ads without products

Archive for April 17th, 2009


with 5 comments

Someone wrote me recently asking me to change my feed setting so that you can read the full posts in a reader. They’re right – it’s bad for me to care about my numbers so much as to inconvenience you. And I don’t really care about them all that much. So I changed the setting. Yay!

But then, writing and rewriting the last post, I just remembered one other reason to make you come to the site to read the posts. I am a post-now, edit-a-few-minute-later sort of blogger. I do it all the time, and perhaps I could change and perfect the things before hitting the button, but I sort of doubt it. (I also have a nasty but healthy habit of posting then deleting, especially on weekends, which you can’t do if 3/4s of your readership has the full post, permanently in their google reader). So…. rather than have all of you read mangled, incomplete, incoherent versions of the posts, I’ve restored the rss settings. I really do apologize for the inconvenience….

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 17, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

alors l’angleterre, part 1.1

with 71 comments

One of the strangest things about England is that, despite the fact that its the birthplace and ancestral home of the political form that we identify with the interests of the middle class, it has lacked, for a good long while, a proper bourgeoisie. I mean to say, specifically in this case, that it lacks a class that thinks properly bourgeois thoughts, the thoughts of a class torn between accumulation and consumption.

It’s topcoats and overalls, socio-psychologically speaking, all the way down.

Of course as there’s a deep and complex relationship between bourgeois subjectivity and the novel form (no surprise, really, there – this is not new, neither in its historicity nor its formal immanence), so it really is no wonder that, well, the English have under-performed on this front over the past hundred years or so, with few exceptions.

Bourgeois subjectivity. That sounds awful doesn’t it? I think what I mean, to be a little more serious than I have been is, yes, bourgeois subjectivity but more specifically a sense of the personal contingency of class, that class-position can change – and, in particular, can change for reasons that are both your doing and definitely not your doing. I want to eat this or fuck this or write this but if  I do I might fall… or maybe rise. Rigidity of social forms (and I’m not so much making an argument about reliative social mobility so much as relative perceived social mobility) is incompatible with the type of subjectivity I am trying to describe. The sense that things can change breeds hope and fear, mystification and ambition, false consciousness, interiority, “narcissism,” and an ambiguously-important sense that all of this is just a show, unreal.

I am amazed at how deeply the English believe in the reality of class. Trust me, this is both a bad and good thing. Americans tend to live in a fantasy of mobility and egalitarian meritocracy, yes, but the English seem to believe, down deep, that they are actually better or worse than other people, like for real, down deep, because of the conditions of their birth.

So, here begins a list of reasons why, for the last 100 years, the wholly-formed denizens of this nation*, with the sole exception of Virginia Woolf, and despite market-dominance for the two centuries before 1900, haven’t been able to write truly persuasive prose fiction, that is to say novels persuasive enough to stay on the world’s shelf and reread, well, willingly. I’ll have more reasons for you very soon.

Obviously, of course all this presumes (and perhaps indicts, though obviously I have mixed feelings about this) the fact that the novel is a bourgeois form. I think it’s also fairly obvious that it is, even though the wonderful thing about genres and forms are that they are reappropriable, redeployable, can be detourned and all the rest. But there are different ways of failing to make the cut. And it’s also interesting to think that the English once possessed a bourgeois sensibility (one is almost tempted to say a modern sensibility, in a longview sort of way), and then somehow lost it.

But let’s not, for now, have an argument about the politics of the form. Let’s just figure out why the English can’t write them and go from there. Americans can, South Africans can, Australians and Canadians can, the Irish can, but Brits – keep calm and carry on, I guess.

* Obviously it’s a bit weird to exclude non-ethnically English writers. In this case, since they have access to a different set of ideological matrices though, I think it’s fair. Go look at the Booker List. Colonials, colonials, recent arrivals, and Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan? We all might have a novel or two that we’ve liked from this place, sure, but really, I think you know what I mean. Someone will say Ballard, inevitably, but seriously, something’s gone wrong in the land of Defoe and Fielding, Austen and Eliot, Dickens and Woolf.

