Monday, August 31, 2009

James Joyce

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann
1959, revised 1982, 887 pp.

While reading Peter Gay’s mammoth biography of Sigmund Freud last month, I frequently remarked to colleagues and comrades that the author seemed to know more about Freud’s life and works than anyone could possibly know about anything. It appears I must retract that statement, having grossly underestimated. Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce is inclusive and comprehensive in a way no book I have ever read could possibly equal, displaying a mastery of knowledge so complete that it borders on the infuriating. The back cover of the book features a blurb from Anthony Burgess, himself a formidable Joyce scholar, calling it “The greatest literary biography of the century.” I am forced to wonder what literary biographies from other centuries could meet, let alone surpass Professor Ellmann’s harrowingly perfect performance here. I suspect there are none, and until I hear of one, I am willing to truncate Mr. Burgess’ pronouncement, and simply call James Joyce the greatest literary biography. Full stop.

Part of what sets Professor Ellmann’s book well ahead of even Professor Gay’s work on Freud is that Ellmann wrote the original work in the late 1950’s, and therefore was able to personally interview many people who knew James Joyce, including his brother Stanislaus. Professor Ellmann seems to have tracked down everyone who ever spoke to or about Joyce: the first page includes a footnote to a personal conversation Ellmann had at dinner with T.S. Eliot, and a chapter later a footnote informed me that Joyce’s childhood next-door neighbor Eileen now teaches on an Indian reservation in Saskatoon. The dauntless Professor Ellmann seems to have trekked through the wilds of Saskatchewan to speak with her, and returned with the knowledge that blackberry was Joyce’s favorite flavor of jam. That is the kind of biography we are discussing. It is not just that Professor Ellmann has read and understood everything Joyce ever wrote, from the most incidental limerick (of which Joyce produced an astonishing number) to Finnegans Wake, the most complicated, difficult book ever written. It is not just that Professor Ellmann has read all his letters (and edited volumes of them for publication), spoken to all of Joyce’s friends, acquaintances, enemies, and family members, nor is it that Ellmann has taken the trouble to track down the factual origin of every minor character who appears in all 250,000 words of Ulysses: no, the really remarkable thing is that he includes every last iota of that information in this book, in a clear, clever, and organized fashion. It is an achievement which leaves the reader with a vague desire to dig up Professor Ellmann and throw stones at him.

Amid this fearsome wealth of factual information (Joyce liked Bellini better than Wagner, and Green Calville was his favorite kind of apple), Ellmann addresses at length the two points which are essential to anyone curious about tackling the daunting oeuvre of the world’s most complex writer: first, does Joyce tell us anything of importance, and second, if all he wrote about was Dublin and people he knew, is he anything more than a very clever male narcissist?

Ellmann’s answer to the first comes early on, and he spares no praise in making it. Joyce, he says, began writing with the briefest, simplest verse, proceeded through short stories into novels, invented a new way of portraying consciousness, and ended with an immense polyglot encyclopedia, surveying all of human life and experience on the way. In Ellmann’s forceful and infinitely detailed argument, Joyce accomplished nothing less than the most honest and accurate depiction of the human condition ever created, first from a naturalist, external perspective, then from a subjective internal one, then using an entirely new language expressing cognitive leaps and connections never before imagined to more accurately perceive the universal and democratizing experience of dreams. In Ellmann’s view, Joyce not only tells us important things about ourselves, but invented a new way of doing so such that he tells us things no one else ever had before, and that no one else ever can again without simply echoing his words.

Furthermore, Ellmann argues, using copious quotations from Joyce’s work, and entire chapters dedicated to the making of Ulysses and Joyce’s great short story “The Dead,” that the thematic premise of Joyce’s work is a sort of secular humanism, a “justification of the commonplace.” Joyce was “the first to endow an urban man of no importance with heroic consequence,” and by ennobling that which is common he also made common that which is noble. Joyce was something of a socialist, and a lower-middle class man of cities, and his work can (almost) be understood as relating to socialist realism the way that Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major relates to someone whistling. Given the social, political, and literary context of Joyce’s time, this was something downright revolutionary: asserting the presence of the sublime and universal in every profane and pointless action of an unimportant individual.

This is not a book in which punches are pulled.

The answer to the second question is the animating force behind most of Ellmann’s structure of the book. The very first sentences of the introduction read as follows: “We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter. This book enters Joyce’s life to reflect his complex, incessant joining of event and composition.” While it is certainly true that all of Joyce’s work is firmly anchored in Dublin and in Irish culture and in his own life experiences, and while it cannot be denied that Stephen Dedalus is Joyce surrogate seen with the keen, dissecting eye of a more mature artist, it must also be acknowledged that Joyce’s art ended with universality. Ulysses elevated all that which is common and average to the position of being sacred and beautiful, and proved that in each individual human being lies something noble and heroic. Finnegans Wake took the principle a step farther: in it, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is not just an everyman, but all possible everymen, and also all possible father figures, just as Anna Livia Plurabelle is all mother figures and all rivers and the origin of all life, and Shem and Shaun are all brothers and all allies and all rivals from all of human history. Every word of Finnegans Wake is a multilingual pun (for instance, the title: fin as in the French word for "end," plus the sound of "again," meaning "recurrence," plus "wake" both as in "to stop sleeping" and as in "funeral" and the lack of apostrophe indicates both the awakening of all possible Finnegans as well as the funeral of one in particular) and therefore draws cognitive connections which transcend political boundaries, the burgeoning nationalisms of Joyce's time, and any degree of cultural exceptionalism. Joyce invented a language which proved the universal equality of all people.

