Archive for 2021

Ismail Kadare: how life is like a dream, and nightmares are just like life.

Monday, January 18th, 2021

“Kadaria” – a land where the weather is always awful.

I missed the news last October:  Ismail Kadare has been awarded the Neustadt Prize for Literature, often considered a precursor for the Nobel. The award came to my attention because of Princeton’s David Bellos’s article in the current issue of World Literature Today. Why should we read the Albanian writer? Here’s why, he says:

If you read Ismail Kadare, you also cover all the ages since the invention of script: from Cheops building the Great Pyramid to arguments over the succession of Enver Hoxha in 1980s Albania, and on to events and situations that take place in western Europe after the fall of communism.

The largest number of Kadare’s stories are set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Broken April takes place in the 1930s, Chronicle in Stone in the 1940s, The General of the Dead Army in the 1950s, Agamemnon’s Daughter in the 1970s. These tales allow you to read the history of Albania—and of the world—through the prism of fiction. That’s one good reason why you should read Kadare, and why I love to do so. He has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form.

Kadare has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form. …

One of the most striking and constant features of Kadare’s world is the looming presence of certain myths from ancient Greece: not the whole of Greek mythology, but those myths that dramatize family hatreds and the intoxicating, corrupting, and fearsome effect of proximity to power.

The second thing that is always present in Kadare are Balkan folk tales. I call then “Balkan” rather than simply Albanian because these folk tales exist in many other languages of the region as well. Indeed, Kadare dramatizes precisely this question of the ethnic origins of Balkan cultures in The File on H, one of the most entrancing of his tales, based on the historical exploits of American folklorists in the Albanian borderlands in the 1930s.

The third dominant feature I want to mention is that Kadare explores in almost every one of his stories the relationship between the personal and the political. Not politics in the sense of topical or party-political issues, but politics in the broadest sense, that is to say, how groups and individuals manipulate others and exercise power over them.

Another characteristic of the world of Ismail Kadare—let’s call it Kadaria—is the weather, which, as others have said, functions almost like a character in its own right. The weather in Kadaria is always ghastly, and it makes the climate of Scotland seem by comparison as balmy as the Italian Riviera. As a reader, you quickly catch on to the almost comical dimension of Kadare’s climatic notations (fog, drizzle, rain, snow, cold, cloudy), since Albania’s climate is in fact more like the Italian Riviera than the banks of Loch Lomond. They are not plausible settings of any actual scene, but key signatures to the mood, which tells you that this is not going to be a happy story. But they do much more than that: they tell you that there are not going to be any blonde maidens sitting astride gleaming tractors bringing in the sun-ripened harvest of grain, and that the work will have no truck with the norms imposed on Albanian literature by Soviet doctrines of socialist realism. It is really a very sly way of carving out a uniquely critical position within a society where criticism was, shall we say, seriously underappreciated.

Many of Kadare’s human characters are often not sure whether they are awake or asleep. Typical introductions to the inner lives of protagonists begin: “it seemed to him that . . . ,” “he wasn’t quite sure whether . . . ,” and so on. The borderline between being able to see clearly and not being able to see clearly is never clear-cut. So that when you have finished reading a novel, whether it is the retelling of a legend like The Ghost Rider or a quasihistorical reconstruction like The General of the Dead Army, you are not quite sure whether you’ve had a dream or not. Kadare constantly nudges us toward doubting the difference between waking and dreaming, and makes us reflect on the ways in which life is like a dream, and in what way nightmares are just like life.

Read the whole thing here.

Was John Milton less dour than we imagine? He may have been a fun kind of guy.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021
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Poet and translator A.M. Juster reviews Nicholas McDowell’s Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

As a young teenager, John Milton set out in a fiercely determined way to become not just a successful poet, but a poet the literary world would regard as a peer of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. He organized his life around this goal with a demanding plan that required close reading of a prodigious number of texts — an approach that would puzzle today’s burgeoning guild of poets, who too often spend a few years in MFA programs learning about erasure poetry, liminality, and their depressing professional prospects. Even before matriculating at the University of Cambridge at the age of 16, Milton wrestled with whether greatness required him to write in Latin or in English, and for many years his uncertainty about this question caused him to hedge his bets by writing in both languages. …

Nicholas McDowell’s erudite Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton helps us understand why and how Milton pursued poetic glory. He lays out in clear prose what we know of Milton’s family life and education, and he describes in detail the intense curricula at St Paul’s School and the University of Cambridge, which focused on fluency in languages, both modern and ancient, along with critical approaches to literature, history, theology, and other disciplines. He also shows us that Milton’s teachers and professors were adamant that the lives of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch demonstrated that wide and deep reading in the humanist canon is a necessary precondition for success as a true poet.

McDowell’s judicious weighing of the historical evidence relating to the young Milton’s religious and literary development serves as a welcome reminder of a common flaw in Milton scholarship, the tendency to paint a reductionist portrait of the mature Milton and then to fit the younger Milton into that same narrow interpretive frame.

