• Category Archives You weren’t going to forget about this one, were you?
  • Writers forgotten, or in eclipse, or otherwise left in the dust as the culture moves on.

  • Claude Simon: We missed his centenary — don’t miss his books!

    imageOn October 10, 2013, the very day Alice Munro was busy winning the Nobel Prize, an altogether different kind of author was busy accruing general obscurity. Eight years after his death, in spite of being one of world literature’s dark giants, in spite of a Nobel of his own, and in spite of it being his centenary, readers of literary fiction everywhere were, quite vigorously, not talking about Claude Simon.

    What notice might have come to him on the occasion of his 100th was thwarted by the day’s main event; Canadian letters and the modern short story were finally getting their dues. Hard to say what Claude Simon would have made of Munro’s short, elusive epics. The frailties and vanities we sling against our mortality leap into her narrative net like fish on the far side of Peter’s boat. By contrast, Simon set himself the task of evoking the net of time itself, which holds our mortality, and against which it becomes as piffling a thing as our frailties and vanities. In Munro, the effect is one of piercing intimacy (not to be mistaken for warmth), as if the reader himself had been caught in flagrante delicto, and, rather than being either judged or forgiven, is delivered a parable. In Simon the effect is one of distance and grandeur (often mistaken for coldness), which we read in the way one might take in the paintings on the walls of the caves at Altamira, uncomprehending, yet alerted by rising neck hairs that something approaching the elemental has been uttered.

    Munro’s popularity has been like a long-held, well maintained financial portfolio, a steadily rising line over time, weathering the dips and flights of the literary marketplace. No modernist repudiations of the medium for her, nor post-modern repudiations of the reader. She writes as if words can and and do mean something, provided you write about what can be said, which turns out to be quite a lot. This is not to disregard her remarkable innovations of form and her starkly modern view of men and women. But she is the great exponent of the transparent surface. No sentence is either notably long or dryly clipped. No one would call her an adjective whore, but neither are her sentences self-consciously barren. A Munro story is written so that as you’re reading it you have only a shadowy awareness that you are doing so.

    By contrast, reading is often all you can be said to be doing with a text by Claude Simon. This is because he was a writer whose aim was to extend the parameters of writing itself, a dubious undertaking for those who hold to a certain literary prudery. His sentences, elastic with parenthesis and parenthesis within parenthesis, can stretch across many pages, and if you allow your attention to be held, you will be frequently baffled to discover where he’s lead you, and if, rather than being put off, you are fascinated then you may be compelled to backtrack down the narrow path you’ve just cut through the wilderness of often lyric prose in a search for the origins of the narrative present. If you find yourself doing so, in spite of how bewildered you might feel, then you have understood Simon perfectly; his great subject, more than the constants of aging and death, more than the gross and subtitle impact of war, more than the eternal return, is the question: from whence arrives the present?

    If, if, and if. It’s no surprise, really, that Simon’s popularity has, from the get go, been a non-starter. When he won the 1985 Nobel Prize, journalists were hard pressed to find any information about him. Calvin Trillin cagily noted, “Susan Sontag better have heard of this guy or there’ll be trouble.” Those few who did know his work were divided as to its merit. Even in his native France, one prominent critic speculated, half in jest and full earnest, whether the Nobel committee, by honoring Simon, had moved “to confirm that the novel has definitely died,” (an arrow Simon himself unfeathered by quoting in his Nobel lecture).

    imageSimon is most commonly linked with a group of mid-20th century French writers known as the nouveaux romanciers, a group which included, most prominently, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. Marguerite Duras is also sometimes included, though she resisted the label. The aim of these experimental writers was to evolve a “new novel” which would subverted most of the tenets of the form as it had been received via the 19th century, including plot, character, motivation, and setting, aspects which, to most writers and readers, seemed no less fundamental than the paper on which a book is printed. Simon, like Duras, protested the association, feeling the term itself was misleading. In a rare interview for the Paris Review, he clarified his position: “Since the majority of professional critics do not read the books of which they speak, mountains of nonsense have been spoken and written about the nouveau roman. The name refers to a group of several French writers who find the conventional and academic forms of the novel insupportable, just as Proust and Joyce did long before them. Apart from this common refusal, each of us has worked through his own voice; the voices are very different, but this does not prevent us from having mutual esteem and a feeling of solidarity with one another.”

