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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: Julia Kristeva and St. Teresa

Julia Kristeva, Teresa My Love

Today’s fiction corner features Julia Kristeva’s new novel Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila. While Kristeva first made her name as a philosopher and critic, she has also written several novels, including Murder in Byzantium and The Old Man and the Wolves.

In her newest novel Teresa, My Love, Kristeva mixes fiction, history, psychoanalysis, and personal fantasy. The novel follows Sylvia Leclercq, a French psychoanalyst, academic, and incurable insomniac, as she falls for the sixteenth-century Saint Teresa of Avila and becomes consumed with charting her life. Traveling to Spain, Leclercq, Kristeva’s probing alterego, visits the sites and embodiments of the famous mystic and awakens to her own desire for faith, connection, and rebellion.

Below is an excerpt from the novel:

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

To the Point: A New E-book Series from Columbia University Press

To the Point

To the Point, Bruce HoffmanTo the Point, Julia KristevaTo the Point, Peter Piot                 To the Point, Joel SimonTo the Point, Evan Thompson

Columbia University Press is proud to announce the launch of To the Point an exciting new e-book series that extends the scholarship of our authors for a growing global and digital audience. We present standalone chapters from the press’s forthcoming fall season books, with original short-format works to come to the series in the future.

These works serve to introduce our authors’ provocative ideas to new readers in accessible, affordable formats. Featuring works by Bruce Hoffman, Julia Kristeva, Evan Thompson, and others in disciplines ranging from politics and philosophy to food science and social work.

To the Point titles are available for only $1.99 from your favorite e-book vendor.

The first five e-book shorts to be released for sale in the To the Point series are:

* The 7/7 London Underground Bombing: Not So Homegrown, by Bruce Hoffman
A selection from The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death

* Understanding Through Fiction, by Julia Kristeva
A selection from Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila

* AIDS as an International Political Issue, by Peter Piot
A selection from AIDS Between Science and Politics

* Informing the Global Citizen, by Joel Simon
A Selection from The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom

* Dying: What Happens When We Die?, by Evan Thompson
A Selection from Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Friday, September 26th, 2014

From Radio to Film … And Beyond — Rey Chow

“Long before I came to study film academically, these visits [to my mother's film studios] had opened my eyes to the utterly fragmentary making of the artwork in the age of technical reproducibility.”—Rey Chow

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerWe conclude our week-long feature on Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience with another excerpt from the book’s final chapter “The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood”. In the following passage she explores the influence of her mother’s film career on her own writing and intellectual development:

Because of my mother’s involvement with film, I had opportunities to visit film studios during the time when some of her scripts were being shot. Long before I came to study film academically, these visits had opened my eyes to the utterly fragmentary making of the artwork in the age of technical reproducibility. If, say, a particular corner of a living room was the focus, the rest of the room could be left in chaos, filled with makeshift equipment, un­used props, and other messes as long as they did not intrude into the frame to be captured on camera. In a face-to-face dialogue between a female char­acter and a male character that was shot from the waist up, an actress who was somewhat short could be made to stand on a phonebook so that her height in relation to the actor would appear aesthetically proportionate on screen. On yet another occasion, I was captivated by the skilled martial arts movements performed by a well-known actress (Chan Bo-jue/Chen Baozhu) playing an assassin. Those movements were shot while a whole group of us bystanders were in the movie studio, but when the scene was shown in the movie theater, the cinematographic illusionism had been ren­dered so complete by the editing process that the actress’s stunts appeared as though they had happened all by themselves in another world, miraculously devoid of us, the witnesses.

Inspired by these films, I wrote, at the age of about ten, the synopsis of a film featuring a modern-day female knight errant called White Rose. My mother showed my penciled draft to one of her director friends, Mok Hong-see/Mo Kangshi, who reportedly said it was an interesting story. Needless to say, I was very disappointed that he did not proceed directly to filming my script!

