit like a Wagnerian leitmotif if you squint – I end up not quite buying this. Aren’t recurring themes and symbols a feature of most storytelling? To some degree, all artistic output of an era is influenced by the enveloping culture of which, in the case of Conrad, Wagner was a towering figure. I would say, Conrad was inspired by Wagner in the same way that Zadie Smith was inspired by BeyoncĂ© – true but also a truism, for which Gen X’er hasn’t been touched by Queen Bey’s gesamtkunstwerk?

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark: This is more fallout from Wagnerism – Cather being a consummate Wagnerite, tracing in this novel the life of Thea Kronborg, from preacher’s girl in rural Colorado to rising star soprano singing Wagner in New York. Most of the book is given over to Thea’s formative beginnings, her rural childhood and a few years of young adulthood. This part reminded me more than once of a 19th century spiritual ancestor: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, apparently a book with enough enduring appeal to fuel a recent new film adaptation (written and directed by by Greta Gerwig). Of the March sisters in Little Women I’m mainly thinking of the budding writer Jo. Her and Thea, as young girls, share a tomboy attitude and harbor complex interior worlds that don’t quite find an outlet in the simple places they are born into. For all the daring focus on female self-actualization, Alcott’s women ultimately follow a conventional path. Jo marries a bore who tone polices her writing, and she seems to drop her ambitions as a writer.

Cather’s vision is a lot more radical, even if couched in genteel language that sounds like Alcott’s at times. An early suitor of Thea’s is killed off; he might have reined in her free spirit and tethered her to small town life. (That older suitor had his eye on her since her early teens – creepy from my vantage point, but I cannot make out whether Cather is sanctioning or subtly satirizing this 19th century trope.) The next suitor is a wealthy beer heir and a temperamental match for her, plus he fully recognizes her potential as a singer. We are meant to think he is the one for Thea, as a traditional narrative demands it, but then it is revealed he is already married. She rejects him and his financial support. Appealing instead to an old hometown friend for financing, Thea makes it to Germany to study singing in earnest. She sacrifices much for the sake of her career – once launched into the world she never returns home to Colorado, not even when her mother calls for her on her deathbed. She remains unattached to any man, other than her crypto-gay platonic companions, up to a point in the epilogue where she has already reached the height of her success.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Apart from this forward-looking conception of a woman’s life as well as an artist’s life, what stands out is how Cather uses a classic Western landscape not to tell a classic Western tale of rugged men but as a conduit for self-discovery. (She does something similar in the other novel of hers I’ve read – Death Comes for the Archbishop.) After two years of toiling in Chicago trying to ignite her musical career, Thea escapes for a summer to Arizona and camps out alone in a canyon, in cliff dwellings abandoned by a native people centuries prior. Cather’s description of that luminous place is a high point of the novel, and Thea’s stay there marks the turning point in her commitment to a life as an artist. In recent years I have roamed around New Mexico enough that I intuitively connected with the idea that solitary time spent in a Southwestern wilderness would inspire such epiphanies.

What I’ve been reading (November 2020)

Alex Ross, Wagnerism – Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music: I recently rewatched Apocalypse Now which features possibly the most infamous use of Wagner in film history, a helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries. I can report that the spell of that scene remains unbroken. The Valkyries bring out the latent thrill of abstract, mechanized violence to a degree that they completely override any satirical intentions of the film makers. It was maybe inevitable that this use of the music would transcend the screen and subsequently those same brass fanfares would be deployed during real military operations. Alex has a great video recapping the mad ride:

This is just one fairly contemporary instance of a Wagnerism. The book catalogs the dizzying variety of ways in which Wagner’s ideas and music influenced artists and commoners alike over the centuries. After following Alex’s writing in the New Yorker for more than a decade I feel I have a handle on his passions, and I think the book is strongest where he is most invested personally – as in Willa Cather, who gets a whole luxurious chapter of her own, and as in Thomas Mann, who pops up all over since his life is entwined in such an exemplary way with the art and politics and Wagnerisms of his time.

Because of a noticeable emphasis on proto-queer figures – Ludwig II, Cather, Mann, Proust – at times the book feels like a project of queering Wagner. Until this party of aesthetes is broken up by Hitler, of course, and then incinerated by fictional military helicopters. Such is the Wagnerian question hovering in the background of it all: How is it that one artist’s body of work would accessorize both Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and a Nazi state philosophy of murderous antisemitism?

