Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (II)

10, 11 and 12 October

Tuesday 10th

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Kazuo Ishiguro, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Ishiguro is one of the most interesting writers of the past several decades, and everything that I’ve read (which is just about everything) has stuck in the mind. What makes the award especially delightful to me, however, will sound somewhat carping: it illustrates a hunch that I have about the Prize, which regards all the writers in the world as eligible, regardless of the language in which they write. Aside from books written in Swedish, the judges at the Swedish Academy necessarily read the finalists in translation, or in what for them is a second language. The entry at Wikipedia quotes Alfred Nobel’s specification: “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Ideal.

It reminds me of a friend’s experience during a year-abroad program in France. His French was really quite good, and I thought that it was a great compliment that natives would say of him, “Vous venez de nulle part.” You come from nowhere — ie, you don’t sound like an American. But that’s not what they meant, really. They meant that he didn’t really  have a French accent at all, because a French accent betrays origins in a part of France. My friend came from an uncanny valley that was — nowhere. Another word for his accent: ideal.

A moment’s reflection suggests to me that, when Nobel was endowing his prizes, the idea of an ideal literature was attractive. A universal literature — we would say global. The things about a book that were peculiar to the language in which it was written were like friction in classical physics: negligenda. At best they were unimportant; for the most parts they were faults, the features that make any language incomprehensible to outsiders. The Nobel Prize for Literature stands for the proposition that ideal literature is the most worthwhile literature.

I am not going to dilate on the shift in sophisticated attitudes on this point. They are best summarized by the statement that poetry dies in translation. Either you read Dante in Italian or you settle for a prose rendering. Same for Homer, Racine, or Goethe. I have a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Nederlands. It is extremely faithful to the original, and quite a few passages sound as though someone very drunk were slurring his English. But one of my favorite lines, 95/9 —

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got

— misses, if not by a mile, then by a great many yards:

O welk een woning kregen die ondeugden

First, of course, a woning is just a house. “Mansion” is the most distinctive word in the poem, as certainly befits the beautiful young man whom the poet addresses.

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got,
Which for their habitation chose out thee, [!]

It’s a brilliant, Shakespearean-sexy, image: the grand house occupied by wicked inmates. Second, at the end of the line, the almost guttural outburst, as if of contempt (but also keeping company with vices), is completely missing. I don’t mean to fault the translator, Albert Verwey; he’s done a great job. I keep the little book by my reading chair, alongside the originals in Penguin, for the purpose, all too rarely pursued, of keeping up my Dutch. But while it is conceivable that one or two of Verwey’s lines are better than Shakespeare’s, most of them are simply not the same. They can’t be.

The thing about Kazuo Ishiguro is that he writes his unforgettable books in a toneless, everyday English that has little to lose in translation. Am I saying that he writes poorly? No. The maxim about poetry’s death does not extend to fiction as a rule. Some great novelists are not particularly poetic: it is a matter of style. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy come to mind. Eliot and Hardy create intense moods, certainly, but those moods are shaped by language — masses of it — of a distinctively indicative nature. Trollope has a style that, being more pronounced (even if it is really a rather unstylish style), pales without its native ironies. As for the end of the range furthest from the noble Victorians, I can’t imagine Edward St Aubyn in any language but English, or Alan Hollinghurst, either. But Ishiguro’s fiction is announced not by a highly educated writer but by rather ordinary people. A great deal of his fiction’s power comes from the pity of watching ordinary people endure extraordinary trials — trials so extraordinary, in fact, that the narrators can’t quite fully grasp them.

Indeed, Ishiguro’s literary artistry may consist of nothing more (nothing less!) than a knack for avoiding the trap of first-person narration, into which almost everyone who tries it falls. Sooner or later, the narrator says something that is beyond his or her imaginative reach, and we see the writer’s hand at the puppet-strings. This doesn’t happen in Ishiguro’s work. Ordinary people generally fall into two speaking styles. One is relatively inarticulate. “I don’t know how to put it.” The other is given to something like cant. “We had the most marvelous time!” Both make for unreadable copy. The ability to describe an experience or to recount an episode in a voice that is both interesting and true is very rare. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, and Kathy, in Never Let Me Go, are astonishingly convincing. One is a vain and pompous old man, the other a passionately caring woman. It is tempting to say that they stay out of the way of their stories, but their stories emerge from their ingenuousness — in Stevens’s case, a failed disingenuousness. In Ishiguro’s most recent book, The Buried Giant, the story emanates from a consciousness that has been damaged somehow.