    Simon’s reservations notwithstanding, his literary experiments are consistent with the nouveau roman movement. Take, for example, his refusal to analyze causality. His novels are not plotless, as some have suggested, but neither are they linear. Rather than events birthing subsequent events, what happens in a Simon novel emerges, like the constellations, from collections of closely observed tableaux, or from repetitions of an image. For example, in La Routes des Flandres, the image of a horse recurs in many settings. There are the horses mounted by a small unit soldiers, fatally anachronistic in the mechanized theater of the Second World War. There are racehorses, one in particular ridden by Colonel de Reixach, the officer who would later lead this doomed unit and whose young wife is having an affair, or had one, with a jockey who works in his stables and who will later accompany him into battle, riding a horse just behind him. There is a dying horse in the stable where three of the soldiers wait out the night. Most abstractly, there is the recurring image of a dead horse, paradoxically covered in mud despite dry whether. Its first appearance, early in the novel, provides Simon with an opportunity to articulate his whole approach to the novel. The following passage I necessarily quote at some length:

    and that must have been where I saw it for the first time, a little before or a little after we stopped to drink, discovering it, staring at it through that kind of half-sleep, that kind of brownish mud in which I was somehow caught, and maybe we had to make a detour to avoid it, and actually sensing it more than seeing it: I mean (like everything lying along the road: the trucks, the cars, the suitcases, the corpses) something unexpected, unreal, hybrid, so that what had been a horse (that is, what you knew, what you could recognize as having been a horse) was no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters-covered with mud — Georges wondering without exactly finding an answer, in other words realizing with that kind of calm rather deadened astonishment, exhausted and even almost completely atrophied by these last ten days during which he had gradually stopped being surprised, had abandoned once and for all the posture of the mind which consists of seeking a cause or logical explanation for what you see or for what happens to you: so not wondering how, merely realizing that although it hadn’t rained for a long time — at least so far as he knew — the horse or rather what had been a horse was almost completely covered — as if it had been dipped in café au lait and then taken out — with a liquid grey-brown mud already half absorbed apparently by the earth, as though the latter had stealthily begun to take back what had come from it,

    By “not wondering how, merely realizing that”, Simon refuses the softening effect of analysis, leaving this grisly vision hard, relentlessly material. And as the vision repeats throughout the book, we begin to see, glinting off its surface, Simon’s true subject — war. More, the cosmology of one who has survived it: we are all on our way to a vague heap of limbs, dead meat, skin and sticky hair, something like, but inexplicably other than what we are, and nailing down whether an object as incidental as a horse’s corpse, or as universal, was discovered a little before stopping to drink or a little after makes not one wit of difference. In fact one’s wits are notable only for their uselessness, at least when directed toward understanding. One senses rather than sees. The reader’s own wits are further beggared by the change from first person to third midway through this passage. So quickly are we shunted out of Georges’s consciousness and into the author’s that we, like Wily Coyote chasing Road Runner several feet beyond the edge of the cliff, may read along for several lines without quite realizing what has happened. This is Simon’s mimesis; life entails nothing so much as moments just like this. Don’t look down.

    The three novels I have so far read by Simon, The Trolley, The Flanders Road, and The Grass, are either about war or indelibly touched by war. War touched Simon early. World War I had been grinding up the young men of Europe for over two months when he was born on October 10, 1913 in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar, and before he was a year old his father, a career cavalry officer, became one of them. His mother brought the family to the home of a relative in Perpignan, a city not far from the Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea. He was eleven when his mother died of cancer, leaving him in the care of his aunt. He credited the strict Catholic boarding school in Paris to which she sent him with definitively destroying his belief in God. Memories of those earliest years reemerged eight decades later in his final novel Le Tramway (The Trolley).

    And it was the same the following summer, except that Maman was no longer there and during the month of October I no longer had to run to catch that four o’clock trolley, having already returned to my school in Paris, which freed me from participating in the traditional autumn move which brought my family to town and from having to listen to the traditional lamentations of my aunt whom this annual return plunged into an ostentatious collapse renewed each year when after four months in the country she found herself back in what she called her “tomb,” i.e. the huge apartment which, though overlooking spacious courtyards and a spacious garden, was, it is true, darkened by the branches of a huge acacia tree;

    In 1940, after The Battle of the Meuse, Simon was taken prisoner by the Germans. He managed to escape and joined the the resistance movement.

