Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The piano was still making sea noises

Last week I read Piano Stories, a collection of short fictions by Felisberto Hernandez. I first heard about the book via this post on Richard's swell Caravana de Recuerdos blog. I picked up the book a couple of months ago at Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company. End of acknowledgements.

Felisberto Hernandez (1902-1964) was a professional pianist, an Uruguayan, and a short story writer who influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, among others. He's been compared to Proust and Kafka. He had four wives, wrote seven books and died penniless. End of biography.

Piano Stories is an uneven collection; I liked about half of it and the other half, frankly, tried very hard to put me to sleep. Hernandez' Proustian writing about the nature of memory just runs on and on without actually providing any memories, merely a lot of "memory is like a riderless horse that chews on bitter grass growing along the edge of a dry stream bed that sometimes is full of crystal water in which more memories float past which are ignored by the horse, who is blind yet seeks his rider" and stuff like that. That blind horse I just made up; it's not one of Hernandez' images. Though there is a great story in this collection called "The Woman Who Looked Like Me" about a man who remembers that he's actually a horse. All of the good stories here are really good; it's just that half of the book is full of stories that are not good.

I'll ignore that not-good half, though. The good stuff is a nice big handful of slightly surreal stories about estrangement from oneself and others, about the oddness just behind the veneer of everyday life. In many of the stories, an itinerant pianist is invited into the house of strangers, where he sees how strange people are behind closed doors. A woman is in love with a balcony, for instance. Another woman lives in a house which has been deliberately flooded, as if it's the city of Venice, and she hires men to row her around the house while she makes a confession; when the confession is complete, the rower is dismissed and a new one is found. This is all interesting stuff and Hernandez frequently brings the inanimate world to life around his characters. Tables and chairs have moods and opinions, that sort of thing. He also does interesting things with the idea of the human eye: the eye collects and carries around images within it, or light pours out from the eye rather than the other way around, etc. Have I mentioned the similarity to Borges yet?

The centerpiece to this collection is "The Daisy Dolls," a really brilliant story. In it, a wealthy industrialist has begun collecting dolls that look like women, but are slightly larger than life. He hires designers and artists to create scenes--dioramas in glass cases--using the dolls in all sorts of costumes, which he investigates after dinner while a pianist plays for him. It's all very selfish of the man, and highly sexually charged and strange. The strangest doll is Daisy, who was built to look like the industrialist's wife. Over time, the doll and the wife merge in the man's imagination, and possibly hers as well. The doll collector begins to believe that his wife is dying, and he makes a plan to live out his years as a widower taking Daisy to wife, more or less, which involves having the doll altered to be, shall we say, anatomically correct. The wife does not die, havoc is cried, the dogs of connubial war are loosed, etc. Things become stranger than they already are. Which is maybe a good way of summing up this collection: things become stranger than they already are.
"This doll has found her true story." Then he got up, opened the glass door, and slowly went over her things. He felt he was defiling something as solemn as death. He decided to concentrate on the doll and tried to find an angle from which their eyes could meet. After a moment he bent over the unhappy girl, and as he kissed her on the forehead it gave him the same cool, pleasant sensation as Mary's face. He had hardly taken his lips off her forehead when he saw her move. He was paralyzed. She started to slip to one side, losing her balance, until she fell off the edge of the chair, dragging a spoon and a fork with her. The piano was still making sea noises, and the windows were still flashing and the machines rumbling. He did not want to pick her up and he blundered out of the case and the room, through the little parlor, into the courtyard.
This post is my contribution to Spanish Literature Month. Next week I'll read some Portuguese literature, from Jose Saramago.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Be warned, Russia! Possessed and bedeviled by Dostoyevsky

I finished Dostoyevsky's The Devils/The Possessed last weekend. Many readers think of this novel as being an over-the-top madhouse of a book, and see the violent shenanigans of the radicals as a horrific portrait of the revolutionary spirit. There are murders, there is arson, there are deaths and social disruption, religious icons are defaced, blasphemies are declared, etc. On the whole, pretty tame by my standards with the exception of the child abuse (see below). Anyone who's read Shakespeare will have seen worse. So while I was disappointed that the book never broke through into the promised wild storm of madness, I still call it a fine work. I will also say in passing that in terms of form and technique, The Devils reminds me of Dickens' Bleak House more than anything else.

