30 November 2013

Distant Reading, by Franco Moretti

In the rather frenetic world of literary criticism, theoretical speculation enjoys the same symbolic status as cocaine: one has to try it.
--Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders

I don't always agree with Franco Moretti, but I usually enjoy reading his books, and this one was no exception. Not only because of his writing style, which is lively and straightforward, but also because it is generally interesting and often exhilarating to watch someone puzzle over completely new approaches to literary studies. Distant Reading is a collection of pieces from the last ten or fifteen years, with brief headers added to them to explain their position in his intellectual trajectory, or to explain why he thinks he was wrong. This is a remarkable, and extremely admirable aspect of the book: Moretti's willingness to say that he was incorrect. One might wonder why go to the bother of reprinting them then, but I think there are two very good reasons to do so: 1. though parts of the essays (particularly the now-infamous "Conjectures on World Literature") have been rather thoroughly refuted, other points he makes hold true, and remain original and important. 2. they attest to a process, and helpfully illuminate certain dead-ends of study -- here's what doesn't work (something I always wondered about in the hard sciences, when friends complained that their hypothesis had proven false and therefore they couldn't publish a paper from it--wouldn't it be helpful to let others know not to try this approach?). As Moretti puts it, "Once you have been really proved wrong, the argument is no longer about you; it’s about a world of facts that everybody agrees to share (and respect); about hypotheses that have an objectivity of their own, and can be tested, modified, or indeed rejected." This is the most delightful thing about this book (and Moretti more broadly): he is brave enough to just suggest some ideas for general consideration, even ones that might seem kind of out-there. Sure, it takes some ego to do that, but to me at least, it doesn't come across as an arrogant move; he seems genuinely interested in furthering knowledge, trying out new approaches, throwing out hypotheses and seeing what happens. There is this wonderful sense of exploration and possibility and willingness to experiment, which I absolutely love.

At the same time, the comparison between theory and cocaine might have a more unfortunate accuracy as well. The speculation is interesting, yes, but occasionally seems untrammeled to any sort of... reality. When you're talking about global literature, in particular, it's very easy to paint in extremely broad strokes and make sweeping generalizations, and very difficult to provide concrete evidence for them. Sure, you can make a graph of the number of novels published in a year and the amount of words in the titles of those novels, and marvel that the shapes of the two appear to be in inverse relationship (more books, shorter titles). But correlation--or graphs of the same shape--does not equal causation. I am extremely skeptical of some of his claims about the way Chinese or Brazilian literature developed, precisely because he often relies on other critics (distant reading!) rather than an intimate knowledge of the texts. But he doesn't seem to account for the fact that critical approaches are themselves shaped by accepted paradigms, hence people discussing 'peripheral' literature often consider it in terms dictated by the 'center.' So, while Moretti is arguing that it's the novelists who write texts trying to shoehorn local ideas into imported form, I'd suggest that the real problem may well be critics trying to shoehorn those local ideas into their own preconceptions.  If that's the problem, Moretti's fail-safe -- if a critic is wrong, the insights won't be born out in other critical works -- will not detect it. Though there's not much sign that he's even checking: the evidence Moretti cites, too, is often flimsy or just scant. In the "Conjectures," for instance, he cites one phrase from the introduction to one Polish novel as shorthand for including ALL of Polish literature in his system. That's just poor scholarship. Sure, we can't read everything. Maybe this kind of scholarship needs to be a team effort. Elsewhere Moretti cites his research assistant by name (indeed, he is extraordinarily generous with specifically naming others who deserve credit, which is wonderful) -- perhaps he needs to hire more of them.

