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?
In home news this week, Splice masthead contributor Anna MacDonald reviewed S.A. Jones’ The Fortress for the Australian Book Review. Jones, she says, “imagines a civilisation of women — the Vaik — committed to ‘Work. History. Sex. Justice'” and the Vaik’s interactions with men who “work — in the fields, the kitchens, etc. — and must consent to the Vaik ‘direct[ing] the uses of [their bodies] at all times’.”
And Thea Hawlin published not one but two columns in AnOther, back to back. The first is a fascinating account of the Belle Époque futurist Valentine de Saint-Point:
“We must make lust into a work of art,” Saint-Point declared in her 1913 text Futurist Manifesto of Lust — the second of its kind that she wrote. It is perhaps her best known legacy today: “Lust is a virtue that urges one on, a hearth at which one revives one’s strength,” she writes. Indeed, for Saint-Point, lust was the passionate urge that kept humanity alive. Her feminist ideology revolved around the emancipation of female eroticism; her writings caused a stir throughout Europe and were widely translated, placing women at the centre of debates of the Futurist movement.
Its predecessor, 1912’s Manifesto of the Futurist Woman, was the first of the Futurist manifestos to be written by a woman, and a fierce rebuttal of the original, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who expressed an unfettered scorn for women. In time, her critique forced Marinetti to re-examine his original language, explaining in a later interview he wished simply to dismiss the myth of the female muse and sentimental women. It comes as little surprise, then, that when outlining Futurism’s hierarchy in 1914, Marinetti would name Saint-Point ‘Director of Female Action’ — a title she spurned later that year, declaring: “I am not a Futurist, and I’ve never been, I do not belong to any school”.
And the second is on Elsbeth Juda, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a photographer in London; her work is now on display at the Jewish Museum in Camden:
… in 1933, photographer and art director Elsbeth Juda, whose husband was on a wanted list of subversive intellectuals, escaped to London with nothing but two suitcases and a violin. But once in England, Juda struggled to find work; a Jewish émigré and a married woman, she hardly felt herself welcome in the workplace. In search of resolution, she reinvented herself as a ‘darkroom boy’ in Soho’s Dean Street, working under the name ‘Jay’, and it was in this red-lit room that her love of photography grew and she learned to process colour film.
Elsewhere: Rachel Cusk. Have you heard of Rachel Cusk? Have you heard that she’s got a new novel out? Kate Clanchy’s review of Kudos, published in The Guardian, is a negative one, but not a takedown, centred on a careful close reading of Kudos and its two predecessors in Cusk’s trilogy about a narrator named Faye:
Almost all Faye’s conversations are with people who are also interested in writing down stories, or indeed are in the act of writing Faye down for an interview, and there is a self-consciousness to all this, a riddling, hall-of-mirrors element that is the reverse of the radical humility of the first two books.
And it creates, simply, distance. Faye keeps secrets from us now: where she is, what has happened in the — seemingly considerable — time that has passed since the last book, where she lives, what has become of her house renovations and the terrible neighbours. Once, we felt her lover’s hand “moulding” her arm, felt her loneliness in the pits of our stomachs; now she lets us hear from a journalist that she has married again, and from her reply to another that her son has left to live with his father; and she won’t elaborate. It feels like a betrayal, or a snub.
In the London Review of Books, however, Patricia Lockwood has published a truly bizarre review of the novel. It begins with a lengthy and somewhat derogatory description of Cusk’s physical appearance, it doesn’t begin discussing the trilogy until halfway through, and as soon as it trains its focus on Kudos, it offers only a single paragraph of description before veering off into a five-paragraph digression on Lockwood’s experiences of literary festivals. For all its flaws, however, the review does have some apt things to say about Cusk’s style, her interests, and her possible intentions with her “project” on Faye:
Her prose is not musical, exactly. It is what I would call ritualistic. … The monologues in the Outline trilogy are controlled trances, like Stevie Nicks at the end of ‘Rhiannon’: you enter the speed and the artifice and the belief of it with her. They seem to have been written compulsively; they certainly read compulsively. There is a relentlessness to them, an onslaught that is like the onslaught of life. Occasionally you find yourself wishing for someone to get up and go to the bathroom, but most of the time you are transported.
The trick she has discovered, of course, is to obliterate herself entirely. We know what we want from memoirs, but in Outline we do not know what we want until she gives it to us: that dinner party, that swim in the cove, that story about the dog. She moves through it as a blasted centre full only of instinct and superhuman hearing and hackles, of the sense that tells us when to leave parties, when someone is going to kiss you or hiss at you, that dares us to get on a boat with a stranger.