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Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Rey Chow — The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerIn “The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood,” the final chapter of Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience, Rey Chow explores elements of her own upbringing in colonial Hong Kong. In the following passage, she discusses her mother’s career as a popular radio broadcaster and performer:

So, how does the story end? What happens to that woman character? And her frail cousin, the one who is secretly in love with her husband? “Please tell us!” According to my mother, such were the questions with which she was besieged in the maternity ward when she was about to give birth to her first child, me. As the labor pains became advanced and she was rolled into the hospital’s delivery room, the nurses on duty were still far more pre­occupied with the plot developments of the dramas they had heard her nar­rate on the radio. This family legend of fandom gone amok at the scene of my birth offers a unique glimpse into the way people could be mesmerized by stories in the form of sound broadcast in the days before television be­came the predominant mass medium. What was it like then, when it was an ordinary matter to be hooked into a fictional world purely through sound?

A few years later, when I reached the age of five or six, I experienced firsthand something of my mother’s aura as a popular broadcaster. I was sit­ting in a movie theater with some older friends, who had taken me to see a film adapted from one of her radio plays, Yun hoi sheung chor/ Renhai shuang chu (Two young children in the human world). That much was what I consciously knew. To my great surprise—and in a luminous im­age that has remained vivid in my mind to this day—my mother appeared on the screen as the film began. As though I had been transported to an unfamiliar locale in a dream, everyone around me started clapping. “This is Mama,” I remember thinking matter-of-factly, sitting in the dark, mysti­fied. “Why are people applauding her?” But the crowd’s enthusiasm quickly took me over. Without understanding what was happening, I joined in and started clapping as well.

My mother had been filmed as the narrator, offering an introduction (jui sut/xu shu) to the story that was to unfold within the next couple of hours. She was, if my memory is correct, seated at a desk, addressing the audience directly. In the broadcasting world of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, she was a widely recognized name, known for her many successful radio plays, some of which were adapted for film. Her personal appearance in Yun hoi sheung chor was, I suppose, part of the film company’s strategy of promotion.

I was of course unaware that epochal changes had been taking place in the mass media even as I gleefully participated in the audience’s celebration of my mother’s image on the screen. The happenings of a middle-class up­bringing, the little wonders, mysteries, expectations, and sorrows that con­stituted my daily life as a precocious schoolchild in a British Crown colony in the Far East were, in retrospect, happenings of historical import—but only in retrospect, when I have acquired a certain perspective and vocabu­lary in which to talk about them in a more impersonal manner.

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Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Rey Chow on Derrida and the French Language

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerIn her new book Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience, Rey Chow examines misgivings about the inequality of the encounters between European and non-European languages in the postcolonial world.

In the following passage, Chow considers Jacques Derrida’s complicated with the French language as a result of his upbringing in colonial Algeria:

Among the details Derrida narrates, those about his intimate relations to things French—French history, French literature, the French language, and other French speakers’ accents—are the most captivating, in large part be­cause of his mildly exhibitionistic and often self-flagellating sense of candor. The study of French literature, for instance, is an injunction of segregation as much as it is an experience of cultural assimilation. Not only does such study reinforce the haughtiness of the literary mode of reference and mean­ing making from nonliterary culture, but it also effectuates, he writes, “a brutal severance . . . fostering a more acute partition: the one that separates French literature—its history, its works, its models, its cult of the dead, its modes of transmission and celebration, its ‘posh districts,’ its names of au­thors and editors—from the culture ‘proper’ to ‘French Algerians’ ” Derrida’s description here is resolutely unsentimental, conveying a fi rm sense of the traumatizing cuts and cut-offs that constitute colonialism’s gov­erning routines.

To the important analyses of literature as an ideological form—such as those advanced in the 1970s by Renée Balibar, Étienne Balibar, Pierre Ma­cherey, and others in their studies of language practices within the French national education system—Derrida has articulated the crucial dimension of colonialist racialization. His account, it may be said, supplements the so­cialist logic pursued by these other thinkers by illuminating how the “reality effects,” so to speak, of the elite forms of the French language (français lit­téraire or français fictif ) are outcomes of carefully implemented racial as well as class segregation. Indeed, from the perspective of the colonized, as Der­rida suggests, it is impossible to experience the one without experiencing the other.

