Writing

Thomas Bernhard on Literature & the Viennese Coffee Haus Disease

As I type this, I sit in my friend’s Wohnung in Vienna. I arrived last night, later than expected as all flights in Berlin were delayed due to a supposed bomb threat according to our pilot, and when I arrived in Austria, it was dark and drizzling. I have been to Vienna once before for just over a week. Perhaps, the great gods of Viennese arts and thought will strike me down as I take my sip of coffee, but I found the city–albeit, beautiful–a bit dull. The buildings are grand and opulent; sometimes I think of structures carved from marzipan by master bakers. I am here for three weeks and a pit grows in my stomach as I try to consider how this city will be more appealing for this longer stay.

Thomas Bernhard, 1957

Like all semi-tech savvy 21st century citizens, when recommendations failed from my friends, I went straight to the internet. There are certainly a few sites and top 10 lists, but they often suggest the same handful of Schlösser, other palatial estates, and museums. I’ve found some sites that are well-kept by engaging locals, which I am more than grateful for, but the trend is to point people of the non-castle trekking variety* to coffeehouses (Kaffeehäuser). Coffeehouses are completely part of Vienna. You have a coffee and a cake (actually, with all of my complaining, this is one of my favorite things to indulge in while in German-speaking countries; I can wax on endlessly about my favorite: pflaumenkuchen.)

I should be more grateful, as I am in the city for a literary grant, but in my curmudgeonry, I thought to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a 20th century Austrian writer who often poked satirical fun at what he thought were the tired and stupid ways of Austrians. His works caused scandals. A favorite of mine is Woodcutters (original title: Holzfällen), where the narrator cleverly mocks a group of dinner guests all the while sitting in a wing chair.

As I sidetracked from my original mission to find something interesting in Vienna, I did a quick internet search of Thomas Bernhard and if he had specific thoughts on the city. I immediately found an excerpt from an autobiographical work called Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The short bit is a humorous reflection that Bernhard has about his relationship to Viennese coffeehouses and what he calls the Viennese coffeehouse disease. It’s a quick read, for sure, but here are a few favorites:

On other literary-inclined coffee house patrons,

These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house — not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant[.]

On German and Austrian newspapers (compared to English and French),

From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets — to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper?

On Viennese coffee houses and himself,

The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind.

So there you have it. My Viennese dilemma. If you haven’t read Thomas Bernhard, you certainly should start right away. I think many of his books have been reissued in recent years in English translation. Has anyone else visited this beautiful yet dull city? Perhaps you are like my friend who has lived here for many years and compares it and its people to a mausoleum.

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* I love castles, but I think I have seen so many on my previous trip to Vienna, there is no reason for me to go out of my way to see one. If I happen to stumble upon one, I shall look at it, thinks it’s beautiful, and continue walking on (probably to a coffeehouse to have a cake).

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

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“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'”

***

I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).

***

This book is available for free in the public domain.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Extra, Extra

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The long, hot days of summer are coming and the harshness of winter will soon be nothing more than a forgotten memory. There will certainly be sweaty days when idealized memories of snow lovingly pop into my mind. This chilly photo is my example for this week’s challenge, “Extra, Extra” (share a photo that has a little something extra). For the keen eye, there are two unexpected dogs in this shot–click to enlarge.

This photo was taken in the Hudson Valley. I think New York state is a beautiful part of the country and I’ve been known to take quite a few long walks in the forest. Occasionally, this location has informed my own writing. I once wrote a short story taking place in the same biting locale and I am currently working on a longer text taking place in a fictional version of this same village (albeit, in the summer).

And, of course, here is a bit of poetry:

The days are short,
     The sun a spark
Hung thin between
     The dark and dark.
–John Updike

Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

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This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

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Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.

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Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.

 

May is Short Story Month

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May is Short Story Month. For a long time, short stories got the boot. They used to be so part of the reading conscious, but in the past decades, collections were overlooked for novels. However, they are making a comeback. Short Story Month is sponsored by storyaday.org and is hoping to encourage more consumption of short stories beyond just the month of May.

