Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Biography

Nicholson Baker and Him: A Talk with J. C. Hallman

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 10, 2015 10:59 am


"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.






From Contradiction to Cartoon: Reflections of Napoleon Bonaparte

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 2, 2015 08:02 am


In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.

The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.

Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.






Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:08 am


Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:

His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...

The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."

This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.






Timothy Spall as J. M. W. Turner as Mike Leigh

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 04:56 am


As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.

It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.






Wittgenstein's Searchlight

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 18, 2014 11:40 am


You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.






D. G. Myers' Last Month on Earth

by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 9, 2014 09:25 pm


D. G. Myers, a celebrated literary critic, professor and blogger, died quietly of cancer in late September. For many like me who only knew D. G. Myers through his writings and online presence, his death was no surprise. We had read about it on A Commonplace Blog or in Time magazine, or in his much-praised podcast for the Library of Economics and Liberty just a few months before he died.

As his cancer worsened, D. G. Myers also expressed his feelings in occasional bursts on his beautiful Twitter account. Always a writer first, his tweets were unfailingly elegant, measured and dignified. Even when he could only manage bitter humor and wry regret for his family's shared suffering as he tweeted his way through chemotherapy during his last weeks on Earth:






Don Carpenter's Last Laugh

by Dan Barth on Thursday, August 28, 2014 05:27 pm


Don Carpenter was a writer’s writer. Born in Berkeley, California in 1931, he grew up there and in Portland, Oregon, served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and returned to earn a B.S. from Portland State and an M.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State. In 1966 his first novel Hard Rain Falling was published to critical acclaim, and for the rest of his life he was a professional writer. He lived in Mill Valley, California and was part of a group of writers—Evan Connell, Curt Gentry, Leonard Gardner, Gina Berriault and others—who met regularly at the Book Depot there, and at the no name bar in Sausalito.

Carpenter was never as successful or celebrated as his good friend Richard Brautigan. His novels and short story collections were praised by critics and fellow writers but did not sell well. He found work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, most notably for an unproduced screenplay of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, and for Payday, starring Rip Torn as a country music singer. His novel about show business, A Couple of Comedians, was praised by Norman Mailer as “the best novel I’ve ever read about contemporary show biz.” Anne Lamott dedicated her 1994 book Bird by Bird to Carpenter, and praised his then work in progress Fridays at Enrico’s as a masterpiece in the making.






Philosophy Weekend: Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and Our Capacity For Shared Delusion

by Levi Asher on Saturday, August 9, 2014 11:11 am


"It was a lust for political power." - Bob Woodward

"There is no simple answer." - John Dean

President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.

Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I've enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can't help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It's easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.






Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon and The Touch

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm


Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.

As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.






Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Magdalena River

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 12:45 pm


One Hundred Years of Solitude must be Gabriel Garcia Marquez's best title, and it's the book that made him famous all over the world. But I somehow neglected to finish that epic novel, and was more attracted instead to Love in the Time of Cholera, a book so good it would probably have made the Colombian author famous again if he hadn't been already. I also enjoyed Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and I wonder if I specially favor these two novels because they both employ a vivid setting: Colombia's Magdalena River.

I'm a fool for riparian literature, perhaps because rivers hold such great spiritual significance (from the Jordan to the Ganges), or because they work so well as metaphor, whether the characters are lazily floating downstream like Huck Finn or tensely steaming up against the current like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. My fascination with rivers makes Love in the Time of Cholera a natural for me, since this novel is basically a happy Heart of Darkness with senior sex. The ever patient Florentino Ariza has waited an entire lifetime to lie in the arms of his beloved Fermina Daza, and after many decades he finally outlasts her husband and scores with her on a boat heading up the mighty Magdalena. (Ariza's patience is his one great power, a character trait so distinct it earned him a seat in my hypothetical literary poker tournament a few years ago).

The river is a constant presence in this novel. Early in the story, Ariza escapes his heartbreak by travelling up the river, where the beauty that surrounds him is disturbed by visions of the cholera epidemic currently gripping the land:






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