Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Cormac McCarthy Interview at the Wall Street Journal


Check it out here. John Hillcoat, the director of the film adaptation of The Road, is also in on the conversation. McCarthy doesn’t do many of these (this is maybe the third or fourth in, what, twenty-five years or something?), so fans slaver at the mouth for things like this, and this one doesn’t disappoint (though I hear the Oprah interview a few years ago was a bust). He’s terse, funny, dark, writerly, pessimistic, and generally very entertaining. They talk about the film adaptation of The Road (which comes out in two weeks) and McCarthy’s career in general. A few excerpts:

The Wall Street Journal: When you sell the rights to your books, do the contracts give you some oversight over the screenplay, or is it out of your hands?

Mr. McCarthy: No, you sell it and you go home and go to bed. You don’t embroil yourself in somebody else’s project.

WSJ: When you first went to the film set, how did it compare with how you saw “The Road” in your head?

CM: I guess my notion of what was going on in “The Road” did not include 60 to 80 people and a bunch of cameras. [Director] Dick Pearce and I made a film in North Carolina about 30 years ago and I thought, “This is just hell. Who would do this?” Instead, I get up and have a cup of coffee and wander around and read a little bit, sit down and type a few words and look out the window.

WSJ: But is there something compelling about the collaborative process compared to the solitary job of writing?

CM: Yes, it would compel you to avoid it at all costs.


WSJ: What kind of reactions have you gotten to “The Road” from fathers?

CM: I have the same letter from about six different people. One from Australia, one from Germany, one from England, but they all said the same thing. They said, “I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them.”


First Impressions on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus

I have just begun to read, at the strong behest of a friend (in fact he even bought me the book), Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann. I think I am in for a long, wild ride into the world of mid-twentieth-century German intellectualism. And I am very excited, geeky as that may be. From what I can tell so far, it’s about the nature of intellectual and artistic genius, and particularly its dark side, as it is a reworking of, naturally, the Faust legend (the demonic side of genius, deals with the devil, etc. etc.). The prose in John E. Woods’s translation, moreover, is dazzling. Here are two quotations that have got me swooning in giddy, ecstatic, nerdy delight, and generally excited for that subgenre referred to as the “Novel of Ideas.”

Culture, specifically in its flowering in the humanities, is a beautiful thing, which embeds itself in the culture as a form of a tradition, passed on through what the narrator refers to here as pedagogy:

I cannot help savoring that inner and almost myserious bond between my interest in classsical philology and a lively and loving eye for man’s beauty and the dignity of his reason—a bond made manifest in the very name we give the study of ancient languages, the “humanities,” whereby the psychological connection between linguistic and human passion is crowned by the idea of pedagogy, so that the call to be an educator of the young proceeds almost as a matter of course from one’s vocation as a scholar of language. The man of the exact sciences can, of course, become a teacher, but never a pedagogue in the sense and to the degree that the disciple of bonae litterae can.

But the beauty of that culture comes at a price. Here the narrator is reflecting on a study trip to Greece, where he realized that the awakening of that beauty in the ancients was a ritualized form of acquiescence to a more potent, but much more dangerous power: a pact (hence, again, Faust).

As I gazed out from the Acropolis across to the Sacred Way, along which initiates to the mysteries had processed—adorned with the saffron band, the name of Iacchus on their lips—and then, upon arriving at the place of initiation itself, as I stood in the enclosure of Eubouleus under the overhanging rocks beside the cleft of Pluto, there and then I sensed something of the abundant feeling for life that found expression in the initiatory rites by which Olympic Greece honored the divinities of the deep; and later, behind my lectern, I often explained to my senior students how culture is actually the reverent, orderly, I may even say, propitiatory inclusion of the nocturnal and monstrous in the cult of the gods.

Again, my thoughts are first impressions, and I’ve been proven wrong before, but no matter what, I’m looking forward to a good read.

Two (Kind of Three) Books: David Bentley Hart and Mendelsohn’s Cavafy

Forget one-dollar copies of used Richard Ford novels. This is when the book-buying moratorium really gets difficult.

First, coming out on April 21 from Yale University Press is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart. This will surely be the most eloquent and fiery rebuttal to the new atheists. But don’t let that dissuade you, should you be a skeptic; Hart is sure to respond with historical and theological rigor, not with empty rhetoric. Rusty Reno gives a kind of off-the-cuff pseudo-review here, which provides a good overview.