    His first direct involvement with armed conflict came in 1936 when his sympathies with the Spanish Republicans drew him into the Spanish Civil War. But it was with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that he had his most dramatic experience of war’s absurdity. Like his father, he was drafted into a cavalry regiment, the 31st Dragoons. In a further mirroring of the past, the regiment was sent to the exact same area of the front where his father had been killed twenty six years earlier. One can only speculate that the resonance between his father’s experience and his own launched in young Claude a search for meaning which he finally had to abandon in favor of “not wondering how, merely realizing that”. This kind of repetition, of scene and circumstance across generations, was to become a hallmark of his writing. These recurrences cannot properly be called coincidences, at least not in the Dickensian sense of expediting the plot. But neither are they spiritualized “synchronicities”. Rather, they are treated more in the manner of a painterly motif, the way, say, expanding orders of triangles recur in a painting by Paul Klee. Often he allows a measure of ambiguity as to which iteration of a repeated event is under discussion.

    Simon got the starkest imaginable lesson, not only in life’s extreme fragility, but it’s sheer improbability when, at the River Meuse, the 31st Dragoons, picturesquely armed with sabers and rifles and mounted on horseback, were charged with trying to stop German tanks. That his unit would be decimated was a foregone conclusion. That he would survive was not. That he did netted him a formidable, decidedly 20th century vision –of war, of human suffering, of love, and the impossibility of knowing much of anything for certain. Twenty years later he would draw directly from his wartime experience to produce  La Routes des Flandres, which would become his most famous novel.

    A professor friend once told me, with a campy sneer, that “no one bothers with F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore.” I didn’t believe him then any more than I do now, but his surety (and his unwarranted happiness in delivering it) did raise the problem that, when trying to account for the changing positions of writers in the literary firmament, our logic remains hopelessly Ptolemaic. The eclipse of certain writers – Patrick White, for example – baffles me and I’d love to have someone patiently lay out for me the physical laws, the cycles and epicycles, behind it. On the other hand, that Alice Munro has remained sun-side for so many years seems easy to explain, almost Copernican; she’s a great writer who addresses head on the pain felt in a world whose understanding of gender has undergone major upheavals which the family unit, comprised of the gendered, has often failed to weather. She’s nothing if not perennially relevant.

    Claude Simon’s eclipse is perhaps equally understandable, if undeserved. For one thing, the whole nouveau roman project feels dated to us now. Like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row, it constituted a brilliant, necessary, perhaps even inevitable departure from the way things had been done before, but, while its influence has been widespread and long-lasting, the movement itself was unsustainable. Just as Pierrot Lunaire, glorious listening to the initiated, is unhearable to most, so very few find Robbe-Grillet worth the effort. Simon is a difficult writer, slippery to anyone white-knuckled to the so-called virtue of clarity. But this is no reason not to read him. Difficult, yes, but never unintelligible, and readers who are up on their Faulkner will find nothing in him to deter them. Like Schoenberg, he was an uncompromising artist with an encompassing mind. A careful reading of him not only yields a potent, austere beauty, but, as with the greatest writers, expands forever one’s understanding of just what the art can do.

    Claude Simon, 1913 – 2005

  • From Powell’s, Back Into the World


    Portland from the Burnside BridgePortland. Walking west across the Burnside Bridge at dusk can bring you to your senses. Your legs tighten against the wind of passing cars and the lewd buzz of a motorbike fleet. Your vision grows fat on the baroque skyline glowing before you. Unlike other cities whose profiles front the sky, Portland’s is cradled by wooded hills to the southwest, rendering it, against its own extroversion, intimate, offered. You can’t refuse. Momentarily glutted, you look to your right for relief from the Willamette, and see in the waning light the illuminated windows of the light rail rolling through the trusses of the North Steel Bridge, and your memory skirts the peripheries of Bladerunner, Metropolis, Miyazaki. On the descent, you look over the guard into a waterside park deep in the city’s shadow, where youth trade joints and important thoughts. As you leave the bridge, you meet a contingent of the homeless gathered about the walls of the Portland Rescue Mission. A drunk man in pajama bottoms wends between parked cars, barking. At the base of a sidewalk tree you catch a whiff, not of urine, of life for once not your own.

