In Which The Nobel Prize for Literature Is A Joke Among European Blowhards

Book by Its Cover

by Jeff Goldberg

“The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.” – Horace Engdahl

If you’re interested in literature on a global level or even just an American one you’ve probably consumed a hundred bemused articles and angry blog posts about the above statements made by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, just a few days before Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio took the award.

Le Clézio looking smug

Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t read Le Clézio, which either proves Engdahl’s point about American’s not participating in the global dialogue or, just possibly, means the prize went to someone unknown and/or unworthy.  On second thought, even though a brief glance at wikipedia shows that Le Clézio has a long, varied, and lauded career as an author, it still doesn’t prove Engdahl’s point, because since when do I stand in for all Americans?  You see, it doesn’t matter if 99.9% of Americans are isolated and insular, because 99.9% of people don’t win the Nobel prize.  The point of the Nobel isn’t to award a country, but, rather, an individual author.

Let’s look at Engdahl’s other big claim: “There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States.”

What I find cute about this is how he’s thinks Sweden is part of Europe.  I mean, sure, physically it’s there.  But, really?  Sweden?  It’s like my seven year-old nephew putting on his big boy pants and asking to hang out with me and my friends.  Sure, we love to have him around because he’s so adorable and innocent, but we all know he’s been harboring tons of Nazi loot stolen from murdered Jews even while claiming neutrality.  Wait… that metaphor got away from me.  But my point is: Get over yourself, Sweden.  If it wasn’t for the Nobel prize no one would even remember you.

I’d like to go back and ammend a statement I made earlier about me being an example of an isolated and insular American.  Upon further reflection I realize that my favorite authors are almost all non-Americans.  Jorge Luis Borges (Argentinia), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Martin Amis (England), Raymond Queneau (French), and Samuel Beckett (Ireland) to name a few, plus Vladamir Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer who can hardly be considered insular and isolated Americans.  I’m not trying to show off my global-well-read-ness, seriously.  I’m just still pissed about Engdahl.

An interesting note: Le Clézio lives in America, as have many of the non-American winners of the Nobel prize for literature.  Not that I’m saying America is so great.   I’m just saying.

houllebecq

In an attempt to become more connected and cosmopolitan, I’m participating in a Words Without Borders reading event at the excellent, internationally-focused idlewild book store.

The first book in the reading series is Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous, published in English translation earlier this year.  I must say, it scores some points on the title alone.

If you know me, you know that I love judging books by their covers.  And why shouldn’t I?  Someone has spent lots of time and effort crafting a cover designed especially to convey something to the undecided book-browser.  If the cover displays a heroine with a heaving bosom clasping onto a shirtless bodybuilder there’s a good chance I’m not part of the intended reading audience.  Those folks in marketing know what they are doing.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio has the following things going for it:

a. It’s short.

b. It’s got a fun cover.

c. It’s a good book.

I bet I fooled you there.  You thought I was going to mock the book by saying the only positive things were it’s diminutive length and it’s cover, and then I pulled out the final bullet point.

Actually, I didn’t think it was that good, but I hate being predictable.

It’s an interesting story about Italian citizens and immigrants who are living together in a building, each in turn talking to the police about a murdered tennant and a missing neighbor.

The murder itself is mostly irrelevant to the story, and though the truth about the murder is revealed at the end I can’t imagine anyone getting much satisfaction from it, nor the author intending for us to care.  Rather, the book is about Amedeo and all the immigrants he has helped or befriended, despite the prevailing attitude of racism and distrust towards non-Italians.

My problem is that I feel like I’m being taught a lesson.  You mean the racist, xenophobic Italians are bad and the poor, hard-working immigrants are good?  Thanks!  There’s more to it than that, sure, and even the different immigrants are somewhat xenophobic towards each other, but it’s hard to get past the suffocating political correctness of the novel.

Even amongst the Italians there is dislike for Northern Italians by the Southern Italians and dislike for Southern Italians by Northern Italians and dislike for non-Romans by Romans and dislike of the Romans by non-Romans and Neapolitans seem to be especially disliked by everyone.  So here you have a bunch of immigrants just trying to get by and then all the Italians hating everyone and everything that wasn’t born on the same street as them.