Second (and third), out today from Knopf is Daniel Mendelsohn’s much-anticipated two-volume translation of the Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems of the Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. Never heard of Cavafy? Well now you have. And consider this an invitation to initiate yourself. Below is Mendelsohn’s translation, reproduced from Knopf’s website, of Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca.” (And here is an essay on Cavafy that Mendelsohn wrote for the New York Review of Books last November, which is a good introduction to Cavafy’s work; the same issue also published Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s wonderful poem, also available online, “Myres: Alexandria in 340 AD,” which I would also reproduce if it didn’t make this already-too-long post way longer.)


As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you won’t find such things on your way
so long as your thoughts remain lofty, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you won’t encounter them
unless you stow them away inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire the finest wares:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
Many Egyptian cities may you visit
that you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always in your mind keep Ithaca.
To arrive there is your destiny.
But do not hurry your trip in any way.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey;
without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road.
But now she has nothing left to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn’t deceive you.
As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.

[1910; 1911]

Buried Treasure

Tonight while rummaging around on the dirty, unkempt bookshelves of a local Salvation Army I came across the sort of thing one always dreams about coming across in these situations but rarely does. What I found was a first-edition copy of the first novel of my favorite novelist, A Piece of My Heart by Richard Ford. The book cover isn’t much to look at (see the picture below), and the spine is a little warped, but hey, one doesn’t complain about these things at the Salvation Army, where books are usually priced under a dollar. The book isn’t worth much; similar first editions start at $30 at (but go up significantly and sharply after that. There’s also a signed copy at the Manhattan Rare Book Company that’s going for $800). Nevertheless it’s a very exciting find for a fan. They ain’t many of these floating around anymore.

Needless to say, I put a temporary but brief hiatus on the book-buying moratorium.


Dear Awesome Levi, You Are Awesome. Thank You for Being Awesome.

Yesterday I received in the mail a very fun surprise indeed. A package from my friend Levi Simpson showed up in our mailbox. When I opened it I found, tightly shrink wrapped, the book Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon. Levi has known of my lurve for Chabon for awhile, and he had found it on sale and thought of me.

Let me enumerate the ways in which Levi has—in an act of almost sheer clairvoyance—anticipated my very thoughts:

  1. I have given a heavy, wistful sigh many times with this very book in mind since writing this post (about deciding not to buy any books for a year) .
  2. I have checked it out twice from the library but have only read snatches of it here and there. I actually had it checked out the day Levi’s copy came in the mail. Every snatch I had read left me aching with desire to read more (when I had more time to digest it), and I had resolved to own it some day.
  3. But the paperback is coming out soon, and I was afraid the beautiful hardcover editions would disappear from shelves and become more and more difficult to find as my year sans book-buying wore on.
  4. This book been at the top of my Amazon wishlist for quite some time.
  5. It is one of the handsomest books ever. It’s published by McSweeney’s, a company that almost always makes very nice books. As I was looking for photos of the book to share on this blog, I stumbled across this blog, which describes the book as follows (I swiped the nice three-part photo from the same place):

The treatment [of the book’s design] is really elaborate and luscious, an object lesson in making the physical book into a piece of genuine desiderata, an artifact you want to own as well as read. The black cloth wraps around the hardcover jacket with debossing and foil. Then there are three bellybands with Jordan Crane’s illustrations.

The fact that there are three fully illustrated layers, two of which will never see the light of day unless somebody takes time to peel each layer off, speaks volumes about the artistry that went into it. It’s hard to imagine the motivation for designing and illustrating the jacket was to sell books. It’s simply there to make a beautiful object.

So thanks, Levi! I doubt you knew how much you’d be doing with one little gesture, but it meant a lot. Cheers, my friend!


Cormac McCarthy, the Nature of Literature, the Natural Law, Morality, and a Host of Other Sundries

I was excited recently to find this article by Christopher Badeaux on Cormac McCarthy at a promising (new?) website called The City, which is run by some folks at Houston Baptist University and looks like a sort of evangelical riff on First Things. I’ve read a few other pieces and liked them alright, but I was pretty disappointed with the Cormac McCarthy article. I got as far as the extended quotation below (which is near the beginning) before I realized what I was in for. (I would have commented on the article’s site itself, but that function appears to be unavailable right now.) The quotation:

It is not a profound insight to say that disorder lies at the core of every modern novel: Things falling apart drive action. The truth of most literature since well before the Romantic era, however, is that disorder is made right at the end of almost every book. The villain is defeated, the damsel is rescued, the world is saved, and, in literature from the 1960s on, socially appropriate noises are made and coffee is had. Even with that, novels are a window into a safer world, one in which everything more or less turns out right in the end—where the awful consequences of life are put on hold in favor of the pleasant ones.

Put differently, only the Russians want to be depressed at the end of a good book.