The Possessed/The Devils is a complex work with many (often conflicting) threads running through it, a comic novel with sections of tragedy and some brilliant set pieces. In some ways it’s like all of Dostoyevsky’s other novels (the characters tend to be frantic sorts, shouting and fighting and dashing from place to place), but in other ways it is unlike any of Dostoyevsky’s other novels (The Devils is tightly controlled and well knit together, and even at his most discursive, Dostoyevsky keeps everything moving forward and connected; hence the Bleak House comparison). The Devils is a carefully constructed novel: it’s complex, very long, and the tone—while generally comic—spans a wide emotional range, just like real life (there are the usual jokes about drunken peasants and silly aristocrats, but there is also the tale of the thirteen year old girl who is raped by a general’s son and then hangs herself in shame). So this book is many things (while remaining unified), because Dostoyevsky is many things as a novelist. I will now provide some examples.

Dostoyevsky deliberately composed a polemical novel. The Devils was written in part because Dostoyevsky had been accused of avoiding any meaningful engagement in his novels with the important social issues of the day. The inspiration for the story came in the form of a news item Dostoyevsky read (he was mad for crime stories in the papers), about a revolutionary group murdering one of its own members. The Devils is a continuation of the literary conversation begun by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons, and Dostoyevsky references that novel as well as the works of Herzen, Fourier, Chernyshevsky and (amusingly) himself (several times characters use the "two plus two is four" construction that Dostoyevsky mocked in Notes From the Underground). One character, an aging writer named Karmazinov, is a mean-spirited parody of Ivan Turgenev. Likely there are other parodied authors, but I'm not familiar enough with Russian liberal literature from 1840-60 to pick them out. ("My friend, I'm doing this all for the sake of the great idea. I've stood still for twenty-five years and now, suddenly, I'm on the move--I don't know where to, but I'm certainly on my way!") There is a lot of discussion in The Devils of politics. Dostoyevsky's Russians take politics personally:
He did not stand to lose very much by the proclamation and was perfectly capable of understanding its humanitarian aspect--and almost capable of understanding its advantages to the country's economy--but somehow he took the emancipation of the serfs as a direct, personal slight. This was something unconscious, but the less he could explain it, the more it tormented him[...]At the same time, however, he violently disapproved of Russia's past and viewed most Russian traditions as fit for a pigsty[...]The thought that in the days of the ancient Kingdom of Muscovy the tsar could, if he so decided, inflict corporal punishment upon a Russian nobleman, made him almost weep with shame.
Artemy Gaganov, weeping above with shame over Russian customs, will later become involved in a duel, which barbaric ritual he takes with all seriousness in a hysterically comic scene. There are a lot of comic scenes in this novel, because Dostoyevsky can be funny:
"You know how my kind lives: they give us either a handful of hay or a prod with the pitchfork. Last Friday I stuffed myself to the gills with meat pie, but the next day I didn't have a thing in my mouth and the day after I fasted and the one after that I skipped my meals. But I had plenty of water from the river, so maybe I'm breeding carp in my belly. So I wonder whether you wouldn't be so generous, sir. And besides, I have a lady friend waiting for me not too far from here, but she won't receive me unless I present myself with a few rubles."


"Last year I was almost caught handing counterfeit fifty-ruble notes made in France to Korovayev, but thank God, Korovayev drowned in a pond while he was drunk, just in time, and they couldn't pin anything on me. Then here, in Virginsky's house, I championed the freedom of the socialist wife."


"I propose we take a vote on whether Shigalov's despair has a bearing upon the state of our common cause and whether we should devote ten evenings listening to him or not," an officer said cheerfully.
Dostoyevsky can be serious. The character of Kirilov is possibly a version of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov, a sort of socialist uberman. Kirilov, an atheist like most of the other revolutionaries, has decided that since there is no God, this absent place in the universe must be filled by himself. Kirilov, then, is God. We are all God in Kirilov's philosophy. The only way to prove that he is God is for Kirilov to demonstrate his free will. The only way for God to demonstrate free will is to destroy himself. Therefore, Kirilov has decided to shoot himself, to prove that he is God. This, I think, is the central argument of The Devils: that when a Russian turns away from the Orthodox Church, and declares that man is equivalent to God, he will only be able to destroy himself. Kirilov is presented sympathetically--as a madman, sure, but Dostoyevsky allows the madman his dignity and does not laugh at the madness, because this--to the author--is the serious business of the novel. Without her faith, Russia will only kill herself. Be warned, Russia! The suicide motif is very important in The Possessed. Pay attention, readers!

