Monday, September 22, 2014

The most important French writer you've never heard of

The Guardian calls Emmanuel Carrère "the most important French writer you've never heard of," and I quite agree. (Except for all the important French writers I've actually never heard of.)

It's an interesting profile for a few reasons, which are maybe all the same reason.

1. Major themes are identity and memory. The Moustache was brilliant on these points. (There's a novel that has really aged well in my memory.)

2. He seems to have found his niche writing nonfiction novels. Whether he recounts episodes from his own life, or somebody else's, what's the difference? (Must get my hands on his book about Philip K. Dick.)

3. He seems particularly interested these days in exploring his Russian heritage, which interests me in hopes that it may shed light on my own desire to know my Polishness. Which has nothing to do with the culture per se, but rather the need to know from whence you come.
I stopped writing fiction and began to write "non-fiction novels." I tried to write about the world and about myself, describing reality through my own experience.

Check him out in interview with the CBC's Eleanor Wachtel (Writers & Company).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The evolution of book technology

Norway, 2001

Spain, 2010

Sweden, 2014

I've posted all of these separately to Google+ over the last few weeks, and I'm sure everyone's seen the bookbook by now. But I thought they bore collecting in one spot to demonstrate the evolution of the technology.

The latest iteration doesn't offer much new value, but it has the clear benefit of better packaging and marketing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Galaxy is going to pot!"

I'm reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Classic of science fiction, blah, blah, epic and political, I never had any interest. Plus its daunting reputation, the bigness of it, a TRILOGY, the titles often all caps, as if it really were the foundation of something.

Well, a friend pressed it on me. And it's so small, Foundation is just over 200 pages. And me between reading plans, and looking to augment my sci-fi education. So here I am.

In all these years, how come nobody ever uttered the words "Encyclopedia Galactica"?

The back cover is all empire and warfare, blah, blah.

Had somebody told me "Encyclopedia Galactica," and explained "foundation" as in "research foundation" to assemble a repository of all human knowledge, I'd've been all over this years ago, even if the project is just a pretense.

We all know that one respect in which the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy scores over the Encyclopedia Galactica is that it has the words "Don't Panic" inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. The publishers of Foundation should learn a lesson from this. Every edition of Foundation I've ever seen has the opposite of large, friendly letters on the cover. They usually bear large, imposing letters, self-important, sometimes angry, sometimes mocking, god-like. On the cover of the book I'm actually reading, the title is small, but still unfriendly all caps, overly confident; the gold foil makes it brash. If it looked friendlier, if it soothingly assured me everything was going to be alright, I'd've warmed to it much sooner.

I'm about a third of the way in. To this point, Foundation:
  • Brings a whole new level of understanding and humour to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I never knew how much the Guide owed to Foundation — an awful lot, with regard to theme, plot points, and structure, it seems.
  • Defines psychohistory as "that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli." Which ties in very nicely with my reading of late (neuroeconomics, two-system thinking, black swans, etc.), as well as setting the stage for an infinite improbability drive.
  • Takes a piss at academia — indeed, the University structures are "almost ivory in color." Hands-on research is eschewed in favour of the scientific method: book-learning.
"The Encyclopedia first," ground out Crast. "We have a mission to fulfil."

"Mission, hell," shouted Hardin. "That might have been true fifty years ago. But this is a new generation."

"That has nothing to do with it," replied Pirenne. "We are scientists."

And Hardin leaped through the opening. "Are you, though? That's a nice hallucination, isn't it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what's been wrong with the entire Galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, estending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You're quite happy to stagnate. The whole Galaxy is, and has been for Space knows how long. That's why the Periphery is revolting; that's why communications are breaking down; that's why petty wars are becoming eternal; that's why whole systems are losing atomic power and going back to barbarous techniques of chemical power.

"If you ask me," he cried, "the Galaxy is going to pot!"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fabulous, magnificent!

I had some trouble finding my groove with Robert Walser's Berlin Stories, because they're not really stories. They are vignettes, sketches, poetic musings. Nothing really happens in them. Walser calls one of them an essay, and another reads like a reminder to himself.