In the coming month, I hope to include more short fiction. I have some books and lone short stories already lined up. I’ve just finished one forthcoming collection, too. Because May is also Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I am aiming to include writers who fit this criteria as well. So, let’s get our #shortreads on! Below are some past posts to get a jump on it. Are you reading any gripping short stories? If so, please tell me in the comment section.

+ “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey
+ “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick
“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers
+ “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
+ and more.

I leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman regarding short stories:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” 

The End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey

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 The last time Ben and Lois Devine saw Veronica Glass, the noted mutilation artist, was at a suicide party in Cerulean Cliffs, an artist’s colony far beyond their means.

If you’re unfamiliar with artist/writer gatherings, the good ones usually include loads of booze, that one über-pretentious person, personal crises and looming entropy. This is all captured in Dale Bailey’s novelette/short story, “The End of the End of Everything.”

Ben and Lois Devine are invited by their close friend to an artists’ colony during the summertime. Ben is a poet, who readily admits that he is mediocre, but squeaks by doing the MFA circuit. He’s had a few publications, but doesn’t expect people to know him or his work.

They are unaware that the daily evening parties are actually suicide parties where guests mingle at a Gatsbyesque grotesque soiree not short on small talk, overly long readings of writers’ works, and finally, with the suicide of one of the guests. Their deaths are quite brutal, but somehow Dale Bailey has made them a work of art that exceeds their own assumed pedestrian output. The idea of art for art’s sake is repeated throughout, a rhetorical device that becomes even more realized when Ben meets the “mutilation artist,” Veronica Glass (her name, alone, invokes an image of an unreal and severe individual).

Anytime she bumps into him, Veronica continues to ask Ben how he will end his life. The poet is reluctant to the whole idea, even with the impending “ruin” that seems to be swallowing up the world around them. The term is used to elicit images of a battered world, but also to isolate the artists’ colony even more. Every day, ruin seems to roll closer, dispatching anyone who goes into it. The world feels suffocated. It’s almost as if the colony, which is aptly named Cerulean Cliffs, hangs on the edge of where earth meets the sky with any wrong misstep sending you over and into the abyss.

Somehow Bailey is able to write a story that feels more like a painting. The entire time, I felt like I was staring closely at a canvas, observing the individual brushstrokes and captivated at how they appear like textured expressions making up a whole. Even when Ben sees in person the type of art Veronica Glass creates, I couldn’t look away even though imagining it reminded me of all the layers of my own skin and the complicated system that lies beneath.

This is one of those stories that I hope to come back to again, so I can take in the rich and destructive world Dale Bailey has created. Part of me would like to see this as a novel, but I wonder if in doing so would negate the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and the richness of this grotesque situation.

***

“The End of the End of Everything” is available for free on Tor.com and can also be acquired as an e-book for .99 cents. As always, I am delighted by the publisher’s chosen artwork. Perhaps, it is odd of me to say that I want a blown up version of it, because of the subject matter, but New York-based Hong Kong artist Victo Ngai’s cover art is phenomenal.

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No Rest for the Writer

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weary reader rest
not for too long when you pick
your head up rejoice

****

In celebration of National Poetry Month and in response to Time For Poetry, a haiku by this tired writer and reader who is trying to muster up some stamina for two book reviews that are due to editors soon (books I still haven’t finished reading) and trying to look at my own manuscript with its final 10,000-20,000 words being narrowed in on. I can’t help but feel like this perfect Edvard Munch painting.

Distractions : Which Beat Generation Writer Are You?

I usually loathe all things Buzzfeed, but I was totally suckered into their Which Beat Generation Writer Are You? quiz. Perfect for a Friday distraction. Which writer did you get? My result is: Charles Bukowski.

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Unfinished Masterpieces

I recently watched the 2012 BBC documentary program, Unfinished Masterpieces with Alastair Sooke.* The host begins with the eternally frustrating predicament of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Charles Dickens novel that was never finished, because Dickens famously died during the writing of it, leaving very few clues to the intended outcome of the narrative. Biographers, historians, and artists have endlessly tried to anticipate Dickens’ wishes by both speculating about the novel’s unfinished portion and even going so far as to invent possible endings in different mediums like theatre, radio, and film, as well as boldly attempting to finish the task of writing the novel.

