Sunday, December 24, 2006

Milan Kundera and The Art of The Novel

I just finished Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. There are lots of little interesting things in it, but I’ll just mention a couple that caught my attention.

The book was published in 1985, and Kundera doesn’t foresee the end of the Soviet empire. In an amusing bit about translation, he explains why good translation is so important to him. It’s because his books couldn’t be published in Czech. He was an unperson there. It’s a small country and there aren’t a lot of Czech speakers elsewhere in the world. So he was dependent on translators to provide him a readership, and wanted them to do their job well.

Imagine being in that situation. What if you were a writer not quite of Kundera’s Olympian stature? Who’s going to translate your works?

The other thing that amused me was the word “Kafkan.” This appears to be Kundera’s alternative to “Kafkaesque.” He has a lot to say about Kafka, who looms large for him as a key writer. Kafkan refers to kinds of situations—endless bureaucratic labyrinths, for example. Kundera might even classify those impossible phone navigation systems as Kafkan—getting an answer from them is like Joseph K. getting to the Castle. Another Kafkan situation is the file, the report on an individual taking the place of the individual—the file is the real thing, and the person is just a shadow. Another Kafkan situation is that of the punished seeking the offense—you are locked in a jail and tortured, so you conclude you must have done something! Obviously this can apply to the spurious admissions of torture victims in show trials, but Kundera makes it out to be more of an interior problem. The accused concludes for himself that he must have done something wrong. A relatively recent case of this was the Sheriff up near Olympia who came to believe that he had raped his daughters and participated in bizarre satanic rituals, after being accused and jailed for these crimes (which never happened). The final Kafkan attribute is that the situation seems to be a joke, except for those in the joke—where the situation is a nightmare.

Kundera provides examples from Communist Czechoslovakia, but rightly points out that the thing Kafka had identified is a world ruled by offices, by bureaucracy. He is careful to point out that Kafka wasn’t thinking about the future—he wasn’t warning anyone of anything. He wasn’t political, and the ideas in his novel feel so true today. They are as true in the capitalist world of credit reports and extended warranties as they were in the Communist world.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Bliss Blood

I don’t know why, but I thought about Bliss Blood this morning, and decided to google her and found her website. She has several bands, each doing different styles, all based in jazz and blues from the 20s to the 50s. There are lots of amazing MP3s to download—I recommend those by her “Moonlighters” band. She reminds me both of the Ditty Bops and Fay Lovsky.

Bliss Blood was a fixture in Houston for a long time. In the late 80s, my friends and I would go to the sadly defunct Bellaire movie theater, where they had one of the best happy hours in town. It was a very cool place—the TV screens, instead of showing sports, showed Survival Research Labs videos (that was where I first heard of those guys). Bliss Blood was our regular waitress, and she was the coolest.

She had an industrial band called the Pain Teens, and in the 90s, the Pain Teens were the closest that Houston got to a popular alternative rock band. They never really broke through to the big time.

So how did she make this transition from noise merchant to swinging chanteuse? Hell if I know, but it’s cool that she has. Maybe it’s a sign of someone aging gracefully as an artist. But I like that she never changed her name to something more "appropriate" for her new musical path. It pleases me that the coolest waitress at the Bellaire is still cool.


Monday, December 18, 2006

The Mystery Market

In The Narrows, Michael Connelly joins characters from his Harry Bosch series, Blood Work (featuring FBI Agent Terry McCaleb), and his serial killer book, The Poet. It’s like a Marvel or DC comics crossover event. This book is also interesting because it acknowledges the movie version of Blood Work as having happened—the Buddy character in particular resents being turned into the villain. The book is fun because it embraces the reality of the modern thriller writer—that they are writing machines.

Michael Murphy, former publisher at William Morrow, once told me something about writer Sparkle Hayter. Hayter had come up with a great character—a low-level producer for a 24 hour news network in NYC—and had written a couple of very entertaining humorous mysteries featuring this character. Murphy advised her to write a new one every year—a yearly book being a requirement to have a successful franchise in the mystery book world. He was disappointed that Hayter couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do it. Perhaps Hayter preferred not to become a writing machine.

It is astonishing how much mystery and thriller writing conventions are dictated by market requirements. Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin can churn out new thrillers every year or so, and Sparkle Hayter can’t. Connelly and Rankin are successful, Hayter not (in this field, at least). All of these writers are quite good at what they do, but apparently only Connelly and Rankin have what it takes to be commercially successful.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Cy Twombly

I’ve never been a fan of Cy Twombly, an artist who almost dares you to like his work. Some of his paintings are not unlike the bored scribbles of a manager trapped in a very dull meeting. I mean, except for the scale and the media, there is no difference. I just couldn’t see this as meaningful expression—I couldn’t see the intelligence behind it.

So I avoided the Menil’s Twombly gallery for years until today. And I was surprised. While there were plenty of perplexing scribble paintings, there were some that had real presence.

One was an untitled suite of nine paintings, mostly green, black, grey and white. He would tend to put the green and black in one area and the grey and white beneath it and to the side. The effect was an illusionistic effect (unintentional?) of dense greenery coming right up to the edge of a lake on an overcast day. I was filled with emotion seeing this. There had been a piece on Monet’s letters in NPR the other day, which made me think about Monet, which made me think about Giverny and the water lily paintings. One thing about these paintings was how rich in color they were. Twombly creates something similar with a far more limited palette.

Then I thought of Theft by Peter Carey. Carey has Butcher Bones describe his new paintings as abstract with slabs of super-rich pthalo green, and seeing these Twombly paintings made that image return. It’s as if Carey had seen them and used their memory to create Bones’ paintings.

I wish I could find an image of one of these paintings to post. I can't though--you'll just have to visit the gallery.