November 30, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: Wisdom, Paul Auster, Chess Novels, and the NYTimes 100 Notable Books

Update: Further to my remarks on tiring of over-hyped new books, hooray for the folks at The Millions for these remarks, and for their plan to have their contributors share "the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date":
There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008's best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call "the tyranny of the new" holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the "Best Books of 2008" feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library. (bookmark this post to follow the series)
Morris Dickstein is eloquent on "why literature still matters" (though I wonder about the rhetorical valence of that "still"):
We readers and critics do what we do because we love it, but also because it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions. No two readings of a genuinely significant book, no performances of a living play, are ever quite the same. When they work their spell, they enfold us in an action that is radically provisional, not easily paraphrased, open to interpretation — and therefore to the unexpected. Since literature resists closure, our work — which is not exactly work — remains open-ended, with no real endgame. Always provisional, never definitive, this wisdom is our special form of knowing. (read the rest here)
Just in time to help me prepare for teaching City of Glass next term, Michael Dirda writes up Paul Auster in the NYRB:
Auster himself has emphasized that he is fascinated by "certain philosophical questions about the world," in particular aspects of identity and human psychology. His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life's overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness. . . .

Some of Auster's tics or techniques—the incestuous literary connections, the skewed autobiography, the ambiguous blurring of fact and fiction, the pervasive fatefulness—might sink any ordinary novel from sheer portentousness. And portentousness, as well as sentimentality, has been a criticism regularly leveled at his work. At its best, his tone is unruffled, meditative, intelligent, yet sometimes it does grow gravely august, both orotund and oracular. His characters are all too often the playthings of invisible forces; and the most trivial action—answering a telephone, buying a blue notebook—can bring about the most improbable and dire consequences. What may look like chance is usually kismet, and to Auster New York really is Baghdad on the Hudson, an Arabian Nights world of omens, shifting identities, unexpected windfalls, improbable meetings, wildly good and bad luck, and all those sudden peripeteias that seem more the stuff of melodrama than of modern fiction. (read the rest here)
As my earlier post on Auster reveals, I'm not sold on ingenuity and metatextuality as a basis for great literature. I was recently exposed to another "novel" that made me even more dissatisfied with what seems like the substitution of intellectual games and hyper-cleverness for the humanity of art....Well, for people who like that sort of thing, I'm sure this is just the sort of thing they like.

The yearly orgy of "best of" lists is underway; the New York Times offers its list of "100 Notable Books of 2008" here. Pat Barker's Life Class, Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News and Richard Price's Lush Life are three from the fiction list that I hope to get around to. I'm actually feeling a bit tired of reading much-hyped literary newcomers that disappoint (more about that when I get around to writing up my own "year in reading" post). My Christmas wishlist this year is heavy on more classic titles (like a little thing called War and Peace that I really should have reread in a good translation long ago).

And in a more idiosyncratic vein, at the Washington Post we get a list of novels for "chess enthusiasts (and those who love them)." My son is an avid chess player (and former provincial champion), but at 11 I don't think he's quite ready for any of the books described here. Still, it's worth noting them down in case the enthusiasm endures. A commenter already mentioned Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which was the one book I could think of with a chess-driven plot. Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles all feature chess-y titles, and some chess games are played (one, memorably, with live 'pieces'), but they aren't really about chess in any particular way.


Jeff Carroll said...

Three other books with chess-related plots:

Nabokov "The Defense"
Walter Tevis "The Queen's Gambit"
Stefan Zweig "The Royal Game"

Christopher Foy said...

I remember becoming very disheartened about the overhyped new books having read Shield's Larry's Party and Alexis' Childhood back-to-back. This may have been when I first noticed that mediocre is far more disappointing (when expectations have been raised) than truly bad. I'm especially wary of new Canadian books, and suspect that there's a greater danger of excessive praise and attention here. (Of course, maybe I should just listen to less Radio One.)

That being said, I would certainly recommend the new Atkinson. Her sharp, funny narrative voice is a pleasure. I also find what she does with the mystery genre interesting,--though it must be said that I haven't been a big reader of mystery for many years, so take this with all necessary Kosher-sized salt grains--especially in When Will There Be Good News?. The mystery isn't whodunnit, why, or even how one figures it out, but rather the mystery of how we endure tragedy, loss, and loneliness. Because these seem to me Atkinson's mysteries' real questions, the cipher-like villains work much better than they normally would for a reader like me who sympathizes with your preference on Fingersmith's portrayal of "purely human ingenuity, deception, and malevolence". It's not that Atkinson invokes any silly spiritualism, but I found her challenging me as a reader with her depictions of "random" violence, yet in a much more intellectually honest way, I think, than the hypermasculine nihilism of a Brett Easton Ellis, or, I imagine,--since I have no desire to read him--Chuck Palahniuk.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi, Chris--nice to know you are out there. It's the Globe and Mail book section that I find can be especially misleading. Is it because they almost always ask novelists to review novels (rather than, say, you know, critics?)--so everyone's nice to everyone else in case it's their turn next? I read the first Atkinson mystery while flying back from Australia and I think the copious quantities of Ativan required to get me through that experience dulled its impact. I actually gave away my copy, and have been regretting it since. Your comments increase my interest in catching up with this set.

Jeff: thanks very much for the further references! A friend told me today also about a chess novel called The Eight, so now I have quite a good list.

Jim H. said...


Absolutely essential chess-novel reading is poet Brad Leithauser's Hence, written under, presumably, the influence of Kasparov's loss to the IBM Big Blue.

I quote one particularly beautiful passage over at my blog

"What does it matter who actually wins this local and preliminary contest? What matters, surely, is not this particular machine but those that will follow, and here is a tale worth the telling, that of the one true rarity in the universe—the story of birth.

Or in that striving to be born, anyway, there is a story. Within the machine is a spark that wants out, it seems—as it seems we all want out. The paddling beast of burden begins to understand—that its sorry conclusion has arrived, its body is not a suitable body, its feet ought to be webbed, the chambers of its heart are insufficient to cross so vast a premise of water, and sunny millennia of grazing have maladapted it to this fluid new task ... Its each kick and throb expresses a wordless, inbred, outreaching dissatisfaction and a cry, a deeply abdominal despairing grunt, collects in its straitened throat. This cry wants out. The old man with his systematic scrapbooks, the scarred old woman his wife with her unsystematic body of grievances, equally they want out. They are, all of them, protesting, if they could form a genuine protest, they are making demands, if they could form a genuine protest, they are making demands, if they knew how to shape a demand. The din of their longings so thickens the air that it takes some time to discern what would be, if only there were words, the initial message intended for you. Give me a voice, they would say."

Jim H.