Perverse French Jokes About James Joyce

July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright.

Reading next: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

Raymond Queneau is the reason I want to learn to read French.  I will read anything he wrote.  Coming across Witch Grass a few years ago was like finding an unexplored tropical island.  (Of course, he’s a legend in Europe; so maybe it was more like a native of an unexplored tropical island discovering the existence of France.)

Loving Raymond Queneau means loving Barbara Wright, who translated much of his work into English.  Translating Queneau, who thrives on puns, portmanteau words, idiomatic and colloquial expression, and literary allusion, is impossible in some respects (hence the desire to learn French).  So Wright (who died earlier this year) is something more like a co-author, or adapter.  Interestingly, she says in her introductions to both We Always Treat Women Too Well and Witch Grass that, with Queneau’s blessing, she would insert her own allusions to English literature and English idiomatic renderings to correspond to Queneau’s untranslatable French equivalents.  Without looking at her papers (at Indiana’s Lilly Library), we can’t know what delightful quirks of language are hers and which Queneau’s.  (Something to do if I ever find myself in Bloomington.)

All of that being said: what the hell is We Always Treat Women Too Well?  Not having delved into 1940s French pornographic pulp fiction, I can only take the word of some person named Valerie Caton when, in the introduction, she insists that this work is only masquerading as pornography; that it is actually a parody of the kind of book published by Editions du Scorpion, and not itself pornography.  Now, while there’s clearly a parody happening here, this is also fairly disingenuous, especially since the book was published under the pseudonym Sally Mara, by a publisher of “erotica” and straight-up porn.  It was a joke, certainly, but a joke the original audience was not in on.

However, it is fairly amusing to imagine pervy French dudes trying to get their postwar jollies from this deeply weird book.  Maybe the bar was just set really low for titillation; like I said, I just don’t have comparables here.  (The book was not a success.  Shocking!)  There’s certainly kinky sex and gory violence and nymphomaniacal behavior; but there’s also typically Quenovian (?) etymological wordplay, hilariously tangled and repetitive dialogue, deliberate anachronism, philosophical subtext, scholarly footnotes by the book’s imaginary translator (from the imaginary English original of the imaginary Irish lass Sally Mann) Michel Presle, and, throughout, allusion and homage to and satire on Ulysses.

So, yes: the book is really a perverse joke, on many levels, and I can imagine Queneau making himself giggle throughout.  He loved Joyce: it must’ve given him great delight to write the stream-of-consciousness monologues of Gertie Girdle, using the ladies’ room as Irish rebels take over the post office where she works, alluding to both Leopold Bloom’s own use of the w.c. and Molly Bloom’s grand soliloquy.  And to give the subordinates of his band of IRA fighters names of tertiary Ulysses characters and/or similar alphabetic structure: Gallager, Kelleher, Callinan, Dillon, Caffrey (the consonant-vowel-double consonant pattern).  And to make the rebels’ battle cry “Finnegan’s wake!”  And to invert the repressed sexuality of Joyce’s Dublin, to give a crazy plot to the prurient urges of that book’s characters.

Valerie Caton argues in the introduction to this edition (the 1981 New Directions paperback) that Queneau intended the scenes of sex and violence to be “disquieting and absurd,” and that the book is an act of “literary sabotage” upon the fascism inherent in both black humor and pornography.  Sure, if you’re reading it as pornography; if “disquieting” means you can’t get off.  I’m sure it was an act of sabotage upon some of its initial readers.  (In this sense, it’s kind of a book meant to be left unread: did Queneau really expect his porno readers would do anything but toss the book aside?)  Maybe 60 extra years of hilarious violence and kinky sex both literary and cinematic have jaded me beyond the point of being “disquieted” on any deeper level by some s&m action (note the initials of Sally Mara).  But the book also seems like a goof, plain and simple: “why not write a porno set in Joyce’s Dublin?”  I can definitely say it’s the funniest book I’ve ever read that also features a coital dismembering.

The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

Choice, Control, and Constraint

March 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature.

