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[MARCH 2006.]


Or, an anecdote of the type known as an Armenian riddle: “It hangs in the drawing room and is green; what is it?” The answer: “A herring.”—“Why in a drawing room?”—“Well, why couldn’t it hang there?”—“Why green?”—“It was painted green.”—“But why?”—“To make it harder to guess.” This desire to conceal the answer, this deliberate effort to delay recognition, brings out a new feature, the newly improvised epithet. Exaggeration in art is unavoidable, wrote Dostoyevski; in order to show an object, it is necessary to deform the shape it used to have; it must be tinted, just as slides to be viewed under a microscope are tinted. You color your object in an original way and think that it has become more palpable, clearer, more real. In a Cubist’s picture, a single object is multiplied and shown from several points of view; thus it is made more tangible. This is a device used in painting. But it is also possible to motivate and justify this device in the painting itself; an object is doubled when reflected in a mirror. The same is true of literature. The herring is green because it has been painted; a startling epithet results, and the trope becomes an epic motif. Why did you paint it? The author will always have an answer, but, in fact, there is only one right answer: “To make it harder to guess.”

—Roman Jakobson, “On Realism and Art”


The Noonday Demon

I had a terrible dizzy spell in the library, went to get a sandwich, which didn’t help very much, so I swam back up Telegraph and as I passed the bagel place I saw that they were advertising their new chicken products with the slogan “WHY DID THE HUMAN CROSS THE ROAD?”—which was awful, somehow it seemed to imply that the human-chicken relation in the food chain was entirely contingent and could just as easily go the other way.

Stewart King once convinced me briefly that in the wild chickens grow to six feet tall. "Well," I thought, "Have I ever SEEN a chicken?"


Those Unheard are Sweeter

And on Friday we saw Rostropovich conduct an all-Shostakovich program—Festive Overture, Piano Concerto No.1, Symphony No.5. There are those unexpected moments when the music turns transparent and you pass through it, suddenly hearing it from the inside as if the progress of notes composed your own body. During the final ovation, on Rostropovich's third or fourth return to the stage, he lifted the score itself from the podium and held it out for applause, and I felt capable of many things. I thought I understood the idea of a life's work.

Next Friday they’ll do it all over again with the Thirteenth Symphony: settings of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the last being “A Career.”


The Personal Touch

If it makes you feel better a Catholic publisher told me my book sounded depressing

That's a coup of sorts! Oh, and today I finally got my bill from the Alameda County Superior Court for my jaywalking ticket. I love the goddamn mail.

sorry about the rejection letter. reminds me too much of the ones snoopy always got for his novels.

Oh, it's all right—this is the tenth or so to come back. I just like their attempt to personalize it. Yesterday my little sister bought a house.



Sudafed keeps me up all night, and in thoughts as uncontrollable and senseless as dreams I worry, in order of decreasing intensity and increasing import, about schoolwork and my novel and the earth. We have a joke around here about the sort of novel one must write in order to ensure one’s literary immortality after humans perish in the new climate and a civilization of crocodiles arises. Clearly the novel must portray crocodiles in a positive light, and perhaps be centered on issues of crocodile identity. But such work is vulnerable to charges of literary insincerity: “Pandering to the crocodiles!”


Bring-A-Friend Day at the Confessional Booth

Most of Joyce’s later opinions are not taken very seriously. Joyce was an alcoholic in those years, full of self-loathing; he was then working on one of the triumphs of the human mind and spirit, Finnegans Wake.

—quoted inaccurately from memory, John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I returned to that paragraph often when I was younger. I never quite understood the disjunction; it made sense for Gardner to describe Joyce’s sorry state as a human being, but why would he then switch to describing the triumph of the spirit in his book? Later it became clearer that Gardner must have been talking in part about himself, and that a basic trope of modernism still oppressed him as it oppresses us: the work of genius as redemption for squandered life. When I was very young it became clear to me—or so I thought—that my life was squandered, and a short time later I ran across the first of many modernist artworks which seemed to offer a way out.

Taking the fortunate chance to spend some time with old friends who are also writers, I had too much to drink and expressed something of this idea; and my friends, very sensibly, ridiculed me for it. And yet alternatives are elusive. If you find yourself too weak and selfish to make a supreme principle out of altruism, it can be hard to talk yourself into believing that your life is a good in itself. I think this is why, while the fiction has changed a lot over the years, it has always centered around aspects of myself that I dislike. I could stomach making a book out of something like the Guatemalan civil war only through creating a protagonist whose own involvement with the country was also damningly solipsistic. My sorry approximation to a moral life is the dramatization of my own moral failures.

If we are truly playing for the risible stakes of posthumous recognition, then we hope to achieve it not through being exemplary human beings, but through meticulously recording the ways in which we fall short of being exemplary human beings. This post being a case in point. It’s hypocritical and repugnant; but it’s what we’ve inherited.

If I can make but one fellow human being feel smugly superior to me, I have not labored in vain.



The San Francisco Symphony's 2006-07 season is up. It’s an okay lineup (I think the 2004-05 season was the best of late): Michael Tilson Thomas is cycling back through Mahler, someone is coming to conduct Shostakovich’s Tenth, there’s a parade of hot violinists (Bell, Chang, Hahn, Midori), a lot of nineteenth-century stuff that doesn’t set my pants afire, some contemporary material (Astor Piazolla, Osvaldo Golijov, Thomas Adès, a John Adams premiere) that may. The twentieth-century selections include a lot of Stravinsky, and also Kodály’s Háry János suite; though the copywriters were careful about the diacritics, they also noted that the piece “proclaims a proud Czech heritage.” Any bets on how long they’ll take to fix that?



Promotional literature requesting my money:

Dear Stanford Alum,

As a young alum, I’m sure you have experienced a lot since your time on the Farm. The early years after graduation tend to be filled with many exciting achievements in your life and career.

I want a source on that!



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