It’s not irrelevant to remember that Ishiguro is a writer whose first language, like that of Jhumpa Lahiri, is somewhat uncertain. Until he was five, he lived in his native Nagasaki, but then his family moved to England, and his schooling was entirely Anglophone. As Lahiri writes, in her Italian book, In Altre Parole, a language that is spoken only at home and never with other school children is not really “first.” In Ishiguro’s case, there is the further complication of his first career, as a rock musician. It is hard to think of a creative field in which English is more routinely blunted and compromised.

Kazuo Ishiguro, then, is an ideal writer for the Nobel Prize. If that statement smacks of mockery, it is not aimed at the writer. Not only does he deserve the Prize, he saves it.


The publication of Autumn, the first book of a new cycle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reminded me to get a copy of Volume 5 of My Struggle, which has been out for a while. Subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, the book is divided into unequal parts. The shorter first part deals with Knausgaard’s undistinguished year at the Writing Academy in Bergen, to which he was admitted at the age of nineteen. (What were they thinking?) Only afterwards, in the fall of his first year of university proper (surely a case of carts before horses), does he wake up to what was he was so hysterically unaware of at the Academy:

There was also something panicked about my desire to acquire knowledge, in sudden terrible insights I saw that actually I didn’t know anything and that it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. It was also impossible to adapt this urgency to the slowness that reading required. (272)

I have to work this into my writing project somehow: it’s as good a motto as I’ll ever find. Knowing nothing is simply the state of nature at the age of twenty, and the slowness that reading requires only intensifies over time.


Wednesday 11th

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s new memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate, I’m finding it hard to think straight. Gopnik and his wife, Martha, arrived in New York at the same time as Kathleen and I, and, what’s more, we lived across the street. Unbeknownst, of course. They got married, at the end of 1980, about ten months before we did. We still live across the street, but they left, for Soho and the Upper West Side, long ago. These little coincidences simply cast the many differences in a stronger light. Adam Gopnik rather quickly found himself and began his remarkable career at The New Yorker. I discovered the nature of my career only the other day, writing to a friend. (I am a Terminologist. A couple of hundred years ago, I’d have called myself a Moralist.) As a thinker, I think it fair to regard Gopnik as a hard-headed realist, nobody’s fool, but I’m feeling an edge of cynicism in the memoir that I’ve never sensed in his writing before.

As I wonder why that might be the case, I mull over the decision, to which I recommitted myself again and again when I was young, to resist the very idea of “going into journalism.” I was certainly afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, but this anxiety had little to do with my abilities. It was more a matter of feeling uncomfortable around journalists. My exposure was brief, an hour or less at the Blair Breeze, my prep school’s newspaper, and more frequent visits to the Scholastic, Notre Dame’s student magazine. For the Scholastic, I wrote a couple of theatre reviews one year, and I visited the office only to drop off my copy. I don’t know what I was doing at the Breeze. In both cases, I thought, I don’t want to be here. I was uncomfortable in the same way that I was uncomfortable in locker rooms. To me, there seems to be something horribly mindless in the hustle of men working together in a crisis (and what is the production of a newspaper or a magazine but a permanent crisis?) — purposeful, yes, but mindless, too, blithely unaware of something. I still don’t think of journalists as writers. Writers are people who spend most of their lives in solitude, writing. Ideally, I think, writers are neither seen nor heard. They’re just read.

Of course, what I do here is a sort of journalism, literally. I reflect daily on the state of things. But my thesis, my political position if you will, is that the state of things is widely misunderstood because people have little or no grasp of how it came to be, or, worse, have a very mistaken idea. Adam Gopnik throws around the term “capitalism” as if it explained the state of things, when what I think he means is “the advertising model of generating revenue.” But there is a little cocktail-party Marxism in there, too, as when he jokes that the point of shop talk is to focus attention on the talk and away from the shop. These observations of mine are a kind of anti-journalism, because they are explicitly historical. It is always history, and never journalism, to urge listeners to rectify the names.

I don’t actually have much to say about the state of things per se. Donald Trump is in the White House, a state of things so awful that to discuss it is to wallow in despair. The story of how he got there, however, is not only amazing but less accidental-seeming the better you know it. Things might have worked out differently, had people — and here I mean, specifically, liberal élites — not been burdened with misconceptions about their fellow Americans. I have seen little evidence of any effort to clear up these misconceptions. For example: Americans who are unhappy about Trump seem to believe that it explains something to point out that he lost the popular vote. But what does it explain beyond the obvious, which is that under our Constitution it is possible to lose the popular vote and win the election? It has happened several times in our history. Get over it! Another example, which I mean to look into one of these days, is élite obliviousness about the problem of “political correctness.”

But I digress.