In chapter 11 Des Esseintes is inspired by his sick-room reading of Dickens to undertake a journey to London.  He hates how isolated he’s become and desires a trip into the world, and he wants to compare his imaginative creation of London as it is presented in Dickens with the real thing.  This chapter’s great: Des  Esseintes makes the trip into Paris, which turns out to be rainy and subdued, and has a gigantic English/French meal at a tavern.  There are these passages of Des Esseintes imagining himself to be in London already — Paris as London, the nerve! — and at last, he decides the real thing could never match his image of it, and goes back home.  In chapter 12, as happy to be home as if he actually had been gone for months, he lovingly handles and reviews his book collection.  This chapter’s also interesting from a bibliophilic perspective, as Des Esseintes reveals that he actually has his favorite books specially typeset, printed, and bound for him in one-copy editions to his specifications.

This revelation — Des Esseintes’s mania for controlling all aspects of his beloved books’ appearance, at exorbitant expense — got me thinking about the relationship among the three C’s in this post’s title.  As I said in the last post, Huysmans spends much of this book talking about taste, which is a function of choice: Des Esseintes is obsessed with maintaining and explaining (to himself, if to no one else) his choices in literature, art, decoration, companionship.  But so much of this taste — all taste, really, but especially in the case of this decadent eccentric — is really about control: about exerting the control he lacks over his poor health and personal relationships (or lack thereof).  And the desire for control leads to constraint — to a wildly proscribed life, a decision to shut out the world and create an artificially superior one, an individual-sized universe.

These C’s have been the focus of most of the books I’ve been reading lately: Villette, with its constrained governess exerting the control over her narrative which she so often lacks over her life and loves; Schreber’s Memoirs, with its pathological display of choosing to believe in the universe which places Schreber at its center, in control of the fate of the world; VALIS, with its overarching intelligence invading an individual’s consciousness, questioning the very concepts of free will, control, reality.

Huysmans also puts me very much in mind of Georges Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual (especially the Bartlebooth plot), and other works of the OuLiPo group.  Constraint is the raison d’etre of this group, and I’ve always thought of the group as freeing the artist by limiting the impossible, limitless choices of language — and as a rather existential expression of the human condition, a duplication in artworks of the non-negotiable constraints we all face in life.

I recognize a lot of myself in Des Esseintes, even with his massive wealth, outdated ennui, and colossal perversity.  I have his tendency toward hermeticism, toward cloistering in the home and mind.  I’ve never thought of this as a desire to exert control over a scary world, but perhaps it is.  What about Des Esseintes — is ennui camouflage for fear?  Does the world-weariness of the fin de siécle actually stem from fear that the world was simply getting too big, with too many options, too many freedoms, too many possibilities?

Decadent Surreality

March 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature, by J.-K. Huysmans.

This is regarded as the key text of the Decadent movement which is best known by the works of Oscar Wilde.  It is quite easily the most foppish book I’ve ever read: Literature Dandified.  So far, at least, it is quite persistent in its celebration of “taste,” its abhorrence of the mob, and its ugly streak of misogyny.

There are manifestos strewn here and there throughout the first four chapters, but the root of them all seems to be this, from chapter two:

The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.

Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes….

So our “hero,” Des Esseintes, decides to isolate himself in a villa on a hill outside of Paris.  He spends his time alone, keeping vampire hours, contemplating the furnishings he’s chosen, his art collection, his book collection (and his walls are bound like books, in “orange morocco”), his perverse fancies and desires.  It’s amazing how much it reminds me of surrealism, and both Huysmans and Des Esseintes seem to be longing for just such a movement.

For instance, chapter four is devoted to Des Esseintes’ attempt to bring out “the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool” of an Oriental rug, by placing on it a “huge tortoise.”  However, the brown of the shell does not have the effect he anticipated — so he has it gilt.  Even this gilt does not prove to be enough, however, so he has a design of precious stones set onto the shell, simulating a Japanese drawing of flowers.  Leading to the image of an aesthetic turtle lumbering across a gorgeous rug.  (The turtle dies, of course: “it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it.”)

This incident reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Roussel: there are similar set pieces in Impressions of Africa.  It also reminds me of some of the OuLiPo writers, Harry Mathews especially, and Perec.  It’s also an extended example of the dominant metaphoric motif in the book: things from nature — insects, plants, weather — are compared to items in Des Esseintes’ artificial world, and, by the alchemy of metaphor, somehow transformed into them.