Alastair Sooke also looked at other unfinished works and pondered the reasons behind the unfinishedness of these respective works. Like Dickens, Jane Austen also has an unfinished novel, Sanditon, which was left incomplete because of her death. A dozen “continuations” have been penned, all trying to capture Austen’s specific voice and her intended path for the remainder of the book. When Sooke separately asked a handful of complete strangers which they would rather have, all chose to stick with Austen’s original unfinished work.

The program also took a look at works that might have been purposefully suppressed by their creators. For example, the famous portrait of US President George Washington, which is the basis for the image on the $1 bill, was left unfinished by the portraitist Gilbert Stuart. What started off as a difficult portrait, the fact that it was unfinished was a financial benefit to Stuart, who sold replicas for $100 a pop. The notoriety of its incomplete presentation might have been more lucrative for him than otherwise.  This, of course, is reminiscent to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation for his unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan.” He purports of wild inspiration from an opium haze and begins writing the famous poem when he is suddenly interrupted; when he returns to the poem, all inspiration is gone and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished. Perhaps, the story behind it is more exciting than having an actual completed work.

There are other works that Sooke investigates including newly discovered poems from English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was known for his WWI poems that captured the horrors of the war, but whose unpublished poems have a tinge of romanticizing. This conundrum of including them in Sassoon’s canon is questioned. Perhaps, the poet didn’t feel these were up to snuff and didn’t intend them to see the light of day, beside being out of step with his known views. This idea was reminiscent of other writers (who were not featured in the doc) like Franz Kafka, who famously asked that all of his documents be burned and left The Castle incomplete with the final written line ending mid-sentence and David Foster Wallace, who upon his death left an incomplete manuscript and notes on his computer. This was all gathered together by his widow, agent, and other literary folk to become The Pale King.

The question of whether we should finish something or bring to the masses an unknown work once the creator dies is debated and Sooke presents authorities with equally good arguments. Would The Garden of Eden really be a novel Ernest Hemingway would have written himself or could it only be imagined by editors after his death? Kafka wrote that he had an idea for the ending of The Castle, but who knows if it would have still been the same by the time he got there. He leaves the novel mid-sentence and incomplete, almost a perfect final note to a book so concerned with bureaucracy and never-ending frustrations. Sassoon’s poetry could have been just for himself, an attempt at a new form that didn’t quite fit with his other poems or maybe, they were simply something he was not proud of. Thus, choosing to let them go unpublished.

A whole other dilemma–the one of continuing a series–I shall leave to the documentary, but I’ll give you this small bit. Think of the long-dead novelists, Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters–James Bond and Sherlock Holmes–are still appearing in new releases, albeit, by different authors. What an entirely different conundrum. For some reason, we are ill-at-ease when it comes to the unfinished. We like wholes, a feeling of sturdy completeness. Although, I do not count myself among them, this might be why so many people had a hard time connecting to Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an EndingPeople generally dislike ambiguity and residing in the liminal.

Have you seen this documentary? Are there other famous incomplete works out there? It seems like a strange debate that I find myself on both sides of. I’m curious if anyone has additional thoughts.

 ***

*The 50 minute program can be watched in its entirety on the BBC’s website here; I don’t know how long it will be available, so step on it.
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Liebster Award

It’s been a little while since I’ve seen these awards poke their heads out in the blogosphere, but twice in one week, I’ve been nominated by two lovely ladies at Turning Pages and Tea and Bookwormchatterbox. The Emmas both curate excellent blogs and I highly advise you to take a peek over there (because finding new sites is really what the Liebster is about). So without further ado…

The Rules:

  1. Thank the blogger that nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Display the award somewhere on your blog.
  3. List 11 facts about yourself.
  4. Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger that nominated you.
  5. Come up with 11 new questions to ask your nominees.
  6. Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less fewer than 1,000 followers. (You may nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you cannot renominate the blog that nominated you.)
  7. Go to their blog and inform them that they’ve been nominated.