    The North Steele BridgeIf you read books and know Portland, you know where this is heading. Ten blocks up from the bridge a large unprepossessing sign presides over the intersection –“Powell’s”. Because you are, at base, a romantic, you were half expecting this famous million-volume bookstore to be housed in something a bit lovelier than this particular building, this industrial rectangle with less architectural romance than a laundromat. Yet as you approach, as you take in the glass storefront, you feel expanded, as at that first sight of the ocean which had countered and held your sense of loss.


    I went to the Oregon Coast to see wave-bashed basalt, miles of sand, lighthouses, and to feel my tiny life threaded back into the large and varied world. Now I was in Portland, at Powell’s, looking for books, those cultural artifacts which more than any others address that very threading.

    Of the hundreds of books that beguiled from the kilometers of shelves, I came away with just six, an act of will helped along by the knowledge that whatever I bought had to fit in my carry on. Looking at this little pile now, I’m bemused. If not entirely arcane, its certainly idiosyncratic:

    Powell's BooksOMEROS (Derek Walcott)     Once again I was holding this book and looking at Walcott’s cover art, that yellow skiff scudding green surf, carrying four figures under a stormy sky. The skiff rides from right to left. In film theory, when a camera pans from right to left, the effect is of moving back in time, towards memory. I’ve always felt Walcott’s skiff is carrying its people home rather than to unknown shores. This is the aim of the epic as a form, to carry a culture across its own history back to itself. I have a recording of Walcott reciting a passage near its end: “I sang of quiet Achilles, Afolabe’s son,/ who never ascended in an elevator,/ who had no passport, since the horizon needs none…” Time to finally own a copy. A first edition, no less.

    FREDDY NEPTUNE (Les Murray)     A few years back, Dan Chiasson, writing for the New Yorker, described Australian poet Les Murray as “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” In whose routine? Apparently Walcott and Heaney had company about whom I knew nothing. I found and read a couple of volumes and discovered a cranky, captivating voice, brilliantly subversive, even of its own heartbreak. Chiasson wrote that Murray’s 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, about a German-Australian sailor who, during the First World War, witnesses something so horrific it causes him to lose all sense of feeling in his body, has “little competition…for the claim to being the best verse novel of our time.” I have never seen it in a bookstore, so when I saw it at Powell’s my impulse was to honor it for being there by buying it.

    THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Graham Greene)     When I asked my friend Anna Pendleton what her favorite book was, without a moment’s hesitation she said The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. “I love that book!” were she a gusher, she would have gushed. Anna is young, fiercely bright, lovely in all ways, a middle school English teacher, and a self-proclaimed introvert who nevertheless projects terrific energy. She will, I suspect, be single for a much shorter time than she imagines, though she will probably always be mildly chagrined by whomever she finds sitting intimately across from her. When I saw her literary love at Powell’s I opened it and began to read:

    A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact own my will to choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?

    Oh Anna, I thought, you like this? Are there no men like you?

    THE LOVED AND THE UNLOVED (Francois Mauriac)     After Patrick White, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner, François Mauriac may be my favorite novelist on the Nobel roster. I say “may be” because on any given day he would be elbowing in somewhere between Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, and José Saramago. Like Patrick White, Mauriac is not talked about much these days. I suspect it is because, as a flinty and ardent Catholic, the existentialists sautéed his reputation and ate it with a glass of Pinot. Too bad for those who read only for confirmation of the rightness of twentieth century malaise. Mauriac’s Catholic malaise, démodé though it is, can attain gruesome heights which leave even malaisophiles gasping for air. I had not heard of this book, a late one in his oeuvre.

    THE TROLLEY (Claude Simon)     I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of novels I’ve begun and failed to finish. Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon is one. It was the spoils of one of my undergrad expeditions into the library stacks. Willing I was, but simply not prepared for the nouveau roman’s daunting repudiations. Of plot, for example, and a meaningful sense of time. I’m a different reader now, and with Simon’s centenary coming up in October, it seems time give him another go. This book was his last, written at the age of 88.