This is actually slightly maddening, because a novel is a self-contained utopia in which disorder has no extrinsic effects, carries no ripples of destruction and disintegration, and in fact, suggests to the reader that an original sin is always entirely containable and repairable. One never feels the connection between the people who inhabit the bubble of the novel. They live lives as strutting, separate parts of some beautiful machine that runs precisely and predictably outside of the suspension of disbelief.

Where to begin with this comedy of errors? First, we have a thesis: “disorder lies at the core of every modern novel.” (Fair enough.) Then Badeaux takes us back to “most literature since well before the Romantic era,” where “disorder is made right at the end of almost every book.” (I think the Greeks might have had something to say about this. Possibly also Shakespeare.) But in the very next sentence, we’ve somehow been magically transported back to “literature from the 1960s on,” where at the end of every novel “socially appropriate noises are made and coffee is had.” (What this means or is referring to I have no idea.)

I mean, seriously. What world is this describing? Not the one I live in. If by “most literature since well before the Romantic era” he means “the complete works of Jan Karon,” I suppose it begins to make sense, but I may be making a bit of an interpretive leap there. There were also those “Russians,” the inevitable exception that proves the rule, who just “want to be depressed at the end of a good book,” which seems just a tad glib. (Incidentally, “the Russians”—by which I’m guessing he means, primarily, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—would more characteristically be described as modern than anything else, which should support his thesis rather than provide an exception.)

Directly following the extended passage quoted above, Badeaux launches into the following: “In the real world, sin is a pebble in a pond: It touches so much more than the sinner and, when there is one, the victim. It disorders lives and relationships in ways foreseeable and incredible.” Change “victim” to “victims” and “foreseeable” into “unforeseeable” and you practically have a thematic summary of Macbeth. But according to Badeaux’s account of the history of literature, Macbeth—produced before the Romantic era—is one of those works where “The villain is defeated, the damsel is rescued,” and “the world is saved.” I must’ve missed that Act.

In opposition to the happy, cheery world of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Badeaux posits as their antithesis Cormac McCarthy’s two books No Country for Old Men and The Road. I just can’t make things add up.

But why my disproportionate reaction? Well, I share two things in common with Badeaux: I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy, and I am a committed, relatively conservative Christian. So I feel like I have a vested interest in the outcome of Badeuax’s exploration.

The general thrust of the article is to read Cormac McCarthy (or at least No Country and The Road) as a particularly compelling illustration of natural law, especially original sin, which is fine enough. The article should be evaluated on whether or not it succeeds in its aims. But Badeaux’s understanding of the history of literature is so phenomenally and weirdly wrong (either that or I’m misreading it somehow, and I would be happy to be told so if that were the case), that it gives me serious pause about anything else that he will say after it.

And it turns out I was right to give pause. Badeaux’s interest seems not to be in literature per se but in either co-opting or rejecting it based on its adherence to or deviation from a Christian understanding of natural law. Consequently, he seems somewhat dismissive—or even ignorant—of Cormac McCarthy’s work that doesn’t fit his thesis of McCarthy as quasi-Christian auteur of original sin. (At one point he says, “for contrast [to No Country and The Road], I worked my way through Blood Meridian,” but there are no references to any of McCarthy’s seven other novels.) As an example, Badeaux reads the psychotic killer Anton Chigurh in No Country as the manifestation of Llewelyn Moss’s moral failings, which is interesting, but Moss seems less a catalyst of evil than an inadvertantly complicit protagonist on whom is wrought the furies of the novel’s bizzarely fatalistic antagonist, Chigurh, who more or less represents a concentrated manifestation of the universe’s ontology of violence. To understand Moss’s actions as catalyzing moral retribution seems not to read McCarthy as displaying the natural law but to read an explicitly Christian morality into McCarthy’s own aims for the book. These are two very different things, and the latter is a stretch at best and inconceivable at worst. And since there’s no retribution for evil in Blood Meridian, despite its being much more philosophically complex than No Country, Badeaux dismisses it as “simple.”

Two things have happened here. Art has become, first, evaluated based on its adherence to a particular morality and, second, merely a vehicle for a worldview. I don’t think art doesn’t contain those things, but to reduce art to a worldview or a morality—either in its creation or in its evaluation— destroys it.

Updike on the Writing and Making of Books

“From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.”

from here

John Updike, 1932-2009

Sad news. The world of fiction is the worse for his passing. Here’s the AP obit.


Thoughts upon Finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Novel Blood Meridian

This little snippet from the Wikipedia page about sums it up.

After reading Blood Meridian, Richard Selzer declared that McCarthy “is a genius – also probably somewhat insane.”

The Best Book Title of the Year

Goes to

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory

by Roy Blount Jr.

from the fine folks at FSG