Secondarily, as I discuss in more detail in a paper I'm working on (which, if it gets accepted, won't appear for another year at least, what with the way academic publishing works...ugh), there is a very real question, I think, as to what kind of questions such research seeks to answer, and whether this is really what literary scholars are trained for. Moretti is the first to admit that he doesn't have the mathematical chops to know much about data analysis. As a biologist friend of mine noted after seeing Moretti deliver a lecture on analyzing titles a few years ago (which appears in essay form in this book), he could farm out these data sets to some graduate students in statistics, let them play with it for a day and see what they come up with. Because his use of data isn't actually that impressive. Though I suppose this is precisely his argument: that we should be training humanities scholars to work with this kind of data (instead of schooling them in the art of close-reading). But...isn't that what we have sociologists for? I mean, maybe we need more joint programs in sociology and literature, or this is exactly why so many places are hiring in digital humanities, but to me at least, it does seem like what he's talking about is a slightly different discipline. More broadly though, he is essentially trying to figure out why literary traditions develop the way they do; why some techniques catch on and others don't. I'm not sure it's possible to answer that question: how, maybe, but why

I suspect that part of the problem is that Moretti wants to retain a strong link between history and culture, and a strong sense of political engagement. Whereas I believe in both of those ideals but think that systematizing them tends to be reductive and deny precisely what is most interesting and powerful about literature. But I'm still puzzling through all that myself. 

And that's ultimately what makes Distant Reading so rewarding: not the content of its claims, but the way it makes you (or me, rather) think about a set of questions in a new and different way. I am curious to read The Bourgeoisie as well, but in less of a hurry to do so, which is actually kind of telling, and suggests that Moretti might be onto something in his predictions about where the field is going...

28 November 2013


Much as I would have loved to be having a turkey dinner, I had to settle for seeing a restored version of Hitchcock's 1929 silent film Blackmail, accompanied by live (improvised) piano music. I'll feast tomorrow with friends.

For the first ten minutes of the movie, I thought oh boy, I forgot how hard it is to understand what's happening in silent films. The narrative can be really confusing when you don't have any dialogue to help you make sense of it. But then it shifted, and everything became perfectly clear, and remained so for the rest of the film. What was most amazing about the movie was how on the one hand, it was told like a silent film, ie, very exaggerated and expressive faces, and a kind of condensed feeling, where ideas are expressed in a very economical way. But on the other hand, it is so very recognizable as a Hitchcock film. Certain trademark visual stylings, but also something about the narrative, double crosses and paranoia and reversals of fortune. It was so neat to see how his way of storytelling worked in a somewhat different mode, and in some ways even seemed more appropriate to it. Now I want to rewatch his later films and think about whether they bear traces of techniques honed in an earlier time.

The music was neat -- although improvised on the spot, it was quite suited to the film, which is to say that I frequently forgot that it wasn't simply a part of it. Except for one moment, where the pianist played a few snatches of "A Woman is a Sometimes Thing," which kind of yanked me out of the story.

In any case, unsurprisingly, it's an excellent film. Definitely see it if you have the chance.

27 November 2013

The Red House, by Mark Haddon

This is a strange and rather prickly sort of book. I bet most readers hated it, because it is not at all like Haddon's previous two novels, Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime and A Spot of Bother (apparently I never blogged about either, which seems highly unlikely. Huh. Though I did put Spot of Bother on my Best Read of 2008 list). It's much darker--though neither of the other two books is entirely happy-go-lucky, they don't leave a lasting sense of gloom. Perhaps The Red House won't either, as time passes, but it definitely seems to delve into grimmer material. Actually, there are a few moments that are downright terrifying--impressively so, I thought. What sets the book apart, too, is it's structure. Narrated in fragments of indirect discourse (easily mistaken for stream-of-consciousness, but crucially different), hopping from one character's perspective to the next, we gradually arrive at the story of an extended family spending a vacation together, and the various bits of baggage they all bring. It's an ambitious plan for a novel, and it's not entirely successful. But I nonetheless found it quite absorbing (I actually read the entire second half in one long late-night rush, though that might have more to do with late November doldrums than anything else).

