Saturday, June 2, 2018

Thomas Bernhard

"Philosophically, there is no difference between the writing that Bernhard did in his twenties and his extraordinary late novels. All the elements of his intensely pessimistic world view—remorseless fury at a callous universe, lack of faith in human relationships, manic pursuit of aesthetic perfection—were likely set by the hardships of his youth. He was born February 9, 1931, in a Dutch clinic for unwed mothers. His mother had been working in Holland when she became pregnant, apparently as the result of rape. His father, a carpenter and petty criminal from Germany, never acknowledged him, and Bernhard always remembered the humiliation of having to undergo a blood test as a child to establish paternity. He was soon deposited in the care of his maternal grandparents, in Salzburg. His grandfather was an anarchist and a writer of pastoral novels, and Bernhard idolized him. He recalled the walks they took, during which his grandfather would extemporize about nature and philosophy, as 'the only useful education I had.' This idyll ended when Bernhard was six; his mother married and moved the family across the border to Germany."

Extinction, V

This morning I finished reading Extinction. It's an amazing work of literature that everyone should read, assign to students, give as gifts, and read again once finished. In fact, I would reread the book right away were there not so many piles and shelves of other books staring at me wherever I go.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Obituary

Philip Roth died famous, rich, and successful by common definition. He wrote an amazingly long list of books which are at least good, and they are always readable. By editing Penguin's Writers from the Other Europe series, he provided a major service to readers in English, and literature more generally, by widening access to Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kis, Tadeusz Borowski, and others from Eastern Europe. Pretty sure the last Philip Roth novel I've read is I Married a Communist, recommended, and the last one I began but didn't finish was The Counterlife. I haven't read any of them the year they were published, and I liked The Human Stain more than American Pastoral. The one with an imagined Anne Frank in it is great, but the title escapes me. I never finished The Great American Novel, but I had a copy as a teenager, purchased from Encore Books in their dollar remainder section, and I remember references to Hemingway as "Hem" in the opening. I believe that Portnoy's Complaint was the first Roth novel I've read, and the memoir Patrimony has always been one of my favorites. For one or two singular books, he's not as great as Pynchon, Barth, Bellow, DeLillo, and, no doubt, a few of his other relative contemporaries, but as of this writing, it seems like his books will last much longer on the shelf of bookstores than these other big names. His novels with historical or cultural themes almost always have a clever angle. I remember reading that Roth said he left academia because professors "weren't serious," and that he stopped dating because it was too time-consuming: "woman need to be entertained." A funny anecdote that I know of is that he requested a biography of Amiri Baraka from its African-American author, and the writer sent it signed, "Take it easy on the brothers." Roth thought that was hilarious, but it also relates to why I don't like American Pastoral. Last, sure anyone can detest being labeled as a "black writer" or "Jewish writer," but it's best to prove it by your pages. Roth could have shown much more often in his writing, and much more clearly, that he understood what it's like to be an American who isn't Jewish after World War II, the time period almost all of his books take place in. He's dead now, and I can't tell you with certainty what happens to him or anyone else at this stage of existence. Which sometimes is considered not existing. I'd be shocked if I made it to 85. Rest in peace.

Philip Roth is dead, but you and I are still alive.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Bolano's 2666 for Theater




Friday, April 27, 2018

Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, IV

"Then it suddenly occurred to me how odd it was that I should be teaching Gambetti German literature, of all things--German, Austrian, and Swiss literature, the literature of German-speaking Europe, to use the usual clumsy formulations--despite the fact that I find this literature impossible to love and have always rated it below Russian, French, and even Italian literature. I wondered whether it was right to teach something I did not love, simply because I thought I was better qualified to speak about it than another literature. Even in its highest flights, I told Gambetti, German literature is no match for Russian, French, or Spanish literature, which I love, or Italian literature for that matter. German is essentially an ugly language, which not only grinds all thought into the ground, as I've already said, but actually falsifies everything with its ponderousness. It's quite incapable of expressing a simple truth as such. By its very nature it falsifies everything. It's a crude language, devoid of musicality, and if it weren't my mother tongue I wouldn't speak it, I told Gambetti. How precisely French expresses everything!"

~~ from Extinction by Thomas Bernhard

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Joseph Michael Phillips, Rest In Peace

The Philadelphia Inquirer posted a touching obituary of my twelfth-grade English teacher, Joseph Michael Phillips. His class had a great influence upon me and led me to study many different classics in college, most often for political philosophy, history, or literature courses, and from there to become a college instructor and novelist. Readings he selected for us in Advanced Placement English included: The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, The Bell Jar, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, Light in August, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and "The Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock." In addition to these classics, he introduced us to ideas from Boethius, Kant, and others. It was quite a class, and Dr. Phillips was the first intellectual I'd ever had for a teacher. Over the years, I've had many conversations about Dr. Phillips with a friend I stayed in touch with from high school. I'll add more and better writing to this at some point.

Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, III

"The tragedy of the would-be writer is that he continually resorts to anything that will prevent him from writing."

~~ from Extinction by Thomas Bernhard

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