In honor of the Salon du Livre de Paris (on which, more later), a few more observations on the dying art of the book review.
In The Guardian, Joanna Briscoe reviews Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines and deems it to be “an immaculate novel that, on the surface, can barely be faulted” which, however, finally proves to be “ultimately inauthentic”; ” an accomplished novel whose soul is missing.”
Fair enough; one woman’s opinion, although not one I agree with. But I do wonder if I were more moved by it, having read it in French, than I would have been had I read it in my mother tongue.
Thing is, Briscoe gets one basic thing wrong about the book that makes me doubt her reliability, and thus completely mistrust her ability to correctly judge a book: she informs the reader:
First published as Lignes de Faille, the novel sold over 400,000 copies
in France, was then translated by the Canadian-born author herself with
a level of creativity and confidence simply not achievable by the
Whether Briscoe is the victim of a misinformed publicist or simply made it up, it is patently untrue: Huston wrote the book in English first and then translated it herself into French. The language of translation here is French, not English; the “creativity and confidence” belongs to the writer, not the translator.
That kind of mistake sets the reviewer up in a false relationship to the novel she is about to critique; there are certain assumptions about the writing that may be inchoate in her mind but that reveal themselves in her response to the book. Like this comment: “Huston maintains a lightly ironic distance from her characters.” Would Briscoe have found this to be the case had she not been reading as if in translation?
But this is splitting hairs, and those of you who know how I adore most (most, not all) of Nancy Huston’s work will think I am defending her against a negative review. Perhaps I am. But let my condemnation for sloppy reporting ring more loudly. We’re all guilty of it from time to time, but we should try to get our facts straight where we can.
Second case: Garrison Keillor reviewing Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness. (Come to think of it, this is not the first time I’ve had a problem with Keillor’s reviewing…) Now, I’m a busy lady, and Wilson’s book is not one I want to give much thought to, but I want to know what the book is about, what’s the argument, what’s the deal, does it hold any water, and how does it compare to Adam Phillips’s book Going Sane, which seems drawn along similar lines?
Instead, I got a headful of Keillor’s antics, a suggestion this might be parody, and an assertion that since he is from Minnesota Keillor knows more about melancholic winters than someone from North Carolina.
Well thanks, Garrison, but now I have no idea what this book is really trying to do, and I don’t feel like going back to parse your article, or spending any more time on this book by hunting down another review. And poor Eric Wilson has had a bum review in the NYT that didn’t even give his book the time of day.
Mr K, next time I’m going to skip over any review you’ve written. Tell you what: you stick to the radio and writing the Wobegon books, let the book critics stick to writing about books, and no one wastes any more time.
Finally, a case of good reviewing: Scott McLemee on Eric Alterman’s Why We’re Liberals. You get a snappy intro, you get context, you get some idea of the projected book, a sense of its actual structure, how well it lives up to its projections, what are its failures, is there anything to be gotten out of it, a hook back to the beginning, The End.
“It is part of the alchemy of books that the written word rewrites
itself on the reader and that one thing becomes another as it passes
through various states of change while remaining itself. Don’t tell me
that books are not mysterious – they are.” –Jeanette Winterson
Last night, I settled into bed around eleven o’clock with the novel I started reading over the weekend. It wasn’t long before I realized my apartment had a curious sense of presence– as if something were in the apartment apart from me and my dog. On cue, Baxter started to bark in the other room. Starting to get a little freaked, I got out of bed, put on my slippers, and cautiously opened the bedroom door. I caught a glimpse of movement across the room and jumped out of my skin, then realized I was seeing my own reflection in the mirror hanging on the bathroom door, which I had left open. Baxter barked again. I told him to calm down and go to sleep (trying to convince myself of the same thing). I went back to my bedroom, shut the door firmly behind me, climbed into bed, and slipped back into my book. I read for another half hour or so and then, putting the closed book on my nightstand, quickly turned out the light and pulled the covers over my head. If they can’t see me, I thought, the same thought I’ve had since childhood, falling asleep under similar circumstances, they can’t get me.
All that because I’m reading a book about vampires! The opening chapters of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, lay the groundwork for the plot in teasing, thrilling chapters that so far include mysterious appearances and disappearances, and a father who is too terrified to recount the story of his encounters with Dracula to his daughter and so can only do it in short increments. The text is aware of its place in the scaffolding of the Dracula myth, from the fifteenth century to the present day, but it is no less unsettling for this acknowledgment.
This kind of terror is what Jeanette Winterson alludes to in her recent article in the Times. In this essay, she observes that there are far too many books being published these days for anyone to read all of them, and indeed, quite few that are worth reading. How is one to cut a swathe through the literary bracken? The only real way to read, Winterson writes, is to “follow [your] eccentricities,” wherever they may take you. For example, here’s where Winterson says her own eccentricities have recently led:
I have just been reading Captain Cook’s
Journals, which made me read
Robinson Crusoe again, which made me think about island
narratives, and has run me towards Boswell and Johnson in the Hebrides,
Marianne Wiggins’s wonderful novel
John Dollar and to Diana Souhami’s award-winning
Selkirk’s Island, which made me order
Coconut Chaos, her new book on Pitcairn.
Isn’t reading fun?
However, I have to disagree with her on one point: her outright dismissal of books on how or what to read, likening them to the “menu turistico beloved of nervous holidaymakers in foreign parts.” I take issue with this statement on several levels.