Those questions settled, the only matter of interest that remains is what the book is like to read. I trust I have made clear its density of information (Joyce was afraid of dogs and thunderstorms, and a fellow named Sinigaglia delivered his first child) but I assure the terrified reader that it is also frequently amusing and pleasant to read. Admitteldy, at times Professor Ellmann's mania for drawing connections grows a bit thin, as when he suggests a link between Joyce's 1902 desire to rent a cottage and Leopold Bloom's one-line mention of the same idea. For the first three hundred pages, Joyce is occasionally annoying, since he lived his entire life with the utmost financial responsibility and demanded exorbitant sacrifices from the people around him, in service to his yet-unproved genius. This is more than made up for by his hilarious antics of the latter half, when he achieves some measure of fame and notoriety. At times Ellmann's knowledge and rarefied vocabulary gets the better of him, as in this gem of a sentence from the very first page: “Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, owned a framed engraving of the coat of arms of the Galway Joyces, and he used to carry it along, grandly and quixotically, on his frequent enforced déménagements, atoning for squandering his family’s fortune by parading its putative escutcheon.”

I assure the reader that I intend to parade my putative escutcheon as soon as I've finished this review.

In sum, the book is a flat-out masterpiece. At the very least, the chapter on the making of Ulysses is required for anyone attempting to tackle that mountain of literature, but the book as a whole is a rewarding, absorbing, utterly unique achievement. It must be the best and most detailed biography ever written, and considering the vast difficulty of its subject, its creation is an unparalleled feat. It cannot be too strongly recommended.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño
1998, 648 pp.

Since his untimely death at the age of 50 in 2003, Roberto Bolaño’s literary star has been in constant ascent. Six of his books have been translated into English already; a new one is just out, and there are four more scheduled for 2010, with two following in 2011. A review of the latest book informs me that two more completed novels have been found among his papers in Barcelona, as well as a sixth part to his sprawling opus 2666. It is a very good time to be discovering Roberto Bolaño.

Bolaño, who seems to have had an excellent instinct for literary fun, tends to appear in one guise or another in most of his work. His books also tend to be interconnected, with characters appearing in several books, or perhaps reading poems by a character who appears elsewhere. As more of his books get translated, it is increasingly possible to speak of an entire world he created, a world where the political and personal implications of the state of Latin American literature is of primary concern. For all that, The Savage Detectives must be his most autobiographical novel. It is also fiercely inventive, both in form and in content, to such an extent that (in my opinion) it is evidence of something truly remarkable: that Roberto Bolaño might best be ranked as the last of the great, high Modernists, one of the only contemporary authors who can go toe-to-toe with Musil or Woolf and emerge the better for it. He is not simply stylistically playful, like the postmodernists: he is furiously, vehemently emotional and overflowing with rage and pity at the political and literary figures of his time (to the very limited extent that he recognizes any separation between those two groups). He is deeply sensitive, but at the same time deeply aware of the possible permutations and interpretations of that sensitivity. He does not write a manipulative, purely subjective emotional story, but paints emotion in big, bold colors then stands back to examine it from all possible sides and angles. He gets away with things which shouldn’t be possible, and the result is a splendid read.

The Savage Detectives is a novel in three very unequal parts. The first section (about 150 pages) is the youthful, euphoric diary of Juan García Madero, a 17-year old poet who joins a moment called “visceral realism.” The visceral realists are based on Bolaño’s own “infrarealist” movement of the 1970’s. The infrarealists were guerrilla poets who would stand up in the audience at poetry readings to shout their strange, avant-garde poems over the poor, beleaguered poet on stage. They made wild plans to kidnap Octavio Paz, they stole books from bookshops and libraries, and they were mixed up with Trotskyists. They were the terror of the Mexico City literary world for a while, before they dispersed and fell apart amid drugs and recriminations. During their time they rejected with the utmost vituperation both the state-sponsored, establishment-sanctioned poets like Paz, who received government support, and the so-called “peasant poets,” who they saw as trafficking in poorly-examined, knee-jerk, reactionary “otherness,” who “mask their ignorance with arrogance,” and who, for all of their complaints of persecution, lived comfortably on university salaries. The infrarealists were a maligned third force, and Bolaño kept with that literary position his entire life. He had nothing to do with the famous Latin American Boom and had no time for the fairy tales of magical realism, but neither was he associated with the bitterness of the anti-Boom writers. Instead, if one is to speak of Latin American literature separate from the dialectic of the Boom, one must speak of Bolaño. He fills the same position on the literary spectrum as did Victor Serge, George Orwell, and Albert Camus in politics: radical left with a conscience.

Anyhow, García Madero joins the visceral realists, who are led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Immediately Bolaño’s autobiographical jokes start to crop up: Ulises Lima is based on Bolaño’s friend Mario Santiago, who published one collection of poetry in his life, now long out of print. Arturo Belano is based on Bolaño himself, but so too is the young García Madero. Leave it to Bolaño to give us a book with not one fictional alter-ego, but two. García Madero’s diary describes the social scene around the founders of visceral realism: their friends, their lovers, their families. He has a lot of sex and writes a lot of poetry. It is an intoxicating 150 pages, and Bolaño knows it. He is well aware that after that euphoric induction into the world of the visceral realists, neither you nor García Madero will ever be able to leave. The diary ends on a cliffhanger: García Madero and Lima and Belano in a car with a sweet prostitute friend named Lupe, going a hundred miles an hour out of Mexico City. On the one hand, they are fleeing Lupe’s outraged, dangerous pimp. On the other hand, they are headed for the Sonora Desert, in search of the lost works of Cesarea Tinajero, the mysterious 1920’s poet who the visceral realists consider their founder.