Finally I was able to give myself over to them. Their meditative quality demands a slower pace, some introspection. These stories are lovely! Full of life and humanity. Here there are keen observations of people of diverse kinds, many of them in the theater, their peculiar behaviours, their interactions with others, but also their relationship to the space they occupy. Truly, Berlin is the most magnificent character inhabiting these stories.

Robert Walser, Swiss-born, moved to Berlin in 1905 to join his artist brother. The stories in this collection were written between 1907 and 1917. The city was burgeoning.

This book is highly quotable. It seems every couple pages I'd turn to someone: "Listen to this — Isn't that perceptive, don't you find that's true?" I've noted so many passages, it's hard to choose what to share.
Often I heard through the thin wall a sound that I was only ever able to explain to myself with the thought that someone was weeping. The tears of a wealthy, stingy woman are surely no less doleful and deplorable, and speak a surely no less sad and moving language than the tears of a poor little child, a poor woman, or a poor man; tears in the eyes of mature human beings are appalling, for they bear witness to a helplessness one might scarcely believe possible. When a child cries, this is immediately comprehensible, but when old people are induced or compelled to weep despite their advanced years, this reveals to the one hearing and seeing this the world's wretchedness and untenability, and such a person cannot escape the oppressive, devastating thought that everything — everything — that moves upon this unfortunate earth is weak, shaky, and questionable, the quarry and haphazard plaything of an insufficiency that has entwined itself about all that exists. No, it is not good when a human being still weeps at an age when one should consider it a divinely lovely activity to dry the tears of children.

Berlin Stories was for me a badly needed breath of fresh air, reminding me to slow down, not just in my reading. Just look around you, really look.

My favourite story by far is "Fabulous," written in 1907. Just three paragraphs long (text available here), it evoked for me such joy the morning I read it. Magnificent!

You Are the Robert Walser! sums up the mood quite nicely.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Your suffering's taste

I recently acquired The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow and with an introduction by Adam Zagajewski (excerpt), a volume I've been wanting for years. I unpacked it and opened it randomly:
You must suffer long, not knowing what,
until suddenly out of bitterly chewed fruit
your suffering's taste comes forth in you.
Then almost instantly you'll love what's tasted. No one
will ever talk you out of it

— Rainer Maria Rilke
Paris, March 1913

It's a bilingual edition, and I read aloud in my imaginary German.

I've been looking into taking German classes. Am I crazy? I want to learn German for the poetry. No one will ever talk me out of it.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Hockey, poetry

I don't watch a lot of TV, hence I don't see many commercials, so forgive me if you've been overexposed to this ad, but I couldn't help but pay attention when this aired other night. Apart from it being funny and clever, I think it says something interesting about the target demographic. Sports video games are for people who have disposable income, but this ad also presumes they'll get the joke — they're of a certain age, but also of certain cultural smarts. Hockey, video games, beat poetry — they go so well together, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Berlin is outstanding

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage. But there are yet other things as well.

Berlin never rests, and this is glorious. Each dawning day brings with it a new, agreeably disagreeable attack on complacency, and this does the general sense of indolence good. An artist possesses, much like a child, an inborn propensity for beautiful, noble sluggardizing. Well, this slug-a-beddishness, this kingdom, is constantly being buffeted by fresh storm-winds of inspiration. The refined, silent creature is suddenly blustered full of something coarse, loud, and unrefined. There is an incessant blurring together of various things, and this is good, this is Berlin, and Berlin is outstanding.
— from "Berlin and the Artist" in Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser.

I've been wanting to visit Berlin for more than twenty-five years now, since I first saw Wings of Desire. I must go someday.

I love this passage. Reminds me a little of Patrick Hamilton's description of London in The Slaves of Solitude.

(Perhaps I shall begin collecting literary city descriptions, to compile a sort of travelogue...)

More excerpts from this and other Walser stories at The New York Review of Books.