The book totters, at times, in bringing its characters to life. It's pretty clear that Haddon doesn't really like all of them equally, and sometimes he seems to be straining to humanize them in the face of somewhat damning evidence against them. There is unfortunately something not quite believable in the women: they often feel like characters rather than people, though I did find that they evoked a strangely vivid instinct to supplement them with my own memories or feelings. In other words, they were containers for ideas that I occasionally helped carry. Haddon's effort to enter the mind of a small child were similarly intriguing (is it terrible that I think of things I've written recently about authors imagining the animal mind?), but mostly in that they made you conscious of the fact that it's a difficult thing to do and he was trying to do it and managing semi-well.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Haddon is that I think he is often ahead of the curve in terms of important issues. Or rather, he is one of the few authors I know of whose books matter-of-factly include things from everyday life that aren't typical to novels, and do so in a non-ostentatious sort of way that doesn't feel like tokenism.I remember being somewhat surprised that A Spot of Bother included a side-plot about a gay couple, which now seems pat but then felt rather new and risque. This time, I noticed that one of the kids has a friend named Pavel, and assumed that the friend was the child of an immigrant from Eastern Europe, but it never came up. It just happened to be the friend's name. Which was nice. There is also a side-plot about bullying, which is slightly less successful, though definitely timely. I think this is something we'll appreciate about Haddon's books in years to come; the way they reflect specific features of our own historical moment. Even if they don't always do it as well as one might like.

But overall, I liked the book. I am enjoying watching Haddon grow and develop as a writer. I didn't like Curious Incident nearly as much as most people did, though I found it enjoyable, and I'm relieved that the adulation it inspired didn't end his career. I like that he seems to be slogging on, doing adventurous and difficult things despite receiving mixed reviews for them. I think he's a skilled writer and an interesting one, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

23 November 2013

Europa Report

This movie is currently being promoted by Netflix, which is how it caught my eye (according to its wiki, it was released digitally first, then into theaters? Weird.). I'm on kind of a space kick I guess, having watched (and very much enjoyed) Gravity not too long ago, and then listened to this awesome interview with astronaut Chris Hadfield, so I was sort of primed for enjoyment. The description on netflix described the movie as a "nail-biting thriller," an account highly contested by various users in their reviews, which were, however, quite positive. But man -- I was on the edge of my seat. This movie was so fantastically unsettling and creepy, I was totally enthralled.

The movie is in the form of 'found footage,' and jumps around in time, giving you a sense of impending disaster. It follows a group of scientists sent to explore Europe, one of Jupiter's moons, because they believe that its icy surface may contain life forms. Of course, things start to go wrong.

So, a number of things I loved about the film (and I am not going to give any real spoilers, but I also think you might be better off watching it knowing nothing about it beforehand, so you may want to consider saving this post for after you've seen it):

1. I complained about the sappy psycho-drama of Gravity, and indeed, for days afterwards I found myself thinking, "Why can't someone make a space exploration movie in which the voyage is NOT a metaphor for working through psychological trauma?" And Europa Report did it for me. It's not that the characters don't have psychological issues; they do, but most of them seem to be specifically caused by the mentally grueling experience they're undergoing. Which is emphatically not a metaphor for anything. It is very insistently its own thing which is more than enough. You do not need to be thinking about your dead daughter in order to make space exploration meaningful. Harping on that, in fact, does the exact opposite. This movie gets that.

2. It is a visual assault, in some ways. I am perhaps more attuned to this because I am currently sitting in on a seminar about Deleuze's cinema theory, and we had just been talking about how film can change your way of seeing precisely by overloading you with visuals, such that you are unable to synthesize or process them. It is exhilarating to have a barrage of images flash before your eyes at a moment of dramatic tension - it literally took my breath away.
  Relatedly, the way the film handled narrative was extremely effective, and really ennobled the 'found footage' form. Very well done. I honestly thought there was never a dull moment, despite plenty of seemingly mundane footage. As with The Sorrows of Young Werther, which I was recently so impressed by, this was a work that managed to make it seem as though various narrative elements were emerging organically from an assortment of material. It never felt contrived or ham-fisted. The realist illusion at its best.

3. I thought it was really neat how the technological symptoms that suggested the possible presence of life forms -- anomalous data readings, a weird tremor of color on the monitors, etc -- came to seem like living things in and of themselves. Again, this is maybe because D.L. and I had just been discussing Koyaanisqatsi as representing capitalism as living organism and flow, so it was at the forefront of my mind.

4. The way it gives you a sense of what an extreme environment space is, to the extent that it makes this unbelievably high-tech equipment seem bumbling and crude. The most minor things become a matter of life and death. It's completely terrifying.

5. The way it subtly raised questions of scientific discovery and self-sacrifice, and left them open. Is knowledge worth dying for? Where do you draw that line?

My one beef with the movie was in the very final scene, which was very cool in some ways, but I wish had been done in a slightly less cliché way. They really bumbled it. Neat idea, lame execution.

