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Benjamin Kunkel (New Yorker) on the life and work of the Swiss writer

In “Jakob von Gunten,” the 1909 novel by the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser, the hero adopts the motto “To be small and to stay small.” The words apply just as well to Walser himself, whose life and work played out as a relentless diminuendo. The up-and-coming young novelist of the period before the First World War, capable of producing three novels in as many years, turned to shorter forms, and saw his audience and his income dwindle gradually through the war years and the nineteen-twenties. Once a fixture of smart Berlin society, Walser exchanged the world of salons for a series of tiny furnished rooms and, finally, in 1929, a mental institution. Even his handwriting diminished; he was able to squeeze a last novel—a short one, but still—onto just twenty-four sides of octavo-size paper. For years, some scholars believed that the script in which Walser composed this novel, “The Robber,” and many other later works was an uncrackable private code, and not until 1972, fifteen years after his death, did transcriptions from the so-called Bleistiftgebiet, or “pencil area,” begin to appear. The publication, starting in the eighties, of six volumes of painstakingly transcribed texts brought to light some of Walser’s most beautiful and haunting writing, and reinforced his posthumous reputation in German. The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.
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Aashish Kaul (3:AM Magazine) on Joseph Frank’s 1945 study

‘As Joseph Frank points out in his early study from 1945, Spatial Form in Modern Literature, Joyce, in Ulysses, works with the assumption that his readers are Dubliners, intimately acquainted with Dublin life and the personal history of his characters, thereby allowing him to refrain from giving any direct information about them; information that, contrary to his intentions, would have betrayed the presence of an omniscient author. What Joyce does, instead, is to present the elements of his narrative in fragments, as they are thrown out unexplained in the course of casual conversations, or as they lie embedded in the various strata of symbolic reference, allusions to Dublin life, history, and the external events of the twenty-four hours during which the novel takes place. The factual background, which otherwise is so conveniently summarized for the reader, must be reconstructed in this case from fragments, sometimes hundreds of pages apart, scattered through the book. As a result, Frank argues, the reader is forced to read Ulysses in the manner he reads modern poetry – continually fitting fragments together and keeping allusions in mind until, by reflexive reference, he can link them to their complements. Indeed Joyce himself, although his model was Aristotle, says as much of Ulysses in a letter to Ezra Pound of 9 April 1917: ‘I am doing it, as Aristotle would say – by different means in different parts.’ [Read More]

Writer and translator Lydia Davis talks to Dann Gunn about Beckett and The Emperor of Ice-Cream (via Music & Literature)
Dan Gunn
Dan Gunn

A very orderly Greek friend visited me recently, and on stepping into my office and seeing the state of my desk, cried out “Dan! What is that?” He was genuinely shocked, perturbed even, at the sight of the books, papers, unopened envelopes, and assorted debris that flows from several piles over my desk, threatening at any moment to spill off the edges (as it regularly does) and onto the floor. My response was not, I hope, unduly defensive: “It’s a sign that I’m being productive.” Indeed, my desk is clear and tidy only ever for a brief moment after some task has just been completed (or at moments when I remember some unopened bill that needs to be paid). I do like to observe something organized emerging from the apparent chaos; and when that chaos threatens to become a liability, I turn to photos of the studios of artists I admire, of Francis Bacon or Alberto Giacometti, and protest: Now their mess really was a mess.

When I was seventeen, I chose to leave Edinburgh, where I was raised, for the University of Sussex, not least because I had read a book by Gabriel Josipovici entitled The World and the Book; it said on the cover that he was teaching there. What I admired (and still admire) about this wonderful critical work was that it dealt openly and freely with different periods and authors, from different cultures and languages, from Dante to Proust to Saul Bellow. Also mentioned on the cover was that Gabriel Josipovici wrote fiction as well as criticism. In some quiet place within me I seized hold of this as a model: a critic who also writes fiction; a novelist who also writes criticism. I had eight fantastic years at Sussex, taught in an ideal setting by the best teachers imaginable. As it happens, on my very first day I was introduced to my “personal tutor” (what in America would be called my “academic advisor”): Gabriel Josipovici. We quickly got to know each other and have remained friends ever since. The Sussex of those days confirmed for me that one did not have to be (only) a specialist, that one could draw inspiration from many sources, refusing to be boxed in to a single discipline or period or language. I still find that the criticism emerging from this openness suits me best. I have recently been rereading with delight Tony Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker—a book by a former Sussex professor that emerges out of precisely what I’d call the “Sussex spirit.” (more…)

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Photograph: Vivian Maier

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On the set of Eraserhead

An excerpt from Chris Rodley’s wonderful book, Lynch on Lynch, quoted by Criterion Collection

Eraserhead took five years to complete. You must have been completely dedicated to the film to sustain both the project and your own enthusiasm over such an extended production period. What was it about the idea that you loved?

It was the world. In my mind, it was a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood. A little, unknown, twisted, almost silent lost spot where little details and little torments existed. And people were struggling in darkness. They’re living in those fringelands, and they’re the people I really love. Henry’s definitely one of those people. They kind of get lost in time. They’re either working in a factory or fiddling with something or other. It’s a world that’s neither here nor there. It came out of the air in Philadelphia. I always say it’s my Philadelphia Story. It just doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart in it!

I could be on the set at night, and I would imagine the whole world around it. I imagined walking out, and there were very few cars—there might be one far away, but in the shadows—and very few people. And the lights in the windows would be really dim, and there would be no movement in the window, and the coffee shop would be empty except for one person who didn’t speak properly. It was just like a mood. The life in that world . . . there was nothing like it. Things go so fast when you’re making a movie now that you’re not able to give the world enough—what it deserves. It wants to be lived in a little bit; it’s got so much to offer, and you’re going just a little too fast. It’s just sad. (more…)

Ferris Jabr (New Yorker) discusses Nabokov, Joyce, Woolf, and the science of walking (thanks to Emily Blewitt for the link)

In Vogue’s 1969 Christmas issue, Vladimir Nabokov offered some advice for teaching James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.” He drew a charming one himself. Several decades later, a Boston College English professor named Joseph Nugent and his colleagues put together an annotated Google map that shadows Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step by step. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, as well as students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have similarly reconstructed the paths of the London amblers in “Mrs. Dalloway.” (more…)

From an article by Alex Ross (New Yorker)

ad2be-bremer-adorno-benjaminIn Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a disgraced academic named Chip Lambert, who has abandoned Marxist theory in favor of screenwriting, goes to the Strand Bookstore, in downtown Manhattan, to sell off his library of dialectical tomes. The works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and various others cost Chip nearly four thousand dollars to acquire; their resale value is sixty-five. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society,” Franzen writes. After several more book-selling expeditions, Chip enters a high-end grocery store and walks out with an overpriced filet of wild Norwegian salmon.

Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno). (more…)

From Scott Esposito (Center for the Art of Translation)
Robert Walser
Robert Walser

In 1993 when Susan Bernofsky published her first book-length translation of Robert Walser, the author was little-known in English and virtually unread in the United States. By 2009, when Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners signified that all of Walser’s novels were available in English for the first time, the release of that book was greeted with praise from publications as diverse as BookForum, Time Out New York, and the Los Angeles Times.

The rise of Walser in translation over the past two decades has been nothing short of stunning, and it is thanks in no small part to a group of fine translators, of whom Bernofsky has played a leading roll. Since her first publication of Walser in 1993 she has published two other books by him, with two more on the way, as well as a critical biography of the author. No less a reader than the Nobel-winning novelist and critic J.M. Coetzee—one of Walser’s great contemporary admirers—has praised Bernofsky’s translations for their “ingenuity” and “resourcefulness” in dealing with his wide vocabulary and highly precise prose. (more…)

Arvo Pärt
Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt speaks to Tom Huizenga (NPR)

Arvo Pärt is one of the few living composers to find popularity beyond the borders of classical music. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Bjork are big fans. Although the 78-year-old musician usually shies away from acclaim and the media, he is currently attending a festival of his music in New York and Washington, and he made time to talk about his music, bike riding and bells.Pärt is a major composer, and I was a little nervous meeting him. So I brought along a bell for good luck. I set it on the table between us and gave it a little tinkle. (more…)

The Paris Review has transcribed a recent interview with the American filmmaker

Paul Thomas Anderson: When I was at Emerson for that year, David Foster Wallace, who was a great writer who was not known then, was my teacher—he was my English teacher … It was the first teacher I fell in love with. I’d never found anybody else like that at any of the other schools I’d been to. Which makes me really reticent to talk shit about schools or anything else, because it’s just like anyplace—if you could find a good teacher, man, I’m sure school would be great. (more…)

SAMLA 85: Durham, NC Nov 13-15, 2015
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Minihan
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Minihan

The Samuel Beckett Society, Affiliated Session
Conference of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA)
Chair/contact: Michelle Rada, Brown University

This panel seeks to explore the ways in which bodies are figured and disfigured in Beckett’s work. On their own constituting an expansive “body of work,” Beckett’s prose texts, poems, plays, radio, television, and film works posit human, non-human, and inhuman bodies in different and often surprising forms. What kinds of bodies are incorporated, disembodied, or stripped bare in Beckett’s work? How can we trace the life, vulnerability, and survival of the body in single texts and across works? Are Beckettian physical and textual bodies susceptible to or immune from affect? Which bodies, metaphorical or otherwise, are excluded from consideration and care in a quite prolific archive of Beckett criticism? How does the body function and dysfunction across genre and media, prose and performance? The purpose of this panel is to provide a multidisciplinary platform for thinking about the body in Beckett’s work through emerging reading practices, which could engender new connections and ideas for such an extensively critiqued range of texts. In keeping with SAMLA’s theme for the 2015 conference, “In Concert: Literature and the Other Arts,” emphasis placed on thinking across genre, media, and theoretical approaches is encouraged, and will be a significant part of our conversation at this panel. (more…)

Charlotte Higgins (The Guardian) on the continuing relevance of a 3,000-year-old poem

Many wishing to make sense of wars in their own time have reached for The Iliad. Alexander the Great, perhaps the most flamboyantly successful soldier in history, slept beside a copy annotated by his tutor, Aristotle. “He esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge,” according to Plutarch’s biography. Simone Weil’s essay, “L’Iliade ou le poème de la force”, published in 1940, holds that “the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force”, which she defines as “that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”. (more…)

European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts · Malta · 15-18 June 2015

A call for papers from the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSAeu):

This year’s conference is dedicated to the theme of Scale. In one way or another, scale is an issue deeply embedded in every discipline and every aspect of scholarly and scientific research. As the Call for Papers puts it, in the grand scheme of things Scale is the scheme of things itself. We do very much hope, therefore, that you will be as excited by the prospect of an interdisciplinary conference on Scale as we are. We are very pleased that the location of the conference will be Malta, an island in the middle of the Mediterranean with a rich history and culture, where effects of scale have exerted intriguing and complex energies for centuries, and which provides a particularly fitting and appealing venue for this year’s event. (more…)

davidwinters_infinitefictionsA promising new title from Zero Books: ‘David Winters has quickly become a leading voice in the new landscape of online literary criticism. His widely-published work maps the furthest frontiers of contemporary fiction and theory. The essays in this book range from the American satirist Sam Lipsyte to the reclusive Australian genius Gerald Murnane; from the distant reading of Franco Moretti to the legacy of Gordon Lish. Meditations on style, form and fictional worlds sit side-by-side with overviews of the cult status of Oulipo, the aftermath of modernism, and the history of continental philosophy. Infinite Fictions is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the forefront of literary thought.’ [Read More]

For a taster of David Winters’ writing style, take a look at his website, http://davidwinters.uk

Stefano Rosignoli (New Dublin Press) has interviewed Lois M. Overbeck about the progress of Samuel Beckett’s Letters, an ambitious four-volume collection of the Nobel laureate’s correspondence
Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

At the end of a summer rich in events on Samuel Beckett, scattered largely between Dublin, Belfast and Enniskillen, academic research was encouraged in October with the publication by Cambridge University Press of the third volume of the writer’s correspondence. As in the previous volumes, Beckett’s statements about his own work, as well as the many intertextual references expanded on in the dense notes appended by the editors, demonstrate the scholarly value of the publication, which will become a primary resource especially for young researchers with no opportunity to explore public archives and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic. It is Beckett’s mocking depiction of intellectual life, however, rather than the crowded web of literary and artistic influences, that strikes the general reader and ensures that the letters are an enjoyable, rather than purely informative reading experience: “On m’a demandé un livret d’opéra bouffe! J’ai écrit une ligne – ‘J’ai pas envie de chanter ce soir’ – puis j’ai renoncé.” (“I have been asked for a libretto for a comic opera! I wrote one line: ‘I don’t feel like singing tonight’. Then I gave up.” SB to Jacoba Van Velde, 12.04.1958; in LSB III, 130-131). This trenchant tongue doesn’t appear to spare Beckett himself. In the same letter he declares, exhausted: “Il y a deux moments qui valent la peine, dans le travail, celui de la mise en route et celui de la mise en corbeille” (“There are two worthwhile moments in my work: the opening up and the basketing”; ibid.). This is just one of the many accounts of Beckett’s distress when facing the creation of new work, something that continues to spring at the author from the white page itself even during the years of his belated success.

I met Lois M. Overbeck, research associate at Emory University and general editor of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, to discuss the series, which is now approaching its conclusion. The interview took place just a few days after a public lecture given in Reading by Dan Gunn, professor at the American University of Paris and editor of the Cambridge collection, and before a reception at the Irish Embassy in London, which hosted a reading of the letters given by Barry McGovern. (more…)