He did not consider himself a critic, either, and was surprised when he heard himself referred to as one. His ambition was to be a great novelist; he regarded his criticism as “an afterthought.” He disliked Columbia; he disliked most of his colleagues; he disliked teaching graduate students—in 1952, after a routine disagreement over the merits of a dissertation, he refused to teach in the graduate school again. He was depressive, he had writer’s block, and he drank too much. He did not even like his first name. He wished that he had been called John or Jack.
“[T]heater — good theater — is rarer. If you see a really amazing production — there aren’t many, but if you see one — it stays with you forever and ever. Films are just consumables. The experience of living theater is more powerful.”
If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, Charles Bernstein is the Speaker of the House.
In Harper's, he calls for a poetry bailout to restore the confidence of readers:
regret having to interrupt the celebrations tonight with an important
As you know, the glut of illiquid, insolvent, and troubled poems is
clogging the literary arteries of the West. These debt-ridden poems
threaten to infect other areas of the literary sector and ultimately to
topple our culture industry.
Cultural leaders have come together to announce a massive poetry
buyout: leveraged and unsecured poems, poetry derivatives, delinquent
poems, and subprime poems will be removed from circulation in the
biggest poetry bailout since the Victorian era. We believe the plan is
a comprehensive approach to relieving the stresses on our literary
institutions and markets.
Festival America kicked off its fourth installment in Vincennes yesterday, with events continuing today and tomorrow. This year's theme, L'Amérique-Monde, brings together authors who articulate a complicated sense of American-ness that reflects at the same time a feeling of belonging elsewhere in the world.
Slated to appear are authors including newly minted MacArthur "Genius" fellow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Richard Russo, Dalia Sofer, Nathan Englander, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Colson Whitehead, Tobias Wolff, Gary Shteyngart, and Dinaw Mengestu.
Full schedule here.
Donald Morrison made quite a splash last year when he published an article entitled "The Death of French Culture" in Time Magazine. "[N]obody takes culture more seriously than the French," he wrote.
generously; they cosset it with quotas and tax breaks. French media
give it vast amounts of airtime and column inches. Even fashion
magazines carry serious book reviews, and the Nov. 5 announcement of
the Prix Goncourt — one of more than 900 French literary prizes — was
front-page news across the country. (It went to Gilles Leroy's novel Alabama Song.)
Every French town of any size has its annual opera or theater festival,
nearly every church its weekend organ or chamber-music recital.
So what's the problem?
cultural forest make barely a sound in the wider world. Once admired
for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians,
France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace.
Oh. So French culture is actually alive and well and living in France. It's just that the rest of the world has stopped taking notice. Isn't that more their problem than, speaking for the French, ours?
Only a handful of the season's new novels will find a publisher outside
France. Fewer than a dozen make it to the U.S. in a typical year, while
about 30% of all fiction sold in France is translated from English.
That's about the same percentage as in Germany, but there the total
number of English translations has nearly halved in the past decade,
while it's still growing in France. Earlier generations of French
writers — from Molière, Hugo, Balzac and Flaubert to Proust, Sartre,
Camus and Malraux — did not lack for an audience abroad.
Oh again. Leaving aside the speciousness of arguing a point against a romanticized vision of the past (I'm guessing Molière and Balzac didn't bring much revenue into France considering the idea of copyright, much less foreign rights, didn't exist until the late 19th century), this again seems more a symptom of the US market– as well as a reflection of some changes in the international literary scene, namely that our post-colonial epoch has become more and more interested in voices from beyond Western Europe.
Clearly I don't much care for this article. But Morrison is publishing a book in France tomorrow on this very topic with Antoine Compagnon, who I do take seriously, most, if not all, of the time, so I'm paying attention to this debate to see if Compagnon has anything interesting to add to it. His point seems to be that France is suffering under the weight of her own grandeur. But having just spent nearly 4 months in Japan, let me say– it was a massive relief to get back to France's grandeur.
Morrison will be putting in an appearance tonight at the American Library. 7 pm, 10 rue du Général Camou, 75007. See you there?
I meant to mention this sooner, but it slipped my mind– a couple of weeks ago, Six Apart's newest endeavor, a list-based guide to the internet's best blogs, appropriately called Blogs.com, ran a list I contributed on the best blogs about Paris. Here it is. Enjoy! (And yes I know it's strange the subcategory is "Home & Garden," but it would seem they lack a "Travel" category, much less a "Pretentious Expats" category. They don't have a category for books, either, so I guess we should be content they made room for us in H&G!)
In France he's made the news by doing an epistolary book with Michel Houellebecq for Flammarion, called Ennemis publics (Public Enemies). It'll be out October 8th. Will it be all about what it's like to be loathed and dismissed by just about everyone who knows your name?
Meanwhile in America, BHL has a new book out, a translation of his 2007 Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, which appears in English as Left in Dark Times. Ha ha, get it? As in The Left? As in, the French Left?
Scott McLemee bites his tongue rather than pass judgment on BHL and promises a longer essay sometime this month. [NDLR: It has just run in The Nation and it is the most serious evaluation of BHL's philosophical and political positions I've ever seen.--9/24/08]
Christopher Hitchens also prefers not to pass judgment in his New York Times review.
The Economist tries to be meta but ends up giving the French intellectuals a nice poke in the arm.
And for those of us who couldn't make it to the New York Public Library's new, oddly titled reading series "Expect Wasabi," which recently pitted BHL againt Slavoj Zizek (Zizek!), WNYC provides the audio here.