The second section is 445 pages, twice as long as the other two sections combined. It is made up of several hundred brief fragments given in the first person narration of about four dozen narrators, over 25 chapters. It reads like unedited documentary footage, like interviews that take place over twenty years. Some of these dialogues refer to others, as though the speakers were in the same room or watched the previous interviews. Some tell stories, some recite poems, and almost all speak around or about their encounters with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano during their wanderings in the twenty years after their return from the desert. Some narrators recur, some appear only once, some talk for many pages, some for only one paragraph. Each is different and memorable, which is the truly remarkable achievement. In his sublime By Night in Chile, Bolaño proved that he could sound like a dying man, a conservative priest, and like José Saramago. Here he is like one of those voice actors showing off that he can run through fifty characters. He can sound not just like women, but young women, old women, happy women, sad women, and dying women. He can sound like gay people, mentally disabled people, old people, successful people, failed people, and married people both before and after a divorce. He can sound like anyone. One is Auxilio Lacouture, the narrator of Bolaño’s book Amulet. Many of the narrators are characters we met in the opening diary, and many appear in each other’s interviews. They mostly flesh out the lives of the two founders of visceral realism, but also flesh out each other’s lives, and the world they live in: brilliantly, accurately, each speaker is more concerned and more interested with themselves and their own lives and perceptions than with everyone else's. Through this anarchic oral history, we follow Lima and Belano all over the world: Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris, Provence, Tel Aviv, Vienna, San Diego, Malagua, Luanda, Kigali, Monrovia. They meet, they part, they meet again, they fall in and out of love, they begin to grow old. They are not universally beloved—one ex-girlfriend says of visceral realism, “The whole thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless…Visceral realism was his exhausting dance of love for me.”

Through all this, Belano and Lima emerge as fascinating characters. Belano seems to be every young poet’s dream: he’s tough and rugged and loves poetry so much he reads it in the shower. Every woman he meets wants to have sex with him, and towards the end of the book, he has a knife fight with a critic. But the interviews paint a worse picture of him than they do of Ulises Lima, who is presented as a sort of beautiful, mysterious aesthete, the one whose genius seduces everyone into joining visceral realism. There is a heartbreaking moment towards the end, when Lima meets the once-detested Octavio Paz in a park. They speak briefly, and Paz is very kind, but obviously has no idea who Lima is. But both Belano and Lima have their foibles: Belano eventually is impotent, Lima mugs people in a park in Vienna, both live in constant poverty and irresponsibility, and both (it turns out) finance their short-lived poetry magazines and their Mexico City lifestyles by selling a kind of marijuana called “Acapulco Gold.”

The brief third section returns to García Madero’s diary, detailing their search through the Sonora Desert. In these closing pages, the book’s theme becomes readily apparent: The Savage Detectives is a book about the failure of young, romantic dreams, and a group of people who never outlive the loss and disappointment. It is a book about how sometimes finding what you want is worse than not finding it, and how few things ever live up to our imagined ideals. It is a sad book, and all the sadder because it was written by Bolaño, prematurely dead, as a lament for his dreams and his friends from his youth. It is also beautiful and relentlessly talented in a way few books ever are, and it has more honest things to say about the confluence of life and literature than anything written in the last fifty years. And it is intimately concerned with the implications of a life devoted to art, and to the honest expression of life through art. We spend 648 pages reading about Lima and Belano, two poets whose poems we never read, as they try to find Cesarea Tinajero, whose poems they never read, in an effort to develop a true and genuine poetic movement. As we read the oral history section, we realize that the diarist of the first and last parts is never mentioned: nobody remembers him, or has heard of him. Cesarea Tinajero is all but forgotten, and by the end of the book, despite all their adventures, all their effort, Ulises Lima is totally unknown to Octavio Paz and his assistant, and Arturo Belano walks off into Liberia in search of an anonymous death. Bolaño seems to be making a point: devotion to art is necessary, regardless of the content of that art. He is also unequivocal on his point about the necessity of art being genuine: one of the most wrenching moments in By Night in Chile is when he persists in demonstrating that the cultured upper-class has no problem discussing refined over-stylized "art" while genuine people are being tortured in basements; he likewise suggests that clichéd art is but the first step on the road to tyranny; further, his Distant Star seems to suggest that fascism is but the revenge of failed artists. Bolaño gives us these insights in straight, nuanced, colloquial language, combining the ridiculous and the sublime, the dangerous and the erotic, the tragic and the mundane. In its disorderly but relentless march toward failure, death, oblivion, and forgetfulness, The Savage Detectives is the best mirror of life that is possible in literature.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
1995, 535 pp.

When researching which book to read from a well-regarded, well-established author whose work I am unfamiliar with, I tend to canvass all the available reviews and select not the most famous or most decorated book, but the book which sounds like the one I will enjoy the most. I try to give an author the benefit of the doubt, to begin on the best possible foot, then to proceed to the more difficult, more obscure, or more clichéd works. In retrospect, I have no idea what led me to decide to read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. It's true that the front cover carries a quote from the New York Times Book Review calling it "a work of art," but I am certain I didn't read that review. I read the one which says it "tries the reader's patience." And indeed it does. It tries and it fails.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must immediately report that I did not finish The Unconsoled, and I never will. I made it to page 314, where I found myself in a surprisingly detailed and explicit monologue about extremely elderly people having sex. The preceding 313 pages had given me no reason to continue, and when I skipped to the end to see if the whole thing was a dream or a death-hallucination, I found no explanation there either. I put the book aside and watched the airport carpet instead.

The Unconsoled deals with an apparently brilliant pianist named Ryder, who comes to an unnamed Central European city to give a concert. He is immediatley diverted and sent on a series of little errands. His schedule is apparently very busy, but he has no idea what is on it, and he seems to know (or thinks he knows) everyone he meets. He knows what the hotel porter is thinking and worrying about, in great detail, and when he meets the porter's daughter, he seems to have been married to her, or thinks he had been, or possibly remembers he was. He often has a whole conversation, then suddenly notices that someone else was standing there, or that the person he's talking to is carrying a large package, or that he's in a movie theater. He takes long, circuitous routes on his mysterious errands, then goes through a door and finds himself back where he started. Half the people he meets are old childhood friends. Some of his experiences are textbook nightmares: the person he tries to catch up with but can't, the place he has to get to but can't find, the party where he shows up in his bathrobe and has to give a speech, and so forth.