But overall, a very cool movie, and well worth watching.

The Two Emilys, by Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee's The Recess is a somewhat overlooked classic of late eighteenth-century literature, an important precursor to the historical novel and a really fascinating text. I was hoping that The Two Emilys would be similar, but perhaps more light-hearted (The Recess is kind of astonishingly grim, on balance), not least because it seemed more like an adventure story. It turns out not to be all that cheerful: there is a distinct lack of campiness and glee, it's actually a pretty straight-forward tumultuous and highly dramatic romance. Which is kind of disappointing, though there are some very interesting things about it.

The plot is actually quite bizarre, and revolves around a lot of misunderstandings. I'm about to spoil the heck out of it, so stop reading if you actually intend to read the book and prefer suspense. The main storyline (which is preceded by several others) centers around Emily Arden, who is to marry her cousin, Marquis Lenox. Lenox is not particularly keen on the match, because Emily lives in Ireland, and Lenox thinks that she is probably a "wild rustic" and not a very suitable wife. She, on the other hand, has spent her whole life dreaming of him. She seizes an opportunity to meet him incognito, and alas! learns his low opinion of her, but also manages to make him fall in love with her. Somewhat stung but still in love, she sets up an elaborate farce (in the book's terms, a 'romance') to deepen his attachment before she will reveal her true identity. Meanwhile, however, she also incurs the wrath of another Emily (Note: there is no good reason why every woman in this book is named Emily. I mean, there is exactly one moment where it comes up, which could easily have been handled differently.), Emily Fitzallen, who feels that Emily Arden cheated her out of an inheritance, and vows revenge. So anyhow, Marquis Lenox is successfully charmed by Emily Arden, and he sets off on a grand tour with her father, Sir Edward, hoping to figure out a way to marry this 'other' woman instead of Sir Edward's daughter. Everything seems lined up for a happy ending, but alas! While traveling, Lenox meets a charming young man named Hypolito, and becomes strongly attached to him. One night, while drunk, he discovers that Hypolito is actually a woman! And she insists that she is in fact Emily Arden in disguise, and that he marry her immediately. Apparently forgetting about the other woman he ostensibly loves, he does so (not noticing the different last name on the marriage certificate. I guess the idea was that he did notice the first name, which is why they needed to be the same.). But then! There is an earthquake! So their marriage is unconsummated, and though he miraculously survives, he assumes she's dead, and when he randomly encounters his "true" love, and learns that she is Emily Arden, he is baffled but pleased. They are all set to marry, when the spectre of Hypolito appears at the ceremony and terrifies the Marquis, who faints. The marriage is considered final, and then begin various miseries, as he is blackmailed by Evil Emily, and cannot bring himself to confess (the excuse being that Good Emily is pregnant and he fears the news will kill her). Things get increasingly thorny, as Sir Edward learns what he thinks is the truth and kills the Marquis, telling Good Emily that she was never truly married and refuses to see her baby. Then Sir Edward finds out that there was no way for Evil Emily to prove that she had been married, and regrets killing the Marquis, who meanwhile pops up again in secret meetings with Good Emily, as it turns out that he convinced the monks in charge of his burial to pretend he was dead. Then Emily pretends to be dead so as to run away with the Marquis and leave Sir Edward, whom she now despises (though shockingly, she leaves her baby with him, under the care of Conor, her faithful Irish nurse). Everyone keeps regretting the negative consequences of their pretenses (if Good Emily had not tricked the Marquis, Evil Emily would not have had access to him; if the monks had not told Sir Edward that the Marquis was dead, he would not have forced Emily to write a will that claimed the child as hers rather than its fathers, etc). Emily and the Marquis in fact return to Ireland, where they live in a simple cottage next to the castle that rightfully belongs to Emily (though we are told that it has been so remodeled that it's more like a big fancy house now) and have a pack of children. 10 years later, the fathers of both arrive, with the first child in tow (also named Emily, of course), and the whole family ultimately ends up reunited, aside from a few other bizarre revelations and plot twists, including the reappearance of Evil Emily, who is forgiven before she dies.

