Monday, June 27, 2005

Ismail Kadare

If you haven't been following the International Man Booker Prize, you should be. Kadare is such a thrilling character - an exiled dissident ("Every time I wrote a book, I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship." - NYSun article), writing in a language so obscure that the English translation has to be translated from the French translation, about a country that most people forget about with a style that "owes far less to magic realism than to Kafka, and to Albanian epic and myth (Ibid)." - that I'm excited for him even though I haven't read any of his books (a fact which I will remedy at some point, believe you me!).

For all your international fiction coverage needs, it's all about the Literary Saloon - head over for everything you could want to know. I especially recommend the charming article written by Kadare's English translator, David Bellos - "The Englishing of Ismaïl Kadaré".

All this if my site isn't broken, that is. I've been having trouble accessing the main page for the past couple days, so if you can still read this, can you drop me an email? Thanks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Crime and Punishment

"What can be done? Smash what has to be smashed, once and for all, that's all; and take the suffering upon yourself! What? You don't understand? You will, later.... Freedom and power, but the main thing is power! Power over all cringing curs and over the whole ant heap!" (341)
The characters:
- Rodya: the speaker of the above quote. Ex-student and murderer of two women, including Sonya's friend, Lizaveta.
- Sonya: the addressee. Eldest daughter of an impoverished family. She's become a prostitute in order to make them money, but emphasis throughout the novel is placed on how meek and pure she remains, despite her vocation, because of the faith she has in God. The money she made, more often than not, went to fund her father's drunkenness. She doesn't know that Rodya is the murderer of the two women.

In this bit, Rodya is encouraging Sonya to run away with him, to leave, to change, to foresake everything before it destroys them both. He wants her to run away and stop being a prostitute, while he wants to run away to get away from his murder and the detective that is hot on his trail.

But it's his diction that's interesting. By helping her family through prostitution, isn't Sonya already "taking the suffering upon herself?" She's bearing/easing her family's suffering by suffering tenfold for them. Rodya's response to this:
"... but most of all you're a sinner because you've destroyed and betrayed yourself in vain. Now, there's a horror for you! Now there's a horror for you, to be living in this mire that you loathe so much, and knowing all along... that you're not helping anybody by it and not saving anybody from anything!"
Rodya sees Sonya as living selfishly. She knows that the money she makes is ultimately useless, yet she continues to do it so that she may feel self-sacrificial and religious. Running away would be the best thing for her, yet she doesn't do it because it would cause her unbelievable amounts of guilt. If she ran away, she would be taking the suffering upon herself, as opposed to transferring it to God.

It's happened throughout the novel (although I haven't finished it yet, so we'll see) that everytime someone tries to be charitable, the act misfires, backfires, and/or turns out to be not actually of charitable intent. Rodya gives money to Sonya's mother for her father's funeral and she prepares a lavish one, but the only people that come are ill-bred drunks. Mr. Luzhin marries Dunya (Rodya's sister) to save them from poverty, but it turns out he only does it to make himself feel like a powerful benefactor (parallel to Sonya?). Rodya murdered the money-collecting woman for supposedly noble reasons, but at the part of the novel I'm at right now he's on the brink of realizing that that's not so.

So the question: Is the only way to save yourself & not go mad (as many characters in the novel become by the end) to become self-acknowledgedly selfish and to stop trying/pretending to do things for a greater good, whether it be God, morals, or love? It's the cynic's old argument - that even those that are supposedly kind are, underneath it all, just doing it to make themselves feel kind.

But if that's so, what then? The only time when the characters feel happy, however transiently, is when they feel like they're benefitting/helping someone. So if it's useless to do that, then not only do people suffer, but they suffer twice-over because they don't even feel like they have a noble cause to suffer for. Perhaps "taking the suffering upon yourself" would be to have "freedom and power" - freedom from your benefactee, power over your own life. But even then, maybe you're just trading your current shackles for the shackles of suffering and misery.

In other words, it's a lose-lose situtation and we should all just crawl into a hole and die.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

John Darnielle

Oh, how I love. Via Largehearted Boy: an interview with the lead singer of The Mountain Goats discussing every track on The Sunset Tree, conducted completely in haiku.
Q. Preparing yourself
for an ominous ending
What is the magpie?

A. Only a traitor
undresses his metaphors
As if they were whores
Giddy to see him on June 24.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Franny and Zooey -> DFW

The part of the book that I found most affecting was in the middle of Zooey:
I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven's sake. What's the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? It all seemed like exactly the same thing to me, if you take off the wrapping--and it still does! Sometimes I think that knowledge--when it's knowledge for knowledge's sake, anyway--is the worst of all. The least excusable, certainly."
This passage just made me pause and wrinkle my forehead a bit. Because yes, we all know that money isn't everything, that fame and power shouldn't be one's ultimate goals. But knowledge? Knowledge is honorable, which is why people spend the first twenty or so years of their lives accruing it. But now here comes Franny/Salinger, all anguish and pain, because knowledge isn't a worthwhile or satisfying goal, because it might be just as meaningless and selfish as the aforementioned culprits.

I guess that idea was shattering, when I first read it. Well where was I now, if something that I'd always secretly felt a little superior for striving for turned out to be not such a superior goal after all?