Dostoyevsky doesn't just fix his eye on the revolutionaries; he has plenty of scorn for the Russian establishment:
"I'm convinced that we shouldn't just dismiss the opinions of the young. People simply brand them as Communists, but I think we must treat them with understanding and appreciation. Lately I've been reading everything--the newspapers, all the proclamations of communes, and all about the natural sciences. I subscribe to everything. For we must understand, mustn't we, the society in which we live and with whom we have to deal. One cannot live all one's life shut up in an ivory tower of one's own fantasy. I thought a lot about it and decided to be nice to the young people and thus prevent them from going over the brink. Believe me, only we who belong to the best society can keep them from plunging into the abyss into which they are being pushed by these silly, intolerant old men.[...]I'm organizing a day-long entertainment to be paid for by subscription, the proceeds going to needy governesses from our province. They are scattered all over Russia and there are six of them in this district alone. In addition, there are two women telegraphists, two university students, and many others who would like to follow a career but can't afford the training. The lot of the Russian woman is terrible, my dear! In this strange country of ours, everything is possible and I think we can guide this great public cause along the proper path only by kindness and the direct participation of all society.[...]So let us close ranks and grow stronger. In short, I will start with a literary matinee followed by a light lunch; then there will be an intermission, and later in the evening a ball."
Mrs. von Lembke, above, is the wife of the provincial governor. Her literary ball in the name of needy governesses--the sort of political action a Mrs. von Lembke can understand--goes quite awry at the hands of these young people she means to keep from going over the brink. They are quite successful in pulling her (and the governor) over that brink.

Dostoyevsky offers a variety of life philosophies:
"After all, I say to myself, it's better to bow to a jackboot than to a peasant's clog."


When the party passed the inn on its way to the bridge, someone suddenly announced that the body of a man who had shot himself had been discovered that day in a room there and that the police were about to arrive to investigate the death. Immediately someone suggested that we stop and have a look at the suicide. The suggestion met with general approval--the ladies had never seen a suicide before. I remember one of them saying, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing."


Verhovensky: "Shall I tell you what Karmazinov told me? He said that, essentially, our teaching is the denial of honor and that the easiest way to attract the Russian man is to promise him the right of dishonor."

Stavrogin: "Excellent words, golden words! He hits the nail right on the head. The right of dishonor. They'll all come rushing to us and there'll be none left on the other side."
Dostoyevsky can be deeply human. He is best at this when he writes about faith. There is a long scene where one of the radical antiheroes, Nikolai Stavrogin, makes a long confession of his past crimes to a retired bishop. It's a remarkable, moving set piece that prefigures the "Grand Inquisitor" scene from The Brothers Karamazov. Is Stavrogin a demon, or has he been possessed? We don't know, but he is evil walking the face of the earth. The bishop wishes to forgive Stavrogin, but Stavrogin does not, in the end, want forgiveness. He wants to out himself, to publicly declare his sins, and then force himself upon high society and scorn them for accepting him as he is. He despises himself and everything around him, hating the world that allows him to live in it. And yet, through the eyes of the bishop--who Stavrogin mocks and disrespects--we see Stavrogin as wounded, sick and pathetic. A remarkable performance on the part of Dostoyevsky. This is some book.

I read (and quoted heavily from) Andrew R. MacAndrew's excellent 1962 translation, titled The Possessed.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

arguments against dangerous philosophies (a blog hop for Marly Youmans)

Poet/novelist Marly Youmans tagged me as part of a blog hop, a thing with which I was heretofore unfamiliar. So, being the good sport that I am, I am playing along.

What am I working on? I am drafting a novel whose working title is Antosha in Prague. It's a collection of short fictions based loosely on the stories and life of Saint Anton Chekhov. So far, this project is a lot of fun. I'm about halfway through the first draft of the title story now. I am also tidying up a couple of manuscripts and submitting a couple of other novels to publishers.

How does my work differ from others in its genre? I have no idea. I don't think in terms of genre, although if one considers "literary fiction" to be fiction about or concerned with literature, I might be inclined to notice that my novels allude to other works of fiction all the damned time. Characters in my Mona in the Desert constantly discuss literature and philosophy. The protagonist of Antosha in Prague thinks about fiction with some regularity.