Oddly, as with a Polish novel that I recently re-read and still like, Malwina, or the Heart's Intuition, this text also closes with an über happy ending, but not before one last test, as if the novel resolved itself, then doubted a little and had to reassure everyone a final time that things really, for reals, ended well. As in Malwina, where the heart is always the ultimate arbiter, able to suss out its true objects even when directly contradicted by outside appearance, in The Two Emilys characters are often "strangely drawn" to the people they are actually supposed to love, though this procedure also fails sometimes, as with Conor, who can no longer recognize her beloved Emily once her hearing is gone and Emily's appearance has changed.

There is also a curious back-and-forth in terms of portrayals of Ireland; on the one hand, there seems to be some pushback against the 'wild Irish' stereotype, as both Emilys are quite cultured and well-educated individuals, even if one is kind of evil. But there are also moments when their servants are unfavourably classed with the Italian servants in the book, as both being deeply superstitious and rather savage. It is notable that, as with Malwina, the lower classes do get to be quasi-developed characters, which I think is less common in other European fictions, but I could be totally wrong.

Anyways, overall, not actually the most entertaining of books, unless you study eighteenth-century romance.

19 November 2013

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan

I really enjoyed Mo Yan's Pow! (totally, if you judge by my blog post. Ugh.), so I was looking forward to reading Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, but the length intimidated me a little. Once again, however, I found myself completely engrossed. I simply didn't have the time to fly through this in a few days the way I would have liked to, but more the most part, I read it greedily, in 1-2 hour chunks, gulping down as much as I could. Mo Yan is truly a master. There is something so completely winning and wonderful in his characters; despite their many flaws and frustrations, you cannot help but love them. Life and Death is all the more remarkable because the main character is, for the most part, an animal, and yet it remains totally convincing, and you find yourself totally identifying with how it must feel to be a male donkey who has just scented a female in heat. The only other book that immediately springs to mind as providing such an effective insight into the animal mind is Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (which I remember fondly, though apparently I was slightly less enthusiastic when I read it, which is weird, because I remember guiltily passing up opportunities to sight-see in Sofia, Bulgaria, in favor of reading it, so I must have enjoyed it quite a bit), but Mo Yan, astonishingly, manages to give each different animal a different worldview. The novel tells the story of a man's repeated reincarnations, each time into a new animal, but always in the same village he lived in as a human. Gradually, his human memories and attitude fade away, and he begins relating to the cast of people in a different way -- another very impressive aspect of the book. Meanwhile, he is also witnessing momentous changes in Chinese history, another magisterial stroke. Amusingly enough, when discussing Pow! I speculated that it was more charming than Gombrowicz because it didn't involve narcissistic meta-fiction. So, Life and Death does have a meta-fictional component, and while I was not crazy about it, and it was a little bit narcissistic, it was also at least kind of interesting, and sort of sweet. Similarly, the ending initially seemed a bit hasty and haphazard, but ultimately it actually kind of won me over.
The book is just so, so good. You should read it.

14 November 2013

The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe

You would think that this is a book one would enjoy in their angsty youth and grow to despise as they got older, but funnily enough, it seems to be the opposite in my case. I used to think that Werther was annoying, melodramatic, and silly, but reading the book again now, I found him strangely lovable. More importantly, however, I was completely blown away by the novel itself. It is so brilliantly constructed; these little random bits of observations (that make the epistolary trope genuinely convincing) that fit together in such amusing ways, as when Werther marvels at how a man could have been deluded by his wife for years, and begins the next paragraph with "No, I am not deceiving myself!" and explain his conviction that Lotte loves him. Reflections about nature and children and literature form this wonderful tapestry of ideas that provides a broader sense of a worldview full of idealism and contradictions. Werther is brimming with passion and zest for life, while also being arrogant, hypocritical, and blind to his own privilege. But he manages to be mostly charming nonetheless. You'd expect the enjoyment you get from the book to be of the campy, cynical variety, but it's actually not--there is something genuinely winning about its earnestness and funny little thoughts. I was discussing it with a friend today, and I think he kind of nailed it when he said that it's a novel that could very easily have been a total flop, and that it took someone like Goethe to make it work. It's actually a pretty incredible book, and really interesting as a clearly very carefully and thoughtfully constructed work of fiction.