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Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Interview with Rey Chow, author of “Not Like a Native Speaker”

“My book asks: can there be other ways of coming to terms with loss? Can loss be perceived, however painfully, as an alternative beginning to something different?”—Rey Chow

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerThe following is an interview with Rey Chow, author of Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience:

Q: How does the issue of language or “languaging” provide new ways of thinking about the colonial and postcolonial experience?

Rey Chow: The issue of language is, of course, a longstanding one in colonial and postcolonial experience, and anyone working in the field of postcolonial studies of the past several hundred years needs to come to terms with it in one way of another. The confrontation between languages and cultures in the classic colonial situation, in which some languages and cultures are considered superior while others, typically the native ones, are deemed inferior, has created psychic, cross-cultural, institutional, and geopolitical effects that are still very much with us today. These effects inform not only worldwide communications in public settings but also some of our most intimate contacts on a daily basis (e.g. How to talk to friends or loved ones who have no awareness of such effects?) Paying attention to language—in the larger sense of cumulated habits, conventions, gestures, and tendencies that I designate by the term “languaging”—is thus a logical, perhaps indispensable, way of understanding the colonial and postcolonial experience. Indeed, as my subtitle indicates, to languaging itself is a form of postcolonial experience.

In French and Francophone postcolonial studies, extensive philosophical reflections on language as experience are quite common, but it is not the case in Anglophone postcolonial studies. One of the aims of this book is to address this disparity by highlighting questions of languaging in Anglophone postcolonial debates. In addition, the book introduces a third language and cultural area—Chinese, as used in Hong Kong under the fraught conditions of British colonialism and Chinese nationalism—whose contributions to postcolonial studies can be uniquely fascinating.

Q: You suggest that the colonized’s encounter with the colonizer’s language is usually depicted in negative terms. How does your book challenge this characterization?

RC: The negative terms I am referring to have to do with the predominant feeling of loss that pervades many postcolonial scholarly undertakings. This overpowering sense of loss is a logical outcome of what I call the confrontation between languages and cultures on unequal terms, which is registered by the colonized and their descendants as violation and injury, followed by profound melancholy. My book asks: can there be other ways of coming to terms with loss? Can loss be perceived, however painfully, as an alternative beginning to something different? Thus, in the various chapters, I read a number of authors—e.g. Chinua Achebe, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, Derek Walcott, Leung Ping-kwan, Ma Kwok-ming, among many others—as striving for an alternative kind of response to loss as inscribed in various types of encounters with language, tradition, community, and creativity. It’s a collective undertaking, clearly unfinished, but I think it is important to engage with it because of its dissonance from the more pervasive trends of melancholic longing often found in postcolonial studies.

(more…)

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Book Giveaway! “Not Like a Native Speaker,” by Rey Chow

“[A] unique map for the postcolonial criticism of the future, one informed by rigor and unafraid of judgment.” — Simon Gikandi, Princeton University

This week our featured book is Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience by Rey Chow.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 26 at 1:00 pm.

Read the introduction, “Skin Tones—About Language, Postcoloniality, and Racialization”:

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Back to School with Anne Campbell — Mike Chasar

Anne Campbell

The following post is by Mike Chasar, author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America. The essay was also published in Arcade:

A little less than a year back, I wrote about Edgar Guest, the longtime poet of the Detroit Free Press who published a poem in that paper seven days a week for thirty years. The national syndication of his verse made Guest a household name, got him dubbed the “people’s poet,” turned him into a popular speaker, and made him a very rich man even if it didn’t secure him a place in scholarly histories of American poetry. Indeed, after mentioning Guest as part of a Modernist Studies Association panel a few years back, I happened to run into a prominent poet-critic in the airport and, in making small talk about the panel while we waited for our flights, he confessed that until my talk he’d never even heard of Guest. By contrast, my mother-in-law owned several of Guest’s books before she moved out of the family house and into a retirement home; when I was helping her move and opened them, other poems by Guest that she’d clipped from newspapers and magazines and stored between the pages came fluttering out.

