WRB—August 16, 2023
feat. the August 2023 History & Classics Supplement
The Washington Review of Books reads like a year-and-a-half-long experiment in hysterical realism.
In today’s edition:
(working backwards from the bottom):
Atlantis…middlebrow…gambling…the August 2023 History & Classics Supplement, slightly delayed…the Central Intelligence Agency…Calvin and Hobbes…William Gaddis…Jonathan Franzen…
Unfortunately, no matter how felicitous the descriptions may be, the writer is competing with other media that a reader could be turning to instead, audiovisual media that actually show you the eagle or let you hear the loon. Ever since the advent of color photography and sound recording, lengthy descriptions have become problematic in all genres of writing, and they’re especially problematic for the evangelizing nature writer. To describe a scene of nature well, the writer is hard pressed to avoid terminology that’s foreign to readers who haven’t already witnessed a similar sort of scene. Being a birder, I know what a ruby-crowned kinglet sounds like; if you write that a kinglet is chattering in a willow tree, I can hear the sound clearly. The very words “ruby-crowned kinglet” are pregnant and exciting to me. I will avidly read an unadorned list of the species—black-headed grosbeak, lazuli bunting, blue-gray gnatcatcher—that a friend saw on her morning walk. To me, the list is a narrative in itself. To the unconverted reader, though, the list might as well say: Ira the son of Ikkesh of Tekoa, Abiezer of Anathoth, Mebunnai the Hushathite . . .
Two in the new Harper’s:
Adam Kirsch on the Gen X novel:
The children of the Seventies tend to feel out of place in this new world. It’s not that they naïvely looked forward to a future of peace and harmony and are offended to find that it has not materialized. It is rather that their literary gaze was fixed within at an early age, and they continue to believe that the most authentic way to write about history is as the deteriorating climate through which the self moves.
The self, meanwhile, they approach with mistrust—a reaction against the heart-on-sleeve sincerity of their elders. Many of them have turned to autofiction, a genre which is often criticized as narcissistic—a way of shrinking the world to fit into the four walls of the writer’s room. In fact, it has served these writers as an antidote to the grandiosity of memoir, which tends to falsify in the direction of self-flattery—as this generation learned from the spectacular implosion of James Frey’s 2003 bestseller, A Million Little Pieces. By admitting from the outset that it is not telling the truth about the author’s life, autofiction makes it possible to emphasize the moral ambiguities that memoir has to apologize for or hide. That makes it useful for writers who are not in search of goodness, neither within themselves nor in political movements.
Hari Kunzru on Four Quartets and the evolution of his literary sensibility:
My taste is, of course, always evolving, and more or less everything I read before the age of thirty now hits so differently that I might as well not have read it at all. I had gone back to Eliot—at least certain poems—more than once, but when Sophie asked me to talk about Four Quartets, I realized that it had been a long time since I’d really sat with them. I found them familiar in the expected way, full of phrases I knew: “at the still point of the turning world”; “dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”; “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” But I also found another kind of familiarity, in lines like, “The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part.” The perfection of that “questioned,” a word for a kind of probing that is both physical and metaphysical, brought me back to the wonder I’d felt at seventeen. I realized, with a kind of shock, that my notion of what constituted a good phrase hadn’t really changed. I still aspired to combine sensuousness and precision, philosophical abstraction and concrete particularity. I wasn’t the same person, but here was an unbroken thread connecting me to a long lost version of myself.
In contrast, there are very few overt references to Russian literature in his second novel, J R (1975), though he told his Paris Review interviewer that the novel’s antagonist, Edward Bast, is “a captive remnant of the past, of the ‘old family,’ Turgenev’s romantic Arkady meeting up with the hard-nosed pragmatist Bazarov as it were.” In addition to this reference to Fathers and Sons, there is a passing reference to Elena in Turgenev’s On the Eve as well. However, J R is all about money, a theme it shares with The Idiot. “Money, the most ambiguous of values, is the medium of the social world,” Richard Peaver writes in the introduction to his co-translation. “Its fatal quality is treated in all tones, at all levels, in The Idiot.” J R won the National Book Award for the best fiction of that year, and in his acceptance speech Gaddis quoted from F. D. Reeve’s introduction to an English translation of Maxim Gorky’s Foma Gordeyev—a little-known novel that indicates the depth of Gaddis’s familiarity with Russian novels.
I could go on like this for pages, flipping back and forth at random through the entire collection. But the point is, save for the first few months of the strip, which, for easily forgivable reasons, veer more toward lame, canned jokes, Calvin and Hobbes reads like a ten-year-long experiment in hysterical realism. Fans often mistake these outbursts for philosophy (a characterization that Watterson vigorously resists), but the truth is much more mundane. These are simply the natural thoughts of a man chained to his desk. “Comic strips are typically written in a certain amount of panic,” Watterson sometimes reminds fans. “I just wrote what I thought about.”
[I love this one. The idea of long-running comic strips as a kind of hysterical realism helped me put together some inchoate thoughts I had about Peanuts as well. —Steve] [I thought about Peanuts a bit (because Watterson thought about Peanuts constantly), but honestly I am a victim of what Watterson predicted: I think of Snoopy as a character from a blimp. —Nic] [What the piece really helped crystalize for me is the way Watterson took a theme only implicit in Schulz’s hysterical realism (the relationship between a certain kind of child and the adult world) and made it explicitly the focus of the strip, which produces a different kind of bleakness than in Peanuts, where the characters are all sort of adults and more or less failures. —Steve]