Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An attempt at an exegesis of an Amazon book review of Robert G. Wetzel's Limnological Analyses, 3rd edn.

The review, posted on November 12, 2014, and long unnoticed by readers browsing the website, reads:

I didn't buy this book

As soon as I've read it, with bated breath, from beginning to end, I understood that it is a piece of critical writing deeply misunderstood by all readers, including myself. In a feat of concision, the author liminally comments on the science of limnology the way someone who does not swim might undertake an in-depth analysis of a landlocked basin of water. He says, "I didn't buy this book" the way the non-swimmer would say, "I never went to the lake." He gives the book one star, which, better than five stars, is symbolic of the conceptual darkness surrounding the book and hints at the impossibility of reading it. "I didn't buy the book" means, we might speculate, that the book is beyond his means (the reader-to-be is short of funds, or perhaps even deeply in debt); or that there are no bookstores within reach, or yet, the reviewer lives in an area so remote that postal service does not offer home delivery, and because of his debt (see the first hypothesis) he cannot afford a post office box; or that the reviewer stole the book, and this is in fact a confession of his crime (and it is up to us, the review readers, to solve the mystery, which is not who dunnit, but how he dunnit); or that, wracked with guilt (see the theft hypothesis), he is unable to read it, and manages only to circumnavigate its hardbound perimeter, and at best uses the dust-jacket for warmth. It is possible that the reviewer is himself a non-swimmer and that, in an attempt to learn to move in a body of water with the help of only his own body, he felt the need to reach out to a body of knowledge that would reveal the secrets of the lake. However, despite all the information it might have contained, the book turned out to be useless as a flotation device, and sank. The reviewer survived. His book review is, in fact, a testimony to his survival of the encounter with the book which he did not buy. Like other reviewers of this review, I answered the question, "Was this review helpful to you?" in the negative, because, despite all its insights, I still can't swim. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Evan Dara's Lost Scrapbook, or the art of listening to static

In Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, there is a scene in which the angel Damiel (portrayed by Bruno Ganz) flies over the city listening to people's thoughts: a small snippet unlocks an entire life. The reader of Evan Dara's novel might feel a bit like that: inhabiting multiple consciousnesses one after another, although perhaps without all the intimate knowledge afforded to an angel. No, there is nothing supernatural about this novel. The reader is invited to lend an ear to the most quotidian -- and to the marvelous that resides within the quotidian.

Another metaphor that one could use to describe the narrative technique invented here -- and one perhaps more to the point since it is deployed within the novel -- is the metaphor of the radio. Imagine that, with every turn of the dial, you are tuning in to someone's voice: a conversation, a letter being read, an internal monologue, an interview on the air, a town hall meeting, a courtroom debate... All these voices are always on; you are tuning in at an arbitrary point, always in medias res. You are not a patient listener: sometimes you stick with the story for several pages, other times you can put up with just one paragraph. Sometimes you recognize a voice you have heard before. Sometimes the same person is mentioned by different acquaintances or friends, even though they may never speak directly.

The Lost Scrapbook could then be described as a transcript of that radio channel-swapping session. Like on the radio, you are also reaching out to different locations. Sometimes they are given (starting with Edwardsville -- that is Edwardsville, IL, first hinted at by a reference to Hoppe Park (p. 7) and then named directly), other times identified by some local marker (a unique succession of intersections in Springfield, MO (pp. 8ff); or state routes in western Tennessee... (p. 22)), and other times, omitted entirely.

The transition from one "radio station" (speaker, narrator) to the next is as fluid as on the radio, there is no break, no rhetorical transition. Full stop is the one punctuation mark absent from the book: there are dashes, commas, ellipses, spaces -- bigger or smaller, contracting and expanding -- semicolons, colons... Punctuation is not always used in the way you'd expect. Sometimes it is like the static you get on the radio when the signal is getting weak.

How can you tell that the radio dial has been given another turn (let's stick with this metaphor), since you are actually not in control of the knob?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Experience of absence

This entry in my long-neglected blog is prompted by Terry Pitt's blog post, Modiano's Dora Bruder, with & without images which made me think again about the status of photographs in the novel. A complete set of photographs was published for the first time in 2012 in the Cahier de l'Herne no. 98  devoted to Patrick Modiano. The new English edition of Dora Bruder (2014) apparently contains three, in addition to two fragments of a Paris map showing the two neighborhoods, around Clignancourt and Picpus: one can see them in book preview on Amazon; they look like a typical street plan from the 60s or 70s, and I suspect have been thrown in for the English reader's benefit by the publisher, rather than being added by the author. It is probable that the author had little to say about the inclusion of photographs in the English edition: books with images tend to sell better...

I agree with Terry that "the images don't add much to Dora Bruder"; the decision to omit them from the original French publication, however, still merits some reflection. The discovery of the photographs was a turning point in Modiano's search for the traces of Dora Bruder, a teenage Jewish girl who ran away from home just as the police were tightening their grip on the population, and who, like so many others, was killed in Auschwitz. In December of 1988, Modiano discovered a missing-persons ad placed in Paris-Soir on 31 December 1941 and containing a description of the runaway. Thus the first encounter with the girl takes place in language; it is years before her face emerges to light. According to Modiano's correspondence with Serge Klarsfeld, the writer received the first [copies of] photographs of Dora Bruder and her parents in late March 1995, over six years after Modiano had first "responded" to the nearly fifty-year-old newspaper announcement.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Translating, ruins

I came upon this book the way one comes upon one's own reflection in the mirror and views it as other. Or perhaps the other way around: seeing another's reflection and mistaking it for one's own. To talk about oneself when talking about a book might be a fallacy of interpretation, yet the constellation of ideas mapped out here, and thinkers invited to dialog, so closely matches what I have been working on, what I have been nearly obsessed with, while submitting it to an unexpected dislocation, that the effect of this encounter is a sort of shock: photography -- memory / forgetting -- geological, temporal, affective ... fault lines -- translation . . . Ilse Binge, Germaine Krull, Vieira da Silva, Hervé Guibert, Viktor Kossakovsky, Maurice Blanchot, Walter Benjamin, Georges Didi-Huberman . . .

I could start differently: Nathanaël's Sisyphus, Outdone is a meditation on photography and catastrophe, on the ruin of memory that is perhaps triggered by the opening of the rift that is the shutter and the seismic event that is the act of taking a shot.
After an aftershock, there is stillness in the fault plane. With and without (visible) fault lines. The fault may be mine. In keeping with the fault, out of line. Seismically, I presume -- I know nothing of such things -- the stillness to be measurable, the way tremors are. Seismically, I presume again, for it not to be possible, ever, for the earth not to move. For the rest of us not to be moved by it. Every which way: still. (p. 14)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Constellation of images

René Char shares with visual artists a love for the gesture of writing, drawing, a love for the line traced by hand on paper. His poems often re-appear, in handwritten form, in his correspondence, on painted pebbles, or in what we call today "artist's books," often one-of-a-kind. This beautiful Trousseau de Moulin Premier, which I picked up a few years ago at Librairie Compagnie, rue des Écoles, is a reproduction, in shape and size, of a slim cahier of postcards that a tourist to Char's native L'Isle-sur-Sorgue could acquire in the 1930s, as a souvenir of his visit.