(There, less narcissistic… You all were right… This feels much better…. But as you might imagine, this is going to end-around toward “narcissism,” eventually… And fuck, I screwed up the elision in the title first time around. The English can’t write novels, but sons of Anglo-Canada can’t write in French, it’s still true…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 17, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Posted in england, novel

“I don’t want to be a professor”

with 26 comments

I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (after I was myself alerted to it by IT) that Coetzee’s review of the new edition of Beckett’s letters in the NYRB is not to be missed. Here’s the start of it:

In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation first a visiting lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then a position back at Trinity College.

After a year and a half at Trinity, performing what he called the “grotesque comedy of lecturing,” Beckett resigned and fled back to Paris. Yet even after this letdown, Rudmose-Brown did not give up on his protégé. As late as 1937 he was still trying to nudge Beckett back into the academy, persuading him to apply for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. “I may say without exaggeration,” he wrote in a supporting letter, “that as well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, [Mr Beckett] has remarkable creative faculty.” In a postscript he added: “Mr Beckett has an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”

Beckett felt genuine fondness and respect for Rudmose-Brown, a Racine specialist with an interest in the contemporary French literary scene. Beckett’s first book, a monograph on Proust (1931), though commissioned as a general introduction to this challenging new writer, reads more like an essay by a superior graduate student intent on impressing his professor. Beckett himself had severe doubts about the book. Rereading it, he “wondered what [he] was talking about,” as he confided to his friend Thomas McGreevy. It seemed to be “a distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself…tied somehow on to Proust…. Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.”

Ugh. Yep, another one of those stories about a brave and successful escape from academia. Coetzee slyly mentions later on in the review that “through contacts at the then University of Buffalo [Beckett] also drops hints that he might look kindly on an offer from that quarter (it did not come).” You might know or not know that Coetzee held a teaching position at Buffalo for a bit. You might know or not know something else that I can’t to get into, but let’s just say I’ve heard and reheard the story about the end of his time as an assistant professor, specializing in I suppose British modernism, over and over and over again and from those who would know. But let’s just say I really appreciated Coetzee’s little in-joke.

Really good reason why this blog can’t have my name on it: I’d like to get out, and I really can’t talk about that publically, under my own name. I have a vague plan to get out – something we refer to in my household as the “five-year plan.” I won’t go into the hows of this, but it’s something I’d very much like to do. Unlike Beckett, I actually enjoy teaching, the classroom time, and the reports back from my students would be very different from those that he received. But the damned business shreds time, absolutely shreds it. It’s not the time in the classroom that’s the problem. But lately, since I’m on Easter break, I’ve been indulging myself and working on whatever I like for afternoons at a time, and the work is better and far more pleasing than anything else that I do at any other point in the year.

Anyway, I also appreciated the following:

Though Beckett’s literary output during the twelve years covered by these letters is fairly thin—the Proust monograph; an apprentice novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, disowned and not published during his lifetime; the stories More Pricks Than Kicks ; Murphy ; a volume of poems; some book reviews—he is far from inactive. He reads extensively in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Schopenhauer. On Schopenhauer he reports: “A pleasure…to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification.” He works intensively on Geulincx, reading his Ethics in the original Latin: his study notes have recently been unearthed and published as a companion to a new English translation.

Twelve years of relatively thin publication, from age 23 to 34. (It’s not really that thin, is it?) Twelve years of reading and periodic publishing and abortive teaching and bouts of psychoanalysis. Coetzee brought out his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974, when he was 34, three years after he stopped teaching at Buffalo.

There’s something deformative, something that you parry with for a long time, about having spent your twenties in the stupid hothouse of New York, or more specifically Brooklyn, during the bubble, again more specifically the period literarily speaking between the founding of Tina Brown’s Talk (remember?) and the founding of n+1. What would Beckett have made of it? What would Coetzee? My wife and I are still reeling from it a bit, I think it’s safe to say. We are 31 and 32 respectively. Anyway, Coetzee writes a lot of stuff about old men lately – he makes his alter-egos even older than he is himself – but this is a valuable review focused on what it means to be a different sort of old man, a young old man, in transit between the business of teaching and the business of writing.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 17, 2009 at 12:21 am

Posted in beckett, coetzee