What I’ve been reading (October 2020)

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child: Rather than reading, I’ve been listening to Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels over the last several months, now finally breaking into this last part. 66 hours and 52 minutes total listening time! The plain, direct language – in the English translation anyway – is a great match for the audiobook format. Having the novels read out aloud to me brought out Ferrante’s mastery of storytelling, or something beyond that, her skill at mythmaking. Of the many layers of the series, I was most interested in the quasi-experimental setup: What path does life choose for two girls – conscientious, studious Lenu and impulsive, independent Lila – born into a Neapolitan slum of the 40s with the same unusual smarts but very different dispositions? I’m a Miranda with a bit of Samantha breaking through occasionally, and obviously I’m a Lenu. Would Lila sit through 66+ hours of audiobooks? No, in that time she would devise an innovative new podcast format which would quickly gather a large following, and then, maddeningly, she would abandon the project.

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet: This is a fictional account of Shakespeare’s family life in Stratford and how the death of his son Hamnet at 11 years old may have led to the play Hamlet. O’Farrell tells the story in minute descriptions of the world through the eyes of several characters, mainly Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, his children and the bard himself. This mode seemed maybe too conventional to me, dipping into it between Neapolitan chapters. Ferrante’s writing features little in terms of descriptions. It’s driven by dialogue and the characters’ actions and relationships, yet evokes an uncanny sense of time and place, almost a social and political history of Italy in the second half of the 20th century. In contrast, Hamnet is so concerned with particulars of its historical setting that it seemed smaller, less epic than its premise might allow for. Shakespeare’s creative life is barely touched on until the very last furious scene of Agnes’ first ever visit to London – the strongest part of the book. I’m not sure why I had to endure such a slow build-up to it.

Charlie Kaufman, Antkind: In the screenwriter/director’s debut novel the subject and narrator is a Kaufmanesque antihero, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a failed film critic who prefers the gender neutral pronoun “thon” and who is not Jewish, as thon will preemptively correct you. Not that B. is embodying a non-binary identity in any real sense – he is a man, just a pretentious one with many such annoying affectations as obscure pronouns. At the outset the story is about B.’s efforts to reconstruct from memory a film that only he has seen, before he accidentally destroyed its only copy. Also, that film is 3 months (sic) long. Then multifarious obsessions distract B. from this project, and I struggle to summarize what really happens in the course of the book. It’s overstuffed with classic Kaufman devices – interior monologues, absurd predicaments, zingers, puns – and follows his signature dream logic where the action can take unpredictable and often hilarious turns. (E.g., B. falls into open manholes repeatedly – trust me, it’s very funny.) Whenever I thought I had found solid ground in the undulating plot, Kaufman dropped me through another metafictional trapdoor (or manhole). Broadly, I think, this is a meditation on comedy and that which we omit from stories in order to make them narratives and not, well, reality.

What I’ve been reading (September 2020)

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August. In a throw-away remark here, Alex Ross described the opening chapter of his book The Rest is Noise as an instance of the “Tuchman maneuver”, and not being familiar with her, that remark compelled me to pick this up. It covers the run up to and the first month of WWI. The best parts are the vividly drawn scenes of generals and statesmen in moments of key decisions – history shaped by personal dogma, vanity, indecision, fear. Also, somehow I associated WWI mostly with trench warfare, but here I learned a lot about the importance of logistics in the early stages of the war: getting armies to where they need to be in time, managing supplies, figuring out where the hell the enemy lines even are.

Malcolm Turvey, Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. A friend pointed me at this book via an LRB review – it’s no secret I’m slightly obsessed with Tati and consider Play Time the greatest movie ever made. It’s a close study of Tati’s films and methods, in the academic manner. Nothing kills the funny like explaining a joke. This book is necessarily full of explanations why and how Tati’s comedy works, categorizing gags using academic terms (“mutual interference gag”), which to me read as kind of meta-funny. I learned one can indeed theorize about comedy, but this is not a must-read even as a Tati fan.

Bov Bjerg, Serpentinen. In earlier days of the web, pre-Twitter, pre-FB, pre all contemporary forms of social media, having a blog was a bit like having a septum piercing: vaguely subversive and uncouth yet stylish if worn right. Bov Bjerg’s was one of the stylish ones in the German language “blogosphere”. There is a specific post of his about a date with a political party in the august city of Bielefeld that still pops into my head once in a while. Anyway, now he’s a successful novelist. A previous novel, Auerhaus, was adapted into a movie. This new novel, Serpentinen, is shortlisted for the German Book Prize 2020. It’s a family chronicle of sorts, told in impressionistic bursts (not unlike a typical blog in the early 2000s, you might say). Heavy themes – addiction, physical abuse, suicide – run through the generations of the portrayed family. The almost constant jump cuts in the text did propel me forward as a reader but, ultimately, I wouldn’t say I was invested in the story.