It’s an easy segue from Cusk to Sheila Heti (pictured above): Cusk has become somewhat infamous for her writings on motherhood, and Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, is about exactly that. Reviewing the book for the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz begins with some remarks on Cusk’s A Life’s Work before delving into Heti’s pages:
Heti’s narrator, who seems all but indistinguishable from Heti herself, calls it, at various points, “a book to prevent future tears,” “a prophylactic,” “a written defence,” and “a wrestling place.” Even “narrator” seems an awkward term here. “Interrogator” might be the better word, since, in place of telling a story, the novel asks a question. In the course of nearly three hundred pages, Heti examines and cross-examines herself to decide whether or not she should have a child before it is too late. The result, a kind of diary of a divided mind, serves as both a record of that deliberation and an insurance policy against an adverse outcome, by guaranteeing that Heti’s struggle to understand and obey the mandate of her soul will end, either way, in a birth, even if what is born is made of ink and paper rather than of flesh and blood.
Also in the New Yorker, Jonathan Dee has a smart, insightful take on Sergio de la Pava’s new novel, Lost Empress, and de la Pava’s work in general:
… does de la Pava’s old-school autodidacticism mean that his work is uncontaminated by influence, something new under the literary sun? In most ways no, but in some important and thrilling ways yes. In the context of current American fiction and the directions in which it’s moving, de la Pava can look like a throwback — an unabashed believer in empathy, in gigantism, in the ability of a novel to contain the whole world. (And that means the whole world; one of the novel’s narrative threads traces the growth of a glioblastoma in a character’s brain.) There is more contained in the six hundred and forty pages of “Lost Empress,” formally speaking, than one review can comfortably synopsize. … The style, of course, is the extraordinary thing, as it would need to be to unite all the elements of a novel of this length and sprawl. It is colloquial in tempo yet nerdy in content, divinely detached yet intimately casual in tone, impossibly learned and improvisational at the same time. If de la Pava has a signature move, it’s to zoom out from a highly specific action or bit of characterization in order to generalize about or extrapolate from it, while still holding on to the speech-replicating sentence structures that ground that action in a kind of conversational specificity.
And earlier this week, an equally sprawling novel — Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt — pulled off the seemingly impossible trick of winning prizes in three major categories at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It picked up the prize for fiction, the prize for new writing, and the people’s choice award — an incredible trifecta — and also received a long, detailed analysis of its aims and aesthetics by Jerath Head in the Sydney Review of Books:
The juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction emphasises what Presser admits early on in the book: that, after their deaths, he realised he knew very little about his grandparents. The Book of Dirt is an attempt to understand them better. Fiction and non-fiction track each other, leading up to the goal of Presser’s writing: an image, an understanding of his grandparents’ time at the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp. Only when he visits the site of the former camp at the end of his quest does Presser realise that it is too late to learn any more about them, and that their story is now his to weave together from what little he has. With this, Presser is able to begin the final third of the book, a sustained fictional rendering of Jakub and Daša’s time as prisoners at Theresienstadt.
Anna MacDonald also reviewed the book for the Australian Book Review last year, likening it to the work of W.G. Sebald, Teju Cole, and Valeria Luiselli.
Finally, perhaps the best work of criticism to appear online this week: Lauren Oyler’s overview of the fiction of Helen DeWitt, ahead of the publication of DeWitt’s story collection Some Trick next month. Oyler gracefully weaves together biography, publishing industry gossip, and literary analysis to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes DeWitt’s work unique and important, and why DeWitt is committed to producing it despite the obstacles she has faced:
After going out of print, The Last Samurai was reissued to enthusiasm by New Directions in 2016. While the New York Times did not take the opportunity to correct its mistake in coverage from the first time around, critics elsewhere took up the charge of championing the “unjustly forgotten big book” for new readers. Everyone should read the novel, but one bit of praise in particular disturbed me. In ‘Rewinding Helen DeWitt,’ for Slate, Phillip Maciak argues that because “repetition is both the novel’s topic… and its style” the re-issue of The Last Samurai is “perfect for our streaming-video moment.” The former claim is solid… [b]ut Maciak’s second claim, that DeWitt’s work is compatible with the “streaming-video moment,” rests not only on a misunderstanding of DeWitt but also on a misunderstanding of what it means to experience art at all. What Ludo and his mother do with Seven Samurai is not “mak[ing] ordinary art transcendent through repetition,” as Maciak writes — they use repetition to approach the state of transcendence made possible by extraordinary art. The implications of the idea that ordinary art — art that conforms to expectation, that accepts that this is just the way it is — could rise, through repetition, to extraordinary status might explain why books these days make you want to puke or die: if any work of art can be transcendent, what’s the point in trying something extraordinary?
And away you go! See you back here on Monday…