So I caught on pretty quickly that Ishiguro was playing games. I can handle the tired old auspices of the Unreliable Narrator, and I am well versed in the little games the surrealists play. I don't even need a plot, let alone one that makes sense. I read Thomas Bernhard and liked it. I got Ishiguro's general points (assuming, kindly, that he had any): every character seems to have problems relating to close family members, there is a sort of satire of the middle-class cult of art and artists, and the tension between personal duties and the duties of a public identity. That's all well and good, but the novel is terrible.

Part of the problem is the writing. The prose is flat, stilted, and formal, devoid of a single interesting phrase or memorable line. The first page contains six adverbs. Every line of dialogue is indentically stilted, and every character speaks in the same flat, horribly dull English, even Central Europeans and children. Look at this dreck:

"'As a matter of fact,' I said to her quietly, 'there was something I wished to talk to you about. But, er...'"

Say that out loud. I dare you. Obviously the "to her" can go, since she's the only person he's talking to. The "quietly" can probably go too, as any first-year writing teacher will remind you. "Wished" and "talk" belong to two different levels of formality: either you can "wish to speak to someone" or you can "want to talk to someone." "Wished to talk" sounds stupid. And "But, er"? Seriously? No one has ever said that, for the very good reason that someone might offer him toast.

And people blather this sort of stuff in monologues that can drag on for five, six, eight, or ten uninterrupted pages. It's utterly unreadable, and the slow pace, meaningless little quests, and total absence of logic make any given ten pages of The Unconsoled an identically boring, pointless, and frustrating read as any other given ten pages. Perhaps Ishiguro was trying to do a Kafka thing here, and make a few points about self-centered demands. But Kafka wrote about Everymen, who were always sympathetic and easy for the reader to identify with, caught up in the teeth of a cruelly indifferent, soulless bureaucracy. Ryder, the protagonist and narrator of The Unconsoled, is a bore and an ass, a totally self-centered, self-righteous, self-regarding imbecile whose personality consists entirely of his sense of entitlement and complete lack of curiosity about the world and everyone in it. He is a miserable presence to spend any number of pages with, let alone 538 of them. Nowhere is it suggested that Ryder is dreaming, hallucinating, dead, an alternate personality, or for that matter, a realistic character, an interesting figure, or in any way a worthwhile creation. The book ends with no explanation, no justification, no resolution. I do not mind a book with no point, but I object to a terrible book with no point.

I wonder why I read this instead of The Remains of the Day, which won Ishiguro the Booker, or Never Let Me Go, which the great M. John Harrison loved. Those may be perfectly good books, but I will probably never read them now, since Ishiguro will always taste for me like the grinding, stupid drudgery of this appalling mockery of a book. I paid a penny for it on Amazon and intend to leave an irate note complaining that I was cheated.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead, by Heinrich Böll
1974, 140 pp.

Heinrich Böll seems to have led a rather difficult life. A Catholic pacifist who managed to get out of joining the Hitler Youth in the 1930's, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and fought in France, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, being wounded four times, then was captured by Americans and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp. His home city of Cologne was heavily damaged by Allied bombing, and he wrote in a style called "Trümmerliteratur"--the literature of the rubble. His books are short, sharp, and dark written in a simple, straightforward style, constantly attacking authority. During the attacks of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the early 1970's, Böll (who by then had won the Nobel Prize) was appalled at the sensationalist, unethical, virulent posturing of the West German tabloid Bild-Zeitung, saying "[what Bild does] isn’t cryptofascist anymore, not fascistoid, but naked fascism, agitation, lies and dirt." The Bild immediately attacked him, labelling him a secret Communist and a terrorist sympathizer, suggesting he was in support if not in aid of the Red Army Faction. Böll wrote this short book based on those experiences.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is about an honest, hardworking maid who meets a man at a party and falls in love. He spends the night at her house, but turns out to be a wanted bank robber. He escapes, possibly with her help, and she is brought in by the police for questioning. She had nothing to do with the bank robberies, and seemed to be unaware that the man was a criminal, but the tabloid press paints her as a cold-blooded terrorist and ruins her life. After her cancer-ridden mother dies (due to the verbal badgering of a tabloid reporter who sneaks into her hotel room), Katharina Blum shoots the reporter and turns herself in. This story is presented in 58 short chapters, some less than a page, written in a detached, ironic tone. At times it is surprisingly funny: "she rings the front doorbell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at the moment engaged, for professional rather than private reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh..." Mostly it is sarcastic and bitter, dripping with barely-restrained fury. By the second page (or even by the end of the back-cover blurb) the reader knows everything that is going to happen. This removes any subjective emotional experience, which is necessarily based on surprise, and leaves only Böll's skill and vast contempt to animate the book.

This it does well. Böll's narrator is quite self-aware, and plays around a bit with the time scheme, constantly apologizing and making asides to the reader: "Before embarking on our final diversion and rerouting maneuvers we must be permitted to make the following 'technical' interjection. Too much is happening in this story. To an embarassing, almost ungovernable degree, it is pregnant with action: to its disadvantage." This narration depends entirely on the outrage provoked by the contrast between what we are dryly informed is the case and how the tabloid news articles present the story. I was curious why the narrator is allowed to speak frankly and ridicule the tabloids, instead of slathering on another layer of bitter sarcasm and pretending that the News! is an upstanding pillar of democracy. Nevertheless, the presentation is excellently crafted, and when Katharina Blum is allowed to speak at the end, the effect is suitably tragic and infuriating. I felt nothing through most of the book except for admiration at Böll's skill, but I finished it angry, which is exactly what he intended.

Katharina Blum is a good piece of work, and carries particular resonance in light of the utterly deplorable behavior of the American media during the years of the Bush junta, but I would not call it an essential read. I look forward to investigating Böll's pre-Nobel work, especially his Billiards at Half-Past Nine, but Katharina Blum is necessary only for habitual completists and people who haven't yet heard that the media is full of liars, sharks, and scoundrels.

Phantom Prey

Phantom Prey, by John Sandford
2009, 438 pp.