    TWO LEGENDS: OEDIPUS AND THESEUS (André Gide)     I love modern versions of classic literature. Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”, for example, is one of my favorite poems. A few years back I wrote what I believed to be a brilliant poem on the subject of Theseus. I imagined him in old age, living in a ratty urban apartment, and returning to Hades to liberate Persephone who he and his friend Pirithous had once tried, and catastrophically failed, to abduct. The pathos I evoked, the intellectual rigor and linguistic flights, the adroit iambic pentameter – move over Derek! When I re-read it last year I was appalled by its pompous rigidity. The language certainly took flight –from clarity at every opportunity. I had come across this late work by André Gide in Santa Fe awhile back, and failed to buy it. I wanted to learn; no author’s pen runs more fleetly over maters of greater moral import.


    Like a one-night stand who in the morning you realize you’d actually like to get to know, I brought my purchases from the night before to a coffee shop south of the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the river to have a look at them in sober daylight. The Frenchies had won, I saw, and a point each for the Brits, the Aussies, and the Caribbean expats. Two were poets, four novelists. One had lived openly gay. Four had won a Nobel Prize, one probably should have, one still might. I felt happy. I knew that Sam, whom I had loved and lost, and whom I was missing terribly, would never have let me leave Portland without a stack of books just like this one.

    Powell's purchases


  • Test Your Nobel Knowledge: A Mystery Passage in a Time of Advent

    He needs to be accompanied when addressing the short flight of stairs up to the bedroom or down to the main level, but he manages them without assistance. The ability to do so was one of the criteria for discharge. Sam is home. He is not able to do much yet, but, after more than a month in the hospital, and another full month in rehab, this not much he can now do at home. And there is so much that he wants to do. It is the season of Advent. Waiting.

    I had intended to tell you about reading Nadirs. In my last post I shared some of the feeling of amazement I experienced when my friend Viet presented me with an autographed copy of this book. This time I wanted to tell you about the book itself, about Herta Müller’s dark vision put forth in these almost gruesomely denuded – I lack, at the moment, a better term – stories. I even had the following opener all worked out: “Be careful, when you pick up a copy of Nadirs and start to read, that you don’t crack a tooth.” But life at our house has only just scrabbled to the far side of a rather deep nadir of its own, and still strains against a new rhythm relentlessly beaten out by bare physical need: gauze, urinal, cane, medicines, pill crusher, syringe, and learning to fall asleep to the sound of a feeding tube pump – and life rebels, wanting vantage. Müller’s thin, grim first volume, as good as it is, is not for now. Not yet.

    While Sam was away, I consoled myself by reorganizing the portion of our personal library that lives in our room. So that yesterday, while getting dressed, my eye fell on… I’m not going to tell you what my eye fell on, at least not yet, except to say that it is one of the great reading experiences I know. And I thought how no one else I know has had it. And it occurred to me that it was just what the times require, and that I haven’t posted a Nobel mystery passage in a very long time.

    Those of you who were following this blog last year will remember how this works: First, read the passage below, taken from the novel’s first chapter. Then turn yourself loose. Share your thoughts. What do you hear? How does it strike you? Any guesses what country the author is from? Does it trigger any memories? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read? Does it make you curious, or does it repel? Do you have a guess as to who the author is? Think you might know the title? Have you, by chance, read the book? Right answers are far less fun than wild speculation and surmises, why you might make a certain guess more interesting than the guess itself. Please ask for clues.

    And speaking of clues, here is one: A careful ear will hear that this writing belongs to the first half of the Nobel Prize’s one hundred and twelve year history rather than the second. Best to lose, for the moment, whatever imagined need you might have for post-modernist irony.

    In the bed by his mother’s side the child was stirring again. An unknown sorrow had risen from the depths of his being. He stiffened himself against her. He twisted his body, clenched his fists, and knitted his brows. His suffering increased steadily, quietly, certain of its strength. He knew not what it was, nor whence it came. It appeared immense,— infinite, and he began to cry lamentably. His mother caressed him with her gentle hands. Already his suffering was less acute. But he went on weeping, for he felt it near, still inside himself. A man who suffers can lesson his anguish by knowing whence it comes. By thought he can locate it in a certain portion of his body which can be cured, or, if necessary, torn away. He fixes the bounds of it, and separates it from himself. A child has no such illusive resource. His first encounter with suffering is more tragic and more true. Like his own being, it seems infinite. He feels that it is seated in his bosom, housed in his heart, and is mistress of his flesh. And it is so. It will not leave his body until it has eaten it away.