I’ve always felt foolish about my unwillingness to “go into journalism,” because I don’t know much about it and have no real experience of it. So it’s a relief of sorts (as well as a blow of sorts) to hear what Adam Gopnik, who has had a lot of experience, has to say.

I sensed then an essential truth — or at least as essential as truths can be in the magazine game. Magazines are — or were, when they mattered more — essentially vehicles of fantasy, far more than even the most hardheaded ones can be of fact, or information of any kind. Every magazine in a sense only exists next month. They sell fables of aspiration, and get their power from being quietly attuned to a social class just beneath the social class they seem to represent. Playboys do not read Playboy, and voguish women do not obsess over Vogue, and twelve-year old, not seventeen-year-old, girls read Seventeen. Our magazine [GQ], ostensibly directed to an audience of upwardly mobile young executives, was read by high-school students. But had we addressed them directly we would have failed, as the Playboy of those days would have if it had taken off its smoking jacket and put on the baseball cap its readers actually wore. An elaborate artifice of shared fantasy had to be sustained in order to sell advertising pages, which was, of course, the aim of the enterprise. The final artifice was … next month. Everything we did, we did in order to sustain the illusion of next month’s issue. (104)

(Every magazine? What happens when you feed The New Yorker into this algorithm? Is the magazine really aimed, after all, at the little old lady in Dubuque?)


Thursday 12th

The dust jacket of Adam Gopnik’s At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York carries an alarming photograph. We see everything but the head of a man in a suit and tie, seated in a Breuer chair. Where his head ought to be — what is it? I thought of Jerry Uelsmann, the virtuoso of photomontage. Was the thing supposed to be a bug? A surrealist cloud? Only when I held the book up to strong light did I grasp that the picture is a wedding photo. If you want to see a companion shot that shows the handsome faces of both bride and groom, it can be seen via Google. Both photos were taken by Gopnik’s brother, Blake. You probably didn’t need me to tell you any of this.

Meanwhile, who knew — everybody but me? — that Jennifer Egan went out with Steve Jobs when she was an undergraduate? That explains a lot, I think, about the “prescient” aspects of Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel, is at the top of the pile; whether I’ll wait to read it until I’ve finished with Knausgaard 5 I don’t know. On the way from England are the new St Aubyn and the new Hollinghurst. I’ve never had such a sense of rentrée.

Knausgaard writes something that helped me to get a little bit closer to why I am really, totally not a novelist.

The clock chimed twelve. Someone was up and in the hallway, a door was opened and closed, the toilet flushed. I liked being in other people’s homes so much, I thought, I always had, although what I saw there could seem unbearable to me, perhaps because I saw things I wasn’t intended to see. The personal life that was peculiar to them. The love, the helplessness that resided in that, which was usually hidden from others’ eyes. Oh, trifles, trivialities, a family’s habits, their exchanged glances. The vulnerability in this was so immense. Not for them, they lived inside it, and then there was no vulnerability, but when it was seen by someone who didn’t belong. When I saw it I felt like an intruder. I had no right to be there. At the same time I was filled with tenderness for them. (325)

I have never much liked being a guest in other people’s houses, no matter how comfortable the arrangements, for precisely this reason. I feel everything that Knausgaard reports, but without the tenderness, which seems to alleviate his sense of being an intruder. I don’t want to know what other people’s families are like. As I used to say, when people would ask me if I intended to explore my birth parentage, “one family was enough.” Also, I don’t want anyone to know how many times in the night I’m trying to open and close doors, flushing toilets. I’m happy to read about these things, and sometimes even curious. But I want it sorted out in prose, knowing that it will all be over before I turn the page.

My problem with Knausgaard is a ridiculous one. I happened to see a YouTube clip of his appearance on Charlie Rose’s show. All the photographs that I had seen of him before that showed a scowling, rather undernourished young man, a punk with a vocabulary. His hairdresser was clearly none other than Mother Nature, on one of her hurricane days. But sitting at Charlie Rose’s circular table, wearing a rather sporty light-colored jacket, about as far from leather as you could get, and possibly even a tie, but certainly a pressed dress shirt, with the hair on his head scrupulously barbered, he looked like my internist’s younger brother, assuming there is such a person. He was polite, slightly impish, and definitely out to please. The terrible thing is, this image comes to mind all the time when I’m reading the novel. It’s not at odds with his persona, really, but it makes him a rather unconvincing fan of the latest rock music. It’s impossible to regard him as the rebel he wants to be.

That is surely the secret of My Struggle. It’s not “my struggle to be a rebel,” but just the opposite: “my struggle to be a loving husband and father, not to mention a serious writer, given all the nonsense that masculinity is saddled with in this generation.”

Bon week-end à tous!