Books I Read October 10th, 2016

Things mostly come down to the weather and the music they are playing in the bar you are in: cool but sunny and very clear, and Smashing Pumpkins, but the first more than cancels out the second. Still, I feel compelled to complain to the management. Speaking of, obliquely, did you know I had a book come out last week? A City Dreaming, is the title, and I would urge all of you, all of you yes, every one of you, the ones in the back as well, to sprint out to your nearest book store and purchase a copy.

War and the Illiad by Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff and Christopher E.G. Benfey – a collection of wide-ranging essays discussing the Illiad, ranging in quality from mostly excellent to good, save for the meta-take tacked on at the end, which was the sort of exhausting drivel which makes me grateful I never really did more than tuck my toe into the fetid waters of the academy. Kidding, slightly. The first essay in particular, by Weil; which argues that the genius of the Illiad lies in its naked observation that violence, its inflicting and its suffering, is the defining feature of human existence; was very good, if perhaps not altogether confirmed by the text. As a rule, I find anything which encourages me to think about the Illiad to be valuable, a foundational text endlessly capable of offering new insight into the whole human condition thing. I spent much of Monday wandering around thinking about Hubris and Eudaimonia and that one – what is that one, where for a brief moment you are the shining equal of the gods themselves, except not quite, not quite, and then you overstep your boundaries and the crushing horror of your own mortality becomes, usually quite literally, thrust again upon you? --anyway, thinking about that one. 'Sing, O Muse!' Ooooo, enough to give a fellow shivers.

Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe -- Frequent readers (Surely there must be some better use of your...that is to say, one might learn Spanish or perhaps do a puzzle...well, you're here already, might as well stay) will know that I have a complicated relationship with Gene Wolfe. For The Book of the New Sun, his marvelous short fiction, and the truly masterful Peace, I would argue that Wolfe is one of and probably the foremost living writer of speculative fiction, that is to say, fiction. And yet the rest of his work I confess to finding generally impenetrable, even viewed with the most positive possible spin. (I feel comfortable writing bad things about a beloved literary hero of mine because a) he will never, ever read this and b) Wolfe is of that class of writer who deserves to be discussed not simply with enthusiasm but with serious, studious contemplation, contemplation which may led to criticism.) Soldiers of the Mist and Soldiers of Arete are the story of the falsely-named Latro, who suffers a wound during the Persian Wars which renders him lose his memory each evening but which also allows him to see the ways in which the gods interact directly with humanity. He wanders about Greece and Asia Minor, trying to find a way to restore his memory and interacting with the heroes and gods of classical Greece. The clever conceit with Latro's memory allows Wolfe to indulge in a late period tic he developed, that of roughly ending a chapter and using the bulk of the next to explain, in his loose way, to the degree that Wolfe ever explains anything, what exactly happened in the preceding entry. In Book of The Long Sun this tendency drove me absolutely apeshit, but here it works much better, and Wolfe does (as he always does) some clever things with Latro's memory and observations. Wolfe is an intentionally frustrating writer, and when that works, it works to great effect. But often it comes off as over coy, his refusal to describe any character in useful detail, or shoving a critical but not particularly clever clue into a dull front half of a paragraph. Here also, in true Wolfe fashion, we have his predilection for long digressions about what are clearly specific interests of his, sword fighting or siege craft, that drag down the narrative and just generally seem unacceptable in a book which often refuses to provide basic information on far more relevant concerns. Finally and most critically, Wolfe's characters here seem terribly thin, really the faintest of possible sketches. One gets the sense that he is not really interested in them, nor for that matter in the prose itself, but only in the skeleton beneath it, in his own love of riddle.

But of course, it goes without saying that he has a genius for said riddles, a genius which few other writers, certainly no one who is considered a direct competitor, can honestly claim. When one of the more significant puzzles does work, and when you are clever enough to understand it, the sensation can be quite thrilling. Which is, I suppose, to say that this is another book which I did not like particularly but reconfirms (needlessly) my faith in Gene Wolfe's unique powers.

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kastner – Yeah, quite good. Sort of a Vile Bodies written by a rake living in Berlin in 1933, though Kastner's literary powers, while impressive, can't really be compared to Waugh. It is still very clever. The language quite crackles, and its sentiments are pulpy without veering quite into melodrama. If it is not quite brilliant, it was still enjoyable and cruel, and I'll pick up another Kastner at some point down the line.

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler – Oooo. Ooo! Wow! What fabulous, fabulous prose. Adler is a tremendously skilled stylist, I can't even say how much I enjoyed this. About a woman in early-middle (?) age reminiscing on a long time affair, and on a misadventure in Ireland, and about many, many other events that have happened to her. It is written in this peculiar, discursive style, with the first and third sections in particular consisting of memories and observations which have no real narrative link, but maintain a certain continuous theme of confusion, error, passion, nostalgia and occasionally a bit of hope. Adler is working without a net her, and to pull off this sort of novel requires the most enormous gifts – no slacking, like you get to do with a plot. Each paragraph and sentence has to be clever on its own merits, indeed, has to be more than usually clever because the reader is always secretly a little annoyed when they have to reset their thinking and grasp some new character, story, or idea. But succeed Adler does, and with high marks. I roared through it in about five hours interspersed with walking, laughing loudly at a coffee shop, on a park bench, and in a quiet bar. I'll be picking up something else by Ms. Adler shortly, and strongly recommend you check this one out.