    His mother hugs him to her, murmuring: “It is done— it is done! Don’t cry, my little Jesus, my little goldfish….” But his intermittent outcry continues. It is as though this wretched, unformed, and unconscious mass had a presentiment of a whole life of sorrow awaiting him, and nothing can appease him….

    The bells of St. Martin rang out in the night. Their voices are solemn and slow. In the damp air they come like footsteps on moss. The child became silent in the middle of a sob. The marvelous music, like a flood of milk, surged sweetly through him. The night was lit up; the air was moist and tender. His sorrow disappeared, his heart began to laugh, and he slid into his dreams with a sigh of abandonment.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Yes, you.

  • As Patrick White turns 100, why is no one reading him?

    Patrick White, 1912 - 1990

    The time has come to speak of Patrick White, whose centenary on May 28th, is fast upon us.  I will try to keep this post fairly short because I am currently in such a snit of idolatry that I won’t have anything especially coherent to say. I will simply put forth that, for me, Patrick White ranks along side Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Saul Bellow as one of the greatest novelists to write in English in the twentieth century. Hyperbole? You decide:

    The woman winding wool held all this enclosed in her face, which had begun to look sunken. It was late, of course, late for the kind of lives they led. Sometimes the wool caught in the cracks of the woman’s coarse hands. She was without mystery now. She was moving round the winding chairs on flat feet, for she had taken off her shoes for comfort, and her breasts were rather large inside her plain blouse. Self-pity and a feeling of exhaustion made her tell herself her husband was avoiding her, whereas he was probably just waiting for a storm. This would break soon, freeing them from their bodies. But the woman did not think of this. She continued to be obsessed by the hot night, and insects that were filling the porcelain shade of the lamp, and the eyes of her husband, that were at best kind, at worst cold, but always closed to her. If she could have held his head in her hands and looked into the skull at his secret life, whatever it was, then, she felt, she might have been placated. But as the possibility was so remote, she gave such a twist to  the wool that she broke the strand.

    The Tree of Man

    Here is the Whiteian sublime. The physicality he evokes signifies without strain: note her too large breasts, elected from, we gather, a panoply of attributes waxing too large in her plain life. And how about that biblical ninth sentence, gathering into her obsessions the hot night, insects filling the porcelain lamp shade, the eyes of her husband, and finally  something vast and forsaken at her core. Of course, we realize upon reaching the end of this passage, which feels more like a perimeter than a terminus, how obvious, the strand of wool will break, lacking, as it does, the heart’s resilience. Whole chapters could be written plucking the riches from the limbs of this passage. And, in a fictional output comprised of some six thousand pages of such passages, this one is more or less garden variety, making the oeuvre of Patrick White one of the most valuable gardens in modern literature.

    Which begs the question, why is no one reading him? Why am I practically the only one I know who has even heard of him (apart from those few of my friends who politely let me blather encomiums)?  His oeuvre has received sufficient critical attention to persuade me that I am not alone in my admiration. But even those who speak highly of him tend to refer to him as “the most important figure in Australian letters,” or “the first to put Australia on the literary map.” Three cheers for post-White Aussie writers. But White himself is so much more than the down-underwriter of his country’s literary life. He is a world writer in every sense, and should be spoken of in the same terms we reserve for José Saramago, Thomas Mann, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer. Why isn’t he?

    In my search for answers I’ve been reading his books like mad, reading criticism, trolling the internet, and talking with friends. A distillation of what I’ve found comes down to these four points:

    1. Patrick White is a high modernist, making him unfashionable in a post-modern world. As far as I can tell, what this means is that he followed Joyce, Woolf, Pound, and their ilk, in the belief that the old assurances provided by religion, society, and political designations, could no longer bear the weight of modern life and thought. These writers saw a sharp division between literary art and more accessible, or popular, writing. Their books are frank about their difficulties. White has been criticized for the density of his “mannered” or “poetic” prose, his “clotted images”, and fragmented sentences. Naturally, this will limit his readership, but it cannot, on its own, account for his enduring obscurity. His writing is dense, but not daunting. Most of the best of Faulkner is much more difficult. We don’t call Samuel Beckett unfashionable just because no one writes like him now.

