Archive for March, 2007

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Teaching Pamuk in Turkey

March 27, 2007

Yesterday a brief article, Orhan Pamuk and the Turks, appeared on the n+1 homepage. Its author, Gloria Fisk, is formerly of Princeton and now teaches at Istanbul’s Koç University, where her students read Orhan Pamuk and argue about his work with great fervor:

When the Swedish Academy praised Pamuk as a discoverer of “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures,” it described a peacemaker who is a stranger here. The Turks that I meet in Istanbul know Pamuk neither as any builder of bridges between cultures nor as any kind of literary genius. For most, he’s a traitor, and for the rest, he’s a bit of a sleaze.

The evidence of his misdeeds appears to Turks under the categories of His Perceived Effects on Readers More or Less Like Me. Turks refer frequently to the longstanding public relations war they are waging — and losing badly — with the rest of the world, and Pamuk seems to be on the wrong side. My students explain the realities of Pamuk’s domestic position in discussions that can best be called “heated.” They are very pleasant people, my students; like their counterparts in American universities, their default mode is a geniality so great that it verges on apathy. But I have seen them fly into genuine rages at the Nobel Laureate who is not in the room, replete with fist-clenching, table-pounding, and explosive exits with doors that slam. These are things I’ve never witnessed in any American classroom, certainly not on the subject of a novelist.

n+1 promises to publish “Part II” tomorrow (Thursday), so be sure to follow-up.

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“On the Web” Feature

March 21, 2007

I’m not sure if you, my reader, have noticed, but a few weeks ago I introduced a section called “on the web” to the right side-bar. This is a running list of articles, reviews, or posts that I’ve read and think are especially excellent.

From a technically standpoint this is very simple: WordPress supports del.icio.us integration, so all I had to do was create a tag called “myrtias” in my del.icio.us and start tagging.

My hope is that this can be another way for me to point people towards internet goodness when I don’t have time to post. I spend hours daily reading on the web (when I should be working) so quite a few pages pass before my eyes each day.

If you’d like, you can see a list of pages I’ve tagged at del.icio.us/tedhowell/myrtias — or you can subscribe to a feed.

Thanks for reading!

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You Have Not Been Paying Attention

March 20, 2007

In a (simply phenomenal) previously unpublished essay appearing in the Guardian, Susan Sontag “makes a passionate case for the moral superiority of the novel in a mass-media age.”

This is truly essential reading.

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always – as I have argued – an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution – which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once … space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention – a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched. But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding – which is also the understanding of the novelist – to take this in.

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‘My wil is good; and lo, my tale is this’

March 19, 2007

If you have thirteen-thousand dollars to spend, you can snag this lovely special edition of The Canterbury Tales:

More on Marginalia.

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Yet We Do

March 16, 2007

A fun article in today’s Times considers the necessity of annotated editions, focusing on a new edition of Pride and Prejudice:

Any reader who sticks with the program and absorbs the wealth of material that Mr. Shapard offers will, insofar as such a thing as possible, read “Pride and Prejudice” as it was read and understood at the time of its publication, with all the period details in place and correctly interpreted. But the novel, in most respects, remains the same. The reader who does not know a farthing from a guinea, it’s safe to say, will nonetheless grasp the great drama of attraction and repulsion that plays out between Darcy and Elizabeth. The cut and thrust of their conversation is timeless. Generations of young women who do not know the first thing about an entailed estate or a quadrille will recognize in Austen’s heroine a kindred spirit, a contemporary, a valued ally in the eternal war between the sexes.

How can this be? Austen was a stickler for accuracy. Like most of the great 19th-century novelists, she reported on her surroundings with loving attention to detail, creating her world fact by closely observed fact. Yet with time, details lose their meaning. Who, a century from now, will understand what a yuppie was, or text-messaging, or the meaning of an Armani suit?

In an 1816 foreword to “Northanger Abbey,” begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Austen warned readers that the world she described might seem unfamiliar. “The public are entreated to bear in mind,” she wrote, “that 13 years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” Thirteen years! If English readers at the time were puzzled, how on earth are American, Japanese or Russian readers in the 21st century supposed to make head or tails of what they read? Yet they do.

Also included is this superb image reprinted from Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.

(click to enlarge)

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The Recognitions: Part I

March 14, 2007

On Monday evening I finished Part I (277 of 956 pages) of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, and decided it would be wise to post a few reactions at this point to make my booklogging end-task a little easier.

In short, I love it: I think The Recognitions is the best novel I’ve read in over a year. It certainly has the feel and heft of an epic masterpiece of fiction — similar to reading something like Ulysses, Ellison’s Invisible Man, or The Adventures of Augie March.

In an earlier post I praised Gaddis’ masterful dialog. Gaddis is renowned for his ability to record speech; his novel J R, which won the National Book Award in 1976, is written almost entirely in dialog. Gaddis’ characters speak very realistically: there are few long speeches that seem unlikely and “bookish,” and lots of revealing shorter conversations which unfold the minds of his characters. The narrative voice in The Recognitions is a little spotty, and often verbose — but when it’s on, it’s magical.

Reading The Recognitions demands the utmost attention and a singular focus, for the text is one that needs to be entered into, and not just casually. As I read, I find that my attempts to pull out of the text and determine its meaning by relating passages or description to my own experience (a tactic I often fall into) is not in the least bit fruitful. The text must be read as is in order to be realized, or even grasped on a basic level. At the same time, it is deeply absorbing and arresting. I’m familiar with the feeling of being carried along by a book — it’s one of the best things one can experience as a reader — but I’ve rarely before been carried along at such a great depth. To concoct a comparison: the familiar feeling of movement and absorption I’m used it from a text is like riding down a river in a small boat — you’re being carried along but you’re above water and can feel the breeze. Being absorbed in The Recognitions is like being carried down the Amazon with your head six-feet underwater: you can’t see above you and you can’t see what’s ahead of you — but in this case you don’t mind in the least; it’s exactly where you want to be, where the best discoveries are made. The pervasive feeling that The Recognitions is chiseling its way into the heart of personhood and the relationship between beauty, truth, and the human mind propels the text. It’s simply magnificent.

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I can’t imagine that it’s easy

March 14, 2007

In a review of two new translations of Sir Gawain, Frank Kermode discusses the challenges of the poem’s form:

The first decision the translator must take is whether or not to alliterate. We are accustomed by centuries of poetry to think the normal English verse line is the iambic pentameter, as in Chaucer. Old English preferred alliteration to rhyme, as in Beowulf, and much 14th-century verse also uses it, though less strictly. It is rarely used in modern poetry, though there is an extended example in Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, but it was the norm until replaced as a structural principle by rhyme. Alliterative verse is a complicated affair, governed by quite firm rules, and Gawain offers a sophisticated model. Its four sections are divided into stanzas or ‘fits’, each ending with a device known as the bob-and-wheel: a short line, normally two words with one stress, followed by a three-stressed quatrain whose second and fourth lines rhyme with the bob.

Kermode’s review is very nice, but I am partial to his byline:

Frank Kermode is trying to write about E.M. Forster.

I wish him nothing but the best.