Juster makes some unusual connections between Milton and theater – and concludes that, after all, the author of Paradise Lost might have been a fun kind of guy:

My only criticism of this admirable biography is that I would have liked to have seen the author push a little harder against certain scholarly misconceptions. … Not long ago we learned that Milton’s father — with whom he was close — had been part-owner of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Last year, Jason Scott-Warren identified extensive annotations (including proposed improvements) in a Shakespeare First Folio as those of Milton. It is time for scholars to look harder at the plays performed at his father’s theater (some of which were edgy for the time) and to determine if any of the language or ideas from plays performed there echoed through Milton’s work.

I would also have liked to have seen more pressure-testing of the standard portrayal of the young Milton as almost as dour as the later Milton. “Miltonic humor” might seem as unpromising as a Bill Clinton lecture on the virtues of chastity, but Milton seems to have been popular in his Cambridge years, and he even acted as the master of ceremonies for a student satirical event known as a “salting.” His epistolary elegies to his best friend, Charles Diodati, demonstrate his capacity for amiable teasing, but there is also a subversive wit in his other Latin poetry. Did this sense of humor evaporate, or are there satirical traces we have not noticed in the later works because we braced ourselves for grimness?

McDowell ends this book shortly before Milton’s doomed marriage to his first wife, but in the last paragraph adds that “the second half of Milton’s life is the story of how this gleaming vision of the poet’s powers became darkened, but not overshadowed, by the experience of revolution.” I take that assertion as a promise of a second volume — which is great news for lovers of this great poet.

Read the whole thing here.

How did restaurant critics become “insult comics”?

Thursday, January 7th, 2021
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Is it really that bad? “Promiscuous hyperbole has consequences.”

I’d been alerted to check out Theodore Gioia’s review of restaurant reviews over at The New Republic.  It’s good. Check it out … even if, like me, you are a vegetarian and can’t eat half of what’s on any menu, anyway, whether or not it’s “oleaginous” or “dessicated.” Gioia’s writing is spunky and sassy, and his  spirit thoughtful and generous as he describes the current fashion of “smackdown reviews.” (And yes, he is Dana Gioia‘s son – don’t get them confused.)

Why no trophies for glowing reviews? Gioia concludes that “entertainment comes from cruelty.” No argument there. He continues: “These gladiatorial takedowns are not really excellent writing about food—but rather about pain. Cuisine is merely the vessel of vitriol, the muse of literary malice.” He compares restaurant reviewing to “insult comedy.” Here’s why: “Negative reviews often read like a standup act, with dozens of disconnected puns and laugh lines that entertain for the moment but rarely culminate in a larger argument.”

He begins:

Last February, I had the honor of being publicly snubbed by Jay Rayner, the fiery restaurant critic for The Guardian, who dismissed my essay about the “crisis” of the American restaurant review as “staggeringly parochial.” Apparently, my essay did not say enough about the British restaurant review. Rayner sketched a broad distinction between the somber American critic driven by “civic duty” with a “respectful and solicitous” tone (not adjectives commonly associated with the Stars and Stripes) and the Brits, who are the “writerly equivalent of bare-knuckle fighters.” While tame Americans write descriptions such as “creamy slips of uni” or “a fragrant lake of oil,” the English understand the simple joy of comparing a rude waitstaff to an “unlubricated colonoscopy.” Rayner ended his column with an appeal to un-seriousness: “Learn to relax a little. After all, we’re not war reporters. We’re only writing about lunch.”

Gioia: smacking the “smackdown reviews”

Then the pandemic hit. As restaurants across the world were forced to close, the value of Rayner’s style of blitzkrieg criticism became a fraught question. While American reviewers reacted to the shutdown with broader assessments of the state of the restaurant industry and its future, the major British critics spent the lockdown taking “trips down Memory Lane” and “becoming emotionally attached to frying pans.” Then in June, Rayner declared an indefinite hiatus from negative reviews, announcing, “If I can’t be broadly positive I simply won’t be writing anything,” even though the shift “risks making me less readable.”

Actors who play for applause lose their subtlety and daring. In the same way, self-indulgent hit pieces make bad writers, eventually:

Promiscuous hyperbole has consequences beyond provocation and imprecision. At the literary level, these grotesque metaphors and overcaffeinated insults are the linguistic equivalent of junk food. While there’s nothing wrong with a little bathroom humor in moderation, a steady diet of car-bomb and condom similes will ruin any author’s expressive palette. Left unchecked, food critics often develop an unhealthy craving for offensive, high-conflict imagery and start to seek out extreme comparisons over more balanced options. For instance, you find Rayner describing a mussel that “looks like the retracted scrotum of a hairless cat,” a croquette “the size and color of a cat’s turd,” and a puree that makes him wince “like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles.” After getting hooked on such Red Bull rhetoric, reviewers gradually spoil their taste for subtler flavors of thought and feeling.

