Reading: “I love Dick” by Chris Kraus

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“To see yourself as who you were ten years ago can be very strange indeed.”

I didn’t know anything about this book, only saw it a few times on Bookstagram (and actually thought it’s a comedy because it sounded funny…) and that was it. So when I read the Guardian’s remark about this being “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”, I had quite some expectations. Long story short: they were not fulfilled. After all, I haven’t read that many books about men and women from “last century”, and I still believe there’s more out there, somewhere, maybe less hyped and famous, but more interesting. Also, this was probably too much of a praise for one author and her book to live up to.

The point of departure for this literary tour de force is an evening Chris Kraus — a 39-year-old, unsuccessful artist who is successful as being a savvy and (self) educated wife of an European academic and intellectual — and Sylvère Lotringer — said French intellectual and academic, her husband — spend with an acquaintance of Sylvère, Dick (who was identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige some time after the initial publication of this book in 1997). Dick seems to be flirting with Chris throughout the evening, and after initially being irritated she feels excited and empowered, enough so to eventually fall in love with him — or is it love? Desire? Obsession? Whatever it is, it initiates a foray into Chris’ past and the his(her)story of male and female artists, thinkers, authors and philosophers in regard to modern feminism and the (art) world.
The people mentioned here – Chris, Sylvère, and Dick – are all real, they exist and are not mere characters in a novel. In what sense these ‘real’ people correlate with the characters in this book is unclear and – to me at least – irrelevant.
Chris Kraus’ I love Dick is not a conventional novel, as you may have guessed by now, but rather something Joan Hawkins in the afterword of the 2016 edition calls ‘theoretical fiction’, which sums it up rather nicely. Chris jumps from the early 80s to the mid 90s to 1992 to 1995 and back; she leaves her husband, only to be with him again in the next passage and then she is with someone else – all this due to the leaps in time throughout the book. And she regularly interweaves theoretical, philosophical, historical and gender perspectives with her own story, the people she knew, read, watched, or heard of. While this at times interrupts the “story”, it was also the thing I liked most about this book. It is full of information about artists, thinkers, philosophers, and authors, male and female, their lives, works, and passions. Still, this constant switching between a sort of actual narration and her theoretical explanations regarding certain topics, often with a feminist background, was at times too much for me to keep up with. Now and then it just took me some time to actually recognize another switch when there was one and I felt confused and lost for the moment; that’s not necessarily bad but it CAN be unnerving…

Most of all, I enjoyed Kraus’ discussion of feminist issues. Doing so, she keeps it open-minded and down-to-earth, elaborating on various problems a lot of female artists and thinkers faced and still face (even today). Quoting the American poet Alice Notley she declares:

“Because we rejected a certain kind of critical language, people just assumed that we were dumb.”

And even in 2018, I can still relate to this quote, in an academic as well as a professional context. Exploring how being a woman and deciding to live independently – be it in a professional, personal, or artistic understanding – can influence our whole existence in all its various facets was interesting and by far the best about this book, at least in my opinion.

But there were also times I simply didn’t ‘get’ her (this was actually quite often…) — I’m rather the down-to-earth and practical kind of person, so some of her explorations into the world of art and theory were simply to abstract for me. Again, this is just me and may be perfectly fine for a lot of other people out there. And since this is a sort of theoretical fiction with a lot of essayistic sections, there is actually the possibility to disagree with the author – see here for yourself (and disagree with me, for that matter):

“The philosopher Luce Irigaray thinks there is no female “I” in existing (patriarchal) language. She proved it once by bursting into tears while lecturing in a conference on Saussure at Columbia University.”

Let me tell you: I too was close to tears last December when I gave a lecture at Columbia University, though not because my female “I” felt misunderstood and lonely within this system of patriarchal language, but rather because of stress, anxiety, and being close to a panic attack. Still, I can understand that one cries while giving a lecture about Saussure (who is very interesting, but also very male, especially in regard to Irigaray’s line of thought) at Columbia; but this “proves” nothing, especially not something the philosopher is/was “thinking”. “Proved” is the wrong term for this, she may have “underlined” or “emphasized” her thoughts about patriarchal linguistics by crying, but it is no “proof”. I’ve read some of Irigaray’s work and she’s much too theoretical and high-strung for me; as long as women still face male (and societal) aggression in a lot of ways every day and everywhere as well as a huge gender pay gap, I personally don’t give a shit about the female “I” in our patriarchal language (though of course I know that this is an important issue too – it’s just a question of priorities, and mine differ from those of Irigaray and like-minded feminists). Though this is just a small paragraph at the end of the book, I found it highly irritating, probably because it is a very narrow-minded conclusion for someone as open as Kraus seems to be throughout the rest of her book.