Why do I create what I do? Again, I really have no idea. I suffer from the fictional impulse, which I guess means that one of my primary ways of engaging with the world is to turn it into fiction, which is also a way of abstracting the world, so go figure. If I have any moral purpose in writing, it is to correct sinners and evangelize the gospel of kindness and humility. If I have any immoral purpose in writing, it is the usual egotistic artistic wish to draw attention to my imagined cleverness. Also, writing a novel is a wonderful puzzle to solve; I try to make each puzzle harder for me by trying difficult technical tricks in each one. And I like making things by hand, as it were.

How does my creative process work? I usually have a couple of different ideas for novels stewing in my head, some of them trapped there for years until I know that I must write them now. Often "knowing that I must write them now" is the step that immediately follows my having an idea that I don't think I can actually pull off. I come equipped with a great deal of ego and sometimes believing that I have set an impossible task before myself makes that task irresistible. Anyway, I think of stories as sort of tapestries, or quite long murals, and little by little I assemble a sketch of the whole, or at least sketches of the big pieces that will hopefully lift the work above the earth. Sometimes those pieces are characters or scenes; sometimes they're ideas about life or arguments against dangerous philosophies. Usually I try to scrub out those arguments when I'm revising my work, or at least shove them into the background. Mostly, then, what I do is assemble a collage of ideas and impressions and then write a novel to dramatize that collage.

Who next? I am obligated to pick on four other creative types, I think. I am going to pick on just two: Michelle Argyle and Davin Malasarn. They are both young novelists who have been to my house and have met the cat. The cat approves of them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

little boots (no delusions of godhood)

I was going to post a lengthy essay about The Possessed, which is a darned fine novel, but instead I give you this photo:

And also this photo, of Mt Rainier's peak as viewed from about 6800 feet up the south face:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

every Russian is inordinately delighted at any public scandal

In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case. It is said among us now that it is all over, that Pyotr Stepanovitch was directed by the Internationale, and Yulia Mihailovna by Pyotr Stepanovitch, while she controlled, under his rule, a rabble of all sorts. The more sober minds amongst us wonder at themselves now, and can't understand how they came to be so foolish at the time.

What constituted the turbulence of our time and what transition it was we were passing through I don't know, nor I think does anyone, unless it were some of those visitors of ours. Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way. People like Lyamshin and Telyatnikov, like Gogol's Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev, wretched little Jews with a mournful but haughty smile, guffawing foreigners, poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents, majors and colonels who ridiculed the senselessness of the service, and who would have been ready for an extra rouble to unbuckle their swords, and take jobs as railway clerks; generals who had abandoned their duties to become lawyers; advanced mediators, advancing merchants, innumerable divinity students, women who were the embodiment of the woman question--all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom? Over the club, the venerable officials, over generals with wooden legs, over the very strict and inaccessible ladies of our local society. Since even Varvara Petrovna was almost at the beck and call of this rabble, right up to the time of the catastrophe with her son, our other local Minervas may well be pardoned for their temporary aberration. Now all this is attributed, as I have mentioned already, to the Internationale. This idea has taken such root that it is given as the explanation to visitors from other parts. Only lately councillor Kubrikov, a man of sixty-two, with the Stanislav Order on his breast, came forward uninvited and confessed in a voice full of feeling that he had beyond a shadow of doubt been for fully three months under the influence of the Internationale. When with every deference for his years and services he was invited to be more definite, he stuck firmly to his original statement, though he could produce no evidence except that "he had felt it in all his feelings," so that they cross-examined him no further.

I repeat again, there was still even among us a small group who held themselves aloof from the beginning, and even locked themselves up. But what lock can stand against a law of nature? Daughters will grow up even in the most careful families, and it is essential for grown-up daughters to dance.
That's from the third part of The Devils. What a great book this is. I keep waiting for the narrative to unravel, for the book to become a disorganized mess, but 450 pages in, it's still a well-organized novel. Dostoyevsky has managed to maintain the comic tone most of the time, though of course the serious passages are becoming more bleak (while generally becoming also more touching and beautifully written). This is some book, I say. A terrible, frightening, awfully funny damned book.

I don't know how it's escaped everyone's notice that Anton Lavrentievich Govorov is clearly working for the tsar's secret police.