Though it may be difficult to believe, and though it may provoke outrage and offense among the general readership, it must be stated without equivocation that the present author has at times been accused of elitism. It is all lies and slander, I know, but I daresay it startled me entirely out of Sordello's 1237 lament in the Occitan sirventes-planh style over the death of his patron Blacatz (so effectively parodied, of course, in Canto VII of the Purgatorio) and left me with no recourse but a response. I offer it here.

I love detective novels. I admit it freely, without reservation or embarassment. Donald E. Westlake remains one of my favorite writers, especially in his Richard Stark pseudonym (he had something like thirteen pseudonymns and wrote about a hundred books) and I judge all dialogue by the formidable standard of Elmore Leonard. John Sandford (which is a pseudonym for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John see how deep the rabbit-hole goes) has always been a favorite. I've read approximately twelve of his "Prey" novels, which feature a Minneapolis detective named Lucas Davenport. Unhelpfully, all are titled "(Adjective) Prey," and the adjective never gives any indication what exactly the book is about, so I have a devil of a time remembering if Winter Prey was the one about the Native American terrorists or the guy who hides in the water tower, or if Secret Prey was about the female assassin or the one with the Russians. Maybe the one with the female assassin had Russians in it? I have no idea.

At any rate, I love these books. Davenport starts out as an obligatory maverick detective in the first few, with a lot of money from a computer software company he founded and a Porsche and good fashion sense and a hot reporter girlfriend and depression and a good ability to kill bad guys. Over time he ends up as the deputy police chief and then the governor's troubleshooter cop, and now works for the stupidly-named (but apparently real) Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He's caught like a dozen serial killers by now and probably shot like a hundred people and been shot about seven times and now is married to a hot surgeon who is inexplicably named "Weather." His friends and colleagues are all well-drawn and well developed by now (this is the 18th book in the series) and I've read so many that they fit like a comfortable pair of socks. Sandford rarely fails to deliver what you want: the plots are suspenseful, the villians evil and devious, the murders satisfyingly grisly, the sex happily explicit and frequent, and there's an action scene at the end. I made a note early on: "Pg. 15--two murders, lots of nipples." I bought Phantom Prey at the airport in Singapore before a flight to Tokyo and finished it in one sitting before we passed Taiwan.

Unfortunately, this is not a particularly good entry in the series. The plot concerns the disappearance of a rich girl who seems to have been a Goth and whose Goth acquaintances soon start dying. There is a rocky start as Sanford tries to build suspense by giving the reader a lot of sentences without verbs ("Something wrong here") instead of using the perfectly effective free-indirect style. Things pick up when Sanford gets into the nuts-and-bolts of police procedural, at which he is exceptionally skilled. The dialogue is solid, and there are some good lines: "the smell of the old cigarette butts closed in around them," or "the coffee had never seen Seattle, or even heard of it." Here's a good example of the kind of thing he does:

"Back out into the skyways, getting-out-of-the-office time, crowds jostling though to the parking ramps, a few of the younger women showing some pre-spring skin, the teen guys flashing tattoos over health-club muscles, their elders often with the competitive, fixed, dead-eyed, and querulous stare of people who were not getting far enough, fast enough, making enough, hustling all the time, working all the time, no time for an evening's paseo, no time even for half-fast food. Scuttling people."

The trouble is that about halfway through it becomes clear that he hasn't been playing fair. He nearly almost uses My Least Favorite Plot Twist Ever, in which it turns out that several people, including the killer, are in fact one person's alternate personalities. This is particularly infuriating because I like Sanford exactly due to his avoidance of these sorts of games. His suspense is always genuine, never authorial tricks, and his villains are never Hollywood stereotypes. His policework is always spot-on and believable, and he usually seems to respect the reader enough to be honest and put in some effort to plotting and research. Not so much here. Whether he is running out of steam this late in the series or was under a contractual obligation or domestic pressure I do not know, but Phantom Prey is ultimately a disappointment, even as an airplane read. Even the ending action sequence comes as the resolution of an entirely unnecessary subplot: a subplot which seemed to exist solely to provide some occasional nudity and the climactic action. The writing is skillful enough, and Sanford knows his characters and his subject well enough to be in complete control, but he demonstrates his skill far better elsewhere. I suspect I will remember which Prey this one is, but not for good reasons.

By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño
2000, 130 pp.

While reading reviews of Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives, I could not help but notice that everyone who writes anything about Bolaño mentions By Night in Chile at some point. It is frequently the reviewer's introduction to Bolaño (James Wood seems to have stolen his copy from a friend) and is referred to in hushed tones, like a powerful talisman or a frightening bouncer, often using phrases like "glittering perfection." It is a short book, and I was greatly enjoying The Savage Detectives, so I obtained it immediately to see what Bolaño can do with the notoriously difficult novella form.

The answer is, he can do anything he wants. Novellas are tricky creatures: too long to be a short story which has only one sustained theme and few scenes, but too short to develop subplots and major complications as in a novel. Bolaño solves the problem by structuring the novella as a rambling deathbed monologue, delivered in a single 130-page paragraph. The dying man was a conservative Jesuit priest named Father Urrita, who was something of a toady and a hanger-on to the conservatives who supported and constituted the Pinochet regime. He fawns on a famous literary critic, meets Pablo Neruda, goes on absurd missions for Opus Dei, and gives Pinochet and his generals lessons in Marxism. He seems a bit unhinged, alternately boastful and defensive, and all the while plagued by visions of a "wizened youth," who follows him through his life, judging him.

