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[MARCH 2012.]

Autobibliography Approaches Middle Life

The best book I read in 2010 was Mandarins, a collection of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa stories translated by Charles De Wolf and put out by the culture stewards at Archipelago. My rudiment of Japanese gives me insight into no translations but the awful ones, but I think De Wolf has brought over something like the ultraviolet glow that shines through Maupassant (Akutagawa’s guiding light) or Babel (a fellow apostle). A brilliant comparative study of those three is waiting to be written, under some imaginary regime that encourages brilliant comparative studies.

The usual two stories that Kurosawa mashed into Rashōmon are passed over. What we get instead is a sampling to make one weep for the lack of an English complete works. They begin as careful miniatures, gain depth of field as they project back into history, and make a queasy last turn in the year of the author’s breakdown and suicide. The last piece, “Cogwheels,” has the same generic uncertainty as the Kafka papers—it is either fiction under unusual constraints, or the best-crafted diary entry in history—and stands as one of the century’s unmatched terror texts.

The best book I read in 2011, not my best year for reading, was László Krasznahorkai’s latest, now accessible in German as Seiobo auf Erden and forthcoming someday from New Directions as Seiobo Down Below. I love what’s been translated of his work from the eighties and nineties, but as a partisan I feel obliged to insist that it’s not all apocalypse... there is also the recent Krasznahorkai who has turned to writing about mathematics and Japanese gardens. These are stories, but the numbering is canny: they follow the Fibonacci sequence and are meant to be cumulative. The major players are Nō drama, Japanese shrines (Buddhist and Shinto both), and early Renaissance painting; also Baroque music, the Venus de Milo, Rublev icons, the Alhambra and Acropolis: that is, an attempt to cull a representative sample of anything that might count as an art object. (Also, there can be no complete account of the human relation to art objects without acknowledging the small agonies of scholarship and curation, and the great annoyances of tourism.) Pessimism and fatalism are still the governing humors, often appearing in the convulsive last turn of a twenty-page sentence; it’s obviously the work of the man who gave this interview. It conjoins art and madness again and again, not because madness is interesting in itself, but because it can’t imagine the mind for which art is not maddening.

A gunmetal labyrinth in the shape of a ring around the heart. I wanted to live outside structures, to go coextensive with their shadows. Now, inside the labyrinth, I take the left turn every time it appears. The left turn is the lucky one. To get in for good, or to get out for good.

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