Weekendnotes, March 3-4

On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?

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One of the books attracting a lot of critical attention this week has been Jessie Greengrass’ Sight, recently published by John Murray. There was a fine interview with Greengrass on last Sunday’s Books and Authors, and an eloquent review of the book by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian, but it was Jonathan Gibbs, writing for The White Review, who gave Sight its best coverage:

It is writing like this that is, in the end, convincing: it is astringent, where we are accustomed to expect something more emollient. Sight is a philosophical novel, aphoristic, almost, if you allow that those aphorisms are laid out slowly, like a winning hand at cards, rather than tossed out like a lecturer’s quip. Is it even a novel, though? I certainly wouldn’t insist on it. Some books, in seeking to blur the line between fact and fiction, only serve to retrench our ideas of what those things might be. (And anyway, who said the opposite of ‘fiction’ had to be ‘fact’?) Sight belongs in another camp, with those books that seem to have been bred in a state of critical innocence, where no such definitions and distinctions exist, and is the better for it.

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Although Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk was published a while ago, one of the more perceptive takes on the novel has just appeared in the Sydney Review of Books. There, Tali Lavi looks at it alongside other works by Siri Hustvedt and Dana Spiotta, and reads the book with an eye towards Levy’s construction of a female gaze trained upon female bodies:

Women’s bodies and their myriad states of being are encountered in Hot Milk: ripe, fecund, withering, lame, denied of purpose, maternal, muscular, filled with the heat of desire. There they are, full frontal, in our gaze. A woman in a market stall selling straw hats becomes a distraction for Sofia, as the price tag swings ‘across her eyes. It was as if she had put something in the way of being looked at.’ … Often Sofia’s anthropologist gaze is directed at what we see and on two occasions she looks at older women’s bodies and questions their worth. When looking at a naked Rose in the shower, she asks, ‘What is her body supposed to want and who is it supposed to please and is it ugly or is it something else?’ When contemplating a fruit seller in her truck, a grandmother, she asks this same question.  But this time, after watching the woman feed her grandson figs, she answers it, vitiating the brutality of the questioning. ‘She was a farmer and grandmother running her own economy with her money bag pressed against her womb.’ And so society’s gaze, the male gaze, is subverted by the female viewer. Beauty is made myriad; present in agency, functionality and gestures of love. In Hot Milk, the female body is not there to impress upon male watchers even as it might. Pleasure is to be found in agency, which is in effect what the female gaze does in this novel; it eschews passivity.

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Speaking of writers looking back on older books, Xenobe Purvis at 3am Magazine calls attention to two unusual novels originally published in the 1960s and recent reissued by Penguin Classics. The novels in question are Anna Kavan’s Ice and Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace, both of which were initially backed by Peter Owen, a one-time protégé of Muriel Spark and by the end of his life “a champion of the obscure, the neglected, the modern, the foreign, the difficult and the downright unpopular”:

The haunting descriptions of a transformed planet in Ice are the novel’s greatest strength. But the book is not without its failings: its narrative – while an intriguing insight into the unstable mind of the narrator – is difficult to follow, and there is little in the way of characterisation. Kavan defended the novel’s unusual structure; in response to an early criticism from one of Peter Owen’s readers, reluctant to take up Ice due to its lack of “internal logic”, she wrote that she “saw the story as one of those recurring dreams (hence the repetitive voyages etc.) which at times become nightmare. This dreamlike atmosphere is the essence of the whole concept. Without it, the book would be meaningless.” …

Although The Ice Palace was published in English translation only four years before Kavan’s Ice and shares with it a sub-zero setting, the two novels are worlds apart. What one enjoys in glittering menace, the other makes up for in a simple but affecting plot and an absorbing troupe of characters. The warmth and wisdom of the villagers and the sensitivity of The Ice Palace’s protagonist, Siss, are at its heart. The opening lines of the book introduce us to Siss in language that feels almost Imagist in its simplicity: “A young, white forehead boring through the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss.”

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And Full Stop has been publishing excerpts from select volumes of literary criticism published last year by Fiction Advocate. The first excerpt, on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, came from Jonathan Russell’s An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom; the most recent one, from Jacob Bacharach’s A Cool Customer, focuses on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking:

In an interview with Hilton Als in the Paris Review, several years after The Year of Magical Thinking was published, during a period when she was adapting it as a one-woman play, Didion says of her political writing, “If I am sufficiently interested in a political situation to write a piece about it, I generally have a point of view, although I don’t usually recognize it. Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.”

It strikes me that, while “bothers me” may be an unduly anodyne way to describe the grief you feel when a spouse of forty years dies and your grown but still young child is in and out of critical care for a series of mysterious and complex illnesses, it is nevertheless a pretty neat description of how The Year of Magical Thinking introduces itself and its methods. We enter the book not at the moment of Dunne’s death, though we get there within a few pages, but rather, at the moment that Didion began to write it, a precise date looking back at a precisely timestamped file, neither of them the actual event itself.

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Finally, two articles on forms of literature one step removed from words on a page. For AsymptoteAliya Gulamani writes about the literary implications of being deaf and communicating via sign language as well as other means:

…on a day-to-day basis, I communicate using my hands (signing), voice (speaking), and eyes (lip-reading), as a giver and a receiver. I enjoy the literal sound certain words make as they hold space in the air. Simultaneously, and without contradiction, I love the shape of language created by fingers, expressions and the body. People also underestimate the use of the whole body in sign language – though it is primarily through the hands that words are expressed; meaning, content and colour is amplified through other parts of the body, in particular, the face.

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And in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses his decision to start writing Captain America for Marvel Comics, in addition to continuing his scripting duties on Black Panther:

Captain America is not so much tied to America as it is, but to an America of the imagined past. In one famous scene, flattered by a treacherous general for his “loyalty,” Rogers — grasping the American flag — retorts, “I’m loyal to nothing, general … except the dream.” … Writing, for me, is about questions — not answers. And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream? What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America’s head, but attempting to put Captain America’s words in my head. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I’ve tired of.

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And away you go! See you back here on Monday…