I love Dick was interesting, confusing, multilayered and at times fascinating. The ‘love story’ of Chris and Dick offers a sort of base on which much more important things are discussed, especially regarding Chris’ self-discovery and her relationship to the world around her. There’s hardly an interaction between the two and the main male voice we hear is Sylvére’s.
Because of the different styles of narration — third person narration, first person narration, emails, letters, diary entries — I had my difficulties getting ‘into’ the story. I read three pages, then I suddenly remembered I had to water the plants, look for the cat, clean some dishes, read/write an email, shave my legs, eat something, drink something, use the bathroom, check on the cat again…you get the picture. I love Dick wasn’t much of an intriguing or captivating reading experience BUT it was really interesting, I learned a lot and I really liked it.

[Under the rubric “things to ignore”: The back cover mentions several ‘fans’ of this book, amongst them the unbearable Lena Dunham, the epitome of ignorant (rich) entitlement. Miss Dunham being “a fan” is definitely NOT something to put on the cover of a book or a good reason to start reading that book (rather to throw it away or burn it) but I got an excellent shit filter and learned to ignore Dunham’s name long ago, at least most of the time. After all, it is not Chris Kraus’ fault that someone in the marketing department felt the urgent need to name-drop a bit too much…]

Reading: “Apology for the Woman writing” by Jenny Diski

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Her father’s library in Gournay was the place of escape from her present and from her preordained future. She slipped through the dark panelled door at every possible moment of the day and night, whenever she could avoid being tutored on how to be someone’s wife, some house’s keeper, some child’s mother.

‘I’m not ill, Maman,’ she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. ‘It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.’
There was a gasp from the three other women, each of whom instantly reassessed their usual picture of Marie in the library.
‘His books … the ones Uncle Louis gave me … they are … extraordinary … I’ve never imagined … they are … remarkable. No, remarkable is too small a word. Nothing, nothing, in all my life I’ve read nothing like these essays.’

Already she was using his name to boost her own work. A devotion to Montaigne’s work would replace the husband she would never have, the quality work she would never produce, and the restricted life she must inevitably lead. So there was something in it for her, as well as for him and his memory. He decided to speak to Francoise about it, and ask her to send a farewell letter to La Demoiselle as if dictated by him. And yes, he knew how close this thought was to a crime against her. A further crime. He would have liked to think that he was not a dishonest man. But he was, after all, a man like any other.

I first heard about Jenny Diski when I read her obituary in the Guardian (read it here). Diski – a passionate smoker – was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014. She wrote about her diagnosis as well as her life with cancer in the London Review of Books (find it here). Jenny Diski died on April 28, 2016. This may sound a bit morbid but her obituary made me want to find out more about this interesting and headstrong woman. After reading some of her contributions in the LBR, I decided to get some of her books, which was not as easy as I thought. I don’t know why – maybe Diski isn’t mainstream enough, maybe it’s not the right time for odes on smoking in trains and the like – but some of her works were hard to find. In the end I settled for two fictional works, the short story collection The Vanishing Princess and the book I will discuss here, Apology for the Woman writing.

Diski’s main protagonist, Marie de Gournay, is a stubborn, passionate, and at times aloof woman, who is in no way interested in following the well-worn paths of her mother and the women of her times and instead devotes her life and existence to the work and (later) legacy of Michel de Montaigne and his Essays. Setting out to become a writer and philosopher herself – something unthinkable for a woman in the French upper-class of those days (sixteenth/seventeenth century) – she eventually moves to Paris (first with her family, years later on her own) to try her luck. Diski portrays Marie as an ambitious scholar, an autodidact who tries to sharpen her intellect with the works she finds in her late father’s library and whatever books her uncle shares with her, but also as a woman with a lack of not only female looks but also features. In this instance, Marie at times seems like a caricature, though later in the book it becomes clear that she is indeed savvy enough to organize her house on a tight budget, so she is at least a bit practical, albeit maybe not in the typical and expected female way of those days.