The quoted passage above is from Constance Garnett's translation. I'm actually reading Andrew MacAndrew's terrific 1962 translation. I love her work with Chekhov, but Garnett was not the translator Dostoyevsky needed for this book.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

no distaste for the gossip of the town

At one time it was reported about the town that our little circle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness, and the rumour gained more and more strength. And yet we did nothing but indulge in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian, light-hearted liberal chatter. "The higher liberalism" and the "higher liberal," that is, a liberal without any definite aim, is only possible in Russia.

Stepan Trofimovitch, like every witty man, needed a listener, and, besides that, he needed the consciousness that he was fulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas. And finally he had to have some one to drink champagne with, and over the wine to exchange light-hearted views of a certain sort, about Russia and the "Russian spirit," about God in general, and the "Russian God" in particular, to repeat for the hundredth time the same Russian scandalous stories that every one knew and every one repeated. We had no distaste for the gossip of the town which often, indeed, led us to the most severe and loftily moral verdicts. We fell into generalising about humanity, made stern reflections on the future of Europe and mankind in general, authoritatively predicted that after C├Žsarism France would at once sink into the position of a second-rate power, and were firmly convinced that this might terribly easily and quickly come to pass. We had long ago predicted that the Pope would play the part of a simple archbishop in a united Italy, and were firmly convinced that this thousand-year-old question had, in our age of humanitarianism, industry, and railways, become a trifling matter. But, of course, "Russian higher liberalism" could not look at the question in any other way.
That's from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed (aka The Devils). It continues to make fun of the sort of Russian intellectuals Nikolai Chernyshevsky imagined in his novel What is to be Done? In fact, I'm reading this now because I opened the book up randomly, to page 288 as it happens, and my eye fell upon a mention of Chernyshevsky's novel, and a couple of long paragraphs telling jokes about it. This is a comic novel, you see, and also is written in a sort of gentle comic tone unlike the tone of any of Dostoyevesky's other novels. It's hard to believe, as I read this book, that it was actually written by old Fyodor. Where is all the frenetic rushing about? Where are the characters beating themselves up over the insoluble problems of life? Where is the violence and the gambling? True, a main character is well known to lose at cards, but he is not exactly a gambling addict, and all of his losses (and indeed all of his expenses in life) are covered by his patroness. This man with the patroness is the Stepan mentioned above, the witty man who needs a listener. Decades before the book starts, Stepan was very mildly famous/infamous as a liberal writer, but now he's outmoded and lives in the country. He made a trip to Petersburg to rejoin the liberal circles but was laughed out of the room when he announced that the poetry of Pushkin was more important than shoes for the poor. Stepan is also the father of a young man who will soon join the story and bring much havoc with him in his role as a Bazarov-type nihilist. In fact, Pyotr (Stepan's son, the nihilist) will mention Bazarov by name, and declare him an unrealistic character. What fun, Fyodor. This is a clever, quite funny book. Laugh-out-loud funny. And yet it's allegedly by Dostoyevsky. Go figure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

updates, nothing to see

Oh, Harold. I'm done with Blooms, I tell you, unless named Molly or Leopold. Though this post from Himadri hits a nail on the head pretty squarely and is worth reading. At least I laughed. I'm not done with John Cowper Powys, but I haven't decided what to read next from him, or when. I'm also going to look at some more Iris Murdoch, despite the kooky unraveling of The Sea, The Sea towards the end of the book. Maybe I'll read The Bell again. She wrote a lot of books, and we have a lot of them on the shelf. Right now I'm reading Kawabata. His works always baffle me (Japanese novels baffle me in general, including--especially?--those of Murakami) but then I miss him when he's gone, so apparently I miss being baffled in a certain way, which I find curious. I think I'll read some more Yukio Mishima when I remember to look for him. I have not yet begun to branch out into Chinese authors, or Korean authors, or representatives from a lot of other geographic/cultural areas. So much reading. Such a big world, kids.

I've been writing, as I claim, a new book based loosely on certain ideas associated with Saint Anton Chekhov. It seems to be going well enough. I think I've written something like 25,000 words of that book already, which is a startlingly high number. I still sort of feel like I'm poking around with the beginning of the thing. I'm writing the title story now. I will never write another long form epistolary story again. It's a job of work.

