Literary Greats Always Cheat at Golf

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Love in a Dead Language by Lee Siegel

Two. My friend Ori is always giving me books to read, far beyond a reasonable number, but his enthusiasm and faith and my speediness are encouraging. One of the only ones I’ve managed to read in reasonable time is Love in a Dead Language by Lee Siegel. One could question the appropriateness of a teacher giving his student a book about teachers seducing their students by means of sexy literature, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s not like that.

I loved this book far more than anyone should. Remember what I wrote about Dorky Love in regard to Adverbs? Emphasize the dork here most of all. This modern day Lolita is more about flash and style than Adverbs, but it’s at its best when it’s at its most sincere.

(Incidentally, what is up with me and Lolita this year? This is my third book explicitly discussing or modeled on Lolita. It’s a book I adore, but I think this might say something disturbing. Also disturbing, is that there are two passages from Lolita which crop up in my life routinely suggesting some sort of bizarre fixation with the book. For whatever fucked up reason whenever I cry I think of this passage:

She had been crying after a routine row with her mother and, as had happened on former occasions, had not wished me to see her swollen eyes: she had one of those tender complexions that after a good cry get all blurred and inflamed, and morbidly alluring. I regretted keenly her mistake about my private aesthetics, for I simply love that tinge of Botticellian pink, that raw rose about the lips, those wet, matted eyelashes; and, naturally, her bashful whim deprived me of many opportunities of specious consolation.

Likewise, whenever I have a fever I think of this horrific passage:

Upon entering the cabin, she sat down on a chair at a card table, buried her face in the crook of her arm and said she felt awful. Shamming, I thought, shamming, no doubt,to evade my caresses; I was passionately parched; but she began to whimper in an unusually dreary way when I attempted to fondle her. Lolita ill. Lolita dying. Her skin was scalding hot! I took her temperature, orally, then looked up a scribbled formula I fortunately had in a jotter and after laboriously reducing the, meaningless to me, degrees Fahrenheit to the intimate centigrade of my childhood, found she had 40.4, which at least made sense. Hysterical little nymphs might, I knew, run up all kinds of temperature--even exceeding a fatal count. And I would have given her a sip of hot spiced wine, and two aspirins, and kissed the fever away, if, upon an examination of her lovely uvula, one of the gems of her body, I had not seen that it was a burning red. I undressed her. Her breath was bittersweet. Her brown rose tasted of blood. She was shaking from head to toe.

But enough of this perhaps too insightful aside. I swear my interactions with older men have been nothing but appropriate.)

In his pursuit of Lalita Gupta, our agonist (prot- or ant- depends on your vantage and sympathies, of course) stops himself from telling her about the rape and murder of his young daughter, it is too painful to have this memory fresh when he’s trying to score. I think this is one of the most private and gorgeous moments in the book. It comes down to decency, of course, but it also has to do with our need to keep our stories separate from each other, to keep them appropriate. In a novel all pieces of the narrative inform each other. We can’t help but read the loss of his daughter into Professor Roth’s pursuit of a young girl, but in life it would be unbearable to read these two narratives into each other. It’s why we have a hard time integrating groups of friends. It’s why we work so hard to change stories, to remember things a little differently, it’s why we polish what’s raw into anecdotes, it’s why we have to control it.

Or I do. I hate when my story gets beyond my grasp. One terrible part of breaking up is knowing that the other person can now tell the story of you in ways you would never want it told. It’s why when I behave badly I work frantically to justify myself to put a good spin on it, to keep those witnesses of my poor behavior where I can tell what kind of story they’re telling. That sounds more calculating than it’s meant to, but I think that’s one particularly unattractive aspect of the “let’s be friends” urge.

So anyway the book is great for people who like literature, literary criticism, Lolita, India, totems and taboos. I highly, highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

From Decent Background Reading to Sloppy Trash

One. I read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, the inclusion of which is slightly suspect in a blog which is not supposed to be about schoolbooks. I wasn’t reading it for any specific project, however, just for background flavor, and it was written for layfolk so I think I can count it to the fifty.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, the prose is often overwrought (sandy locks on an impassive face blowing in the dusty wind style) and the tone has an arrogance that I’m uncomfortable with, but I almost always feel uncomfortable as an outsider studying a controversial region. I guess that’s what bothers me most of all. Friedman makes much of his discomfort as an American and as a Jew in Beirut, but, not to get all Saidish, he doesn’t do a lot to critically examine the ways that his view might be slanted or unfair. He acts put out when his credentials are questioned (I think reasonably questioned, why should the PLO, for example, have felt comfortable being represented to the US by someone unlikely to take up their part? They questioned him about his fairness, they didn’t shoot at him. Calm down T.Fri.) and he doesn’t present a complex picture of the individuals he encounters—his descriptions either lionize them or demonize them and I feel uncomfortable when it gets lost that the leaders of movements are, first of all, people, and will behave as people do. Perhaps a little more boldy or timidly than others, considering ideological constraints, but they will act as people do.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Challenge! (In the Voice of my Father)

I have been failing this year at making a New Year's resolution for myself (it's not my fault, I live in a country where New Year's is No Big Deal so it's very difficult to get worked up about it) but my recently aquired online obsession has given me a good one to start the year with:

This year I will read (and godwilling write about in this blog) 50 books. Now, he's doing 75, but I am a graduate student and I am already bogged down with tons of.... reading... (don't judge me, it's mostly articles) so I tink starting with fifty is okay.

I'm starting the year with Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem, I'll let you know how it goes.

Happy New Year.