Ok, that's enough BHL. (I don't make the news, I just report it) Onward and upward to more important French philosophers: Ed Champion has a great, if initially convoluted, piece on Guy Debord (of Situationist fame) here.
Wyatt Mason at Harper's has Malcolm Lowry versus Jacques Barzun.
Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of the massive tome The Rest is Noise, has just won a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowhip. Who'd have thought that in our fallen era music criticism could prove so lucrative? Congratulations, Alex! I'll be sure to read it as soon as I can afford the shipping costs.
About a month ago, I was quipping about how remarkable it was that Aaron Sorkin had prophesized this campaign– in the seventh and final season of "West Wing," a young (fill in the minority) man with half a term in the (House/Senate) under his belt rose to beat (the expected Democratic nominee) to become his party's candidate for the presidency, running against the old white Republican guy (Alan Alda), and winning.
But Aaron Sorkin never imagined Sarah Palin. Of course not– Sorkin is a good writer, and Palin is something out of a bad Disney movie. (Let's leave aside the fact that it wasn't actually Sorkin who wrote that season of "West Wing," ok?) So for the last month, in all this mess, we "West Wing" fans have been waiting for one thing: for our leader to speak up. Where was Sorkin, the pen behind Jed Bartlet, the best president this country's never had, and how could he help Obama?
Maureen Dowd tracked him down and got him to write this otherworldly exchange between Obama and Bartlet. An excerpt:
BARTLET GET ANGRIER! Call them liars, because that’s what they are. Sarah Palin didn’t say “thanks but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere. She just said “Thanks.” You were raised by a single mother on food stamps — where does a guy with eight houses who was legacied into Annapolis get off calling you an elitist? And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence. While you’re at it, I want the word “patriot” back. McCain can say that the transcendent issue of our time is the spread of Islamic fanaticism or he can choose a running mate who doesn’t know the Bush doctrine from the Monroe Doctrine, but he can’t do both at the same time and call it patriotic. They have to lie — the truth isn’t their friend right now. Get angry. Mock them mercilessly; they’ve earned it. McCain decried agents of intolerance, then chose a running mate who had to ask if she was allowed to ban books from a public library. It’s not bad enough she thinks the planet Earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago complete with a man, a woman and a talking snake, she wants schools to teach the rest of our kids to deny geology, anthropology, archaeology and common sense too? It’s not bad enough she’s forcing her own daughter into a loveless marriage to a teenage hood, she wants the rest of us to guide our daughters in that direction too? It’s not enough that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose, it should be the law of the land that she has to carry and deliver her rapist’s baby too? I don’t know whether or not Governor Palin has the tenacity of a pit bull, but I know for sure she’s got the qualifications of one. And you’re worried about seeming angry? You could eat their lunch, make them cry and tell their mamas about it and God himself would call it restrained. There are times when you are simply required to be impolite. There are times when condescension is called for!
So, "West Wing" fans, take note: your guru has endorsed Obama. What does that say to you?
Last night Elisabeth and I skipped over to see Florian Zeller's new play "Elle t'attend" at the Théâtre de la Madeleine. Zeller being the current darling of the French stage, my hopes were high. Alas, the play's energy was not, and though it started out on a promising note, it was pretty much downhill from there.
I'm not sure if it was the staging, the acting, or the writing that was to blame, but the production felt self-indulgent, self-important, and petulant. It's set in and around a house in Corsica, where Anna (Laetitia Casta, who read every line as if it were Racine) has brought her lover, Simon (Bruno Todeschini) to meet her family, who have gathered there for what they fear will be the last time, for their father is suffering from advanced-stage Alzheimer's. Problem is, Simon has recently left his wife and children for Anna, and when he arrives in Corsica he realizes with a shock that Anna's family's house is right next door to the house he and his own family rented the previous summer. Simon becomes withdrawn and distant and even calls his wife.
We learn all this not through dramatic action but through Anna's incessent pestering: "Tu m'aimes? Tu me trouves belle? Tu aimes mes épaules? Mes seins? Et mon ventre, tu aimes mon ventre?" (It's safe to say there is not a person on earth who would not love, or covet, Laeticia Casta's abs.) To clear his head, and no doubt to escape Anna's encroaching clinginess, Simon sets out early the morning after they arrive to go for a walk in the mountains– and does not come back. (Thus the title.) Cue much hand-wringing from Anna and her family. Oh yeah– and Anna might be pregnant. (Was this ever confirmed?)
There is an endless amount of meaningless dialogue ("Maybe he went somewhere else." "What do you mean by that?" "Nothing." "What do you mean, nothing?" "Oh, nothing." "Why do you say that?" "No reason.") but this seems to be the point– how much we can say without seeming to say anything at all! In fact, in so doing, Zeller has captured the pitch of French familiar relations perfectly, and no doubt the production could have been saved by a more original or energetic director. (Guess who the director was. Florian Zeller himself. Now I understand.) But the actors are doomed to hang out on the bleak white set under what they keep assuring us is a scorching Corsican sun, but which seems to be having no affect at all. There is zero dramatic tension, and we don't really care so much if Simon comes back, what happened to him, or where he could have gone.
Anna's brother (Nicolas Vaude) is on hand for some weak comic relief, and to remind us that Anna is like Circe and Corsica is like her island and Simon is like Ulysses– he just wants to go home to his wife and kids. Except now it's not only Penelope but Circe who's waiting. And…. I'm sorry, what was the point? "Rien." "Pourquoi tu dis ça?" "Pour rien."
Good thing it's only an hour and a half long.