What is Stuff? (or How to Survive Exile in France)

The French have the peculiar habit of referring to American and Brits collectively as “Anglo Saxons,” which isn’t exactly a racial or cultural description, but more a way of classifying a people oddly attached in their estimation to both hyper-commerce and 17th Century modes of Puritanism.

To make matters worse, we Anglophones fail to observe the most elemental rules of civilization, like saying Bon jour Madam/Monsieur when entering a French place-of-business or using the magic words s’il vous plait and merci. We continue to wander around Paris clueless that France is a country where social formalities matter, and it is inconceivable to the locals that grownups (even those reared in a country where the French language is about as esteemed as Sanskrit) can be ignorant of such common courtesy.

In the publishing industry, the Anglo-French clash-of-cultures has become something of a book genre unto itself. American and British writers explaining France to us—while chronicling both the joys and horrors of living and working with the French—is well-worn territory. From the tome-like sociological study The French by Theodore Zeldin (1997) to the delicious New Yorker essays of Adam Gopnik collected in Paris to the Moon (2001), and a glob of memoirs chronicling love affairs in the city of lights, such as Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris (2004) by Sarah Turnbull (an Australian writer), many of us cannot get enough of the French.

As a self-identified Francophile, any book subtitled A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris, naturally catches my eye. We Francophiles are like Civil War buffs who never tire of another recounting of the Battle of Vicksburg or even another Lincoln biography. Yet Stephanie LaCava’s memoir An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, isn’t in this vein. She has no interest in deciphering the French for us; instead, she tries to do something far more ambitious, and rarer: to reveal the syntax of an internal life, which in her case, is mediated through a lifetime of objects.

Vélo sur les quais

In the spring of 1993, at the age of 12, LaCava’s father moved her family from New York to Le Vésinet, France for work. Her parents enrolled her in an international school. She struggled to connect both to her peers and her new French life. Her social dislocation led to depression, and at the age of 13 she “falls apart,” an experience that naturally marks her sensitive nature for life. But what makes this memoir unusual, is how LaCava tells her story via a catalog of metaphysical connections to various objects. LaCava writes: “I traffic the world using my idiosyncratic senses, so it follows that I’d document my life through a narrative illuminated with objects and their respective stories.”

Through this peculiar narrative of objects, we meet someone who is almost pious-like in her devotions. “I was obsessed with relics and reliquaries,” she writes. “The ideas that part of an ancient body or blood could be housed in a beautiful, little monument for future pilgrims.” And it is in this infusion of the spiritual and emotional onto these objects, and her reflection on their legacies and cultural histories, that illuminate her internal life for us. A sampling of these objects include a Skelton key, a curved whale’s tooth, tea bags, antique jewelry, Kurt Cobain’s ratty Cardigan from Nirvana’s famed 1994 MTV “Unplugged in New York” performance, and a dodo bird, to name just a few. LaCava introduces these objects with Infinite Jest-like footnotes at the bottom of the page (along with illustrations). And while some readers might experience these footnotes as an interruption to the narrative, it’s important to understand them as essential to LaCava’s aim, just as one must embrace the repetition of musical themes in the work of Philip Glass, for example, or the endless “digressions” in Proust because they constitute the architecture of the work, the post and beams if you will.

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In 1958 New York Philharmonic music director Leonard Bernstein, in his first “Young People’s Concert” titled What Does Music Mean?, tried to dispel the popular notion that classical music was some stuffy business that required a PhD to appreciate. He informed the assembled children in Carnegie Hall and a national TV audience that:

“No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them.”

[Portrait of Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948] (LOC)

I can’t guess what LaCava would think of Bernstein’s assertion vis-à-vis music, but I suspect that when it comes to objects (a word that doesn’t seem sufficient for our subject here), she would have to disagree with el maestro. And while Bernstein might have asserted there is no inherent meaning attached to Cobain’s Cardigan or a pale nude slip designed by Helmut Lang either, it is that stuff’s intersection with our lives—and the subsequent stories—that infuses them with personal meaning.

Bernstein played a section that afternoon from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, and he asked the children what came to mind. Without hesitation they screamed out “cowboys and Indians” because of their exposure to “The Lone Ranger” radio programs. Bernstein remarked that one could experience Rossini’s music fully and completely without every considering the American west. The music simply is, he explained, but could we say the same for that iconic Cardigan, if we’d never heard of Cobain?

In 2013 America, as hyper-materialism becomes the religion-of-choice, it’s hard for many to believe that there is soul in an object, let alone a human being. And so we have to ponder the legacy of that iconic mediator between consumer materialism and the spirit world, the late Steve Jobs, who gave this subject more than a bit of thought during his short life. In his recent biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs and Pixar animator John Lasseter shared a belief that “products have an essence to them, a purpose for which they were made. If the object were to have feelings, these would have to be based on its desire to fulfill its essence.”