It won Italy’s apparently prestigious Flaiano Prize for Fiction, so I suppose it must be good.

I’m still obviously in a bit of a huff about the Nobel, so that’s all you’re going to get today.  I will order some books by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and review them soon so that you’ll all get to hear from me (the definitive voice) as to whether he deserves it.

Jeff Goldberg is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Stephen James” – Koufax (mp3)

“Trouble Will Find You” – Koufax (mp3)

“Five Years of Madness” – Koufax (mp3)

“Get Us Sober” – Koufax (mp3)

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Molly came back with an all-too-real Science Corner.

We dissed Long Island mothers.

What white people smell like. Molly says ranch dressing.

In Which We Are Indignant

Collegial Fiction

by Jeff Goldberg

Indignation

by Philip Roth

There are perils to writing a college novel, the first and foremost being that college novels usually suck.  There are very few good ones. This Side of Paradise by Fitzgerald is, arguably, one of them.  Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is another, which I recommend everyone to read, especially if one is considering the study of ancient Greek.

There are some notable college novel failures, such as Tom Wolfe’s recent and much-derided I am Scarlett Johanssen, which I almost read until I discovered it was called something else.  And there are a few possibly decent ones of which I am ignorant. The Bell Jar, for example. Or that book Prep, which I think might be about college, but I couldn’t get past the pink cover staring at me from every Barnes & Noble window display in the city.

My real problem with college fiction is I have spent too much time in writing workshops sitting next to writers who had just finished their undergraduate study and therefore wrote exclusively about being undergraduates.  There is nothing worse than reading self-important stories about college life written by people who, like their characters, imagine that what goes on in college is of some importance.

The four or so years spent immersed in undergraduate study are intentionally and successfully divorced from the rest of existence. It’s where we scuttle away to learn, but also to bleed out disconnected emotion: anger, passion, intoxication, fear, excitement, hysterics, joy, and a huge overvaluing of our societal worth.

I’m not saying that some or even all college students aren’t worth an incredible amount to society, perhaps worth even more to society than they imagine they are worth, but the fact remains that thinking you are worth something to society before having proved you are worth something to society is insufferable. I used to think that way too, and I have not yet retroactively justified it, but that’s college for you.

College movies are a totally different story and, for the most part, awesome.  I think unjustified self-importance and Hollywood mix well.

Philip Roth’s Indignation is, mostly, a college novel, and as far as college novels go, it’s one of the good ones.  But, of course, Roth could write a poop novel and it would be one of the good poop novels.  In fact, he could write a bad novel and it would be one of the good bad novels.

In the first few pages of the novel, the narrator, Marcus, reminisces about working in his father’s kosher butcher shop the summer before his freshman year, and the simple listing of butchorial duties nearly brought tears to my eyes with its clarity and earnestness.

We’d buy a whole quarter of the beef, and we’d buy a forequarter of the lamb for lamb chops, and we’d buy a calf, and we’d buy some beef livers, and we’d buy some chickens and some chicken livers, and since we had a couple of customers for them, we would buy brains.”

The Museum of HAM!  Not quite a kosher butcher.

Roth has a way of extending images and conversations beyond where other writers dare to go. In a normal book, if a character has to make a eulogy (for example), the text might provide the first lines of the speech, slip into indirect description, throw in an ellipsis, and then skip to the next scene. Roth says, “Screw that,” and presents the reader with five pages of the complete eulogy, in all of its brilliant, uncomfortable, mournful glory.

This new book is not the Roth of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, or The Human Stain, three weighty American masterpieces that force the reader to work as he or she reads, that allow one to reach the end only after a joint struggle. Each of those books on its own would serve as the culmination of any other author’s life’s work.

This picture captures neither beauty nor the soulful mourning of Philip Roth’s eyes.

Indignation is looser and lighter, closer to the Roth of yore, of The Ghost Writer and Goodbye, Columbus, all with their reserved young Jewish boys from Newark just starting to stretch beyond their upbringings. The indignation of the title is the indignation Marcus Messner feels about everything: his father, his roommates, his dean, his mandatory chapel requirement, his future, even his one blow job.