But at second glance, Salinger's answer is decidedly unsatisfying:
"I don't think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while--just once in a while--there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time!"
How is wisdom for wisdom's sake superior to knowledge for knowledge's sake? This is crap. If knowledge is a phony (to use a Salinger-ism) goal because all it is is a tangible way to make someone feel proud for owning "treasure," then wisdom is the same thing. Wisdom without direction or some higher goal is also useless.

Maybe he's saying that wisdom will point out the higher goal to you. Which I guess makes sense. But then, that still avoids a more important question: how do you obtain wisdom? If it doesn't just arise automatically out of knowledge, how does it arise? Proust would perhaps say a well-lived adolescence, but there are problems with that as well.

I am exasperated by the answer that's glaring me in the face: just grope around for wisdom and pray that somehow you'll find it. It sounds so religion-y - "finding God" - and I guess I just have an instinctive distrust of crazy faith-based mumbo-jumbo (a product of the time period?). But according to Wallace's (remarkably cool, even for DFW) Kenyon commencement speech (order of words switched for emphasis):
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings... Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Meme (i.e. "Me! Me!")

Via Waggish.

Total number of books I've owned: 200 tops, since I usually borrow my books from the library.

Last book I bought: Barron's How to Prepare for the SAT II Math Level II C, 7th ed. by Howard Dodge and Richard Ku.

Last book I read: A book of essays by Montaigne, specifically Of the Education of Children.

Last book I finished: In Search of My Beloved by Thorbergur Thordarson.

Five books that mean a lot to me: In no particular order,
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
- Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Franny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
Wince. Homogeneity. Moral: I need to read more widely.

Five people I want to see do this:
Laura from Popscratch,
Mel from In Favor of Thinking*,
Wendi from The Happy Booker,
Tito from Black Market Kidneys, and
Patricia from Book Lust.

*I have no idea whether she's ever read this blog.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Oprah <3s Willie F.

Oprah names Faulkner as the first in her summer reading series, repackages three of his books (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August) in a pretty box set and all of a sudden it's ranked number two on the Amazon bestsellers list, under Harry Potter.

We're going to have a ball with this one.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Watching you watching you watching you watching me

A little while ago, on Fitzgerald's eightieth anniversary, The Valve had a little to-do over The Great Gatsby. Is it great literature, is it painfully adolescent, is it mellifluous, is it bad writing, &c. Although the entire discussion is great stuff, this comment in particular kept on coming back to me as I was re-reading the novel:
One of the things that affected me so much when I was first read the book was the way that Daisy herself completely didn’t matter - Gatsby didn’t actually have any valid idea of her as a personality, and it wasn’t important. It really hit me - this idea that we never really know other people, and always interact only with our own conceptions of them.

I don’t think I was sophisticated enough at sixteen to take this one step further, and see to what extent the book was really just Nick’s inscribing of the figure of Gatsby. But now that I am infinitely older and wiser, I think that the fact that Nick is doing to Gatsby something reasonably similar to what Gatsby does to Daisy (or, at least, what Nick obviously thinks Gatsby does to Daisy) is pretty neat, and part of what makes it a worthwhile read for me.
The fact that Gatsby idealizes Daisy - well, that's staple. But upon re-read, I think the chain does go deeper than that. Nick idealizes Gatsby; in many ways, Gatsby is Nick's Daisy. Compare Nick's descriptions of Gatsby - "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life... (2)" - to Gatsby's reverent "'Her voice is full of money.' (120)" To Gatsby, Daisy represents a romantic, perfect specimen; if she makes mistakes (like, oh, accidentally running over a person), it is because of external factors. To Nick, "Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby(2)" that is at fault.

But can we extend this further? To what extent does the reader idealize Nick Carraway?

The first time around, I left the novel liking Nick. He's a good guy - honest, objective, and smart enough to not allow himself to be sucked in by everyone else's crap. At least that's how he represents himself. But I think Fitzgerald has dropped some hints that he's really not all that he seems - after coming home from the war, for example, he chooses the uninspired path of going into the bond business, yet never mentions cracking open the "dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.(4)" or in any way getting involved in his work. He prides himself on reserving judgments, yet within an hour or so of meeting Tom Buchanan he is already describing him as "pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him anymore.(14)"

Or how about his father's advice to "'remember that all the people in this world haven't had all the advantages that you've had,'(1)" which is nice but also rather condescending, especially after we find out (as was pointed out on The Valve) that Nick's family only received its fortune two generations ago when his grandfather's brother sent a substitute into the Civil War.

The implications of this are rather face-scrunching. If Gatsby is Nick's Daisy, then Nick is a Gatsby. So when Nick watches Gatsby, he is watching Gatsby-as-a-Daisy, but he is also watching a de-familiarized version of himself. Perhaps the two are related - perhaps Nick idealizes Gatsby in order to idealize himself. And then what are the implications for us, the readers, who idealize someone who idealizes someone who idealizes someone? We are watching ourselves (Nick) watch ourselves (Gatsby) watch ourselves (Daisy). While T.J. Eckleburg watches us back.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Question That a Literary Meme Should Ask

"If you could pick any author to ghostwrite your autobiography, who would you pick?"