If the poet-critic I just mentioned had never heard of Guest, it’s probably safe to say that he’s never heard of Anne Campbell either—the poet whom the Detroit News hired in 1922 to better compete with the Free Press. Called “Eddie Guest’s Rival” by Time and “The Poet of the Home” by her publicity agents, Campbell would go on to write a poem a day six days a week for twenty-five years, producing over 7,500 poems whose international syndication reportedly earned her up to $10,000 per year (that’s about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, folks), becoming a popular speaker in her own right, and proving that neither the Free Press nor Guest could corner the market on popular poetry. Indeed, a 1947 event marking her silver anniversary at the News drew fifteen hundred fans including Detroit’s mayor and the president of Wayne State University.

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Friday, August 15th, 2014

Chris Andrews Gives 7 Reasons Why Roberto Bolaño Became So Popular in the U.S.

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn the following excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews explores how and why Roberto Bolaño’s became so popular in the United States:

The reception of Roberto Bolaño’s work in English began in an unre­markable way. When Christopher Maclehose, publisher at the Harvill Press in England, bought UK rights for Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) in 2001, Bolaño was already a well-established author in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1998 his first long novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), had won the Premio Herralde de Novela and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. The second of these prizes, in particular, is a mark of consecration in the Hispanic literary field, and it had been won, before Bolaño, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Javier Marías. By the end of 2001, La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas) and Estrella distante (Distant Star) had appeared in German and Italian, and the French translator Robert Amutio, who had been trying to interest a pub­lisher in Bolaño’s work since 1996, had finally succeeded: Christian Bourgois had bought the rights to the two books already out in Italy and Germany.

By Night in Chile (2003) was positively reviewed and sold modestly (775 copies in the first 12 months). Distant Star (2004) was also well received by critics, but sold more slowly still. So far, this story conforms to a familiar pattern: an author recognized as important in his or her source culture is translated into English and published by a small press after having been translated into several other languages. Often the story stops here. Since substantial sales are not accompanying critical success, the publisher under­standably decides to cut her losses and take risks on more promising new names as yet untainted by failure in the marketplace.

This, however, is not what happened in the case of Bolaño. The Harvill Press bought UK rights for a third book, a selection of stories from Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, for which Bolaño chose the title Last Evenings on Earth shortly before his death in July 2003. Across the Atlantic, Barbara Epler at New Directions, who had acquired and published the translations of By Night in Chile and Distant Star with a prompt enthusiasm, negotiated with Harvill-Secker (the Harvill Press having been taken over by Random House and merged with the Secker and Warburg list in 2005) to bring out the book of stories in the United States before it appeared in the UK. It was published in May 2006. By this stage a certain excitement had begun to develop around Bolaño’s work in North America. Susan Sontag had provided an endorse­ment for By Night in Chile. Francine Prose read the story “Gómez Palacio” in The New Yorker and discovered in it, as she wrote in the The New York Times, “something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.” Bolaño’s reception was already beginning to break with the sadly familiar pattern.

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Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Chris Andrews, Translator, Critic, and Fan of Roberto Bolaño

“It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.”—Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn addition to being the author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews is also the translator of several of Bolaño’s novels. His roles as translator, scholar, and critic give him a distinct understanding of Bolaño’s novels.

Andrews was recently asked by Publishers Weekly to discuss a book by Bolaño that has perhaps not received as much attention as it deserves, and he selected Distant Star, a novel he translated and was published in English by New Directions in 2004. The following is an excerpt from his essay:

Bolaño knew, at least from 1993, when he was diagnosed with a progressive autoimmune disease of the liver, that his chances of a long life were slim. I like to think that in 1995, as he wrote Distant Star, he also knew that he was finding his way into an enormous and singular territory, and that, as a writer, he would not have to start over. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and a lesser-known Argentine, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, he had described imaginary works in a work of fiction. In Distant Star, he took another step, which would prove to be decisive, bringing three more processes into play: expanding what he had already written, allowing his characters to return, and exploiting their tendency to overinterpret their surroundings.