Bolaño presents this in long, coiled, lovely sentences, almost precisely in the style of the great José Saramago. This seems like an almost gratuitous demonstration of skill. In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño proves that he can mimic anyone's voice with precision: here he proves he can adopt the voice of one of the century's finest writers. Bolaño lived in Barcelona for some time and was immensely well-read, so I cannot assume he was unfamiliar with Saramago's work, but instead recognized the beauty and grace of the long, eventful sentence demonstrated in Saramago's work, and in the work of Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald. He apparently was not content simply to show off his control of the novella as a form, he also is demonstrating his mastery of style and the sublime improvements that choice of style lends to his solutions to the difficulties of the form. Have a look at this, a small fragment broken off from a giant, powerful sentence:

"and in its own way the painting was an altar for human sacrifice, and in its own way the painting was an acknowledgement of defeat, not the defeat of Paris or the defeat of European culture bravely determined to burn itself down, not the political defeat of certain ideals that the painter tepidly espoused, but his personal defeat, the defeat of an obscure, poor Guatemalan, who had come to the City of Light determined to make his name in its artistic circles, and the way in which the Guatemalan accepted his defeat, with a clear-sightedness reaching far beyond the realm of the particular and anecdotal..."

That sentence goes on for about three pages, telling the story of an artist dying alone in an attic. There are lots of lengthy stories in the book, all of them ending in failure and loss. When another story ends, we are treated to a startling simile: "And when I finished telling this story, Farewell was still staring at me, his half-closed eyes like empty bear traps ruined by time and rain and freezing cold."

Bolaño is also, as ever, scathingly political. Bolaño was an outspoken leftist, once jailed by the Pinochet regime, and lived a long time in exile. His work shows enormous, monolithic contempt for writers he considers to be government stooges or "neo-Stalinists," like Neruda, as well as for the so-called "peasant poets" or (or to Bolaño, merchants of "otherness" or "neo-PRI-ists") like Octavio Paz. His guerrilla "infrarealist" movement, parodied lovingly and sadly in The Savage Detectives was something of a literary Left Opposition, an anti-authoritarian left movement whose enemies were everyone in power, everyone with institutional backing, regardless of their position on the political spectrum. Here, in a slightly unfair but fiercely polemical bit of moral equivalence, he seems to suggest that an affection for Neruda is but the first step on the road to Pinochet.

Ultimately, By Night in Chile is a scathing condemnation of the sort of anxious intellectuals who, desperate for reassurance and self-preservation, ally themselves to power and proceed to utilize their intellects to rationalize and explain away their self-serving perfidy. There can be little doubt that the "wizened youth" is anyone other than Bolaño himself, sitting in judgment on a whole generation of moral cowardice and received opinions. By Night in Chile is a beautiful, savage, angry book, and it proves its author a writer of the very first rank, and a formidable man of conscience.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Freud: A Life for Our Time

Freud: A Life for Our Time, by Peter Gay
1988, 810 pp.

Biography is a difficult and disreputable art, much beloved by lay readers and despised by experts. Certainly everyone can agree on the need for biographies in general, but it is rare indeed to find anyone who agrees on the need for one specific biography in particular. Sigmund Freud was no different: he went to some length to frustrate his future biographers, often destroying years of correspondence and notes, and writing (after his own regrettable flirtation with biographical writing) that "Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and, even if one had it, one could not use it." Peter Gay, the German-born cultural historian, is so thoroughly steeped in all of Freud’s ideas that he has the wit to cite this sentence on the very first page of his introduction to this enormous and enormously comprehensive volume. Perhaps only Gay could have written this book: his curriculum vitae boasts six books on Freud, a four-volume history of bourgeois culture, some serious work on the Second International, a history of Weimar culture, work on Voltaire’s politics, and four books on the Enlightenment. He is a formidably meticulous scholar, which makes the book fascinating without being flashy. “I have tried to be accurate rather than startling,” he says, and with a subject matter as contentious as the life and work of Sigmund Freud, that he accomplishes this is an impressive feat.

I will save the reader of this review from a lengthy play-by-play of Freud’s life. In events it was rather dull: his family moved from Frieberg to Vienna when he was quite young, and he lived in Vienna his entire life, mostly in the same apartment at Berggasse 19. He took several trips to Italy, which he loved, and one to America, which he hated, studied briefly in Paris as a young man, and eventually was forced to emigrate to London after the Anschluss. He was married to the same woman for 53 years and had six children. And he wrote a lot of books.

Gay argues immediately that it is impossible to separate Freud from Freudian thought. Something of a committed Freudian himself, his chapter on Freud’s early life reads like a summary of The Interpretation of Dreams, as Gay points to the where the seeds of Freud’s thought were hidden in Freud’s youthful experiences. Gay is also keen to explain away any of Freud’s professional, personal, or theoretical mistakes through psychoanalytical reasoning. Poor reasoning or petty personal conflicts are fairly consistently chalked up to unresolved conflicts within Freud’s (or Jung’s, or Adler’s, or Ferenczi’s) ego. This is not always persuasive, and reveals Gay as a more incisive historian of ideas than personal biographer, and sometimes seems to indicate that the author is avoiding asking really tough questions of his subject. Gay tends to side with Freud on all of the major conflicts in his life, from the early break with Breuer over the importance of sexuality in psychological development (which Freud later discarded), through the break with Jung over the character of the libido, all the way up until the later fights with Ferenczi’s idea of “intense empathy” and “mutual analysis.” But Gay is always factually accurate: where Freud makes mistakes or produces terrible books, Gay says so, but does not take the further step of considering what impact those mistakes have on the body of Freud’s thought as a whole. I took careful notes of Gay’s analysis of each of Freud’s books, and when compiled they paint a much less rosy picture of Freudian thought than one is left with upon reading the book. Consider this list:

The famous “talking cure” developed in the therapy with “Anna O.” was far from the instant cure Freud presented it as in his 1895 Studies on Hysteria. Anna O. was in treatment at three other clinics until well into the 1880’s, the talking cure having played no part (as Jung himself discovered and pointed out later) in her recovery

The famous “Irma’s Injection” dream from Freud’s 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams was about a patient named Irma who was nearly killed by the malpractice of Freud’s friend Wilhelm Fleiss. Freud had referred “Irma” (whose real name was Emma Eckstein) to Fleiss, who left a piece of gauze in her nose after an operation. When it was finally removed, after she spent weeks almost bleeding to death, she was left permanently disfigured. Freud later covered for Fleiss, and convinced him to continue practicing medicine.