    2. Patrick White is too pessimistic, too dark, and what he asks us to consider about human nature – ourselves included –  is beyond the pale for most readers.  I concede this may be so. Many readers have commented on the “shock of recognition” which assails them on nearly every page. But this laying bare, this “truth telling”, to use a rather hackneyed term, this “vivisection”, to use a Whiteian term, is solidly within the purview of the artist. Do serious readers really find the meanness of Nabokov so much more edifying? Does one turn to Eugene O’Neill for a little cheer-up? If White is too relentlessly grim, how, then, make sense of the ever-rising star of Cormac McCarthy, who throws a dense, gorgeous, ball of modernist prose at the violence at the heart of the void? (White’s biographer, David Marr, has said, perhaps too felicitously, that McCarthy could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.) While we’re at it, why don’t we, for the sake of our constitutions, leave Shakespeare on his increasingly dusty shelf while we get a little spiritual r&r.

    Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris in the kitchen

    3. Patrick White was gay. This seems to be the pet gripe of educated gay men of a certain generation, who, to compensate for their admitted fragility in the world, draw strength from being “the only gay in the village.”

    4.  Patrick White was Australian, making him peripheral to the bossier entities of the literary world. This argument is, sadly, the most persuasive. It grieves me to think that literature may be subject to the same laws as cynical politics: if a country fails to find ascendance in the consciousness of a more established block, it could drop off the map altogether and the privileged parties would be none the wiser. Sam, my partner, has a different take. “There is just so much literature,” he says. His point being, if you are looking to expand your knowledge of even just the essential modern writers, would it occur to you to look to a country known mainly for kangaroos, English convicts, a rather flamboyant strain of machismo, the world’s largest Gay Pride parade, one famous piece of architecture, and an accent often invoked in comedy? Of course there is great writing coming out of that lonely desert of a continent, or at least the thin portion of it strung along its Eastern cost, but its not where most of us would go looking for it. All the same, I would think the fecund sub-genre of post-colonial literature would be happy to hold up Patrick White as one of its shining lights. Can it really come down the banality that Naipaul, Walcott, Gordimer, Coetzee, and Rushdie hale from politically sexier homelands? But then, how to account for Les Murray, widely considered one of the three or four greatest poets currently writing in English. He’s Australian.

    None of these explanations finally compel. Factoring in the idea that depth and brilliance in a body of work ought to outweigh whatever might be put in the opposing balance – an apparently fanciful notion in which I persist –  here is one further explanation:

    5. Ignorance of Patrick White and his work has, quite simply, become a habit. A bad one, I might add.

    As with racism, car crashes, and other absurdities, I find Patrick White’s obscurity hard to live with. My question – why is no one reading him? – is not rhetorical, but an honest plea for responses. Someone, please tell me.


  • A New Year’s Invitation to Remember the Forgotten Nobel Laureates

    New Year. The usual sense of beginnings attends this time, and most of us who brought in the New Year on January 1st put forth a wish – even the hard-core rationalists among us who won’t continence the metaphysics of wishes – and that wish, silent or spoken, was that 2012 be a year of greater justice, reconciliation, and peace in the world. For a few of us, myself among them, it was our birthday.

    To mark the new year, and to express my appreciation to you for stopping by my little corner of the web, and perhaps as a birthday present to myself, a stroking of my greedy curiosity, I’m extending an invitation to you, a chance to participate more directly in the on-going conversation about those wacky Nobel laureates. First, the invitation, and then something about what lies behind it:


    You know the ones I mean.  I’m talking about those names on the Nobel roster that make your brow furrow, many from the first two or three decades of the prize – Gerhardt Hauptmann, Theodor Mommsen, Grazia Deledda, for example – names that almost no one has heard of but that somehow, by chance or design, you have. Conversely, you can write about a little known, “forgotten” work by a more famous laureate.  Has anyone looked into William Faulkner’s screenplays? You can write about a book you have read or a book that you hope to read. No high-falutin’ literary criticism necessary. Simply, tell us about your experience with the book: What did you think or feel about it? At what point in your life did you come across it? Did you finish it? Perhaps there is a body of work, like the epics of Henryk Sienkiewicz, that has always intrigued you, but that you haven’t yet found the time to read. Tell us why this obscure book or eclipsed author attracts you.

