What am I doing? I am writing a book.

This is how Hilary Mantel got started, from The New Yorker

“The first novel that Hilary Mantel wrote was about the French Revolution. It did not start out as a novel, exactly, nor did she start out as a novelist. It was 1975, and she was twenty-three, living in Manchester and selling dresses in a department store. She had realized that she didn’t have the money to finish her legal training, and, after a year working in a geriatric hospital, that she didn’t want to be a social worker. She was bored with selling dresses; she had started taking books about the French Revolution out of the library, one after another. Then she began taking notes. After she had been doing this for some time, she asked herself, What am I doing? And the answer came: I am writing a book.”

Destitute of all Decency

Phillip Roth on Trump:

“I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

Going out with Don

Going out with Don

For the last day of this incomprehensible year of 2016 I have pulled together a few quotes from that master chronicler of the American condition, Don DeLillo.  I have not yet read his latest, a meditation on death and how to cheat it, Zero K (only dipped into it), but even as far back as the much earlier Great Jones Street (1973), DeLillo has consistently shown his fascination with that American obsession, death .. and how we think to cheat it.

“Television.  Maybe it was all a study in the art of mummification.  The effect of the medium is so evanescent that those who work in its time apparatus feel the need to preserve themselves, delivering their bodies to be lacquered and trussed, sprayed with the rest of pressurized jellies, all to one end, a release from the perilous context of time.  This is their only vanity, to expect to dwell forever in hermetic sub-corridors, free of every ravage, secure as old kings asleep in sodium.”
Don De Lillo, Great Jones Street (1973)

Making things difficult for the reader is less an attack on the reader than it is on the age and its facile knowledge-market.
Don DeLillo

When it comes to writers being obsessed, I have one notion. Obsession as a state seems so close to the natural condition of a novelist at work on a book, that there may be nothing else to say about it.
DonDeLillo, from the 1979 interview with Tom LeClair.

The future belongs to crowds -DonDeLillo, Mao II (1991)

Marina Warner on the Disfiguring of Higher Education

From LRB, 19 March, 2015

“Faith in the value of a humanist education is beginning to look like an antique romance. I flattered myself that by teaching I could perhaps make a difference, spark a young mind, foster an older, returning student’s aspirations, and act as the catalyst of that self-discovery described by Seamus Heaney in The Redress of Poetry when he writes, ‘we go to poetry to be forwarded within ourselves’; literature, Heaney says, gives ‘an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering’. I think we could say that we go to education, too, for these experiences, to be forwarded in ourselves and to recognise things we only glimpsed dimly before. Despite the warnings against cruel optimism, I still hold fast to the life of the mind – its beauty, its necessity.

What fiction is for

This remarkable quote is from President Obama, speaking with Marilynne Robinson

Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

 

Kafka is funny

kafkagregor‘The “signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students,” that “it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny… nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories.” Part of the problem arises from the fact that “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement,” especially to “children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance.” So what kind of jokes can we find in Kafka’s stories, if we know how to get them?

‘Therein, Wallace argues, lies another part of the problem: “It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them that humor is something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have,” all of which gets in the way of perceiving “the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.” Of course, as Wallace adds in one of his signature footnotes, since “most of us Americans come to art essentially to forget ourselves — to pretend for a while that we’re not mice and all walls are parallel and the cat can be outrun — it’s no accident that we’re going to see ‘A Little Fable’ as not all that funny.” But read enough Kafka, preferably outside the walls of a classroom, and you’ll get a much more expansive sense of humor itself.’