Archive for February, 2007

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Species of Sentimentality

February 28, 2007

In an excellent review of Joan Acocella’s new book Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, Joyce Carol Oates draws attention to this paragraph, in which Acocella is considering a recent biography of Primo Levi:

…Even if Levi did commit suicide [as the biographer argues], it is a species of sentimentality to think that the end of something tells the truth about it. That’s the case with mystery novels, but not with lives. Nor do we have any reason to believe that life should not be sad. Many lives are sad, and fraught with double binds, which just means conflicts. We make of them what we can, then throw up our hands and die. The things that Levi made of his life — Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, The Periodic Table — are in no way diminished by the possibility that he killed himself. They may even seem more remarkable and moving: the darker the night, the brighter the stars.

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French Iconophors

February 28, 2007

I find these French dictionary illustrations to be simply astounding:

Via BibliOdyssey, from this database.

Actually, we are told that the images above are not really lettrines (illuminated letters); rather they are called iconophors – something of a neologism to describe an iconic letter together with surrounding pictures that start with that letter (apple = ‘A’ etc). There is a fair bit of english available and it’s interesting to browse around – mouseover the website images to discover the name of each related picture. It’s all easy. For instance, in one of the letter ‘G’ images above, you can see Gulliver and Galileo if you look hard enough. Some are more esoteric/french/difficult than others.

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Jane Austen Wears Prada

February 28, 2007

Do you Janeites know about this?

Just learned about the movie from this Guardian blog post.

Truthfully, though, the trailer has a good look about it, excepting the fact that the dialog is less-than-stellar. But a ballroom dance scene gets me every time.

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Aquisitions: February 23

February 24, 2007

I used to think it was a little silly to post about books you just bought on your blog. But then I noticed I was always reading posts of this nature by others, and realized I was the one being silly. Here goes!

Last night I went to the bookstore with the intention of looking for some titles I needed for the Chunkster Challenge, and of course decided to browse for other things as well. My favorite used bookstore goes through stock pretty quickly; it’s a smaller shop and the owners are discriminating about what they purchase. So every time I visit I check to see if there’s any Bellow, Nabokov, and Sebald, or if there’s finally a copy of Blood Meridian (I’ve been looking in used bookstores for well over a year, and it’s mysteriously elusive — a Mideastern bias, perhaps?) Last night I found a new Saul Bellow title — one I didn’t know existed! It All Adds Up is a collection of Bellow’s occasional nonfiction published in 1994; most of the pieces are quite short, and were originally published in magazines and weeklies towards the end of Bellow’s life. I’m looking forward to learning more about the man, since he never wrote an autobiography and the only biography of Bellow was published before his death last year. The logical next step would be said biography and the Conversations With Saul Bellow collection. We’ll see how things go with It All Adds Up.

The Corrections is the book I plan on reading last to complete the Chunkster Challenge. It’s rare that I read a book written after 2000 — it has to really grab my attention, both in reviews and my interest in its subject matter. This book meets both those criteria, especially the first. For the paperback edition I have, Picador decided to devote half of the back cover to the rapturous praise heaped upon this book (in paragraph form, even). It seems unlikely that I’ll be disappointed.

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Storylog: “Investigations of a Dog”

February 23, 2007

Story: “Investigations of a Dog”
Franz Kafka
In Selected Short Stories of Frank Kafka
Rating: Excellent

Dorothy’s post on Sebald linked to an interview with the author, in which he had some exciting things to say about Franz Kafka’s story story “Investigations of a Dog.” For some reason, I became exceedingly enthused about reading this story, rushing down to the basement to find my old (1952) Muir translation of Kafka’s stories — I sat down to read it mere minutes later. It did not disappoint.

Sebald’s description of the story is as follows:

So metaphysics, I think, shows a legitimate concern. And writers like Kafka, for instance, are interested in metaphysics. If you read a story like “Investigations of a Dog,” it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn’t grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn’t know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we. So it’s quite legitimate to ask—and, of course, it can become a kind of parlor game—as these philosophers said, “Are we sure that we’re really sitting here now?”

“Investigations of a Dog” is a tale of understanding and its limits, with a extraordinary existential slant. The scope of the dog’s investigations are, in context, massive: he wants to know where food comes from, cutting against the accepted indifference of his compatriots. His unending desire to question and investigate puts him at odds with the other dogs, who are seemingly content in their unexamined existence. This forces the dog into the position of outsider, so familiar in Kafka’s writings:

Why do I not do as the others: live in harmony with my people and accept in silence whatever disturbs the the harmony, ignoring it as a small error in the great account, always keeping in mind the things that bind us happily together, not those that drive us again and again, as though by sheer force, out of our social circle?

The questions Kafka’s dog asks are disruptive and unwelcome: he wants nothing more than to suck at the very marrow of life. The dog is the clearest expression I have yet encountered of Kafka’s ability to rip the world and our accepted interpretation of it to shreds. Kafka upsets the order and the falsehoods of life, assailing the traditionally praised accomplishments of culture. As Kafka show us, historical progress, for all its achievements, rarely help us in the living of our actual lives; truths communicated to us through history help society progress, but they do not communicate meaning to the existing individual who needs a meaning for his life.

True, knowledge provides the rules one must follow, but even to grasp them imperfectly and in rough outline is by no means easy, and when one has actually grasped them the real difficulty still remains, namely, to apply them to local conditions — here almost nobody can help, almost every hour brings new tasks, and every new patch of earth its specific problems; no one can maintain that he has settled everything for good and that henceforth his life will go on, so to speak, of itself, not even I myself, though my needs shrink literally from day to day.

“Investigations of a Dog” is, most specifically, an exploration of the gaps that exist between knowledge and application — it is one thing to “know” a truth and quite another to infuse your life with that truth. The dog’s quest for a truth that will settle his distress and his questioning is an impossible one. He wants to “escape from this world of falsehood,” but has no means by which to do this. All he can do is search for more knowledge, looking for a truth or an event that will apply to his “local conditions,” namely the life that he lives from day to day.

Kafka’s short story is a magnificent dive into the deepest questions and problems of examined existence. Its distinctive style is not quite an allegory, which is perfect for this story’s mix of penetrating explorations and existential yearning.

Here are there we catch a curiously significant phrase and we would
almost like to leap to our feet, if we did not feel the weight of
centuries upon us.

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Top Ten Movies

February 23, 2007

Just in time for Sunday night’s Academy Awards, I’ve posted my Top Ten movies of the year on my other blog. Head on over if you’re interested.

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Thematic

February 20, 2007

I know it’s bad form to go changing your blog theme and design in the middle of everything, but I’ve been realizing that there were two major shortcomings to my old style, and I’m hoping this new one works better for me.

It also features a customizable color design, so I’m probably going to be playing with that in the upcoming days.

Sorry about the housekeeping — it needs to be done sometimes…