    Send your reflections as a comment. You can leave it in the comments section found at the bottom left of any post on this blog. Share as much or as little personal information as you like. Unless you request otherwise, rather than publish what you send as a comment, I will make a post of it.

    There is no time limit on this. You can share your reflections at any time throughout the year. I’ll be offering periodic reminders about this invitation. So, all you lovers of Maeterlinck, Eucken, Seifert, and Johnson, now is your chance. Don’t be shy!


    The idea for this came to me on my birthday. One of Sam’s gifts to me was Fiasco, a novel, newly available in English, by the Hungarian Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz.  I’d been childishly giddy when I saw it, briefly, on the shelf at our local Barns & Noble. But, as so often happens with me, old sober-sides superego interposed and reminded me of the shelving crisis we have at home (really, its catastrophic) and of the backlog of books I have waiting to be read. Among the benefits of having someone in your life who knows you well and cares about you is that such a person is not bound by the dictates of your superego and can make things happen for you that you wouldn’t do for yourself.  So. I now own Fiasco.

    In spite of his having won the Nobel Prize relatively recently, in 2002, I know almost no one who has even heard of Kertesz. He is, apparently, another in the ever-expanding gathering of authors celebrated abroad whose course down American literary back roads kicks up barely a puff of dust.

    I was reminded on New Year’s Eve of the shadowy charisma of the forgotten laureate.  While friends and acquaintances were making plans for fireworks and inebriation, I decided to address the problem of the shelf of books in the bedroom, which is there at all because of the shelving crisis in our basement. Books, cascades of them, had long orflowed the adjacent foot area, and New Year’s being that time of new beginnings and all, it seemed the perfect moment to do a little rearranging (really, I can be a lot of fun, given suitable conditions).  What I had thought would be a simple matter of taking the books off the shelf, moving it to a more auspicious wall, and returning them to the shelf, turned out to be more complicated than that:  If I was going to take this much trouble, then I should do it right and assess which books I really wanted on this shelf, which could be sent down to the beleaguered basement shelves, and which could be boxed for storage or relocation.

    Among the nearly two hundred books I pulled off the shelf and stacked in crappy little piles around the room were many by Nobel laureates, Müller, Lessing, Pasternack, Gordimer, Grass, and Pamuk being among the more familiar names. Also on the shelf were several titles by one of my favorite authors, François Mauriac, a very great French novelist whose renown seems not to have cleared the shadow cast by the existentialists who followed him. But two books struck me as particularly… what?… esoteric? One is by an author I know, and one by an author I intend to read sometime this year.  The first is The Collected Stories of Ivan Bunin. This nearly forgotten Russian emigre, the first Russian to win a Nobel for literature, is the author of one of my all-time favorite stories, “The Gentleman from San Francisco”. The second, Lucky Per, is the most famous novel by Henrik Pontoppidan, the Dane who won in 1917, and one of the most floridly obscure laureates on the list. Lauded by Thomas Mann, this work was only translated into English in 2010. I remember that when it arrived in the mail the thought occurred to me that I could be – really, its not impossible – that I was the only person in Denver to own this book.

    For those of us in thrall to such fetishes, the pleasure we derive from them is complex.  There is the romance of discovery, the feeling of kinship with Hiram Bingham when he pulled back the Andean foliage and goggled at Macchu Picchu for the first time. “You mean, that’s been here all along?” Like all ploys for elite status, this one has about it the usual hedge against death, the feeling that knowing who Miguel Angel Asturias is, and even having read several of his books, somehow gives one special dispensation. Our immortality project is compounded when we project onto our discoveries and our heads whisper to themselves something like this: “If I’ve just come across Henrik Pontoppidan, so long languishing in the Hades of literary reputation, and through this discovery have in some way called him back to the upper world, then its not impossible that I, too, will be remembered, resurrected.

    As I placed these books back on the shelf it struck me that there must be others who derive the same pleasure, and that these people, like me, must also derive the corollary pleasure of running across other readers who share their fondness for the forgotten. Hence, my invitation. I can’t wait to hear from you!

    In the words of the late David Foster Wallace, “I wish you way more than luck” in the new year.