Despite a subscription to one of the noteworthy review periodicals, I have mostly given up reading book reviews. They never really manage to tell me what I want to know, the information that a blind, intuitive reaching for the shelves will provide – what do I want to read next? Indeed, looking at book reviews (for even in my heyday I rarely read many thoroughly) put me off the idea of reading entirely. Every party in the transaction – author, critic, subject, genre, publisher, format, review venue – is bound up in their cliques and claques, which to the outsider (the common reader, not the fan) can only be so much noise at best or too much gossip at worst (who likes/hates/wants to curry favor with whom?).
The first few reviews in the collection of Alejandra Pizarnik’s translated literary criticism, A Tradition of Rupture, fall prey to these ills: insular and too specifically targeted to provide much clarity to a reader continents and decades away.1 The fault might lie with the texts reviewed; in the middle of the collection, in particular, the reviews focused on a string of books in the mid-twentieth-century-I-suffer-and-am-vaguely-amorous-therefore-I-must-be-interesting-despite-my-bourgeois-upbringing school of literature, which (with its broody-hen angst) has never quite appealed to me (too much cackle, not enough eggs). They were books I had never heard of and am unlikely to think about further.2 When the reviews began to touch on more familiar names (there is something to be said for a book having lasted beyond its moment), they became more interesting, although still focused on relationships more then I like; they fit into a picture of art and meaning that, even if I did not agree with it, provided something to grasp.3
Halfway through the book, I was sure it would go on the donate pile for the library book sale – but having finished it, I am no longer so certain. It seems likely, now, that the problem with some of the reviews was the reader – though I am not certain whether I mean myself or Pizarnik.
- The reader can be blamed as well. [↩]
- Although it is not unlikely I might ‘discover’ one or two of them at some later date and wonder how I could have missed them. [↩]
- Situating books, although key for marketing, is less helpful for those who read haphazardly (and would like to think they are not a market, though of course they are). [↩]
The rose bush did not know where it had been born and where it had passed its early days: it is well known that flowers have a bad memory.
—Hermynia zur Mühlen (‘The Rose Bush’ in
The Castle of Truths and Other Revolutionary Tales)
The book is from a series called ‘Oddly Modern Fairy Tales’, but although the stories bear the mark of modernity on their brow and are somewhat oddly put together, it is a stretch of the imagination to call them fairy tales. They are – or start off – didactic, patronizing, and unambiguous. I suppose it is the last two of these that are the most difficult to stomach, but I was taken in by the familiarity of the translator’s name and assumed one sort of oddness – that of the uncanny. I found instead the dismal oddity of a party member toeing a rather unimaginative line. There are no paeans to tractors, but one can hear the engines sputtering in the workers’ paradise off-page.1
Two things, in particular, struck me about the stories and hindered my enjoyment. In the early stories, from What Little Peter’s Friends Told Him, a little boy from a poor household, Peter, is stuck in bed with a broken leg. He is lonely because his mother has to go to work and his erstwhile friends continue to play outside and never think to come visit their less fortunate comrade. Poor Peter is left to his misery for a fair amount of time (both literal and narrative), but – as is the nature of fairy tales – household objects (pieces of coal, a matchbox, a water bottle) start to talk to him and tell him stories of humanity’s stupidity and the cruelty they’ve witnessed in their journey from mine/forest/furnace to Peter’s room.
One grants the animism, but cannot overlook the practical details: why would a lump of coal take a detour to a rich man’s house before ending up in a poor household? If the lump of coal was stuck in the pocket of the sole survivor of the mine explosion (and so witnessed the rich man’s party with the old man’s indignation), how did it come to be in the coal scuttle of a completely unrelated household? Why did the old man not burn it himself, as the weather was brutally cold? Allowing a subterranean economy in which members of the rich man’s household staff steal the coal and sell it to poorer households, why is that social subversion not mentioned, but only the explosion in the mine that kills the miners, followed by the rich man’s glittering party? One tries to take the stories on their own terms, but these types of narrative gaps make it difficult to do so. Certainly one does not expect a piece of coal or a match or a water bottle to be completely reliable narrators, but in the service of the story one hopes that they will make sense within their limitations, like the talking animals that appear in fables from antiquity, through Reynard the Fox and co., to Perrault and Grimm.
