This is the week when the English and Irish newspapers and magazines run their BOOKS OF THE YEAR. I read the sections in the TLS, The Spectator and The Irish Times. The TLS like The Spectator and The IrishTimes has a gang of writers writing little essays about their year's best books.
I will not make one of those lists of who said what. Most of the writers who contribute to these sections are or will eventually be just names: publicists, academics, once popular novelists and poets. My one exception will be to notice that George Steiner did not report that he had read, as in previous years, with a passionate and defining interest, 10,000 pages of Heidegger manuscripts.
I was saddened, a little--- one always hopes for some evidence of change but of course--- to realize the dread Philip Roth's latest had been read by a number of these people. Roth is a perfect example of POSHLOST, that wonderful Russian term made popular by Vladimir Nabokov:
Corny trash, vulgar cliches, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature--- these are obvious examples. Now if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over concern with class and race and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as "America is no different than Russia" or "we all share in Germany's guilt. The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as "the moment of truth," "charisma," "existential" (used seriously), "dialogue" (as applied to political talks between nations), and vocabulary (as applied to the dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam is seditious poshlost.
Of course, any reasonably well informed person can make a list of contemporary writers who personify POSHLOST: Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, James Patterson... I can't go on with this list. I guess if you see a course listing for the contemporary novel at a college or university... 90 percent of the writers will exemplify Mr Nabokov's...
As to Roth...
It must have been in 1971 when I first met Nelida Pinon. You might remember her as the Brazilian writer whose REPUBLIC OF DREAMS came out some years ago... she was included in that defining anthology of South American writing published by Tri-Quarterly... there was a short story of a woman who gave birth to an egg... she was a close friend of Clarice Lispector...
Pinon is still alive, travels constantly-- was the first woman to be the President of the Brazilian Academy... she visited back then a class given by Hannah Green at Columbia University. She must have come to Columbia at the invitation of Frank MacShane who was probably one of the best writing program directors in the country at that time or since. Nelida was only one of the many who came to Columbia at MacShane's invitation: Niconor Parra, Jorge Luis Borges, Jose Donoso... that apologist for Stalin, Pablo Neruda...
... but the point. Nelida was telling me that on this her second visit she was only meeting writers and people who are not famous. On her first visit she had been forced to meet the famous. Then when she met Roth at a restaurant on 8th Street in Manhattan she learned that famous American writers are very different from... all Mr Roth could talk about other than his own writing and the sense of himself as an important writer was that this was to be his year to make a million dollars. Nelida learned from Roth that in America it is somehow decided that each year one writer will make a million dollars. Two years before it had been Saul Bellow and then William Styron and this was to be his year. Of course she was talking about Portnoy's Complaint.
Elsewhere in the Books of the Year issue of the TLS is an article by Gabriel Josipovici in which there is:
what has happened to our culture such that serious critics and intelligent well-read reviewers, many of whom studied the poems of Eliot, the stories of Kafka and the plays of Beckett at University, should go into ecstasies over Atonement or Suite Francaise while ignoring the work of marvelous novelists such as Robert Pinget and Gert Hofmann?
Mr. Josipovici must be living in some fantasy world. You can get out of many good colleges and universities without ever having read the three authors he mentioned and I can well assure him if a reviewer ever talked about such writers or of holding them in esteem-- they would simply be thought to be sadly out of touch with the needs of the newspaper or magazine.
FORTUNATE READERS: there is no excuse not to read Robert Pinget's books. Almost all of them are available in English. I was reminded of this by seeing Joanne Gunderson at the 20th Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair. She has through her small press RED DUST made available all of Pinget's small prose books and his plays. DALKEY ARCHIVE has his great work THE INQUISITORY available. A reader might find MONSIEUR SONGE who in some way is of the same family as MONSEIEUR TESTE by Paul Valery... but both Mr Pinget and Mr Songe are, as they say in Ireland, their own man... or those other late books THEO OR THE NEW ERA or BE BRAVE or THE ENEMY--- all well translated by the great Barbara Wright...
in THEO OF THE NEW ERA:
Still the same old thing. He's read so many books that he tries to remember them all together I think.
Why all together.
Because he's in a hurry, he hasn't got time now to reread them one after the other so as to write his own.
What is his own?
That bundle of pages he gets you to read bit by bit.
That isn't a book it's just scribble you can't understand a word.
It's the best he can do.
or in Pinget's last published book TRACES OF INK:
And then the years pass.
What can he do to overcome it?
One line plus one line. and keep going at all costs.
And from earlier in the book: Mortin says I'm waiting for the rats of memory.