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Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Bolaño, Epiphanies and Imminence — A Post by Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsThe following post is by Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. You can also read our interview with Chris Andrews about the book:

At the end of “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” (in Between Parentheses), Bolaño writes: “read Chekhov and Raymond Carver. One of the two of them is the best short-story writer this century has produced.” Chekhov died in 1904, so either Carver wins by elimination, or Bolaño is suggesting that with just a toe in the century Chekhov beats all his epigones. In any case, the coupling is significant, for both Carver and Chekhov wrote epiphanic short stories. Describing the cards taped to the wall beside his desk in “On Writing,” Carver says: “I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.”

In Bolaño’s work there are moments when everything becomes clear to a character … or seems to be on the point of becoming clear. Sometimes the character has what the German critic Gunther Leypoldt, discussing Carver, calls an “arrested epiphany”: one that fails to deliver any definite content. This is what happens in “Gómez Palacio” when the director of the local arts council takes the narrator to her special place, which turns out to be a truck parking area in the desert, from which they can see the headlights of cars on a distant stretch of road. The narrator is initially skeptical, and with good reason: his host seems to be slightly crazy and has a taste for practical jokes. But then something happens:

I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road — a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground — but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Up to the explanation (“that must have been produced …”), the lyricism of this long sentence suggests something marvelous, and although the green light seems to breathe only for a fraction of a second, the aura created by the descriptive language does not vanish so quickly, partly because the explanation is conjectural, and partly because the final equation relativizes the importance of the physical facts: if dreams are miracles, why not hallucinations and illusions too? And yet this portent leads nowhere, and the narrator interrupts the lyric flight: “Then the director started the car, turned it around and droved back to the motel.”

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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolano's Fiction: An Expanding UniverseThe following is an interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe

Question: How did you discover Bolaño’s work?

Chris Andrews: Chatting with booksellers in Santiago and Valparaíso in 2001. Bolaño was already very well known in Chile: he had won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, and revisited the country twice in 1998 and 1999. His relations with the contemporary Chilean literary world were stormy (see the end of “I Can’t Read” in The Secret of Evil) but his loyalty to Enrique Lihn and Nicanor Parra (who turns 100 in September) was total. I like to think that he has recruited new readers for those two great Chilean poets.

Q: Did you expect Bolaño’s work to find a large public in English when you began translating it?

CA: No, but not because I didn’t think it deserved to be widely read. With the first two books, I was thinking: This could be it, because that’s the way it usually goes. An author who is well known and respected in his or her language usually gets one or two shots in translation, and unless something special happens straight up, he or she falls into the category of authors who have been tried and found not to work. Luckily, Barbara Epler at New Directions didn’t approach Bolaño in that way: she was committed to waiting for something special to happen, which it did, with the story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and then with The Savage Detectives, which was published by FSG.

Q: What kind of book did you set out to write with Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction?

CA: Well, it’s a scholarly book, but I wanted it to be clear as possible. I wanted it to be as true as possible to the complexity of Bolaño’s work, even if that meant qualifying my arguments quite often. I wanted to do justice to textures and fine details, but also to connect the fiction with large ethical and political questions, such as: Does Bolaño glorify brawling? Is his work romantic? Is it anarchistic? The book as a whole has an arc: it moves, very roughly speaking, from form to content to value, and there’s a shift in the conceptual background from narratology to philosophy.

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Monday, August 11th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolaño's Fiction

“An indispensable guide to navigating the rich world of Bolaño’s fiction.” — Publishers Weekly

This week our featured book is Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, by Chris Andrews

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 15 at 1:00 pm.

Chris Andrews, a leading translator of Bolaño’s work into English, explores the singular achievements of the author’s oeuvre, engaging with its distinct style and key thematic concerns, incorporating his novels and stories into the larger history of Latin American and global literary fiction.

Read the introduction to Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe:

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: An Interview with Tamaz Chiladze, author of “The Brueghel Moon”

“Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it, isn’t it?”—Tamaz Chiladze

Tamaz Chiladze, The Brueghel MoonThe following is an interview with Tamaz Chiladze, author of The Brueghel Moon.