Eleven Facts About Me

  1. I really disliked the film Million Dollar Baby and still don’t understand why it received so much hoopla.
  2. I used to play the saxophone; one of the first songs I learned was “Tequila.”
  3. After reading Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, I briefly thought I knew how to play baccarat.
  4. I own two copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, have cited it in papers before, but I have never read past the first page.
  5. Bill Murray was once standing outside of my work building on a disused street with no one else around, but he wasn’t waiting for me.
  6. Much to the horror of others, I am double-jointed in my arm and can turn it all the way around.
  7. I still vividly remember kindergarten.
  8. I am an avid reader of Wikipedia pages about religious cults. To think of all of the time I’ve spent…
  9. My second apartment in New York City was above a fish market, but it mysteriously didn’t smell like fish.
  10. I make a mean sauerkraut au gratin. Don’t turn up your nose. It’s delicious.
  11. Because of an illness, I haven’t been able to have a cup of coffee or a pint in ages. It’s driving me mad!

Eleven Answers - because I received two nominations, I picked questions from both lists, with some overlap

  • What is your favourite book?

That’s always a tough one. I’ll cheat and give three: Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal, The Notebook by Agota Kristof, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. (Also, the Kafka oeuvre).

  • What made you become a book blogger?

I started writing this blog as a way to keep track of the books I was reading and to share my love of literature. I also had just returned from a trip to Prague and felt particularly inspired.

  • How do you arrange your bookshelf? (e.g. by colour, by author, etc)

I sort of have a feng shui thing going on. It’s more about the balance of the books and how they are placed together than by color, author, etc.

  • Do you ever listen to audiobooks?

I do. I usually listen to an audiobook when I’m traveling and have a while to go. I used to also listen to audiobooks every morning while I showered before having to go to my soul-sucking government office job.

  • Is there anything else that you would blog about, other than books?

Probably movies–old ones with Lon Chaney or Vincent Price on the posters (so probably old horror) or maybe kitschy sci-fi like Barbarella and Zardoz. Of course, art. I love photography.

  • What is the longest book you have ever read?

Probably 2666 by Roberto Bolano. It’s the only one I can think of right now. While reading it in a park, a man walked by asking if I was reading Twilight.

  • Which book do you recommend most to others?

I think it depends on the person, but for the purposes of this Q&A, I’ll say Speedboat by Renata Adler.

  • Do you think more people should read the classics?

Of course! I wish I had more time to read the classics, too.

  • Where do you read?

Up here, over there, but my favorite place is in my wing chair.

  • What is the worst book you have ever read?

Hm. That’s a tough one. I was one assigned a book to review called The Abominable Gayman. That was pretty terrible.

  • If you could take 5 books with you to a desert island, which ones would you choose?

Dracula by Bram Stoker, Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Catch-22 by Joseph HellerBad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, and probably a big book by Wilkie Collins.

Bloggie Blogs - nominees are in no particular order other than alphabetical

  1. Beguiling Hollywood – Vicky Lester’s smorgasbord of old Hollywood.
  2. Bibliophilopolis – Jay writes about a variety of bibliophilia, but his biggest project is “Deal Me In,” which focuses on short stories.
  3. Doublewhirler – I love their photos and stories that accompany the posts.
  4. Fourth Street Review – Rory always has a great review up or other literary goodies.
  5. Grotesque Ground – A new blog; she writes about finding the grotesque in films and literature.
  6. Multo (Ghost) – Nina’s blog has been a favorite of my mine since my beginning blogging days. Folklore, ghosts, and all tales of the amazing.

**This is a little of a cheat, but I have to give a shout to one of my faves: Helen at Schietree but she has over 1000 followers (oh, those pesky rules!).

I hope you have fun investigating the other blogs listed above. The list could have gone on, but I’m short on time now.

Questions for Bloggers

  1. When did you start your blog?
  2. What was the motivation behind it?
  3. Have you found anything surprising about blogging?
  4. Do you have a personal favorite post on your blog?
  5. Has the point of view for your blog changed since you started it (strayed into other directions)?
  6. Any favorite internet places for wonderful procrastination in the art vein or otherwise?
  7. What has been your favorite place to visit and why?
  8. If you could meet any historical figure, dead or alive, who would it be?
  9. Time for that completely unanswerable question: What’s your favorite book?
  10. I can’t leave out the Proust questionnaire: What is your most treasured possession?
  11. Jet ski or 100 bottles wine? Which is a better prize?