I love this stuff: so far, Against Nature is mostly description, metaphor, incident for the sake of striking image, and pure belletristic language.  There have been chapters devoted to an alternate history of Latin literature and linguistics, the aforementioned turtle chapter, and an ekphrastic chapter on two artworks by Gustave Moreau featuring Salome.

However, it is amazing how the book disregards both any concern about money and any feeling for people — in general, really, but especially those without taste, which really seems to be everyone but Des Esseintes.  There seems to be a pull back towards feudalism and a push forward towards fascism in the work.  Acting on the desire to be left alone, the hermetic, Decadent ideal, leads to those who would get into everyone’s business running the world.

The Appearance of Freedom

October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)?  It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them.  Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer.  (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads.  Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )

So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia).  But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:

164.  Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.

Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.”  He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.

“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.”  Well, yes.  That’s a very large part of this book.  The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that.  This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works.  And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better.  And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)

So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen.  But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself.  Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image.  We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained.  We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want.  We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously.  We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.

And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people.  (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.)  Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court.  Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.

The Dream of Total Recall

May 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Art of Memory and The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo (part of McSweeney’s Issue 22).

Reading next: Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Even an intellectual historian like Yates, writing in the 1960s, had computers on the brain. A couple of times she mentions these “electric brains” as examples of the contemporary relevance of her research. And I was reminded of this in her final chapters, as she discusses the ways in which memory systems diverged into esoteric arts, in which “memory” became a kind of synonym for “imagination” and “knowledge of divinity,” and new sciences, like Leibniz’s invention of calculus.

It seems kind of hackneyed, by now, to talk about how technology has become embued with religious meaning. Doesn’t make it any less true. And the ways in which the art of memory blended art and science certainly do seem similar. Memory remains what’s behind it all, right? And we expect our newest mnemonic systems to help us cultivate both the art of memory and the science of memory. To an extent Yates probably didn’t expect, we anticipate an organizing and retrieving system for all knowledge, all information. Our collective conceptions of our new art and science of memory certainly partake of some characteristics of a Hermetic art, expected to help us unleash our hidden potential for divinity (or at least ability to connect to divinity), while also functioning as a coolly Aristotelian system of objective data retrieval. Like everything, those statements have elements of truth, elements of fiction.

To approach this from another angle: Oulipo is all about connecting science and art (mathematics and literature, to be specific), and Anne F. Garreta’s essay “On Bookselves” provides some thoroughly eccentric, non-traditional, illogical “principles” for organizing her personal library. My favorite is Principle #8, separating “homebound books” and “nomadic books,” then further dividing “books bought on one side or the other” of a given river, “books that have crossed an ocean at least once,” “books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a.m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean,” etc. The quirkiness of these principles, she explains, is precisely the point:

-Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds?

-You’d be out of your mind.

-Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog?

-You’d be out of a mind.

Exactly: to leave all the systematizing work of memory to technology is to deprive ourselves of our selves.

The Freedom of Constraint

April 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth.

There was a terrific, seemingly out-of-the blue post on Slate this week by Robert Pinsky, a kind of manifesto on the laziness of complaints on contemporary poetry. I enjoyed it, and his second point was especially appropriate for my current reading. He gives a couple of excellent examples of free-verse poetry.

I am beginning to realize that Sharp Teeth does not belong in this company. I am beginning to wonder if its free verse really is “just prose chopped into lines.”

There are any number of examples I could give. Here’s just one:

They exited the freeway and pulled

into a neighborhood

just east of Huntington Park.

Ray slung the van up a drive and shut off the engine.

He pointed to Frio and Penn and said,

“After you change, hit the back of the house,

and be ready to rush.”

(Sorry, too dense to figure out single spacing right now.)

You see anything poetic there? Anything requiring line breaks besides the clauses of each sentence? Any careful wordplay, alliteration, internal rhyme? I don’t. It’s utilitarian prose. There are some nice flights of fancy in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be contained in prose. Some nice metaphors, turns of phrase, digressions.

I’m having a lot of fun with this book, don’t get me wrong. But what annoys me is that I really could have loved a book that actually was a rigorous piece of poetry about packs of werewolves in L.A. Because there’s a nice tension there, see? The constraint of writing within the urbane, civilized, even antiquated constraints of metric, even rhymed verse could have made an ingenious counterpoint to this book so much about the human and the animal within the human which we all live with. I could even have gone for sections of verse broken up with sections of prose, Shakespeare-style. I’m afraid Barlow wanted this kind of effect, but was either too lazy or too scared to go whole hog. Instead he just broke his sentences up into lines. Too bad, really.