The novel is part of Dalkey Archive’s new Georgian Literature Series:

Question: Are either of the protagonists—Levan and Nunu—in any way based on you, or on your own experiences in relationships?

Tamaz Chiladze: For me, Levan and Nunu are quite real—they’re flesh and blood people. They live their own lives, have their own relationships, but neither has any similarity to my person or my personal life.

In general, characters are born, and are not so much based on the autho’s personal experience, but are more dependent on readers and their life experiences. I believe authors are more interesting and involving if they are able to relate their narrative to that of the reader. The link between them, their common, shared stories, play an important role in establishing this contact. I could also add that, in a sense, the process of reading is an act of discovering oneself, of bringing oneself alive.

I doubt I will sound original if I say that literary characters not only enrich mankind ethically, but increase its numbers worldwide.

Q: The novel deals with psychiatric issues such as depression, psychosis and psychiatry itself. What motivates you to communicate such things? Do you seek to represent a relationship be­tween psychiatry and literature or the act of writing?

TC: I’m not at all sure what inspired me to write the novel. I think there is hardly a writer who has managed to avoid depressed states or psychosis. They just can’t, and this is particularly true in our mod­ern times. Sadly, depression, neurosis, and psychosis have become quite typical, as if they are the normal conditions of our existence.

A writer helps readers to overcome their solitude, anxieties and fears. In this sense he acts like a priest or a doctor. But because he has sinned himself, in fact, a writer cannot be a priest. Neither can he be a doctor. He is better suited to the role of patient, especially considering how many times his aching, torn heart has been darned with the thread of hope. I would say a writer is the last surviving representative of the ancient caste of clairvoyants or oracles.True, no one seems to heed him, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t telling the right stories or saying the right things.

In any case, my novel has nothing to do with psychiatry as a branch of science. Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it, isn’t it?

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Friday, June 27th, 2014

Jenny Davidson on the Glimmer Factor, Sentences, Chocolate, and More

Jenny Davidson, A Life in Sentences

“All sentences are not created equal. Some are more interest­ing, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an excerpt from “The Glimmer Factor,” the opening chapter to Reading Style: A Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson:

I’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature is worth reading chiefly for what it teaches us about life. Of course we learn things about life from literature: it’s self-evident that a book may make its reader wiser or more philosophical in some measure consequent upon the nature of the book itself, the timing and circumstances of the reader’s encounter with it and the reader’s openness to transformation. But there is also something intolerably banal about the idea that the main reward of reading a novel by Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot should be my becoming a slightly better person.

Partly I am troubled that the motive of pleasure recedes so far from view. This kind of emphasis on self-improvement also steals the limelight from a more stringently cognitive aspect of reading. Not the simple fact of transportation, of being lost in a book, but rather a form of intellectual play that seems to me ulti­mately as ethical as its lesson-driven counterpart: ethical in the sense of its developing one’s capacities of comprehension to the fullest, taking the jumbled furniture of the human mind (the meager apparatus of Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal”) and teaching it to make meaning out of words. To make the idea that literature tells us about life the primary reason for reading Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and their like degrades the very thing that draws me to literature in the first place: the glimmer of the sentences, not first and foremost the wisdom contained in them. By stripping literary language down to its constituent parts, I perversely gain a sense of transcendence, an emotional as well as intellectual liberation that comes by way of the most precise consider­ation of details of language.

All sentences are not created equal. Some are more interest­ing, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others….

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Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Jenny Davidson Chooses the Best Books on Hoarding!

Reading Style

The following is a post by Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

The TV show Hoarders has brought a good deal of attention to what happens when our instinct to accumulate runs out of control; an inability to discard things when we are supposed to be done with them can ruin a hard drive, a book project, a house, a life.

In strictly literary terms, as long as the capacity to select and winnow remains, the accumulation of things can be a gift (the lists in Moby Dick, Homer’s catalog of ships, James Boswell’s lifelong practice of recording and storing the sayings of great men). But there is always the risk, with books like Richardson’s Clarissa or (in a very different vein) George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels, either that the writing will proliferate to a volume that readers are unwilling to tolerate (Richardson) or that it will extend over a duration that creates a huge amount of frustration in readers hungry for the next installment (Martin). All of which is to say that hoarding seems to me one of the great literary topics of our time: I want to read a good nonfiction book about it, something roughly akin to Alice Flaherty’s fantastic account of hypergraphia in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.