Stephanie LaCava, thankfully, has a more personal and less self-interested take on the material world than Mr. Jobs. This is not Silicon Valley metaphysics or a lecture from a genius American musician, it’s a snapshot from an vibrant internal life.  “As humans we crave beauty and we attempt to hold on to this experience through physical evidence,” writes LaCava. “For religion, it may be a relic, for the curious, a found talisman. For me, it is my story of conquering another world, place where in order to survive I needed to seek another world.”

Another Take on Catholic Literature & Writers

In 2011 I wrote an essay in The Millions titled “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Little did I know that the topic would interest a great number of people, and that the piece would continue to pop-up in online discussions.

Earlier this week the essay surfaced again when Nick Ripatrazone penned an article in The Millions titled “Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature.” Ripatrazone is the author of a new book titled The Fine Delight on what he describes as “Postconciliar Catholic Literature.” He argues that Catholic writing (by Catholics of all stripes) is vibrant and vital right now, which stands (somewhat) in contrast to my case that there has been a significant decline since Vatican II and the disappearance of the old “Latin Mass.”

Tot conflueix / All's conected

Ripatrazone nicely summarizes the main focus of my essay:

“While I strongly disagree with Fay’s overall thesis that postconciliar liturgical retranslation led to a decline in Catholic art, his short essay introduces important points. Fay writes elegiacally about the postconciliar shift from Latin to English, or local, Mass: ‘what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.’ Was Fay’s observation convenient hindsight, or lived reality?”

I was also humbled to see that my essay seemed, in part, to have been an inspiration for his new book:

“I needed Fay to ask the implicit question, and in the past year I’ve attempted to provide the answer in The Fine Delight, my new book on American Catholic writing after the Second Vatican Council.”

One of the curious aspects of Ripatrazone’s argument is that he dispenses with any kind of specific definition of what a “Catholic writer” is, which allows him to include all kinds of writers under the Catholic tent, such as Jeffrey Eugenides and Thomas McGuane, whom one struggles to associate with Catholicism.

Some Fun with Novelist Gary Shteyngart

Today my friend Roman Tsivkin and I had some fun with the Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart on Twitter. My friend Roman and Shteyngart share a very similar background–both are Russian Jews, about 40, live in NYC, both were born in what used to be Leningrad, and they both look VERY MUCH alike.

Roman recently posted a new photo of himself (see below) and I had to Tweet both Roman and Shteyngart and remark on the similarity…Only on Twitter can you interact with a writer as well-known as Shteyngart and have a little fun too.

Roman’s new Twitter photo:

Roman Tsivkin

And here is a photo of Shteyngart:

Gary Shteyngart

And here is the exchange of Tweets:

Kerouac’s ‘Big Sur’ Now a Movie

When asked about the novels of Jack Kerouac Truman Capote quipped: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” His famed comment underscores Kerouac’s mixed reputation as a writer, both then and now. Kerouac’s output was certainly uneven, but his ambition for the novel and his vision for a new American prose was both genuine and compelling; Kerouac’s writing at times is full of fireworks and wonder.

In 2012 Walter Salles directed the long-awaited film of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road. And now, a year later, we have a film of his novel Big Sur, which recounts the efforts of Jack Duluoz (a fictionalized version of Kerouac) to get sober and regain his footing as a writer at a cablin in Big Sur, California. Jacket Copy has an interesting piece on the challenges of making a movie of Big Sur. Here is the trailer:

The Legend of Gary Shteyngart’s Blurbs

A smart, amusing look at the strange publishing practice of blurbing new books and how Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart has emerged as a kind of blurbing king pin who will seemingly blurb just about anything, and do it with real flair.

The short 15-minute video has dozens of interviews with New York writers, critics and editors, as well as an interview with Shteyngart himself. The film was made by writer and editor Edward Champion.

William Giraldi: Tough-Love Critic

A new essay or book review by critic William Giraldi has become something of an event. In a world where bloggers discuss how they “feel” about a book, and the online literati praise every new novel as if it were Ulysses, Giraldi has become the adult in the room, reminding us what true criticism can and should be.

In September Giraldi wrote “Letters to a Young Critic” in The Daily Beast after a review of his was singled out for being too negative. His Daily Beast essay was chock-full of no-nonsense opinions guaranteed to make him persona non grata on Twitter and in trendy Brooklyn bookshops:

“Much of what you will review will be written by those who have emerged from the MFA mill and who have been Pavloved into believing that every effort, no matter its anemia or inertia, deserves praise because the writer tried so hard and cares so much. You’ll be confronted by the preposterous sense of entitlement that the professionalization of writing has brought about…Don’t pander to the ‘literary’ snipes who live their dreary lives online, that legion of wonks who are mere tourists in the land of literature.”

In an age that rejects objective truth and vilifies judgment of any kind, Giraldi insists that there are objectively bad books, books that drag us all down as writers, readers and human beings, and that a critics’ obligation is to call a spade a spade. “Relax your standards in literature,” he writes, “and the relaxation of other standards will follow.” In the same vein, T.S. Eliot wrote that the function of criticism was “the common pursuit of true judgment.” (The problem of making objective artistic judgments in the modern world is something I wrote about for Full-Stop Magazine in June).