Perhaps the difficulty for me was that the stories were didactic without being edifying. It is all well and good to break the world down by class, but when the limit of that analysis is the universal stupidity of all – combined with suffering among the poor, cupidity among the bourgeoisie, and heaven knows what among the aristocrats – there isn’t much room for the reader to identify with anyone at all. ‘Why?’ is certainly a very good question to ask when you are hungry and all the eggs from the nearest chicken are sent to some rich schmuck in the city, but it is insufficient as an end – and on the whole, the Red Countess doesn’t provide tidy endings, although the stories tend to finish on a valedictory note.2 They are good stories to think about (PDF: 1925 translation by Ida Dailes), and ultimately I enjoyed them as a chance to think and remember other stories I liked better – stories I might be tempted to call edifying, but that I suppose merely better suit my own class, tastes, and pretensions.3
- Let me take a step back. I was perhaps not in a mood to be pleased. It was Saturday, and I had managed to finish up my work for the week so I had the entire weekend free. This felt like an unusual occurrence, particularly in the past few months. Looking about for a way to occupy my time, I tried to watch Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels – you know, the one about a screenwriter who goes slumming to try to understand human misery to justify making a dreary realist movie. Shenanigans would ensue, but the bullying studio executives, the enabling servants, and the grotesque (not least because supposedly humorous) image of Charles Moore hanging by the neck from a hole in the ceiling of a moving bus left me in need of a different diversion. [↩]
- There are exceptions, but they seem to belong to a more Catholic period. [↩]
- I perhaps did not highlight the best of the bunch here – the title story from the collection was particularly interesting, but suffered from some of the problems alluded to here, not least in that the character (who in an ordinary fairy tale would be the heroine) is sent off to an insane asylum and is never heard from again. [↩]
so to speak
We were walking away from the bookstore, where we had just purchased a second copy (with a nicer cover) of Nabokov’s translation of and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and to pass the time before dinner we talked about Pushkin’s short stories. PF mentioned that Pushkin was noted for his use of skaz and this led, of course, to a discussion of what exactly that meant.2 In the context of this discussion (and, indeed, much literary criticism) skaz, from сказать (to say or tell), refers to a colloquial narrative style that reflects the limitations (linguistic, cultural, and intellectual) of the purported narrator. Examples? Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, naturally, but what else?
We disagreed on examples. PF cited Marlow from Heart of Darkness, but I thought perhaps Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe would be a better example (mostly because I am not particularly fond of Conrad).3 We agreed, however, on the general meaning: it is a question of artifice, of the illusion of speech, rather than a matter of authorial limitation – something like the Uncle Charles principle, but extended over the entire work. A poorly written book may feature many of the hallmarks of skaz, but does not achieve it.4 In his essay ‘The Illusion of Skaz’, Boris Eikhenbaum described it as ‘the battle between bookishness and the living word’ (235) and, considering Belkin in particular, he gets at something we ignored in our discussion: ‘it is as if Pushkin wished to strengthen the illusion of first-hand skaz by tracing the stories back from the writer to the oral narrator’ (234).5 I don’t recall if we discussed framing – the example of Marlow makes me think we did – but it was quite some time ago and I was so interested in knowing the right answer, the best, most intuitively satisfying solution, that I declined to think about it.
At this point I will confess that I got a bit hung up on the word skaz, which, as David Lodge notes in a discussion of J.D. Salinger, is ‘a nice word with echoes of jazz and scat in it’ – and its jazziness and its foreignness combined to give it a baggage it probably doesn’t need.6 As the months passed, I found myself returning to the library stacks (literal and metaphorical), trying to make sense of something that is not, I think, all that complicated, but that defied what I was willing to understand. Whether I have successfully understood anything, I leave to the reader to determine. It was hot outside and a long walk to dinner, which is perhaps why the memory of the conversation lingered. I find I am no longer particularly interested the poetics of the matter – my own preference for bookishness being, at last, sufficient.
- I see by this image that I meant to include Rousseau somehow. I’m not quite sure what I was thinking, but it probably wouldn’t have worked very well. I think I was intending to bring more Gogol into the matter, too, but that hasn’t happened either. [↩]
- The use of an arbitrary term from another language always adds interest to any discussion; it gives the word a gnomic weight with all of the other untranslatables, which makes such a différance. [↩]
- I feel like we discussed Wuthering Heights in this context, too, and after the fact I thought of Barbara Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but narrative frames and narratorial limitations became distracting and diverted me from the matter entirely. [↩]
- One thinks here of An American Tragedy, where perhaps Dreiser’s limitations enhance the reader’s sense of Clyde Griffith’s muddled state. This is the example I always trot out for this type of thing – I apologize. [↩]
- A translation by M.P. Rice was published in 1975 in issue 12 of the Russian Literature Triquarterly, pp. 233–236, which is not particularly helpful unless you can find a copy (I have a PDF if anyone is desperate); it did, however, set me on the trail of some of Eikhenbaum’s other literary criticism, which is interesting in itself, but beyond the scope of my ramblings here. [↩]
- Lodge’s application of the term to The Catcher in the Rye certainly did not help, but no application of thought to Salinger ever seems anything other than phony, with the possible exception of Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. [↩]
In the mending basket were three pairs of trousers waiting in diverse states of wear and disarray. They had been waiting there for some months, and weighing on my mind for longer – indeed, since I gathered them together with patch and thread and needle to undertake the task of repair, before setting them aside to stew in their own shabbiness.
The other day I happened not to be too busy and thought to clear out all the mending – repair what could be repaired and discard what could not be salvaged. I pulled out the first pair of trousers and found, strangely, that the repair was already complete. Certes, the patch was not neatly reinforced, the mend was not ideal, but they were perfectly wearable in their present state. The same, too, with the second and third pair: both mended and only waiting to be laundered of the dust they had gathered during their sojourn in the mending basket.
This came to mind because I was putting off some work I was supposed to be doing – I put it off and dreaded it for several days as the deadline drew closer. Finally, I opened the files and found – the work had already been done before I had started worrying about the problem of doing it.