Tuesday, February 23, 2010

a simple task on a weekly basis

It’s sort of funny, in a way, that he is known for piano études, because he doesn’t even consider himself a piano player, really, but there it is. I think it went this way: he wrote an étude (by which I mean a short piece that focuses on a particular skill among the generalized skills putatively required for good piano playing, in order to hone this particular bit of muscle memory, or perhaps, more simply, a piece that has a monomaniacal skill-oriented focus) for a friend, enjoyed it, and wrote another (each of them hewing to the following requirements: that it must be written in under six days, that it is not allowed to be “precomposed” or “preconceived” except during the six days, and that it cannot be revised, unless abandoned and started over in a different way), and somewhere during this rampage, he became shockingly good at writing piano études, and is now perilously close to having written a hundred of them. After which he claims he’s going to stop. Many of the études require some superheroic ability (or, viewed differently, some superheroic limitation). There’s a Rakowski étude that requires the player to bang with her fists, one that requires the player to play with his nose, there’s a left-handed étude, a right handed étude, an étude to be played inside the piano (called “Plucking A”), an étude for pedaling, an étude for a single note, and so on.

Rick Moody on David Rakowski, at the Rumpus.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

over there

Mikhail Khodorkovsky graduated from the Mendeleev Institute in Moscow in 1986, with a degree in chemical engineering. At university he’d been deputy head of the Komsomol, in charge of making sure other students came to Party meetings and of excluding them if they had a bad attitude. Kicking someone out of the Komsomol also meant kicking them out of the university; Khodorkovsky had done that too. He was the only child of two Soviet factory workers, one of whom (his father) was Jewish. ‘I realise now that my parents hated the Soviet government,’ he has said, ‘but they shielded me from this, thinking that to do otherwise would be to ruin my life.’ They were right. Their son’s path to success in the Soviet Union was through conformity; they raised him well, and he conformed.

Keith Gessen in the LRB, the rest here.


There is a Romantic misconception that terror has always to be impressive, fierce and appropriately Luciferian – in other words, that terror is nothing if it is not spectacular. However, that's rarely the case in real life. As Czeslaw Milosz excellently put it in The Native Realm, “Terror is not … monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail.” Terror can be mediocre, even idiotic, yet omnipresent. Terror can be terribly banal, utterly un-Romantic, but never-ending. Terror is when the secret police persuade your best friend to inform on you; when objects start moving around your room in your absence; when the secret police interrogator tells you, right before you leave his office after a day-long interrogation, that “accidents do happen,” or when your friends start committing (poorly) staged suicides.


The main character/narrator had been headed for an appointment with her Securitate interrogator, but by the end of the story we are not at all sure that she is going to see him – see him while still in her right mind, that is. For the novel may well be read as a journey into madness. The more so as its very last sentence is an oblique reference to insanity: “The trick is not to go mad.”

Costica Bradatan on Herta Müller

courtesy woods lot

the rest here

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

you have been warned

Instructions for writing:

You will have about 45 minutes to write your essay. If your class is meeting in a lab, you may word-process your essay, formatting it with double spacing before printing it and handing it in to your instructor. You may write your essay by hand, if you prefer, and if you are meeting in a traditional classroom, you will have to write by hand. Please bring paper for writing your essay, and write on every other line, so that you may make corrections or additions when you proofread your essay before handing it in. You may use a dictionary if one is available.

There is no length requirement for this argumentative essay, but please remember that it is an essay rather than a single paragraph. Be sure to use quotation marks when quoting words from the story, and to cite the author's last name in parentheses. No Works Cited page will be required for this essay, however.

[unimprovable addendum to Lorrie Moore's How to Become a Writer]

Swedish readers?

A friend recently told me that in Sweden children are taught the basics of plumbing and electric wiring in primary school. Is this true? Hackhanded attempts to find out more through Google have failed.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


In a remarkably condensed early essay, How is Literature Possible? this movement is prefigured. In it, Blanchot reviews a critical work by Jean Paulhan about the opposition of what we might call traditional and rebellious literature. The idea of overthrowing cliché and the tired generic forms (that is, Tradition) has dominated our conception of literature for 150 years. Blanchot mentions Victor Hugo's rejection of rhetoric, Verlaine's denunciation of eloquence and Rimbaud's abandonment of "old-hat" poetry. Sixty years on, it hasn't changed that much. Think of Martin Amis' famous "war against cliché", JG Ballard's expressed distaste for literature and Steven Wells of ATTACK! Books thumping the table of the high-chair with his spoon. Indeed, Beckett's Trilogy could itself be called a work of terrorism against the citadel of tradition. Yet the rebels themselves are divided into two camps. Those, like Wells, who are keen to dispense with literature altogether in an amphetamine-fuelled auto-de-fe and so destroy the complacent world of bourgeois stolidity, and those, like Amis, who want to prune language of its deadwood so that a consciousness can be experienced in all its grotesque, singular richness. What Blanchot (and indeed Paulhan) does is to point out that in order to do either requires a scrupulous attention to language. "Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those wo most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism [i.e. using cliché] are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach."

Stephen Mitchelmore in Spike Magazine.

they arrange these things better in france

After the war Blanchot began working only as a novelist and literary critic. In 1947, Blanchot left Paris for the secluded village of Eze in the south of France, where he spent the next decade of his life. Like Sartre and other French intellectuals of the era, Blanchot avoided the academy as a means of livelihood, instead relying on his pen. [We once thought we might rely on our pen; our agent put the kaboosh on the idea.] Importantly, from 1953 to 1968, he published regularly in Nouvelle Revue Française. [Autres temps, autre moeurs.] At the same time, he began a lifestyle of relative isolation, often not seeing close friends (like Levinas) for years, while continuing to write lengthy letters to them. [Plus ça change. Emailer avant la lettre.]

from our very dear friends at you know where

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

parallel lines

Is this a crypto-reactionary step backwards towards humanism, sentimentalism, positivism and the whole gamut of bad isms that the vanguard 20th-century novel expended so much effort overcoming – and, moreover, a step backwards enabled by some of that vanguard’s own techniques? It’s hard to say.

Tom McCarthy on Toussaint in the LRB. (If all reviews were like this, reports that print journalism is moribund would be grossly exaggerated.)

mislaid in translation

Toril Moi has a splendid review in the LRB of a new translation of The Second Sex, here.