Sunday, June 5, 2011

What I've read so far this summer...

Vernon Lee, Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales- Atmospheric horror stories from the turn of the century. Lee seems like a pretty complex person: pals with Henry James and Bertrand Russell, a deeply knowledgeable scholar of Italian history and art, apparently asexual (which plenty of modern scholars read as repressed lesbianism), and a writer of ghost stories, which she wrote in English despite living most of her life in Italy, and having that country be the setting of most the stories. The tales deal with the the terrible consequences of the past reaching out into the present, mostly by way of a piece of art. Her protagonists are sensitive scholars who are seduced by long-dead women in paintings, or living women who appear to be (re-)incarnations of the long- dead or the eternal. This is complicated by the suggestion that her narrators are quite mad, being deluded by their fascinations with the past and the exotic and the beautiful. You could probably write a decent article about the role of scholarly delusion in these stories, in the way that becoming obsessed with one thing and making it your life will lead you view everything through that one prism. If you've ever talked to a grad student, you know what I'm talking about. Recommended.

Laszlo Kraszhnahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance- You'll need some patience with this one, but you'll be rewarded. Kraszhnahorkai doesn't use paragraph breaks, goes off on wild philosophical tangents, fills this book with extreme and perhaps unparsable symbolism, and does not slow down to give his readers a break. The novel takes place in a small Hungarian town, and is more or less about dread, the totality and immensity of existence, the human place in all of that, and about what to do with the fact that there is void at the center of and surrounding all things. Gorgeous, doomy stuff with big ideas. He gets compared with Bernhard a lot, but I think its mostly a superficial resemblance.

Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World- Maybe reading this right after The Melancholy of Resistance was a bad idea. Both novels are long, and centered around apocalypse and the limitations of human narrative and perspective. Both are merciless. This one is a retelling of a conflict in Brazil during the late 1800's. A group of poor outcasts build a weird religious community under a mysterious leader. The Brazilian army fights them. There is a Scottish anarchist phrenologist and (in another odd connection with MoR) a traveling circus (freak show) in the mix. My second Vargas Llosa, after Death in the Andes. I liked that one alright, but The War... was astonishing. Another worthwhile endurance test.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin- My third Nabokov, after Lolita and Pale Fire. Not as grand as those two, but a lot of fun, by turns hilarious and melancholy. A nice rest after the last couple books.

that's it for novels. I've also been reading and rereading lots of horror short stories (Machen, Lovecraft, Michael Shea, etc.), a book on evolutionary biology (Life, by Richard Fortey), and the first collection of the Cinema Sewer zine. CS is pretty awesome, but I definitely feel like I need a shower after spending any amount of time at all with it. It's a hand-written and drawn zine about all the filth of the cinema world: gore, horror, Eurosleaze, extreme p_r0n, and even death videos. He draws VERY explicit comics about them. The writer, a Mr. Bougie, is so excited about everything that he basically has no ethical consideration of what he's into, so long as it's rare (at one point he talks about how horrified he once was to watch what he (at the time) thought to be a real snuff movie, but at no point does he mention having thoughts of turning the damn tape off). This reckless enthusiasm to watch anything and everything as long as it's weird is admittedly pretty charming, and I'm glad there's someone around to archive all this junk. An appropriate title. Recommended, if you have the stomach for it and are curious about the gross limits of the human imagination.

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