Freud consistently invented stories about childhood sexual trauma which he attributed to his patients, most notably “Dora” from his 1905 case study. Dora was being molested by a family friend, but Freud interpreted this as a repressed sexual attraction to her father. Dora denied this (on the fairly rational grounds that it’s absolutely stupid) but Freud “took her ‘most emphatic contradiction’ as proof that he was right in his conjecture.” Much later he recognized this “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” policy was hardly scientific and was criticized for it, but never recanted his analysis, and still proceeded to build an intellectual edifice on what was essentially fiction. He frequently found himself later in life forced to blame his patients for making up stories and deceiving him, when in fact it was he who forced them to admit the truth of scenarios he had invented. Gay follows him in this, explaining away Freud’s duplicity as a “lack of empathy” towards his patients and particularly “Freud’s general difficulty in visualizing erotic encounters from a woman’s perspective.”

In his early work on hysteria (circa 1895), Freud presented a paper in which he claimed that all 18 hysterical cases he had examined had their roots in childhood sexual trauma. Unfortunately, the rest of his speech refers to a half-dozen of them which are exceptions. By the time he revisited the topic in 1897, he admitted to a friend that he dropped his work on hysteria because not one case confirmed to his hypothesis.

Freud’s 1901 Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which is the origin of the famous “Freudian slip,” was based deeply in the now-discredited work of Wilhelm Fleiss, and argued for no less than psychological determinism. This book sustained the least criticism from Gay, but was among the most disliked by Freud himself, and added nothing in terms of theoretical structure, only an entertaining popularization.

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is probably the cornerstone of Freudian theory, and receives the highest praise from Gay, who paints an image of Freud the scientific pioneer battling both the societal repression of the Victorian bourgeois and his own conservative, straight-laced sense of decency. But, in Gay's own estimation, it fails to address the nature of the sex drive, the nature of sexual excitation, a defensible definition of pleasure, or provide any concrete evidence of its claims.

There are exactly six extended case studies in Freud, including Daniel Paul Schreber, who Freud knew from an autobiography but never met, and a child called Little Hans, who Freud met once briefly but analyzed with the father as “intermediary.” The Wolf Man was initially considered a big success, but soon relapsed and later said that what helped was Freud’s kindness, not his analysis. One case study was just a lesbian with nothing wrong, though Freud thought homosexuality to be a version of narcissism and stunted sexual development. Dora has already been discussed. The Rat Man, I must admit, was a success, but one accidental success does not make for a general theory.

By the time he gets to Freud’s later, more speculative work, even the resolute Professor Gay seems to throw up his hands. Yes, all of Freud’s speculation in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci was based on a single sentence which itself was a mistranslation. Yes, his theory of the origin of civilization in Totem and Taboo was based on an incorrect speculation by an anthropologist named Robertson Smith, and on Freud’s long-held Lamarckian views, which, as everyone now knows, were incorrect. “This was sheer extravagance,” Gay says, “piled upon the earlier extravagance of the claim that the primal murder [which founded civilization] had been a historical event.” But “Freud firmly stood by his improbable reconstruction.”

By the 1920’s when Freud was writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and The Ego and the Id, poor Professor Gay finds himself having to deal with his contradictions and inconsistencies. “Freud rarely spelled out the precise import of his self-correction,” Gay writes, perhaps in frustration. “He would not specify just what he had discarded, what modified, and what kept intact from his earlier formulations, but instead left the adjustment of apparently irreconcilable statements to his readers.” After all, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud says that even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, just that he is following an idea to what he felt was its logical conclusion. Naturally, he defended that idea as though it were a doctrinal proof, but without acknowledging that he did indeed take it seriously.

Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety “strings together ideas instead of demonstrating their necessary connection,” and shows a Freud who is “anxious to be done once and for all with the work of rebuilding.” The Question of Lay Analysis is written as a dialogue for a popular audience, defending the idea that psychoanalysis requires no medical training or licensing, and was written after one of his acolytes was sued for quackery. Freud’s analytic study of Woodrow Wilson, on which he collaborated with a dubious character named William Bullitt is so embarrassing, so full of “snide antagonism and mechanical psychologizing,” that Gay tries desperately to suggest that perhaps Freud only wrote the introduction and only claimed to write more of it in an effort to sound more important. He is left wondering why Freud would lend himself to such a “caricature of psychoanalysis.” At this point in the book I repeatedly wondered over coffee with friends how anyone took Freud seriously. Imagine my gratification to find that the great A.J.P. Taylor reviewed Freud's book and concluded by asking: "How did anyone ever manage to take Freud seriously?"

Freud’s final book, Moses and Monotheism is “more conjectural than Totem and Taboo, more untidy than Inhibitions, more offensive than The Future of an Illusion.” It consists of three linked essays, the last and longest of which has two initial prefaces which effectively cancel each other out, and a third preface in the middle, which repeats earlier information. Here Professor Gay is reduced to assuring the reader that this was out of design rather than senility. The book postulates Moses as a real historical person, an Egyptian non-Jew and something of an anti-Semite who was murdered by the ancient Hebrews in an re-enactment of the foundational father-murder from Totem and Taboo. This would make the historical Jesus the leader of the primal father-murderers, and Christianity a big lie, contrasted to the older father-religion of Judaism. That there is no evidence whatsoever of the actual life of either Moses or Jesus seems not to have given Freud pause.