Despite the number of sources, the depth of his indignation is sourceless, especially welling up within one whose childhood taught him nothing but principle and dignified servility.  The novel is narrated with tragic hindsight, but even the knowledge of how Marcus Messner’s young life turns out does not explain the indignation, since his indignation is exactly what causes his life to turn out the way it does.

The thing about college novels is that they focus on characters whose self-important emotion is completely out of scale with that emotion’s cause.  An objective observer finds it difficult to make the jump as well, knowing that what seems immense during college will have little or no impact on the world as a whole.

Roth never quite manages to bring the reader along to the peaks of indignation, but unlike so many other weaker works, he never intends to. The reader sits fidgeting uncomfortably every time Marcus fails to contain himself and lets fly with his rants or lectures. It’s like watching a fight between strangers on the subway while trying to remain invisible as two supposedly normal people you can’t believe are shouting continue shouting. It’s embarrassing and fascinating and a bit terrifying that people can have so little self-control and so little self-awareness as to behave this way. It’s also secretly titillating to imagine ridding oneself of similar restraints.

Since I recently finished reading – in a row – all nine of Philip Roth’s career-spanning Zuckerman novels, it is impossible for me not to compare the short-lived, unaccomplished Marcus Messner to Nathan Zuckerman, whose lifespan was longer and more successful than most, in both a fictional and in a very real way. Marcus is Zuckerman’s stunted half-brother, from similar though bluer-collar roots, with the same initial promise but a trajectory that veered off course.

Can we map Messner’s indignation to a metafictional origin?  Unlike Zuckerman, it is hard if not impossible to see Marcus as Roth’s doppelganger, except as, like in The Plot Against America, a history that never was. Marcus’s indignation, then, is not Roth’s indignation, but a more general one. It is the indignation that not all lives turn out well, or long, or meaningful, or beautiful, or sensible, and the fact that they do not can be attributed to no good reason at all.

Jeff Goldberg is the senior contributor to This Recording. His most recent short story appears in Volume 2 of the Australian literary journal Torpedo.

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It should totally win for best haircut.

Those with near supernatural powers.

Molly on How I Met Your Mother.

In Which We Travel to Slavic Lands Both Real and Imagined

2003_lost_in_translation_010.jpg

Found in Translation

by Jeff Goldberg

I am often nervous when I read novels in translation. It is difficult enough to choose a decent book written in English, where I tend to have some cultural knowledge of what constitutes “good” and “bad” literature. These foreign scribes leave few clues for me to find them, plus, when I do, there is the added complication of a third party involved who may have done a poor job of conversion. (Embedded in the Amazon.com review section for Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, there is a fascinating discussion–plus examples–of the destructive translation.)

Some superstars like Haruki Murakami have been given the Western seal of approval. But what about Ryo Murakami, whose books don’t show up in the Amazon search results for “Murakami” until page two? I’ve heard he’s pretty good. But I never read anything that doesn’t show up until page two.

Shakespeare says “Support Your Independent Booksellers.” He also says he’s cool with Amazon.com, which supports your independent book publishers (arguably even more important).

But do not worry. Foreign novels often read much better than the typical Barnes & Noble drippings. Why is this? Is it because the English language is dead, and the only real place to be writing literature exists outside our metaphorical walls? Perhaps. Though I think we also benefit from the literary filter at work. For a novel to be both translated and distributed among such untrusting masses it has to contain some minimal level of quality.

In this spirit, I’ve recently taken a trip (literary only) through Ukraine, Russia, Chechnya, Poland, and (for multiple reasons this last one doesn’t count) Absurdistan. Journey with me to the heart of the Slavic lands.

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In Which We Actually Recommend A Book

The Wall

by Jeff Goldberg

Then We Came to the End

by Joshua Ferris

The cover of this fantastic first novel looks remarkably like a wall of my house in 1999. We had this thing the kids liked to call a “dot com” and it was being run out of my living room. The guest bedroom was completely covered in Post-its.

During the day it was a vibrant testament to our brilliance, but at night it glowed with the monochromatic yellow stare of our mothers. “What are you doing with your lives? Are you crazy? You gave up good jobs for this?” The guy living in that room couldn’t sleep for the shame of it. Eventually he snapped, leaving nothing behind but a portion of his rent in the form of a crumpled wad of dollar bills on my pillow. I’m pretty sure he was calling me a whore.

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