I’m one of those people that thinks what we need in literature (insofar as “we” need anything, overall) is more constraint. I’m an OuLiPo fan, in other words. I adore books written without the use of the letter e. I admire fantastically elaborate linguistic or structural puzzles embedded in novels. I love poetry marrying  torturous demands to gorgeous language.

Shakespeare’s the summit of literature for a reason, right? I mean, mostly because he was a genius, and would have been a genius whenever he lived. But partly, I insist, it’s because he lived at a time that demanded that he place constraints on his passions; that he write his dialogue in iambic pentameter, that he create words to fit that meter, that he structure couplets to end his scenes, that he conform to the rigors of the sonnet and only occasionally take liberties. Shakespeare’s great lines, soliloquies, and speeches would simply not be were it not for his operating within these structures. This is the genius of the OuLiPans. It’s only when we limit the set that things get interesting; structureless freedom in art leads to a multiplicity of tempting, horrible choices (see Art Scene, Contemporary American).

Reading at 30,000 Feet

January 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve been traveling by air quite a bit lately–home to Nebraska, on business to Minneapolis and New York. It’s funny: for all the hackneyed comic routines about air travel (“What’s the deal with those peanuts?”), examinations of the experience itself, once you’re in the air, seem rare and, when you do find them, superficial. (A notable exception: Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious but thought-provoking analysis of SkyMall products, in Slate.)

What we’re talking about here is one of the great marvels of modern life, an utter miracle that has become so mundane that I can, without batting an eye, use the word “hackneyed” in descriptions of comedians’ complaints about the experience. Flying out from LaGuardia on Friday night, my plane was stuck in the queue to take off for half and hour and everyone on the flight was getting restless, annoyed, fidgety. And then, finally, it was our turn; we hurtled into space; and, thanks to the enormous air traffic of NYC, we were directed to circle around for a while before heading south. The night was wind-swept, clear, crisp. We were treated to a 360° view of Manhattan–this country’s nerve center, the apple of the world’s eye, radiant and golden, its entire length and breadth and height encompassed in the view from my window. The other boroughs sprawled to the horizons, the Statue of Liberty stood with ships passing on all sides, other aircraft whizzed and angled below us. I looked around: maybe ten people were looking out the window. The rest were trying to sleep, preparing iPods for the moment they could be switched on, reading printouts or magazines or books.

Don’t get me wrong: air travel is definitely a pain in the ass, and there are countless things wrong with it. A good book is a godsend for a flight, if only so you can look preoccupied to the chatterbox sitting next to you. But I wonder if we appreciate that many of us now routinely view things in a way that, only a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population would have thought reserved for the eyes of God and his angels.

But I digress. It’s a great pleasure to glance up from your book to the sight of an ephemeral cloud-continent, a sun on the horizon obscured from the ground, or a vast snow-covered plain, a quilt of roads, acreages, towns, and rivers. Dickens or Tolstoy might be the perfect reading for air travel: their all-encompassing social landscapes nicely counterbalanced with the individual, the specific, the episodic and anecdotal. You look out the window and imagine all those lives, down below: the beehive of the world, all of those individuals on their various paths, about their various tasks, bound together in ways you’d never be able to see from the ground. (Not to mention all those lives on the plane with you, with their varied destinations, motivations, inhibitions, and phobias.)

Of course, you can go the opposite direction, as well: the writers of the OuLiPo group, with their emphasis on the innumerable possibilities to be found within rigorous restraints, read very well in mid-air. Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is recommended here, as is The Conversions, by Harry Mathews. The mixture in both of these of surrealist incident, wordplay, and human futility is especially compelling when dangling six miles above the earth in a metal tube at high speed, entirely dependent for the continuation of your life on the workings of many, many intricate machines. I’d imagine Beckett is also interesting–I mean, the absurdity of it all!–but I’ve never partaken.

In any case, a flight provides an excellent opportunity to focus, reflect, and ruminate on literature in what passes these days for a distraction-free environment. Get a window seat, rest your eyes on the landscape or the cloudscape, and think about the connections among things, the distances between things, the spaces above the earth that the gods alone used to inhabit.

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