Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Books, books, books

AMONG MY FAILURES: keeping current with my reading of current material. So only now do I see the December 5 (2005) issue of The Nation, the annual “Fall Books” issue, with its opening sidelong glance at Georges Perec (whose W, or The Memory of Childhood I finished reading this morning), and its reviews of Canetti’s final memoir instalment, and biographies of Voltaire and Rousseau and Laurence Olivier, and Andrew Delbanco’s biography of Melville.

Now as many of my friends and family know I contribute to my failure to keep current with literature a terrible foible I’ve cultivated for years: I like to read authors chronologically; that is, to read their books in the order in which they were written. Clearly I violate this principle from time to time: I’ve read Rousseau’s Confessions and Voltaire’s Candide, but nothing else of these indispensable progenitors of Modernism.

From time to time there are errors of reading, as when I thought W, or the Memory of Childhood was an earlier work than in actually is, and discover that it belongs instead to the middle of Perec’s output: so now I have to loop back; and I sentence myself to recapitulating Perec’s work next before I get to move on to anything else...

So Canetti will have to wait; I have not read Canetti at all.

And the Melville survey, beautifully begun with Typee and Mardi and Omoo, won’t move on to Redburn this year.

All these musings are set in motion by a chance intersection: Vivian Gornick’s review of Delbaco’s Melville with a letter to the editor of The Nation by one Bill Halsey, responding to a review last October of Joseph Horowitz’s Classical Music in America. Halsey points out that the reviewer (Russell Platt) had overlooked the role of recorded music “in destroying a musical culture [the American musical culture] that [had] produced great musicians.”

Halsey presents two signal results of the commercial success of recorded music: it deprived many, probably most musicians of their livelihood; and it “created a class of canonical performers... and music became consumed with imitating the past.”

Gornick laments the lack of a “grand theme” in Delbanco’s biography of Melville, contrasting his work with “the truly grand terms” with which Melville was presented in F.O. Matthiessen’s classic Amierican Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, which appeared over sixty years ago.

“...[T]he tragic vision of Man Against Nature, our own Innate Depravity, the guilty need for Crucified Innocence, the Malign Intelligence of existence itself -- those terms were fresh, original, exhilarating,” Gornick writes. “Today they are worn thin, in criticism and biography alike.”

Here of course is yet another example of a Present failing by comparison with the Past. “The problem is one of imagination,” as Gornick herself writes.

So I return to Perec, looking forward to Melville (and, of course, a resumption of Henry James). Why these novels? Because, as the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk writes in yet another piece in this yellowing issue of The Nation, “The novel, like orchestral music and post-Renaissance painting, is... one of the cornerstones of European civilization, it is what makes Europe what it is, the means by which Europe has created and made visible its nature...

“I am speaking now of the novel as a way of thinking, understanding and imagining, and also as a way of imagining oneself as someone else.”

This exactly describes Georges Perec’s W, or The Memory of Childhood. W is the name of a fantastic island off Tierra del Fuego, an island whose perfectly organized society centers on a cruel and efficient obsession with Sport. The Memory of Childhood is an account of a presumably Jewish childhood in French Savoy during World War II. The two accounts, at first apparently completely unrelated, interrupt one another in a presentation that alternates nervously between them, but they converge as the book continues; at the end you might think W either a parable of the insanity of Hitler’s Europe, or the first fictional attempt by the child whose early days are being remembered; or perhaps both are true.

Perec is a marvelous literary stylist. (He’s best known, I suppose, for his long novel La Disparition, translated into English as A Void: a long novel that dispenses entirely with the letter “E,”) But he is also a keen social commentator: he knew as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau that it is in the novel that Europe thinks, understands, and imagines, and thereby unites experience and the consideration of experience. His first novel, Things, is a brilliant insight into the commoditarian culture of the late 20th century. I look forward to continuing with him.

No comments: