Often she is very funny. This is the full text of ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’: ‘Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.’ But what knocks you for six is how much emotion Davis is able to draw from her pedantic scrutiny of language. ‘Grammar Questions’, composed during her father’s terminal illness, begins: ‘Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, ‘This is where he lives’?’
It is precisely because she does believe [translation] to be so crucial that she wants it to be taken seriously. Her concerns lie with a notion of world literature that erases difference or sifts out the foreign or the unsettling in the name of easy consumption. In this way world literature mimics a free-market fantasy of the endless, frictionless circulation of goods and information. In this McDonaldisation of the written word there is no room for difficulty or opacity.
For Austrian novelist and short story writer Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), it is precisely those Habsburgian frivolities that define Vienna’s tragedy in their presence and absence alike. If The Third Man is cynical, Zweig’s is elegiac, beckoning us into a vanished world: a world of Baronesses and bibliophiles, gamblers, and actors — all suffering from the inevitable decline of their own personal eras of innocence.
Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that ‘gulf of language and tradition’ and meet her subjects ‘in utter intimacy’ like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico.
This is a novel about obsessive love and at some point during my reading of it, I became obsessed with the story in a way that surprised me. You could say my experience mirrored Cress’s own love affair, which starts out simply and easily but then somehow turns into a life-altering event that keeps Cress captive in the mountains for years. Although I wouldn’t characterize Off Course as a life-altering novel, it did cast a very strong spell. The fairy tale theme is pervasive and like all good fairy tales, there is a sense of unease, of darkness unseen. Cress describes her love as “a sad old king,” the arrival of spring is “a clear flammable gas in the air,” and a pocketknife is found buried in the dirt, like a bad omen.
There arose a sense, as it were, during my progress, that despite James’s attention to circles of social intercourse that couldn’t, in good faith, be called anything but rarefied—that still, his plots are marked by the basest sort of pecuniary maneuvers, the grimmest cruelties. A kind of wary discomfort, furthermore, in encountering such troubling portraits surfaced throughout my reading, nevertheless it does not follow that James’s depictions, while necessarily harsh, contained untruths. Indeed I have seen, in my limited three decades of existence—encompassing in their span very little fortune-hunting and almost no underhanded impositions on consumptive heiresses—a great deal, that is to say almost limitless, social rigidity and, one must also add, capacity for greed and selfishness, all of which are shown by James in his process of storytelling so that, if we must be honest, it has both agonizing and resonant effects on the reader.
"For Mr. Kirn, 51, who indeed brims with an outer confidence that can be intimidating at times to those unused to brash, creative types who dress in custom cowboy boots and seem indifferent to the modest niceties of literary image, the loud underwear seems to be working this afternoon." If this doesn’t read like the typical author profile that’s because Walter Kirn interviewed himself for The New York Times on his new book, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. Here’s our review.
There are many other things to like about Walser and this book, not least the beauty he locates in the quotidian and the almost spiritual appreciation he exhibits for nature. But it is Walser’s subtle self-referentiality that I wish to highlight, as I believe it is the quality that marks him out as truly ahead of his time. I was continually surprised at the brazen nature of Walser’s authorial interjections and the familiarity he exhibits with the reader. So much so that at certain times while reading the book I felt as if the sentences could have been the work of a late modernist or postmodernist writer.