Then there is the infamous Cocaine Incident. The notoriety of Freud’s 1884 paper “On Coca” is so great that it is nearly a chore to revisit this subject, but it is necessary for any sustained critique of Freud’s life and work. “On Coca” purports to be the successful treatment of morphine withdrawal using cocaine. The patient was Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, who was using morphine to combat excruciatingly painful neuromas due to the amputation of several fingers. The treatment was not only a failure, since Fleischl did not break his morphine addiction and had no reduction in pain, but Fleischl became addicted to cocaine, began injecting himself with enormous quantities, and died six years later addicted to both substances, apparently from what we now call a “speedball.” It gets worse for Freud: he was aware that the treatment was unsuccessful, since he wrote about it in a letter a month before publishing his article. So he knew when he wrote the article that he was lying, but published it anyway, and though he claimed to be wracked by guilt, he never took responsibility for his failed treatment which contributed to a man’s death. Even worse, Freud’s letters mention at least two other occasions in which he mis-diagnosed physical ailments as psychological ones, leading to the deaths of patients. Freud it seems was not only a non-scientific speculative theorist basing his theories in now-discredited pseudo-science, but further was an accomplice to and a committer of repeated fatal malpractice.

There is a pattern here: Freud would consistently boast of scientific breakthroughs he had not yet achieved, then would falsify either the process or the results to conform to his preconceived ideas, and would later revise his theories based on new evidence (or blame the old mistakes on other people’s errors) in order to avoid admitted that he had serially committed scientific fraud. Gay is never this explicit. He deals with the cocaine episode, though he never returns to Freud’s life-long cocaine habit, and follows Freud in attributing his errors to other people and to Freud’s well-meaning personality mistakes. The evidence he presents is all factually accurate, but he does not draw the reader's attention to its implications, either out of a misguided sense of impartiality or a less-defensible allegiance to Freud's reputation.

What survives unscathed? The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Freud’s late attacks on civilization and religion, all of which are interesting, but by their very nature speculative and impossible to prove scientifically, and indeed are based in Freud's earlier fraudulent work. But then, Professor Gay, the consummate historian of culture and ideas, follows Stefan Zweig’s argument that Freud is best understood as a philosopher and moral theorist, and argues that his real importance is his impact on culture and ideas. To come to grips with Freud necessitates coming to grips with this question. At times Gay refers to some of Freud’s work as quasi-historical novels, often draws parallels to Freud’s love of art, and argues that Freud possessed a frustrated longing to engage in artistic creation. This seems hardly fair play. Freud maintained his entire life that he was a serious, rigorous scientist who was revolutionizing the world in the same mold as Copernicus and Darwin. He saw himself as doing for the human mind what calculus had done for the natural world, and tersely noted in his diary every year that he was “again passed over for the Nobel Prize.” A thinker must be judged based on the goals he sets for himself, and if Freud (and his acolytes) maintained that he was a serious scientist, then it is as a serious scientist that he must be judged, and found wanting. Moreover, bad science, particularly bad science which, as we have seen, has been falsified by the scientist, cannot later be explained away as deliberate works of fiction. I, for instance, intend to pursue a career as an academic economist. If I were to falsify a paper (let alone my entire life’s work) and be caught out in it, I could hardly explain that it wasn’t actually economics at all, but that on the contrary, I was writing very clever poetry.

And while Freud’s impact on the artistic world cannot be questioned, it was that application of his theories which annoyed him the most. Gay never tires of referring to him as a quintessential bourgeois, and his stolid, conservative artistic tastes reflect that characterization: he had no interest in the Modernists or the avant-garde artists who were actually influenced by him. He wrote several polemics against “wild analysis,” and despised the watering-down of his specific clinical vocabulary to take in general, ill-defined cultural trends. Of course, he and his followers almost constantly engaged in “wild analysis,” using psychoanalytic language as a weapon in their petty personal disputes, and Freud argued in favor of “lay analysis,” which is quite difficult to separate from the “wild” variety. The inextricable cultural utility of Freud’s terms and the prevalence of their use in artistic discussion would have infuriated him, so we can hardly judge him a success because he succeeded in doing exactly what he tried not to do.

But it cannot be denied that Freud’s language has a powerful resonance. A recent study by the American Psychoanalytic Association found that Freud is widely taught in American universities, but only in arts, culture, and social science departments. If Freud is mentioned at all in psychology and psychiatry courses, it is as a dead tributary of psychological thought, important only for historical context. Instead, versions of his ideas live on in cultural studies, not because of their scientific accuracy or clinical application, but because in their widest interpretation they can accurately reflect patterns which emerge from a sustained study of human expression. These patterns existed well before Freud, and rather than diagnosing them as he claimed, he was so steeped in them that he gave them their most precise expression. There is quite a lot of validity to Harold Bloom’s joke about how a Freudian reading of Shakespeare is less useful than a Shakespearean reading of Freud, that Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex so much as Freud had a Hamlet complex. Recognizing the practical utility of the modern rendition of Freud’s vocabulary, we must conclude that we can keep Freudian ideas only if we strip out Freud himself and end up with terms so divorced from what he originally meant that they preserve only the sound and spelling of the word, but none of its original content. Since the tragic flaw of Freudian theory seems to have been Freud himself, it is only by removing him and his actual ideas that we can salvage some meaning, albeit transformed, from his work.

That I could even conduct the above discussion is due to Professor Gay’s scrupulous, unimpeachable scholarship and splendid writing. I consumed this daunting book at a startling rate and emerged with a grasp not only of Freud’s theories but with a wealth of factual minutiae which is slightly alarming. I know who gave Freud his famous couch, I know what his favorite opera was, and I know how many operations he endured due to his mouth cancer. I know his dog’s name, his address, and where he bought his hats. I am conversant in all of Freud’s various friendship-ending disputes, with Fleiss, with Jung, with Adler and Rank, and with Ferenczi. I took something like thirty pages of notes, which I have endeavored (and failed) to spare the reader in this review, and even read the lengthy, meticulous bibliographical essay which ended the volume. Though I dispute many of the author’s analyses and conclusions and feel he is too kind to his subject, I will state without equivocation that this book is one of the finest works of scholarship, intellectual history, and biography I have ever read, and it is with great pleasure that I look forward to experiencing Professor Gay’s numerous other works.