For now, though, a list of five of my favorite books about hoarding:

Randy G. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
An essential guide to the disorder. Not at the literary level of Oliver Sacks, but then what is? Grippingly readable, full of fascinating observations and insights. Among other things, it caused me to look back on the house of family friends in childhood, a house that was astonishingly messy, and say, “Oh, that wasn’t ordinary mess, that was hoarding before there was really a name for it!” Full of useful suggestions and resources if you or someone you know is in need of help for hoarding or a related syndrome.

Jessie Sholl, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding
A compelling memoir about what it means to be the adult child of a parent whose hoarding makes her house uninhabitable. Thoughtful, well-written, full of empathy.

Sara Ryan and Carla Speed O’Neill, Bad Houses
A brilliant graphic novel with a puzzle-like structure, this coming-of-age story considers the beauties and terrors of the estate sale, and more particularly what it lets us understand about people and their relationship with the objects that fill up their houses.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, vol. 1
There are other reasons to read Knausgaard, of course, but in addition to his startling reconfiguration of the relationship between experience and narration and his extraordinary way with sentences, he also gives us one of the best literary depictions I know of how the thing we call hoarding can destroy a lived environment.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Many of the characters in this novel suffer from one kind of cognitive or psychological disorder or another; the novel as a whole offers some kind of a theory of disorders of accumulation, and the writing speaks to that in all sorts of ways. But the scenes that describe something closest to what we would now call hoarding are those set in Krook’s rag-and-bone shop.

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Jenny Davidson’s 10 Favorite Books About Reading

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

The following is a post from Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Since the internet has tipped us into the great age of listicles, I must confess that I have already been prolific in the matter of book-related lists online. Here’s a sampling:

Ten nonfiction books that have stayed with me.

My ideal bookshelf as painted by Jane Mount.

A post I wrote for the late Norm Geras about one writer who means almost everything to me.

Five of my favorite books about swimming!

The list I’ve made for today, though, tallies up ten of my favorite books about reading. Some of these I mention in Reading Style: A Life in Sentences; others are simply books that I read almost in a trance, mesmerized by the way they spoke about reading and writing, its delights and occasional tribulations.

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
An absolutely delightful collection of essays about reading by the author of the unforgettable A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. Both of these books of Fadiman’s are on my list of all-time favorites.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading
A book that spoke to me so directly that I sometimes thought I must have written it myself in a dream! Spufford is better than any other writer I know on the spell that childhood reading casts on us and the external factors that may precipitate that kind of immersion in books.

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Another book that I read with delight and a growing sense of relief—Manguel wrote this book so that I don’t have to!

Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
A witty taxonomy, a playful provocation.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence
One of the funniest and deepest books I know about the bedevilment of a vocation for reading and writing by procrastination and all the other woes that flesh is heir to.

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Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

An Interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

“Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

Q: In an age of “big data” and “distant reading,” why have you decided to focus on the sentence?

JD: Not so much a choice as a compulsion, I think. Work by new media theorists and literary scholars like Lev Manovich and Franco Moretti is motivated in part by a sense of the insufficiencies of the kind of mainstream historicist literary criticism that predominates inside the academy in the United States. My own dissatisfaction with that kind of criticism increasingly stemmed from the sense I had that the kinds of interpretation I practiced in the classroom were at least as exciting and revealing as anything I was doing in my published scholarship, but that for some reason the professional protocol seemed to be that I couldn’t just “do” that kind of very close work with sentences in print. I’m kicking back against that here, and I’m interested in thinking more about how to explain and defend a methodology that is related to some older kinds of formalism—as practiced by critics like Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovskii—and even to the New Criticism or Cambridge-style practical criticism in the tradition of I. A. Richards, but that also benefits from the insights of other more obviously historicized and politicized schools of criticism.