At the end of the essay Giraldi provides a kind of syllabus of great essays and books that any would-be-critic should read and ponder.

On November 30 Giraldi returned with a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Rotten Reviews Redux: A Literary Companion.” Like his essay in September, this piece is full of wisdom and tough-love gems for the online literati. Giraldi surveys the enduring legacy of E.M. Forster’s book Aspects of the Novel along with the almost-forgotten one by critic Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction. He also focuses on the “pervasive suspicion that the best literary comment is always penned by those who are masters of the genre they comment on.” But, perhaps even more importantly, the review is worth reading because Giraldi’s acerbic wit is on full-display , and in the PC-world of book reviewing, there is nothing more refreshing. A sampling:

 “A world with no deservedly antagonistic reviews would be a literary Disneyland: a wretched uniformity of pleasantness.”

“What a critic likes and feels is immaterial; it’s what a critic sees and thinks that matters. But that is precisely what you’ll find spattered across the Net and in many a newspaper east to west: unlettered opinions with scarcely more authority than the feral scratching in Cro-Magnon’s diary.”

“Literature to these online cabals is a social event and not an artistic endeavor; they congregate to swap recipes of cuisine no discerning person would ever care to eat. The idea that a novel can be garbage, and that a critic has the imperative to call it such, is anathema to their aspartame outlook; these vast middle-strata scribes have turned to writing, apparently, because Habitat for Humanity is too demanding.”

Javier Marias’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ Trilogy

Spanish novelist Javier Marias signing a book.

I have begun re-reading the novel Fever and Spear by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. It is the first volume in his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy that is published in the U.S. by New Directions.

Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt said the books were what detective novels would sound like if Henry James had written them. Marias’ prose is masterful (Marias has said he prefers the English translations to his original Spanish) and his books contain Proust-like digressions and refined Jamesian investigations into the lives of private, oblique characters.

I hope that Marias continues to win readers in the U.S. and that his name gets on the Nobel Prize shortlist. Here are some excellent  interviews and articles on El Maestro:

Here is a quote from his novel Fever and Spear:

“It’s shocking how easily we replace the people we lose in our lives, how we rush to cover any vacancies, how we can never resign ourselves to any reduction in the cast of characters without whom we can barely go on or survive, and how, at the same time, we all offer ourselves up to fill vicariously the empty places assigned to us, because we understand and partake of that continuous universal mechanism of substitution, which affects everyone and therefore us too, and so we accept our role as poor imitations and find ourselves surrounded by more and more of them.”

Writing and War

It is disheartening to learn that Afghanistan is now officially the longest war in U.S. history. It would have been inconceivable to Americans in 1975, that in a few short decades after the Vietnam War, we’d enter into another long conflict.

Politics and military strategy aside, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already produced a number of important books including the non-fiction work The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, which earned him a 2012 MacArthur grant.

Jacob Silverman has a review in Slate about four new war novels taking up the subject of U.S. fighting men in the Middle East.

Today’s new books have to be considered in light of the cartloads of literature that came (and continue to come) from the Vietnam War.

Vietnam veterans and celebrated writers Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff spoke last year about war and writing (video below). O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a stunning read by a master storyteller and a must for anyone who is interested in war and literature.

In the Stanford University talk Wolff commented that many anti-war films about Vietnam, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, can actually inspire young people to join the military (Wolf sites Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead where he writes about Marines watching Platoon as a way of getting enthused for combat).

O’Brien said he obviously writes anti-war books, but curiously enough, he meets readers who join the Service after reading his work. Here is the video of O’Brien and Wolff:

Tim O’Brien in Conversation with Tobias Wolff on “Writing and War” from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo.

Henry James Meets Proust’s Characters

One of the pleasures of reading literary biographies is learning what happened when famous “writer A” met famous “writer B” for the first time. Some of the great encounters are a young James Joyce meeting W.B. Yeats (or later Samuel Beckett meeting Joyce), Oscar Wilde hiding in the Proust family bathroom, because Marcel was late, and Wilde couldn’t deal with Marcel’s parents alone. More recently we have the clash of East Coast/West counterculture sensibilities when Ken Kesey met Jack Kerouac.

Until I came across the following paragraph in Leon Edel’s one-volume biography of Henry James Henry James: A Life, I had never heard of a writer meeting the future fictional characters of another writer.

That’s what happened on July 2-3, 1885 when the famously polite Henry James agreed to show three French gentlemen (bearing introductions from painter John Singer Sargent) around London. The three men later become some of the principle characters in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Edel writes:

“We now know that James had spent his two days with three of Proust’s famous characters. Montesquiou would become the model for the Baron de Charlus. Elements of Polignac apparently went into the fashioning of Bergotte, and of Pozzi into Dr. Cottard. A novelist of the nineteenth century had been cosorting with the real-life characters of a novel of the Twentieth.”