Gopnik & Compagnon Talk Marcel Proust

I discovered this wonderful video of a discussion between The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and Marcel Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon at Columbia University’s Maison Française.

Gopnik is a well-known Francophile whose essay collection From Paris to the Moon chronicles his experience living in Paris for five years. Compagnon is a Proust scholar and a professor of French and Comparative Literature.

I have posted about Proust before, particularly about learning French from Proust, and I also posted a video detailing Marcel Proust’s Paris.

The discussion is spread across four separate YouTube videos. The first one is embedded below.


Keeping Up with Karl Ove Knausgård

The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård (born 1968) is a writer worth paying attention to. His six-volume memoir/novel My Struggle has been a sensation in his native country (in a way that no such literary work could be in a country as large and as fractured as the U.S). Right now, only the first two volumes have been translated into English, and “addictive” is the only way to describe the experience of meeting Knausgård’s universe head on.

My Struggle chronicles his childhood in 1970s Norway, his dealings with his alcoholic father, his development as a writer and his conflicts about being a husband and father of three in Sweden. “My Struggle is basically thousands of pages of everyday life,” he says. Yet his meditations on marriage, writing, manhood, Christianity, the artificial and homogeneous nature of modern life, and the impact of middle age are more than ordinary.


Knausgård recently gave an interview to The Believer, where many of his obsessions were touched upon. He tells the magazine:

“It’s horrible that things are getting more and more similar with commercialization and globalization… and the differences between the sexes. I mean, men and women are different, and you know those are things that are hard to discuss in Sweden and that I’ve written a lot about. That’s one thing. On another level I find the equalizing that exists in Christianity, the equalizing in which you find mercy… ‘As he was buried his name disappeared and he became one of many’. And in that, there was an enormous consolation when my father died.”

“Identity is a key question for me. What’s identity? If you’ve read my books you’ve read about an extremely feminine boy. He’s into clothes, he likes to talk to girls and he’s very sensitive. That’s me when I was younger. Then I understood that no, it won’t work this way. I was bullied because of it. When I turned thirteen it became something dangerous. I felt like I had to get out of it and try a masculine role. Somehow in that I lost balance, I wondered who and what I really was… and later, I became a father, I got a new role, and at the same time I was incredibly afraid of my own feminine side, and everything crashes together, it boils, and becomes something amazingly beneficial to write about, it’s exactly the kind of complexity that I always look for.”

Read the entire Knausgård interview here.

UPDATE (4/2014) The New Republic has an excellent feature on Knausgård that chronicles the regret he now feels as a result of criticism of his autobiographic work by his friends and family.


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.


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: