Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Throwing ethics out of the courts

I have been reading In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which is pretty interesting, if considerably less intellectually dense than my preceding readings in Rousseau and Burke. Basically, the book seems like an attempt to describe journalistically yet psychologically a sort of mental derangement that manifests itself in two men that commit a multiple murder. When Capote puts all his cards on the table by actually quoting at length from a psychiatric report on murderers who kill “without cause,” he seems to lose his journalistic distance and be less describing the situation than mounting a legal defense of the criminals.

Ultimately, I find it somewhat unconvincing, and it seems to get down to a basic disconnect I have with the underpinnings of our legal system. By listing all the emotional traumas, paranoias, lack of contact with reality, etc. of the murderers, the psychiatrists, and Capote, seem to assume that this somehow exonerates the culprits, or at least makes them not punishable by death. But aren’t the people that are most screwed-up and unable to have any sort of normal relationship with society the ones that are most dangerous to it? I am not defending capital punishment, and one could argue that at the least its deterrant value would probably be largely inoperative for those who are genuinely insane, but on the other hand it would certainly serve the function of removing them from society if they simply cannot co-exist safely with others (a debateable point, of course). Anyway, the point is that it baffles me how so many people (and it is certainly not limited to psychiatrists or Truman Capote) can view judicial punishment as some sort of verdict on moral culpability rather than as a matter of making the world safer for the future. I would imagine, at the least, that someone who is sane is more capable of controlling violent behavior than someone suffering from delusions or uncontrollable impulses. I am not sure what the relative merits of capital punishment, pyschiatric care, imprisonment or whatever else are for the overal welfare of society are, but I am sure that that is what is important in these matters, rather than whether criminals are good or bad people, mentally ill or operating with free will.

p.s. It also sort of annoys me how the psychiatrists in the book seems to assume that, for example, a man who kills someone for money is sane and rational, while someone who kills while suffering under a delusional persecution complex is not. I’d say that someone who is willing to shoot a whole family for their money is pretty much pathological, regardless of whether he is objectively lucid about the situation. But it is the old Enlightenment view that morality is tantamount to knowledge or awareness, and that not behaving rightly is tantamount to ignorance. So if someone is aware of their surroundings and what they are doing they are rational. I’d say people are more heterogenous than that: rationality and sanity by my lights is just as much a question of prioritizing values; those who do not see a life as being more valuable than a few dollars are no more sane than those who think that everyone is out to get them.

selling waves now helps you avoid the whole long reading business

For anyone that just doesn’t have time to read all the long, meandering travelogues about Africa, you can save yourself the trouble now by just reading these tips for how to put one together.

Rousseau-less sinning than sinned against?

I’ve been reading Du contrat social (The Social Contract) by Rousseau, and I would have to say that, generally speaking, I find the liberal abhorrence of it to be a little overwrought. I think the main mistake has been to see it as a realistic, rather than idealistic, representation of society. I myself have criticized the notion of the “social contract” in the past as not being at all the foundation of our society and for being somewhat empty, given the relative impossibility of opting out of social living in the world today. But in reality the social contract is just a hypothetical for Rousseau, an idea of what should be the basis for society, rather than what really is.

And the basic problem with the notion is that there is no real concrete practical program of how to achieve the utopia described in the book starting from our own fallible, self-interested world. The view of Rousseau as a totalitarian is definitely unfair, although he does give the rather amorphous “general will” absolute sovereignty over the members of society. But the phrase “general will” is not entirely disingenuous, even though it is clearly a conception of the general welfare of society which trumps the desires of any individual citizen. But Rousseau is very clear that society can only work if its members themselves work first and foremost for the welfare of others and not only their own private interest. So while one might criticize his insistence on the general social good as being somewhat empty and unrealistic, it is not a coercive system that he has in mind, of which many liberals have accused him. One might question if and how people are supposed to place the general good above their own interests. Rousseau’s answer is education. This is why his political and educational programs are virtually synonymous. Again, one can question the feasability and validity of the ultimate end, but he means to bring about those ends by inculcating his ideas as education principles so that people will really want to pursue the general good rather than having it forced upon them. No doubt the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and 80 years of communism has made many of us cynical about this kind of idealism and suspicious that when the peaceful revolution doesn’t work out a violent dictatorship will likely become the vehicle of social change, but in that case one can only Rousseau of naïveté, not of himself having totalitarian ideas.

And, quite honestly, although I can’t share his belief in the existence of a social collective and a unitary “social good,” and I don’t really believe that the basic psychology of humanity can really be fundamentally changed, in the big picture he is right in the sense that social living does require people to look beyond their own self-interest and consider the good of others. The difference is that, in the absence of some sort of extra-human collective will that he envisions, we must do this as subjective individual beings, and with less regard for the strict chimeric equality that he prizes so highly than with a respect for the diversity of things in which people place value.

Science 1, Realism 0

I’ve been reading Tom Jones, which is probably today most known for, if anything, a somewhat quaint 18th century salaciousness. But like Lolita, there is a very learned intention behind the scandal. It is probably one of the first novels in English to overtly propound realism in fiction (by overtly I mean directly, in little essays at the beginning of each section).

Two hundred years of indoctrination have dulled our awareness of just how paradoxical the claim of verisimilitude in fiction is. After learning Jamesian distinctions between “specific” and “general” truths in literature classes most of us probably didn’t even feel any conscious violation of our basic categories of truth and falsehood in this. This may be because it seemed like merely an abstruse historical controversy, as the dogma of realism is taken less seriously these days. But in any case, that claim of truth for a genre which is by definition unreal on the factual level is just that-a violation.

It is probably true that to insist on some sort of rigorous factuality in literature would be to grossly mistake its true value and strengths. But I do not particularly buy the aforementioned distinction between “specific” and “general” truth, with literature staking just as firm of a claim to truth as any other discipline, but on a general rather than specific level. For the so-called “general” truth typically (this is certainly true in Tom Jones) seems to consist of subjective interpretation, such as matters of character or ethics, rather than objective facts. Which is fine, but it tends to negate (or rather evade) any objective distinction between truth and falsehood. As the scientific method demonstrates, warring general interpretations are often irresolvable; it is only through prediction of specific facts that theories are ultimately delineated. Fiction, by remaining in the realm of the hypothetical, claims freedom from fidelity to specific facts, but cannot regain the trustworthiness that that fidelity implies, or the respect that prediction of new facts brings.

What any of this matters is debateable. Since most people don’t take novelistic claims of veracity all that seriously anyway, probably not terribly as far as readers are concerned. But maybe it pertains more to the writing than to the reading of fiction. A writer really attuned to the diversity and mutitudinousness of the world has to be aware of the fallibility and the non-universality of all interpretations. Hopefully, this might have the additional benefit of dampening the academic pretensions of fiction writers, and turning them back towards their entertainment function (and also, perhaps, a sort of moral pedagogical function, as Fielding definitely claims for himself in Tom Jones). But even in the realm of theory, I think an awareness of the essential difference between fact and theory will ultimately lead to a greater awareness of plurality and diversity at the level of the intellect and spirit, a realization to which science, surprisingly, has greatly contributed.

To summarize: the pretensions of realim have been largely discredited by an awareness of how suspect interpretations are objectively when unconnected to any specific factual content (as fiction by definition is). Therefore, writers ought to carry on their projects of entertaining and inspiring in the awareness of their own subjectivity.

Okay, here are some books

A few weeks ago, I critiqued the TIME list of the best English-language novels since 1923. I think I had some good points, but, whether you agree with me or not, it’s obviously easier to criticize than to create. So, with that in mind, I’m creating my own list of favorite books. Of course, any such list has to have constraints, so here are mine: this is a list of the best books that I own, either on paper or electronically, with multiple books from the same author only if they’re really, really deserving. That immediately disqualifies some books that would otherwise make the list, like Proust’s Swann’s Way or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which is sort of annoying, but the plus side for both you the reader (because you get to see what got left out) and me the writer (because I can just go down the list) is that I’ve already got a list of all the books I own physical copies of, and I have few enough electronic editions stored on my hard drive as to not matter too much. So, anyway, here goes:

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Top signs that Bloomsday is upon us

A couple of weeks ago I linked to an interview with Harold Bloom and put up a quotation of his at the top of the page, but that should not be construed as an unconditional endorsement. In general I feel that he has had a salutary effect on literary teaching and criticism, at least in his ostensible aims if not in his style. He claims to be pushing against overt ideology and political correctness in the humanities, which is of course not true to the extent that everyone works out of and expresses an ideology in their work (the post-modernists have taught us that much). But at least Bloom’s brand of ideology seems more oriented towards addressing the elements of literature that are unique and special, or at least distinguish them from nakedly theoretical tracts. This is my main quarrel with applying gender, Marxist, post-colonial et al. theories to literature. It’s not so much that I disagree with their premises (though I often do), it’s that looking at works of literature as primarily economic or racial or genderal signifiars doesn’t yield insights that are basically any different than the conclusions to be found by studying an inheritance or the tax code, and it certainly doesn’t explain why works by Shakespeare or Cervantes are still considered central in a way that 16th century census records aren’t. Those even goes for new theoretical currents like the new trendy literary Darwinism. Generally speaking I find new-Darwinism and evolutionary psychology rather compelling, but again, not only are the things one finds by studying Pride and Prejudice through this lens not much different than the insights one gains by studying fruit flies, the exercise in facts seems generally consist of somewhat mindlessly applying the results of those behavioral studies to the literary work in question. I’m not saying the conclusions in either case are invalid, but from a scientific standpoint fruit flies are much more conducive to experimental research than 19th century novels, so what’s the point of literature?

Which brings us back to Bloom. He presents literature in a way that makes a pretty convincing case that what one can discover in Shakespeare or the other great authors is largely unique to them. Whether it is still of any use to us is another question, but literature stands a greater chance of surviving from this perspective than by providing auxiliary illustration of animal behavioral principles, much less discredited Freudian or Marxist nonsense. That said, Bloom projects the weird impression of not having a center, which is strange in a man who once wrote a book called The Western Canon. It’s very inspiring to hear him talk about the importance of gaining wisdom from the books one reads, or of least of remembering that it is the most important thing we can gain from literature (which it is from the eternal point of view, although like most academic critics he underestimates the value of entertainment for us down here on earth), but he doesn’t seem to have anything to say as to what he means by wisdom. Certainly not much in the way of ideas or approach unites all the authors he’s roped together other than being “classic,” and one almost gets the dispiriting impression that for him it is merely their acceptance as classics that ultimately guarantees their status as wise. Partly I suppose simply because it is hard for me to imagine someone believing Montaigne and Descartes, or Samuel Johnson and the writers of the Kabbalah, as all being wise, or at least in the same way. I’m not suggesting that there should be an explicit doctrine of wisdom, it couldn’t be further from the case, but even taking into account that freedom from doctrine or theory is at least partly what he seems to mean by wisdom, there doesn’t seem to be anything very directed in his criticism except loathing for those uncouth academic barbarians who he feels have desecrated pure aesthetic culture. He certainly doesn’t philosophize with a hammer. And speaking of Nietzsche, although Bloom quotes him a lot, you can bet that you won’t find him quoting this passage from On The Genealogy of Morals, which I can’t help but think of when reading Bloom:

“As for that other type of historian, an even more ‘modern’ type perhaps, a hedonist and voluptuary who flirts both with life and with the ascetic ideal, who employs the word ‘artist’ as a glove and has taken sole lease of the praise of contemplation: oh how these sweetish and clever fellows make one long even for ascetics and winter landscapes…I know of nothing that excites such disgust as this kind of ‘objective’ armchair scholar, this kind of scented voluptuary of history, half person, half satyr, perfume by Renan, who betrays immediately with the high falsetto of his applause what he lacks, where he lacks it, where in this case the Fates have applied their cruel shears with, alas, such surgical skill!…why did nature give me my foot?…for kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs, this cowardly contemplativeness, this lascivious historical eunuchism, this flirting with ascetic ideals, this justice-tartuffery of impotence!”

p.s. In classical post-modernist fashion, when pressed for clarity he tosses off some enigmatic quotes by Kafka, and it’s no surprise that he completely misreads Kafka as passing on to us a weary, resigned shrug rather than recognizing the energy of the introvertedly explosive comedian that he was. His gallows-humor was like Villon’s, although much more subtle.

p.p.s. It’s pretty broad irony, I know, but how about this: “Everyone is now much more concerned with gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, skin pigmentation, and twenty other irrelevancies, whereas I am talking about what I have never talked about before, and that is wisdom…I teach my clases at Yale and what cheers me up are my Asian American students – about half of the students who take my clases are Asian Americans…If this country has a future, it will be because of the new immigrants, the Asians, the Africans, the Hispanics.”

Le vrai homme révolté

I’ve spent the last month wading through the complete poems of François Villon, which is not a bad pace given that the 600 year old dialect, topical references, in-jokes, allusions, slang and the whole string of ballads written in lower-class jargon (not to mention the unmodernized spelling–thank you Livre de Poche editors!) makes huge swaths of the poems virtually indecipherable. Even in French the editors offer speculative translations of whole poems in the footnotes. Nevertheless, through all of that, and largely thanks to the monotonous choice of subjects and versification of medieval poetry, a pretty consistent picture arises from the poems.

Villon is an interesting case, as he is generally considered the first great modern poet in French, while also possessing one of the most notorious personal histories in all of literature. He killed a priest, robbed a college, probably joined a band of marauding vagabonds and was sentenced to death twice (both sentences were commuted to exile). Although he was certainly not the first major poet to focus on the life of the poor and outcast rather than love, religion and chivalry (the poète maudit was something of an archetype in that age as well–Rutebeuf is but one well-known example of a poet who prefigures many of the themes that Villon later addressed, although he treats them less violently and more pathetically), the depth of his immersion in these subjects is somewhat unique.

And what one finds in much of his poetry is the same pathology that people like Dalrymple (or rather Anthony Daniels) observe rampant in the underclass today. Villon, or at least his poetic persona, is for the most part totally lacking in ethical scruples. He usually takes the position that the rich (or rather anyone whom he robs or would like to rob) is, by virtue of their possessing something he does not, worthy of being divested of it. At the same time, when called to account for his actions, he adopts a pervasive fatalism, claiming that the stars, his destiny and the circumstances of his birth precluded any alternative to what he has done. It’s important to recognize that Villon was a real brigand, not one of the pseudo-rebellious modern poets who launch provocative rhetoric from cushy academic appointments or Parisian café’s. As such, Villon does not fetishize his crimes or the criminal existence, as those who have never actually committed any frequently do. He simply avers his desire to have certain things and a general indifference as to how he obtains them, leavened with a consuming paranoia about getting caught. Indeed, in the revealing ballades en jargon, which due to this fact were obviously addressed to other criminals, this fear is virtually the only subject of and emotion evident.

On a related subject, in order to understand the poems I think it is necessary to appreciate that different poems were addressed to different spheres of society. There are the public poems, intended for a patron or the general public, which are mostly colorless and indistinct poems about patriotism or love. Then there are the long poems, the Lais and the massive Testament, which as the name implies are fake testaments where the largely destitute poet satirically pretends to bequeath all kinds of gifts to various enemies. These are halfway between public and private, so the poet mocks many of the rich and powerful, but only through irony, which is to say indirectly. Then there are the private poems and those written in a slang which would be incomprehensible to anyone outside of criminal or underclass circles. This is important because many commentators write I think falsely about the purported repentence and humility of the poet in his works. It is true that Villon in his public poems makes some gestures in this direction, usually in the context of a plea for a stay of execution, but these usually only go so far as to plead for mercy, which is not the same thing as expressing regret or remorse for what he has done. By contrast, in the private poems or those addressed to his peers in the underworld, Villon demonstrates incessantly his defiance of society and his contempt for the victims, in describing whom he uses all the synonyms in the language for “idiot” and “gullible.” Sometimes he demonstrates empathy for the victims of his satire by putting mournful poems in their voices, but never any for the victims of his actions or those of his comrades.

This no doubt appears a pretty dour and humorless interpretation of a large and varied body of work, especially given the considerable verbal dexterity and intermittant humor (although I found Villon’s vaunted sardonic wit generally less impressive than it is praised to be, probably because at this distance in time only the broadest, most universal and hence generally the most leaden ironies are still comprehensible to us), which I have not even mentioned yet. But if anything justifies this attitude, it is that, to repeat, Villon, unlike the modern poets, actually did the things he talks about, and hence was genuinely, as Kierkegaard put it so perfectly, “heterogenous with the ethical.” Hence he is rather problematic for contemporary literarios: he makes the ideal of the poet defying society and its standards seem rather embarassing, given that he actually murdered someone. The fact that he remains a great and venerated poet compounds the embarassment, by exposing the amorality at the heart of literature. This is not to say that literature or writers themselves are necessarily amoral, but simply that writing is just a skill and hence can be put to almost any use, good, bad, or neutral. The fact that someone living a life like Villon’s could be a master of the art attests to this fact. In any case, I need a literary pariah who has been persecuted for more ethically defensible reasons–so, on to Salman Rushdie.

p.s. Villon ironically shows his lack of concern for the ethical by his refusal to idealize his actions. To me this indicates that he does not even feel uncomfortable enough about them to try to reconcile them with any sort of ethical norm. On the other hand, he does frequently idealize his own existence. He often implies that, although he was expelled from the clergy for his criminal activity, his way of living has actually brought him closer to God by exposing him to persecution and by cutting his ties to human societies, thus putting him solely under the protection of God. He also rather astonishingly insinuates a likeness between himself and Christ, for example by, before one of his expected executions (he was about 30 at the time), writing a stanza about how Jesus died for for humanity after 30 years on earth while writing his own name in actrostics with the first letter of each line.

p.p.s. Doubly ironic that this poet whose name is virtually synonymous with a morbid obsession with death is one of the few poets of whom the death has never been confirmed, as after his second reprieve from execution he left Paris and was never heard from again. Thus, despite his fixation on dying he remains, like Schrödinger’s cat, officially in an uncertain state, suspended in the limbo between death and life.

Bitching about books

For those that haven’t seen it, TIME published a list this week of the “All-TIME 100 Novels”, by which they mean the 100 best novels written in English since 1923 (the year TIME started publishing…”All-TIME”, get it?). Needless to say, a bit of a misleading name. Now, obviously, any such list has to have a starting point, and, if you’re TIME, 1923 is an obvious place, but I think it’s interesting that the time period exactly corresponds to books that are still under copyright. Coincidence or not, I’m sure the publishing houses are pleased to note that none of TIME‘s books is available on Project Gutenberg.

That aside, the obvious thing to do when someone publishes a list like this is to criticize it; since I’ve got some spare time tonight and, to be honest, I enjoy this sort of thing, you get some gratuitous ranting about books. The first thing I noticed about the TIME list is how intentionally eclectic it seems to be. I’m a pretty well-read guy, but I admit I’ve read less than half these books, and there’s a goodly number I’ve never even heard of (and a few whose authors I’ve never even heard of). That doesn’t mean it’s a bad list, but it makes me a little apprehensive, especially when I see Judy Blume (?!?) on the list.

Of course, plenty of obvious choices are there: American Pastoral, Gravity’s Rainbow, Herzog, The Invisible Man, Lolita, Pale Fire, To Kill a Mockingbird, To the Lighthouse and, of course, Hemingway (though if I were to pick out one Hemingway book, it would be For Whom the Bell Tolls, not The Sun Also Rises). Oh, yeah, throw The Lord of the Rings, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984 and Animal Farm on the “obvious” list, too. Still, just because something is “obvious” doesn’t mean it really deserves to be there; The Catcher in the Rye makes all of these lists, despite being a pretty mediocre book. I’m also a little leery of having two Philip Roth books on the list. Admittedly I’ve only read one Roth book (American Pastoral), so maybe I’m off base; still, though American Pastoral was good, probably good enough to be on the list, it was pretty much a one-trick pony. I admit the trick was a good one, but not good enough to make me want to go out and buy the Roth collection, especially since, from what I’ve read, Roth is himself a bit of a one-trick pony.

I have the same issues with Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 both being on the list. Now I understand that Pynchon’s supposed to be this great writer, so I don’t begrudge Gravity’s Rainbow being on the list, even though I’ve never made it through more than 100 pages of it despite multiple attempts, but I have read The Crying of Lot 49 and was unimpressed. In fact, I came away from the experience confused (I’m still not sure exactly what happens in the book or why I should care) but very well-rested (it’s only like 150 pages but put me to sleep at least 4 different times). Of course, I have the same problems with DeLillo’s White Noise, which had a mildly interesting plot but was pretty dull to actually read.

As for Naked Lunch and Money, I admit I haven’t read either of them, but I still question their being on the list. I’ve read a couple of Amis’ books and nothing about any of them made me want to go out and buy Money on the spot. In fact, London Fields put me off Amis completely, even though I’d actually enjoyed Time’s Arrow (for the novelty, if nothing else). On the other hand, I’ve thought about picking up Naked Lunch a few times, not because it actually sounds like something I’d enjoy, but just because of the reputation. But every time I remember my dad’s concise review: “I couldn’t finish it.” → That may not sound like much of a review, especially since there are plenty of books I couldn’t finish when I initially tried to read them but eventually loved upon re-reading, but you have to understand that my dad never gives up on any book, no matter how bad. By his own estimation, there are maybe three or four books he’s ever started but never finished And let’s be honest, here: no book by John Le Carré should be on a 100 greatest novels list.

I’ve also got issues with the inclusion of Dog Soldiers and Snow Crash. I know a lot of people think Dog Soldiers is great and I understand it caused a big stir when it was first published, but I bought it immediately after reading Damascus Gate and I didn’t think it measured up at all. Damascus Gate was one of the better books I’ve read in the last couple of years, while Dog Soldiers was good but not particularly memorable. On the other hand, Snow Crash is one of my favorite books of recent years, but, then again, Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite current authors, so I’m a bit biased. So, while I’m pleased to see Stephenson make the list, Cryptonomicon is definitely a better book and The Diamond Age is arguably so. Of course, the Baroque Cycle might be the best of all of them, but it’s a trilogy (or nine separate books, depending on how you count), not a single novel, so I probably would have gone with Cryptonomicon over Snow Crash.

On the sci-fi tip, while I understand that William Gibson is, like, famous and shit, there’s nothing about Neuromancer that really makes it stand out from the crowd, once you get past the fact that it basically invented the cyberpunk genre (which, to be honest, didn’t really last that long or produce that much of note). A far better sci-fi choice would have been Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which, despite the superficial unoriginality of being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, is actually one of the most inventive novels I’ve read. Brave New World also falls into that category and, while I don’t know which I would take out, probably could have replaced one of the two Orwell books on the list (though it should be pointed out that both Huxley and Orwell owe an enormous debt to Zamyatin’s We, which, if a choice had to be made, should have made the list over both 1984 and Brave New World if this list included Russian novels).

Of all the books that didn’t make the list, probably the most deserving is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I’m still not entirely sure whether Toole was a genius or insane, but I think we can all agree that Confederacy is better than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The Wicked Pavilion probably also belongs on the list, as does Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though I realize some may not think it should really be classified as a novel. Ulysses misses the cut because it was published on 1922 (though not in an English-speaking country in its entirety until the 30s), but Finnegans Wake probably deserves consideration, though I admit not having read it myself.

Libertarian nutjobs are probably pissed that Atlas Shrugged didn’t make the list, but I’m here to tell you it didn’t deserve to. Now, I enjoyed Rand as much as anybody back in high school, but let’s be honest: a craftsman of the English language she weren’t (is that the past tense of “ain’t”? I have no idea…warn’t, maybe?). Two-dimensional characters and interminable speechmaking may do the trick when you’re trying to put a dramatic sheen on your philosophical statement, but they don’t make for a great nove. And Atlas Shrugged isn’t even Rand’s best novel: that distinction goes to Anthem.

Criticism aside, the TIME list does make some nice choices even outside the “obvious” category. I just read Blood Meridian a few weeks ago and was pleased to see it on the list. Even though I have mixed feelings about Flann O’Brien, it was nice to see his name on the list (with At-Swim-Two-Birds). Nitpicking about Cryptonomicon vs. Snow Crash aside, I was also glad to see Stephenson, and similarly for Philip K. Dick (though I’d probably go with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or A Scanner Darkly over Ubik). They picked Red Harvest, the one Dashiell Hammett book I haven’t read, but it was still good to see Hammett on the list (and encourages me to seek out Red Harvest).

The Sound and the Fury gets all the hype, but I was pleasantly surprised to see my personal favorite Faulkner book, Light in August, also got the nod. I also like to see C.S. Lewis’ name on the list, even though I’m not really sure The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. But if you’re going to put Judy Blume on the list, why not? (Of course, if that’s the mentality, why not scrap Judy Blume and list The Phantom Tollbooth, instead?) And, needless to say, I’m happy to see Infinite Jest on the list (and almost as happy to see John Dos Passos and Maxine Hong Kingston not on the list).

That all having been said, the one overwhelming thought that went through my head as I was scanning the TIME list was this: where are all the great 20th century novels? The answer: they weren’t written in English, so they don’t make the list. Of course, that’s half a lie, since plenty of the great 20th century novels were written in English, but it seems narrow-minded to exclude everything written in another language (after all, it’s not like TIME doesn’t review novels written in Spanish or French or whatever). Sure, it gives the listmakers a chance to up their esoterica quotient by namechecking Richard Yates (who?) and any list necessarily has constraints, but I constantly caught myself looking for the likes of Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, Camus, Hesse, Mann, Svevo, Fuentes, García Márquez, Murakami, Valle-Inclán et al. Of course, the insipidly clever but extremely misleading name of the list probably contributed to this.

?оменклатура ещё живёт

The newspapers are still full of disappointment and scathing criticism, as the politically correct choice of a nominee with loyally orthodox views but dubious qualifications to join one of the most distinguished bodies in the world has caused commentators from across the political spectrum to condemn the selection as an “insult,” “sectarian” and “anaemic, dumb and hollow.” That’s right, Harold Pinter has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The key to narrative?

Watching the Korean movie Oldboy the other day was an interesting experience for me, because of the sheer energy (melodramatic, to be sure) with which it pushes the main character to the ends of trauma. By comparison, thinking back to the good but slightly disappointing Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, I realized that the main deficiency in that book by comparison was an absence of real change in the characters. Sure, they all suffer their traumas, but they are ranting about exactly the same things at the end of the novel as they were at the beginning. This may be more true to the way life actually goes than the typical narrative arc, but it is less than enlightening, as one has the same impression after 400 pages as after five.

The conclusion of my ruminations was that what separates the great examples of narrative art from the decent is an ability to actually illustrate convincing dynamism of character. Anybody can describe reasonably well how a personality exists in relation to its environment, but it takes a greater talent to show how it will react when that environment changes. Just as what really distinguishes science from other belief-systems is its ability not just to explain but to make predictions, so too does demonstrating verisimilitudinous character change show a deeper grasp of the true essence of character, because that too is a form of prediction as to how that character will behave under certain conditions. Of course the standards of success are more amorphous and subjective, partly because the scenarios are usually made-up, but I think that ultimately we look for, even if only subconsciously, evidence that the creator has understood the personalities that he describes sufficiently to induce deep changes in them in a believable fashion, and judge his accomplishment accordingly. Or at least I do.