The Belles Lettres Papers – 3/5 Stars
Your mileage on this one may vary wildly depending on a few things. I more or less liked this book, but wanted it to be much darker, much more cynical, and much more cutting. If you’re going to throw away friendships and a career at calling out bullshit of an entire industry — the very industry publishing your book — do it up!
This book is a kind of send up of the professional class of literary criticism in New York circa 1985 or so. I don’t mean the world of academic criticism, but professional, economic criticism of published “literature.” The novel takes places within a publication that is a sort of plaything of intellectuals and deals with a variety of different characters at the magazine and may or may not be about various people you, I, or the reading public might know. It’s not that coy a lot of the times, but then is coy at other times and that can be frustrating. If you’re going to call Gore Vidal circa 1985 a hack, tell us that Faulkner drank himself out of good writing for the last 15 years of his career, and create a cynically cultivated and curated list of the 25 best authors in the country, again, make it count.
It was apparently written in installments and published anonymously in the mid80s and then turned out to be from a longstanding editor of the New York Review of Books who demurred about who it was actually about.
Like Crome Yellow by Aldoux Huxley or Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn (or even the literary industry in JK Rowling’s The Silkworm) sometimes it’s deliciously ripe, but a lot of times it just ends up falling flat.
Too Loud a Solitude – 3/5 Stars
This is a short fable-like novella by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal most famous for his novels Closely Watched Trains (which was made into a movie) and I Served the King of England (which has a great title, and honestly confused me when I looked it up not knowing the ethnicity/nationality of the writer — Czech! who knew!). Anyway, this little book is about a garbage compactor who uses a hydraulic press to crush and flatten garbage all day in a kind of private contracting kind of way. For decades though, he’s been salvaging, storing, and reading any and all books he can get his hands on. Floating from one kind of autocratic regime to another, he’s ended up reading a lot of books banned for differing and variable reasons, including having read a lot of Nazi literature, which he read and hid from authorities with the same kind of alacrity as he did works of Greek literature and French poetry.
The focus for him is that if books are going to be considered garbage or refuse or anything else similar, he seems to find it his responsibility to read it. But because of this sense of responsibility, he also finds it necessary to drink beer constantly, even though he doesn’t like it, to make it all sort out.
The Visitor – 3/5 Stars
This is a short and “lost” novella by the Irish writer Maeve Brennan who is one of the lost women of letters in the 20th century. She had a more or less productive short story career, and this is how I initially knew of her from someone choosing one of her stories for the New Yorker fiction podcast. In later years her mental health deteriorated and she self-medicated with alcohol which had the kind of spiraling effect you can imagine. She died in relative obscurity years later, and this book represents a kind of lost letters sense. She otherwise has many short stories published.
This novella is about a young woman who had up until the recent death of her mother been living in Paris, caring for the woman in her final days. She returns home to Ireland to live with her paternal grandmother who holds a deep emotional grudge at the sense of betrayal and abandonment when the mother chose to leave the father and move her daughter to France. With both parents now dead, we find the grandmother turning her cruelty toward her recently arrived granddaughter.
Ultimately this feels like a solid novella that should be part of a longer collection of collected works, if ever it should have been published in its unedited form, as opposed to being published in a separate edition.
Caprice – 2/5 Stars
Caprice is a short novel from a writer who I have never read before. The book is from 1917, and that’s a kind of lost period of English literature in some ways because of the war and the often held sense that the teens produced some great literature but also contained many works straddling the transition between distinctly different periods in literature. Firbank’s name comes up in various other writers’ novels and criticism. Cyril Connolly mentions him in Enemies of Promise, and I think someone is reading some one of his books in Crome Yellow, but he’s just one of those figures known to a public for a certain amount of time, and somewhat lost to the ages.
And I can’t say that I enjoyed or thought much of this book either. Its style is frenetic and bizarre at times and it’s tone is quite cynical and cutting. So there’s a sense of a language that I couldn’t pin down enough to really follow carefully or enjoyably combined with a voice that was rather unpleasant, and not in a pleasantly unpleasant way.
The novel itself is about a young woman who runs off with her parents’ savings in order to make a go of it in theater in London. There she comes across a snide cast of characters all of whom we’ve met in any number of movies and novels about the theater and early days of film.While working for her chance to make it on stage, well, something quite unexpected and shocking happens to her.
Mata Hari – 2/5 Stars
This is a not very good comic book history of Mata Hari, the “original femme fatale.” For a book that ostensibly takes itself seriously, it struggled mightily to tell a coherent story whatsoever. It’s structured as a kind revivalism of the life and career of the figure of intrigue, but completely lacks confidence in itself to simply tell a story from the life of Mata Hari, like any number of historical or biographical fiction does all the time. Instead, like bad biopics in film, it tries to tell every story about Mata Hari, and all at once! So the effect is that there’s way too much happening, it’s all cut together in a not particularly clear order, and the scope is so artificially elongated that there’s almost no emotional resonance. All of this also elicits the question, who is this book for? It’s written almost like a “what an interesting” person kind of book for younger readers, but this isn’t a book that would work in a school (nudity) and it’s not a sophisticated attempt at storytelling, so it doesn’t have an obvious audience.
So ultimately it’s a kind of empty reading experience.
The art is pretty rich though, which almost makes it worse.
Generation X – 2/5 Stars
This book has been a kind of white whale for me because I owned a copy of it for a very long time. I signed up for a college class that taught this book among a lot of other novels and story collections from the 50-90s and I even bought this book and several others for the class before chickening out and not taking it because I was intimidated by the professor. I told others that I was turned off by his flippant attitude about how there’s “no good American novels since WWII” and he might be right, but that’s all I ever read back then. But I was scared. So I held onto this book out of a kind of shame and failure.
It took me a lot of energy years later to finally give the book away (or sell it, I forget), and attempt to close the chapter. But I thought about it a lot.
Anyway, last week I found a free copy of it and read it straight through, and it’s pretty bad.
It’s a less tongue-in-cheek version of every “90s!!!” TM book or movie about Gen-Xers without any of them fun. It’s a bland version of Singles or Reality Bites or Kicking and Screaming without being nearly as interesting or fun, and I honestly don’t even really find those movies to be very interesting or fun.
It remains to this day that the best record of what it meant to be a person in their twenties in the 90s and have that disaffected sense of loss and emptiness (that is actually entirely simulacra) is probably the Lollapalooza episode of the Simpsons, or more likely Infinite Jest.
Honestly though, you’d be better off just watching Slacker, which again, not even that good.