That is a fancy way, though, of saying that sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Q: You begin the book by acknowledging that you’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature can “teach” us about life. What do we miss out on when we focus on the “lessons” of literature?

JD: That opening is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, in that obviously we do learn things about life from literature, and I have hugely enjoyed books like Alain de Bouton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography and Rebecca Mead’s recent book about a lifetime of reading Middlemarch. But when it’s done with less sensitivity than these authors muster, it often leads to a kind of oversimplification—a lack of attention to what the books are actually doing, how they work—that makes me really annoyed. I will read novels by Austen or Henry James again and again neither because of the psychological insights they offer nor because of how those insights might illuminate aspects of my own experience in the world, but rather because the sentences are utterly ravishing, and because there is nowhere else on earth I can learn the things these books teach about narration and the techniques and conventions by which human experience is translated into language.

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Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Book Giveaway! Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, by Jenny Davidson

Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

This week our featured book is Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, by Jenny Davidson.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Reading Style to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June 27 at 1:00 pm.

“Jenny Davidson has the rare gift of being warmly analytical—highly intelligent but never mandarin, authoritative and intimate at the same time. Reading her discussions of writers ranging from Marcel Proust to Wayne Koestenbaum—by way of Jonathan Lethem and George Eliot—is like being in the company of a very clever friend as she unfolds the treasures of her bookshelf.” — Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch

Read the chapter, “Lord Leighton, Liberace, and the Advantages of Bad Writing: Helen DeWitt, Harry Stephen Keller, Lionel Shriver, George Eliot”:

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Laura Frost on Bloomsday, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace and the Pleasures of Unpleasure

James Joyce, Bloomsday

“The modernist legacy, its essential ambivalence, continues, and let us hope that it does, for it signals not only the continuing problem with plea­sure but also pleasure’s continuing potency.”—Laura Frost

In honor of Bloomsday, we offer an excerpt from the coda to The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents by Laura Frost. In the excerpt Frost notes the popularity of Ulysses beyond the confines of academia but also recognizes the popular perception that it is a difficult, unpleasurable book more talked about than actually read. She goes on to explore how Ulysses exemplifies modernism’s relationship to both difficulty and pleasure and how this dichotomy has been explored more recently by David Foster Wallace:

While general audiences, living through a time of political and social upheaval, dazed from one war and about to enter another, embraced mass culture amusement, modernist writers took up the mantle of arduous, deliberate pleasure as a defense of language, con­templation, and the autonomy of art. As their work confirms, even as they expounded the charms of unpleasure, they were constantly aware of the attractions of “the tepid bath of nonsense,” as Huxley put it.

Cut … to the Upper West Side of Manhat­tan in our time, to Symphony Space, a venue known for its annual live reading of selections from Ulysses on June 16. The Bloomsday celebra­tion, like others around the country and the globe, indicates how mod­ernism—even high modernism—has been embraced and absorbed not just into the academy but into contemporary culture. And yet on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in 2004, British and American newspapers noting the event found a way to emphasize Ulysses’s repu­tation as the most famous unread novel of the twentieth century. The New York Times observed that Ulysses “has come to stand as the apogee of ‘elitist’ literature” because of its “byzantine difficulty.” NPR pointed out that “the difficulty of reading Ulysses is as legendary as the novel itself.” And the BBC commented that “for all its renown and notoriety, it is a book that few have read and even fewer comprehend.”…

Clearly, modernism is alive in and outside the academy. However, it is worth noting which parts of modernism are foregrounded and which are sidelined or minimized. While the generation that canonized modernism and New Criticism promoted it as a thorny, complicated body of work, those features are not emphasized as much in recent modernist studies, which has notably sought to integrate the vernacu­lar modernisms of “Gertrude’s Paris” into the field. Perhaps it is inevi­table that once we have mastered modernism’s maneuvers, its knots are unraveled and its edgy energy is diminished. Modernist unplea­sure, a defining feature of this literature, may register most forcefully with the first-time reader who struggles with linguistic and narrative innovation. To sense this textual unpleasure is to recover what made modernism surprising, shocking, and challenging in its own time….

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