24 April, 2012

Reading, Part I: Literature

It's amazing how much of a luxury real literature becomes when the bulk of one's reading is confined to The News and various articles of political analysis. Certainly not all of these are abysmal from a literary perspective; the latter genre tends to be by far the better of the two, with writers like Walter Russel Mead, Peter Berger, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer furnishing consistently readable columns for the more grammatically snobby among us.

However, it's beyond refreshing to be getting back into (English language) literature mode of late. (There's been plenty of French literature, which is fun in its own right: my current read in that language is Monsieur Larose, est-il l'assassin, a wonderfully vocabulary-and-slang rich psychological parody of the detective novel by one of Belgium's greats, Fernand Crommelynck.) Of course, getting back into the English stuff has required that I reconcile myself with the (rather abhorrent)  idea of "reading books online." I'm not a fan for several reasons, not restricted to my Bourgeois bias in favor of the smell of paper and the palpable roughness of its surface (I tell you, it makes a difference, seeing the way the ink has sunk into the slightly porous pages, rendering the letters coarser, individualizing them in a way you don't get onscreen). Reading something on a laptop also  a.) restricts your movement to places with an (accessible) wireless connection, b.) kind of wears on your eyes after a while, and c.) makes the reading feel cursory. However, it's not like there are English used-book stores everywhere around here, and I'm not about to buy any book that I don't love for full price at one of the many Barnes and Nobles-like establishments in the city. Admittedly, "not everywhere" and "unavailable" are two very different things: I could find the used English books if I wanted to, but motivation is lacking, since I then face the problem of transporting them back to the States.

Fortunately, I did bring one American novel, Saul Bellow's The Victim, along with me; I've been hoarding it up for the "ideal moment" as stingily as I used to hoard up Easter candy as a child. With the end of the semester now in sight, I've begun it, but am still reading it very slowly, preferring to savor it in the park during those rare afternoons when it is actually not raining. It's a good book so far, though I'm loathe to judge before having finished the story. The writing, at any rate, is elegant--simple in the best of senses, and adept at conveying and making realistic an emotional state (chez the main character) that could be easily overwrought or absurd. The violence of the "antagonist's" emotion and the sense of self-disgust that begins to pervade the protagonist's  mindset about halfway through the novel reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky. In fact, I'd have to say it's one of the most thoroughly Dostoevskian post-Dostoevsky works I've encountered. The notable difference here is that the most "Dostoevskian" character is in fact not the protagonist, but someone who's set himself up to work on the protagonist and force the poor guy to share (penitentially, as it were) in his own sentiments of self-loathing.

My more recent online reading (after an excellent short story by Edith Pearlman, available at Commentary magazine) has been Kate Chopin's Awakening. Once again, I'm only about halfway through and thus unable to comment on the story itself. The writing, however, is lovely; not quite Virginia Woolf lovely, but certainly lovely enough to lure the reader into the romanticism of Old Louisiana even as the plot remains somewhat critically aloof of the society it describes. Should be interesting to see how it concludes.

Apropos of little, I've also been reading a lot of Foucault and Hume lately. Mostly for my own "edification" (if one can say "edifying" of either one with a straight face--I am doubtful). Hume I'm rereading mostly out of interest (causality is a continually fascinating topic). However, Foucault's discussions of the discourse of power inherent in any formulation of history and of the way that history itself shapes notions of ethics is certainly relevant to my studies regarding the development of national identities and nationalism (and the ways the different historical circumstances of the Middle East makes certain presuppositions about those societies frankly absurd).


cizlar said...

Just having read "Herzog," I commend your slow pursuit. Reading it too fast resulted in as much terror as pleasure; I was overly engrossed and disturbed that I was taking on the identity crisis of the title character.

Of course, this comment interface isn't helping much because it's forcing me to to choose an identity with which to comment.

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