But back to the first third of the book. After reading Montaigne’s Essays, Marie seems to have found her true calling, namely being one of history’s first “groupies” (in some way) and existing only to promote and support Montaigne’s genius, even though he does not even know her. After falsely believing that he is dead and finding out he is not, she writes him a passionate letter while residing in Paris with her family. He, after reading her flaming words and realizing they are both in Paris right now, imagines a beautiful and devoted young woman and decides that he wants to meet her. So Michel de Montaigne pays Marie a courtesy visit and from then on things go awry, in some way. Marie is not the beautiful young woman Montaigne imagined, still she overwhelmes him with her passion and devotion, pinching herself with her hair pin to demonstrate to him how strong her “love” for him is. After refusing to adopt her and instead offering her the title of”fille d’alliance”, a “daughter of his intellect”, Marie invites Montaigne to stay at her family’s home, the Chateau de Gournay, whenever he feels like it – while Montaigne tries to get away from her as fast as possible.

After suffering from a heavy bout of gout on his way home from Paris he is forced to accept her invitation to Chateau de Gournay. Staying for several weeks, Marie and Montaigne revise his Essays and it is then that she experiences her biggest triumph, seeing how he includes a paragraph appreciating her and her work in his writing. This is what will keep her going to the end of her days. This is what will make her vulnerable and at times ridiculous, even though she does not see it. Apart from the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll part, she is the perfect groupie and I can only imagine what would have happened had she ever had the chance to meet the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Justin Bieber (and forgive me for mentioning Bieber in one line with Jackson and the Beatles, this is referring to fan devotion, NOT musical genius/importance) …

She also works on her own books and writings as well, though Diski does not focus on this part of Marie’s life and work as much as her fangirling concerning Montaigne (her work is still quite impressive for a woman of her times, writing for nobility and receiving an allowance by Queen Margo, thereby being able to support herself). But everything that is remarkable about Marie as a person – her stubbornness, her ability to teach herself and learn from others and their writing (styles) – makes her work average and uninspired, at least according to Montaigne and Diski. Which may be the reason that Diski never really focuses on Marie’s writing apart from what happened in direct relation to Michel de Montaigne.

After Montaigne’s death, Marie’s wrong (asymmetrical?) self-assessment climaxes when she revises the final edition of his Essays – even though Montaigne’s wife, complying with his last will, simply asks her to find a printer in Paris to keep his memory alive – to her favor. Montaigne’s widow makes it quite clear that she does not appreciate Marie’s additions and revisions and that she furthermore wants her out of her life. From then on, Marie realizes that she indeed overestimated her position in Montaigne’s life and work and that she has to create her own life, if one might say so. Now we get to know Marie apart from Montaigne, Marie on her own, Marie with Jamyn, her maid and one more woman who is capable of so much more than she truly shows. Also, Diski adds an interesting twist to the relationship of the two women, which at times seems like a bit of an uninspired cliché, but more importantly adds an important and interesting layer to Marie’s character.

In the “Author’s note” Jenny Diski calls her work a ‘historical novel’ and explains her fictional Marie and why she chose a certain direction over another. Apart from the main characters and most of their works, this is fictional and not factual, something one should never forget when reading books like that. This is even more important when the author regularly uses a sort of factual, distanced prose that may create the illusion of reading a biography, not a novel. But this is Diski’s strength, and I loved the book for the distance she creates while narrating artificial and longed for intimacy between the various characters. Marie can be annoying at times, her fangirling and the way she never sees how her beloved philosopher at times simply uses her, can be exhausting. But I don’t have to love my main character every single page to appreciate and like a book.
Therefore, even though this book might not be for you, go out there, take a look at her oeuvre and maybe you find some other Diski that is right for you.

Reading: “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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Leo had been avoiding his wife, Victoria, who was barely speaking to him and his sister Beatrice who wouldn’t stop speaking to him—rambling on and on about getting together for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. In July. Leo hadn’t spent a holiday with his family in twenty years, since the mid-’90s if he was remembering correctly: he wasn’t in the mood to start now. 

So this is Leo and this will be Leo for the rest of the book, no matter how much he seems to undergo any sort of reformation; people like Leo do not reform, they perform. To an excellence it may even fool themselves at times…

In The Nest we encounter the Plumb family – mother Francie, brothers Leo and Jack, sisters Bea and Melody (in this oder), their late father Leonard Sr., ever-present thanks to his financial legacy called “the nest”, as well as his second cousin George – and a variety of people in their lives, most notably Stephanie, Bea’s former literary agent and Leo’s former lover; Walker, Jack’s husband; Walter and twins Louisa and Nora, Melody’s family…to just name a few. Leo, the oldest brother and the most successful sibling regarding monetary matters, crashed his car while high and drunk getting a handjob from 19-year-old waitress Matilda Rodriguez, whom he picked up at the wedding he attended with his wife and sister. George Plumb, trustee of “the nest” and family attorney, seeks the best possible option for Leo, with his wife Victoria filing for divorce and the New York high society already waiting for a scandal involving Leo Plumb: he pays out Matilda using a huge part of “the nest” and gets Leo into rehab, away from everyone and everything, until the dust settles and no one will even remember who Leo Plumb is. Which seems a good idea – but it’s not, at least not regarding to the rest of the Plumb brood.

Especially Jack and Melody desperately need and count on the money from the “nest.” They would get their share of the trust on Melody’s 40th birthday, which is just months away when we enter the story; now, after George and their mother Francie decided to use the money to get Leo off the hook, their shares shrunk significantly and are not enough to cover the expenses they already made and pay back their debts.
But of course, this book is not only about the money. In the end, it is hardly about money at all, but about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society in a traumatized city full of traumatized people who try to make a living in the best ways possible. And that’s were the magic starts, at least in my opinion. Focusing on the basic themes – moderately rich or well-off white brats going through life more or less aware of a world and people around them; immigrants trying to make it big or at least bigger than their parents in their new home country; people traumatized from war, injuries, 9/11 and its aftermath – we have seen it before (and better) BUT I’m always ready for more if it’s well done (which is totally subjective, of course) and I really like the way Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney tells the stories. There’s a number of characters and a lot of names, so I had my usual problem remembering who is who at times (husbands Walter and Walker, for example), but this happens to me all the time, so it’s nothing special. My ADHD and lack of focus is not an author’s fault, anyway.

Most importantly, at various points throughout the novel, just when you start thinking “hello cliché, no surprise meeting YOU here,” she takes a different direction, not necessarily one that no one would have foreseen BUT one that you would not expect her to go, simply because novels of this category – “light fiction”: funny with some (dark) humor, entertaining, bit of a critical undertone, but overall enjoyable – often choose the easy way out, ‘rewarding’ clichéd expectancies with the appropriate clichés. This rarely happens here, so I really enjoyed spending my time with the Plumbs and the people around them, even though some twists and turns were more foreseeable than others. Besides, some twists seem foreseeable because they are familiar – don’t we all know this ONE SPECIAL friend/family/ex-lover/colleague/acquaintance/asshole in exactly the same situation as Leo, Jack, Bea, …?

So what happens to people spending with money they haven’t gotten yet and, thanks to the overall human incompetence of their oldest brother, will likely never get? They are in a world of shit…so to say. And we are there with them, front row special seats. It’s a composition of different life stories and their various voices, perspectives, and worlds; an enthralling novel and a real pleasure to read. If you want something entertaining, humorous, and diverse to read, check the blurb and if you like it, go for it!

I want to close with a quote I love from the last chapter of the book – SPOILER ALERT – so be warned and continue reading on your own risk, knowing too much too early OR not understanding a thing:

Years later, when the tree had grown and formed the perfect canopy over the rear of the yard, Lila would marry beneath the massive leafy boughs turning red and orange on a blindingly beautiful October afternoon. She would ask Jack to escort her down the leaf-strewn path to her partner. Jack would be good to Lila all her life, showing up whenever she was missing a father. On the day of her wedding when Lila appeared on Jack’s almost-seventy-year-old arm, Stephanie would see Leo at her side and for a debilitating moment would be crushed by the enormity of everything he’d missed.

I love this quote because it is so positive, it is not about the daughter being left behind and missing out, but the father missing all the wonderful stuff that comes with having kids. To me, there is so much love in this small passage, I cried the first time I read it (you may need to read the whole story before even trying to understand my emotional exaggeration…).

 

 

 

Reading: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

” As she passes the house with GO and HOME still written across it she sees that underneath this someone has added, in varying bright colours, WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU and painted a tree next to it and a row of bright red flowers underneath it. There are flowers, lots of real ones, in cellophane and paper, on the pavement outside the house, so it looks a bit like an accident has recently happened here.”

Smith and I had a rough start with her Public Library and other stories, and it didn’t get much better from than on. She has a unique voice, which makes her special in the best and worst possible way; while I liked some of her short stories, most of them contained a lot of literary references (I know, what a surprise considering the title and concept of the book) and casual name-dropping that made it hard for me to follow the story itself, so to say. Of course Smith is a master of her craft also in regard to this name dropping, since she is not only a writer, but she also studied them; so she names all these artists and authors for a reason and it’s not her fault that my knowledge regarding certain literary circles/periods/trends is sketchy at best. Still, I could not get drawn into the stories because a lot of it felt just random.
So much for the short stories – since seeing Autumn all over Instagram, everyone being enthusiastic about it and all, I decided I need to give Ali Smith and me a second chance: Autumn it was.

Not surprisingly it didn’t work out. I liked the novel much better than the stories, because in the end I could see some story-line and I was interested in the Brexit theme, BUT once again I had the feeling we are all over the place in so many different ways.
There are several familiar motifs that work well with each other (of course), but for me they also got lost along the way repeatedly, turning up again, only to disappear once more – a literary to and fro deluxe. For example: I often hoped I would meet a wise and lovely old (wo)man who would take me under (her)his wings and give me a sort of guidance along the rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood – I have seen movies about it (probably, I’m not sure, I don’t like movies), I’ve read countless inspiring and wonderful books revolving around this topic BUT did it ever happen? No, of course not, probably because they are already booked playing “rent-a-gramp” and reading to orphans at the public library.

Now I know that the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is a bit more complex, but it’s still working with the same familiar pattern, which is why I mention it in this context; it’s a wonderful topic and a great theme to work with, but it’s not like one has never seen this before. Same goes for the difficult mother-daughter relationship; nothing new but very well construed, and Elisabeth’s mother is as intriguing in some aspects as she is irritating and sometimes uninspired in others. Elisabeth’s various adventures on her way to a new passport are priceless, and a lot of us will recognize the mysterious ways in which the systems work in their own countries. And of course there’s Daniel, sleeping and dreaming (and more). I could hardly focus on a lot of ‘his’ parts simply because it was, again, all over the place, dream sequences and the like. Again we have a lot of name-dropping and Smith works with several references to the world of art and literature but this works much better in a novel than in the stories, at least in my opinion.

One of the main reason I wanted to read Autumn was of course the Brexit-theme. As someone living in Europe who has visited the UK several times, sometimes even on a sort of regular basis, the fact that they did vote LEAVE only to try to find out what that actually means afterwards, was “surprising” and I was curious to find out how a renowned writer worked with this important event in Britain’s recent history. And these were also the parts I liked most, the parts I read without putting the book down, the parts I still have in mind. Sometimes you see it directly – Elisabeth and her mother describing (and fighting) the fence, the quotes from above, the reference to the murder of Jo Cox – sometimes it’s more subtle, but it’s still there. And anyone living in Europe with eyes to see and an open mind knows we are fighting on all fronts against fear, racism, sexism, nationalism, idiocy, hatred, and politicians who use peoples’ anxieties and ignorance to their own PERSONAL advantage; Brexit is just one very drastic sign that we still have a lot of work ahead of us (to describe it in a positive way; otherwise one might just say “that we will never learn and are not worth the land, air, and nature we’re systematically destroying”).

But I digress, let’s stick to literature, shall we?

Of course Smith is a great writer, no matter if I like her work or not; in some instances literature (art) is not simply a matter of taste, but also of timing. Maybe this is not the right time for Ali Smith and me; maybe this time will never come, who knows. Go ahead, read her, give it a try – no matter if you like it or not, she’s definitely worth your time.

Reading: Miriam Toews “All my puny sorrows”

 

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I finished Toews’ book yesterday and I still have Elf and Yoli with me, somehow. I laughed a lot; I cried several times. This is a story about mental illness, surviving, and letting someone go. This is a story about suicide and survival, about intentionally leaving this world, even though there would be no need to do it just now (i.e. no fatal disease or other physical failings that would make life unbearable). This is a story about death and family and losing the people we love. In short: Elfrieda, Yoli’s older sister, wants to die. Her mother, sister, husband and a lot of other people want her to live. But for some people, being free means being able to leave whenever and however they want to…

Writing about death is always difficult, because it is a tense and emotional topic; even more so when writing about suicide. Most people do not understand why someone wants to die. Many of us experience difficult times, lose people we love and can have a hard time coping with all the shit life throws at us. Still, we move on –or, as Churchill once said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” But it is not like that for everyone. Some just want to stop going, because they cannot do it any longer…and they have every right to do so, no matter how hard it is to understand for everyone else.

There are certain books that just seem to choose me – “All my puny sorrows” is one of those. Every time I read stories of mental illnesses, I get a bit frightened; I can all to well remember how I felt years ago when I myself had to figure out how to “keep going.” Sometimes I’m afraid all this could come back if I read too much about it, think too much about it – I can be overly empathic and emotional, not being able to distance myself from the things around me, and I’m still very much afraid of depression, that kind of depression I experienced back then. I never actively thought about taking my own life, because I believed that it would get better. To me suicide was a sort of last resort in case I would truly lose it – and I can understand when someone passes this stage and ends his or her life.

I love Toews’ language and humor, I think it is so important to not only keep going but also keep laughing, especially with topics like this, death and suicide and losing people you love. When the inevitable happens, you are still shocked and surprised – even though it’s ‘just a book,’ I still hoped. For all those around her and for herself. Because if you are not feeling and living in this very special void, you see hope, even in the darkest days. If you know this void – the multitude of voids –, have been there, seen it, felt it, you may understand that someone does not see any more sense in ‘keep going.’ I love Elfrieda, who is a survivor as long as she can take it. I love Yoli and Lottie, her sister and her mother, who ‘keep going’ after losing a lot, keep laughing because in the midst of a storm, you have to save yourself and those close to you, the ones that can and want to be saved. 

I want to thank Miriam Toews for lightning up my soul and mind. I prefer to block out anything that may remind me of darker days, but Elf and Yoli brought some things up that were not even half as frightening as I thought it would (or could) be. Thanks for making me laugh out loud. Thanks for writing a book about some of the roughest storms of life that feels like a warm and bright summer breeze…

Reading: Jack Kerouac “The Sea is my Brother”

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As working on my talk (yes, still working on it…) and some other serious stuff kept me from writing earlier, I will post a sort of follow-up to the previous post, as it again will be all about Jack Kerouac and his writing. Last time I read some of Jack’s stuff was years ago and it was one of his more spiritual (or rather, religious) writing, Wake-Up, A Life of the Buddha. Since I’ve never been much of a religious person, I never actually finished this book; even though I know some argue that Buddhism and the legend of Buddha may not resemble the traditional sort of religion, I indeed have my problems with believing in a single (or – for the sake of religious open-mindedness – multiple) spiritual entity which ‘magically’ influences my life in any way. To be more precise and honest, I’ve always had my problems with the concept of ‘belief’ and ‘believing’, not matter if religious, spiritual, or general. So the fact that I never finished Jack’s spiritual literary musings is not much surprising, nor is it the result of bad writing or anything alike.

When I started reading Kerouac again – again a “long-lost” novel (or similar claims) by this icon of the Beat literature – I wanted to get some information about the The Sea is my Brother as well as The Haunted Life beforehand. After all, poor ol’ Jack seems to belong to the Tupac Shakur/Kurt Cobain-phenomenon, which proves that no matter when and how you died, you are never too dead to release new music or publish a new book. Love the cash-cow, because cash is king (…or so. Says Jack Welch.) So I found a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books (read here) which was very informative and entertaining. It also reinforced my first impression of the book – as the reviewer stated Jack never wanted this book to be published, I definitely understood why. It is not that The Sea is my Brother is bad – I would never say that about any book, even not about those I truly, TRULY dislike (hate?) because more than anything, literature – like all forms of the arts – is a matter of taste, though of course there are technical and stylistic features that may indicate if an author is rather accomplished or dilettante. So, it is not a bad read.

Kerouac is drawing inspirations from his life and has therefore always been known as a highly autobiographical writer; as he liked to play with his real-life influences by connecting characters and events in different ways, this may lead his audience to recognize a sort of recycling which can be irritating and funny at the same time. Those who read The Town and the City will rediscover not only some names, but also characters in The Haunted Life and The Sea is my Brother, though the last one may also be the one furthest from the two aforementioned. In The Sea is my Brother, Wesley Martin, the oldest of the Martin family works as a sailor without much ties to family and friends apart from fellow seamen. He is portrayed as an easygoing, lighthearted guy, preferring emotional detachment regarding his relationships with women, while forming strong bonds to male companions, especially fellow seamen. He is, of course, just one of many protagonists pictured after Jack himself. The strong emphasis on male bonding is very dominant in this novel (fragmentary novel?), as it is in most of Jack’s writing, though not always as blatant. Apart from foreshadowing Kerouac’s main literary tropes, Wesley also seems to have a talent for running into highly intelligent, politically committed, academic babblers, in this case Bill Everhart, who later joins him on a vessel. Aside from Bill babbling a lot and Wesley constantly being on the run from himself (therefore seeming to be detached from everyone in the story apart from the sea) the recurring incoherencies in the writing itself make it at times a hard read. I do indeed understand Jack’s wish to not have this novel published; as he was very meticulous about his writing, his characters, and storytelling throughout his life, this novel does not live up to everyone’s expectations.

But, as the Merve Emre in her review LARB so poignantly states, Jack Kerouac is a brand, a household name, which promises high profits, no matter how low the actual effort is. She is, of course, right. After all, I too bought the book (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only ‘Beat literature enthusiast’ out there…).

Reading: John Williams “Stoner”

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There are certain books that simply touch my heart. Also, they make me physically sick, not because they are that awful, but  because I feel much too close to the main protagonist(s). So, if something bad happens, I can hardly stand the tension surrounding the character I’m most obsessed about (so to say). And because of empathizing that strongly with certain characters, it gets to the point where I won’t sleep, eat, answer a call or text someone back before finding out what will happen, just because I’m THAT upset about the plot right now….

John Williams’ Stoner is such a book. I got it because I love books like that, with a certain clear and unobtrusive language and a simple and clear narrative tone.  Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City, Jack London’s Martin Eden, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights are just a few of the books I’m talking about when calling it “books like that.” Of course calling it a sort of coming-of-age- or college novel would be more appropriate, but I’ve always had my very own way with categorizing stuff. Besides, I’m more familiar with literary theories than categories. So pardon my ignorance and tolerate the “books like that”-business.

Stoner tells the story of William Stoner, the son of poor farmers who initially attends the University of Missouri to study agriculture. Yet soon he follows his heart and switches to literature.  His professor and mentor, Archer Sloane, encourages him to take up teaching himself. With the support of his lifelong friend Gordon Finch and against all odds, he teaches classic literature until his death. Throughout, he lives a quiet life with only a few decisive points. Of those, the death of his friend David Masters and his affair with Ph.D candidate Katherine Driscoll seem to be the only ones that truly touch his heart.  His failed marriage, his daughter’s difficult fate, and his stalled career do not.

The novel has a very unique tone, which may not be the most appropriate way to describe it, but it’s the only way I can think of. Even though it’s a third-person-narration, sometimes it seems like Stoner himself, with a calm voice, opens up to the reader. This left me with the impression of being part of this man’s life, with all its downs and just a few ups. Marrying a woman who despises him the moment they started their new life together; clashing with his superior over a mediocre student, having his daughter pretty much taken away from him so his wife can play her sick mind games using their child: all this narrated in a melancholic tone, a tone which reminds me of Bartleby. But a Bartleby who forgot how to say “I prefer not to” and rather goes through life thinking “Well, well, this too shall pass.” I can’t remember the last time I stumbled upon such an actively passive character, but with such a beautiful voice, even though it is not his own. His wife is one of the ugliest characters imaginable and thus, of course, perfect the way she is. So too is Lomax, Stoner’s antagonist at the university, blind of hatred for Stoner over his rejection of one of his protegés, a mediocre student whose most remarkable feature seemed to be his slight disability, which he shares with his Mentor Lomax. But even though he gets irritated at times, Stoner seems much too passive to lash out at them. Only once does he challenge and conquer Lomax (this was when I could not sleep until I found out how this passage would end). The only way he reacts on Edith’s delusions is by having an affair with Katherine, with whom he experiences love, passion and – most importantly – physical and intellectual companionship. The affair ends when Lomax threatens to destroy Katherine’s career. The only memory of their twosomeness will be Katherine dedicating her book to William years later. 

I know it sounds pathetic, but I cried after finishing this book. What Stoner experiences throughout his life may not be as tragic as what many others go through. It may indeed be – in a way – rather common for those times and people. Still, I was deeply touched by his dignity (and though this term is often overused in certain contexts, again I can’t think of a better way to describe my thoughts). Never once losing his temper, overreacting in any way even though it would have been perfectly understandable. Never. A quiet man, a quiet life. Destruction, loss, sadness, and desperation all around him, twice, for some time, even love – first from his daughter, pure and carefree, later from Katherine, pure and romantic. Still, all quiet, calm, unobtrusive.