In the first place, my eccentricities have led me to the work of Alberto Manguel. Here’s how: While perusing in my local Barnes and Noble years ago, I came upon a paperback with an alluring name: The Mark of the Angel. I read the back cover and found it took place in Paris. Sold. An intellectual fascination (and something more, something more personal) with Nancy Huston was born. Last fall, hearing Huston would be on a panel at Festival America with Margaret Atwood and Edmund White (whose book on Paris I decidedly did not appreciate), I took my little self out to Vincennes to hear her. And there beside her was a deeply philosophical Argentinian-Canadian, whose comments and works mark him as the heir to Borges and Benjamin. “Je ne construis pas la vie sans lecture,” he said; when we read, the book becomes part of our “bibliothèque intérieure.”
It’s true: if you want to know who someone is, you can tell a lot from the books they own. And I don’t mean this as an elitist judgment– it’s not to say that people who don’t keep books aren’t interesting people, or that people who buy and read chick lit aren’t intelligent, but that much can be gleaned about that person’s relationship to their mind and to ideas from their bookshelves.
After the panel, I went to the book tent, where I bought Une histoire de la lecture(1996) and La Bibliothèque, la nuit (2006) as well as a short work on Borges and added them to my “to read” pile at home. (Manguel also has a book called A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflection on a Year of Books(2004) that I’m hoping to add to my library.)
A few months later, they’re still in my “to read” pile; I’m thinking I may get to them in April or perhaps over the summer. Because I’m so interested in Manguel’s understanding of literature, and the alchemical process of reading, this provides a
good reason for me to read his reading diary. If I respect a writer,
such as Manguel, Winterson, Huston, then I will be interested to know
what I can learn from their reading habits and journals that could in turn help my own reading and enlarge my understanding of literature and the world we inhabit. And I’m sure that Manguel will lead me other places, to writers I haven’t read, or to consider those I have in a different light. [Speaking of world we inhabit, Manguel now lives in a farmhouse in Poitou-Charentes. I wonder how I might angle for an invitation...]
I suspect, however, that Winterson was not alluding to works like those of Manguel, but perhaps to something like How to Read a Poem, by Terry Eagleton (2006), Catching Life by the Throat: How to Read Poetry and Why, by Josephine Hart (2006) , How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom (2001), or So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson (2004), which best seems to prove Winterson’s point: if there are so many books to read and not enough time to read them, why spend time reading about Nelson reading?
Which brings me to my second point, which will consider why we should in fact read Eagleton and Nelson on reading. But I’ve gone on long enough for now; that’s a post for another day. To be continued…
Reading Nancy Huston rather obsessively at the moment, I’m struck by the degree to which her work is aural– her writing is incredibly poetic in its adoration of and sensitivity to the rhythm, resonance, consonance, and assonance of the French language. Reading it aloud from time to time is almost better than reading it silently! Her predilection for wordplay amazes me– not only because she is so adroit at it, but because she is adroit in her adopted language. (Huston was born in Alberta, Canada but moved to France at the age of twenty, and writes her novels in French). And while it is impressive, it’s clear that it is only possible for Huston to write that way precisely because she’s writing in an adopted tongue. For example, the interior monologue of an American in France, a character in Les Variations Goldberg:
“Find out what you have in common, homonym, comment, commère, comme mère, mare, cauchemar, mare au diable, diabolo menthe, mentir, m’en tirer, m’étirer, métier, quoi qu’ils fassent ils ont toujours raison de le faire, les ouvriers, les artisans, les businessmen, les chefs d’Etat, les intellos, moi je dirai jamais ça, je saboterai d’abord. Te rappelles-tu Lili comme on disait que les convaincus étaient toujours des vaincus quelque part? qu’ils avaient dominé et étranglé tous les doutes? C’étaient des cons, vaincus: beaucoup plus vaincus que les suicidés. N’est-ce pas?” (p. 98-99)
I found myself wondering how she would translate this section into English. I’d like to see how it was rendered, actually.
I love the musicality of language, and music itself, and rely heavily on all that is aural to inspire and contextualize my own writing. But (like my mother), I am mainly visually oriented. If you read something to me from the newspaper, I need to see the story and read it for myself before I’ll truly understand the meaning. I prefer print news to radio or television. To understand something, I need to see it.
Art and literature are easier for me to intellectualize, whereas music is utterly intuitive. I don’t know how I play the piano, but if I thought about my fingers they would falter. I don’t care much to know how the vocal process works when I sing, and I’m not sure why there’s always music in my head no matter what I’m doing at the forefront of my brain. C’est comme ça. (For example: what’s on the radio in my head right now is a Chopin waltz I haven’t heard or played recently, it’s just stored somewhere in my brain). For the same reason, I don’t like to write criticism about poetry– I don’t know what it is that’s so affective about it but I feel that to analyze it would be, for me, to deflate it.
But! And this was meant to be the point of this post. To a certain extent, I can let go of the impulse to intellectualize the visual, and let it inspire a whole range of creativity and , yes, sentimentality. When I write, I’m certainly working off a visual composition in my mind, although sadly, I have no means for rendering that composition other than words. My father, an architect, is exceptionally talented as a draftsman, and does beautiful sketches and watercolors when he’s on vacation, but this particular talent did not get embedded in my DNA.
Which is why I have to take my hat off again to Carol at Paris Breakfasts for her gorgeous series on Venice. I didn’t get to see these posts before I left but they may in fact be more resonant now that I’m back. Between her watercolors, and Gill’s photographs, I’m kept regularly inspired: they help nourish and refine the visual apparatus in my mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But to successfully make that translation, you need a superior picture. Here are a few I took in Venice with these two women in mind– to point up the beauty in the quotidien details.
At the Rialto vegetable market
Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo: this one was actually deliberately composed in homage to Paris Breakfasts! Spritz, orange Claire Fontaine, tortoiseshell glasses, Lancel purse, brick church, sunset and conveninently located woman in red.