10 November 2013

Haute Cuisine

This is a surprisingly understated movie, in many ways. Like many foodie films, it's true raison d'être is arguably the incredible footage of delicious meals prepared by the main character, loving shots of pastry-encased meats and roulades, or a mouth-watering open-faced truffle sandwich. But, barring cinematic masterpieces like Tampopo or Like Water for Chocolate, many of these culinary-oriented films justify that footage with a rather clunking story about a hard-luck chef trying to save the family business, or neglected woman whose cooking brings passion back to her life. Haute Cuisine could very easily have gone in that direction, but it pulls short, and in the process, runs the risk of minimizing narrative satisfaction altogether. There are two threads -- or rather, settings -- in the film. One is the Presidential Palace, where Hortense, the main character, is put in charge of the President's private kitchen. The other is Antarctica, where, 4 years later, she is preparing her final meal as head of the cafeteria before returning to France. A documentary filmmaker, who I think was want to be from Australia, but whose accent didn't seem to be, is trying to get footage of Hortense, who remains elusive. I'm not sure if this is a clever reference to the film's refusal to tell an over-simplified tale, or a half-baked attempt to explain the story's narration. I prefer to think the former, but that might be giving the movie too much credit.

In any case, the Antarctica scenes are pleasant, carousing moments of community. The French scenes are full of jealousy, animosity, and sexism, leavened with the pleasures of a budding friendship between the fellow private kitchen team, and occasional chats with the President himself, a great adorer of traditional French food. Budget cuts, dietary restrictions, and a nasty Main Kitchen team ultimately make the long hours and grueling work at the Private Kitchen head less pleasure than frustration, and that's that. Hortense's more personal struggles--particularly with the sexism that is constantly rearing its ugly head--are alluded to but left unexplored, which I think was the perfect way to make their existence clear but avoid trivializing them. I found myself enjoying the film's subtlety as much as I relished its gorgeous images of food. It's a quiet film, but a tasty one.

03 November 2013

Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

I first read this back in 2007 (those lists of books I read in the year do end up being useful; I should stop not doing them) and enjoyed it then, and re-reading it now, I find it just as delightful as before. Maybe I'm overthinking it, but to me, the book is a totally bizarre combination of irony and sincerity. There's plenty of snark in eighteenth-century writing, but this book seems unique in its utterly unstable shifts between seeing its characters as idiots or heroes. I'm still not sure whether we are meant to admire the main character's cheerful equanimity and willingness to forgive those who hurt him, or think he is insane. Is he a wise man, a pretentious blowhard, or just a lucky fool? There's also the novel's form, which on the one hand seems fairly carefully constructed with a 3 part tragic structure and an intricate web of fortuitous coincidences and revealed mysteries, but it is also breezily laden with sermons, political disquisitions (one of which, amazingly, turns out to be delivered by a butler pretending to be the master of the house!), poems, and other random bits of fluff. Time passes in uneven ways; 3 weeks, or even years, will blow by without notice, and then two days will be carefully chronicled. It's a chatty, humorous, and utterly charming book.

01 November 2013

Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes

Not exactly a diary, because it was written in an occasional sort of way, on index cards. Most entries are only a sentence or so. The book is a chronicle of Barthes' grief following the death of his mother. The fragmentary nature -- though I found myself reading it compulsively, rather than in slow, reflexive fashion -- means that rather than a sense of wallowing or self-indulgence, you have the idea of an iceberg of sorrow thinly covered by a veneer of day-to-day coping, with this book being a kind of ice pick chipping at the mass beneath. It's quite moving, though not a work I found myself relating to (the way you absolutely do -- or at least I did -- to Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking.

I picked this up after reading Michael Taussig's I Swear I Saw This, which is an extended reflection on the field notebook as a genre. He entertains the idea of it as a modernist text, and is specifically interested in the role drawings play. I was not particularly taken with his thoughts on drawing -- overall, many of his ideas seemed somewhat derivative, though at least he gives plenty of credit to people like Barthes and Benjamin -- but the idea of the notebook as a fetish, and of anthropology as a space of contact rather than observation, I really enjoyed. Both the Taussig and the Barthes were useful to me as works that reflect on the process of writing, helping me get over my own strange blockage about it.