I've also completed another round of revisions to Mona in the Desert, an actual novel in the form of a novel. Mostly. There are two chapters hidden in the narrative that the narrator is unaware of. Of which the narrator is unaware, I mean. Mighty Reader points out that a hypothetical book designer and proof reader in the future will be annoyed with me. Sorry, hypothetical publishing professionals. My current task is to type up all of my changes from the marked-up printouts into the digital file. I hate that task, but one can't be delicate. What else? Tomorrow I'm mailing a submission to a publisher for yet another novel. We'll see.

I officially claim to Have No Idea what I'll write after I finish the draft of Antosha in Prague. No idea at all. Maybe the Antarctica thing, finally. I'll have to figure out the middle section, with the boat. Penguins might be involved. No, penguins will certainly be involved. There is a whole long penguin thing going in that book anyway. In a year someone must remind me that the idea is: the physical changes to the boat. I'll know what that means when I need to know it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Madness of King Harold

Let's suppose for a minute that Harold Bloom's "theory of poetry" is correct. Let's suppose that a young poet is creatively blocked by the awareness of, the spectre of, the influence of the great poets of the past. A young poet cannot move forward into the New because he is too busy comparing himself to his precursors, and comparing his own poems to the great precursor poems. Let's suppose that's true. Let's suppose also that the most common way a young poet breaks through this creative blockage is by imagining a flaw in the work of the great precursor, by deliberately misreading the great precursor poem(s) and then writing a poem of his own that "corrects" the "flaw" in the precursor, psychically diminishing the precursor in the eyes of the young poet, who is then able to move forward and become some future young poet's precursor. Let's say Bloom is right, and this is all true. Let's further say that my concern with craft and my lack of concern with any precursor novelists and my non-efforts in the way of modeling my work on any precursor novels is either self-delusion because artists aren't conscious of the process, or because I’m a minor talent so I don't actually know what the greatness of the precursor novelists is and I'm blind to those elements of their work which would creatively block me if I was talented enough to be properly intimidated. I can accept being a minor talent. So let's say I accept all of this, that I have no beef with Bloom's theory of poetic influence.

The problem is that I'm reading a book Bloom wrote, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he might lay out this theory. This book is a mad book, a disorganized nonlinear book whose language is vague and contradictory. The narrative chases its own tail around what is mostly an empty space where clearly-defined terms and theses ought to be. That's my problem. Bloom bezels and prolixes for page after page, saying "this is the anxiety of influence" but failing, again and again, to supply an actual this. He does not say whatever it is he is saying. He spends a lot of time spinning a metaphysical metaphorical tale about the poet as caught in the duality between the spiritual world and the empirical world, and he invokes the Muses and tells us that weak poets are Adam and strong poets are Satan (Paradise Lost as a metaphor for poetry, which is fine because I'm sure Milton's Christian metaphors were bound up with ideas about the mind and art) until Satan becomes merely a hack, an imitator of God and loses his originality. That's all a good time and Bloom's writing is breathless, breakneck, totally insane and full of fun for the reader. None of it tells us what "anxiety" or "influence" mean, though. None of it relates directly to the historical process of poetic influence, or how a poet becomes a poet. Bloom does not directly confront his subject matter in The Anxiety of Influence. I am told that he does spell out what he's really talking about in some other books, but the thing is, the book I'm reading is The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom talks around and around and makes many vague claims without demonstrating that there is any reason to believe those claims or even, frankly, making clear what his claims are. The theory that I am willing to accept, the theory I talk about in the first paragraph of this post, may be behind all the lunacy and poorly-formed argument-in-the-form-of-a-severe-poem that makes up The Anxiety of Influence, but there's no way to discover that by reading the book. The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece, and can never be sure that this meaning is actually Bloom's meaning. That is my beef with Mr Bloom, and that is why I find myself reading The Anxiety of Influence as a novel, because it makes sense if Harold Bloom is Charles Kinbote or Charles Arrowby. The book does not make sense if Harold Bloom is a respected professor and theorist.

No one, so far, has been able to point to a passage within The Anxiety of Influence where Bloom either makes his theory of poetry clear, defines his terms, or shows any reason to believe his claims. I don't dispute the theory, but I do say that Bloom has written a bubbling mess of a book that says almost nothing. It is a sparkling incoherency about poetry, built around the central claim that poetry is dying. "The death of poetry" is one of the few clear passages in the book. Unless Bloom means that as a metaphor, too. I can see why this book is so influential: a reader can fill it with whatever meaning he likes, because Bloom obfuscates, dances, babbles and whirls but he does not say.