Why does it matter? Because the restaurant industry is crumbling as we speak, thanks to COVID.  “This pledge of blanket positivity comes at a moment of unprecedented hardship and uncertainty for the restaurant industry. Now is not the time for phony optimism or mandatory applause but righteous rage and indignation—yet redirected from problems in table décor toward problems in kitchen culture. Contemporary dining teems with contentious issues crying out for serious discussion: widespread unemployment among food workers, sexual misconduct allegations in top kitchens, hazardous labor laws, a lack of diversity in food media, record food insecurity in the U.K. and the U.S., to name a few. Any of these questions would benefit from a critic’s incisive intellect and informed reporting. Yet traditional reviewers remain trapped in the simplistic binary of barbaric putdowns or mindless praise.

Read the whole thing here.

Pop open the champagne! Happy Public Domain Day! 🍾

Friday, January 1st, 2021
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Ralph Barton’s illustration for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” It’s also in public domain now.

For those of us who keep an eye on such things – including bloggers, everywhere – we have some exciting news, and it rolls around every New Year’s Day. (So if you didn’t send cards this year, you’ll have another opportunity on January 1, 2022.) Happy Public Domain Day! What? You’re not excited? Well, am.

As of today, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby is up for grabs. So is Virginia WoolfMrs. Dalloway,  Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time, and Franz Kafka‘s The Trial (in German). Excerpt as much as you like. Be my guest.

Plenty more books published in 1925 have entered the public domain, as of today.  According to Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor at Duke University who directs its Center for the Study of the Public Domain. “And all of the works are free for anyone to use, reuse, build upon for anyone — without paying a fee.”

“Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years Now the wait is over,” Jenkin’s writes on the Duke website.

1925 was the year of seminal works by Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Agatha Christie, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley … and, among musicians some works by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, among hundreds of others. And 1925 marked the release of important works by silent film comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

According to NPR:

Free! Free! Free!

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of having work in the public domain. For example, can you imagine the holidays without It’s A Wonderful Life? That movie happened to be unprotected by copyright, so it was able to be shown — a lot — for free, contributing to its establishment as an American Christmas classic.

It also means books can be published more cheaply and made available for free online; that old “orphan” films can be preserved by archivists; that scholars can access and publish material more easily; that musicians can sample and experiment with the songs of an earlier generation and that classic characters can be given new life and new interpretations.

While the most successful creators often leave behind legal estates to manage the care (and finances) of their famous books, plays, operas and so forth, most aren’t so lucky. “For the vast majority of authors from 1925, no one is benefiting from copyright protections,” Jenkins tells NPR. Having their work enter the public domain is a way to keep it circulating in the culture for artists and historians to use for education and inspiration.

Overlooked Anita Loos

May we throw in our own bid for greater circulation? This year also marks Anita Loos‘s underrated classic and comic masterpiece of the Flapper Era, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional LadyHere’s what I wrote when we featured the book at Stanford’s Another Look book club for forgotten, overlooked, and otherwise neglected books way back in May 2013:

Edith Wharton called Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “the great American novel” and declared its author a genius. Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, George Santayana and Benito Mussolini read it – so did James Joyce, whose failing eyesight led him to select his reading carefully. The 1925 bestseller sold out the day it hit the stores and earned Loos more than a million dollars in royalties. …

Everyone, of course, has heard of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the short novel’s fame was eclipsed by the 1953 movie of the same name, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Once the bombshell blonde vamped “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the effervescent Jazz Age novel became a shard of forgotten history. Who has taken the send-up novel seriously since?

You can check out the catalog for 1925 copyrighted works here. Or check out the podcast for the Stanford panel discussion with Hilton Obenzinger, Mark McGurl, and Claire Jarvis here. (Claire placed the book in the tradition of the courtesan’s diary.)

Meanwhile, go ahead! Excerpt as much as you like! It’s on the house!

Postscript: The biggest fish of all: George Orwell is in public domain today. According to The Guardian: “George Orwell died at University College Hospital, London, on 21 January 1950 at the early age of 46. This means that unlike such long-lived contemporaries as Graham Greene (died 1991) or Anthony Powell (died 2000), the vast majority of his compendious output (21 volumes to date) is newly out of copyright as of 1 January. Naturally, publishers – who have an eye for this kind of opportunity – have long been at work to take advantage of the expiry date and the next few months are set to bring a glut of repackaged editions. …As is so often the way of copyright cut-offs, none of this amounts to a free-for-all. Any US publisher other than Houghton Mifflin that itches to embark on an Orwell spree will have to wait until 2030, when Burmese Days, the first of Orwell’s books to be published in the US, breaks the 95-year barrier. And eager UK publishers will have to exercise a certain amount of care. The distinguished Orwell scholar Professor Peter Davison fathered new editions of the six novels back in the mid-1980s. No one can reproduce these as the copyright in them is currently held by Penguin Random House.” Read the rest here.