This is a meme of my own invention (as far as I know). [Update: Nope, Paul did it first. I may have subconsciously plagiarized him. Sorry Paul!] The books that had the greatest impact on me year by year. Obviously very subjective, and vexing for all sorts of different reasons. Not always the best books, not often the most helpful books, just those that occupied my mind more than others. The years are to my best recollection; I may have fudged some of them.
I’ve had to list a number of unbreakable ties, where I remember the influence of each book as being so dominant and the books as so incommensurable that it was impossible to choose.
And there were a couple near-ties where I painfully excluded a runner-up. (Invisible Man, Catcher in the Rye, Wittgenstein, Lucretius, and Hegel’s Phenomenology all fell into this category.)
So, by age, from the beginning!
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton
What Do People Do All Day? (unabridged), Richard Scarry
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Dr. Seuss
Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Carl Barks
The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster (tie)
The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams What is the Name of This Book?, Raymond Smullyan (tie)
“By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—”, Robert Heinlein
The Singing Detective (script and serial), Dennis Potter
The Sirens of Titan; and Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
White Noise, Don DeLillo
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf Moby Dick, Herman Melville (tie)
Ulysses, James Joyce
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates Imaginary Magnitude, Stanislaw Lem (tie)
The Tunnel, William H. Gass
The Castle, Franz Kafka
Lanark, Alasdair Gray Interstate; Frog; Gould; assorted short fiction, Stephen Dixon (tie)
The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist
The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai
The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso How It Is, Samuel Beckett (tie)
The Waves, Virginia Woolf Epileptic, David B. (tie)
The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi Simultan, Ingeborg Bachmann (tie)
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (tie)
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
A House in the Country, Jose Donoso
I am sure there are many books that felt more significant at the time whose influence I have mostly forgotten because I failed to pursue the directions they signaled. My memories have persisted of those books that were close to the parts of me that remain with me now.
This is probably as good an autobiography as any. Anyone else want to try?
I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.
I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.
What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.
So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.
It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really? I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.
When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.
James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.
Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.
But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.
I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.
I posted that excerpt from the inflammatory (for sufficiently small values of inflammatory) intro to Steven Moore’s book only as a gag, since people like Steve Donoghue have said much more about it than I wish to. (However! In a rebuke to Moore, his elevation of the Velvet Underground as too-avant-for-Ashbery has just been answered by Moe Tucker’s endorsement of the Tea Party).
But then I happened to reread Milton Babbitt’s The Composer as Specialist. (At publication, it was retitled by the editor to the far more inflammatory and interesting “Who Cares If You Listen?” Supposedly he wasn’t in on it and complains that he is “far more likely to be known as the author of ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen.”)
The war between elitists and populists among the creative classes has gone on for so many centuries that I really don’t think there’s any new argument to be made in the area. Since I’m fairly likely never to command a large audience, I could throw my lot in with the elitists and share in that warm fuzzy smugness that comes with belonging to the aesthetic elite of civilization (and offer it to my readers!)…but no, it’s too silly. But because music offers a purer and less semantically-laden form of art, the elitist arguments there are more raw and less able to fall back on fallacies like “making you a better person.” And Babbitt is upfront and sincere, to his credit.
Babbitt is/was one of those hyper-serialist composers who took Schoenberg’s system to a far greater extreme than Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern ever did. Iannis Xenakis, no traditionalist himself, complained that such music became incomprehensible:
The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum.
And Babbitt said that for most audiences, that indeed was true. Here’s a string quartet:
Well, I like the textures, but it doesn’t quite hold together for me, which tends to be my experience with his music. But music often belies composers’ intentions, so let’s look at the words. There are two criteria by which Babbitt wants to elevate the new, hyper-serialized music.
Criteria 1. Complexity
This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more “efficient” than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the “redundancy” of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener). Incidentally, it is this circumstance, among many others, that has created the need for purely electronic media of “performance.” More importantly for us, it makes ever heavier demands upon the training of the listener’s perceptual capacities.
So here, in place of the qualities of allusiveness, elusiveness, nonlinearity, and prolixity of difficult fiction, we have a single analogous criterion: density of information. Babbitt gives a couple other criteria, but they really aren’t so different from this one: those characteristics defining the work are as great in number as possible across the shortest possible time period. (A lossless compression of the music should compress as little as possible!) Stockhausen made a similar complaint when he listened to techno music, always bemoaning the fact that there was any sort of regularity or repetition in the music.
For all the bragging about the density of the information age, I think things are going in the opposite direction. People consume so much that there’s been an incentive to make things consumable as fast as possible. If you look at any of the would-be highbrow serials on television (with the exception of The Wire), they proceed far more slowly plotwise than your average 70s episode of The Rockford Files, which stuck a whole plot arc into a single hour. Ostensibly this is to give a richer background, but the more obvious reason is that there is that much more content to digest in general, and so no point in a greater density of information.
Xenakis’s point was simply that information would be absorbed at a more macroscopic level, which is one way of getting around the problem. Arguably Ferneyhough embraced this as well, though you can make the argument in the other direction to attack Babbitt: how many works with an information density on the order of Webern can a composer make that are going to be masterpieces? Webern only managed a few hours of music total. Babbitt has written far more, and if they’re going to be ranked, information density will not be the criterion for how they’re graded.
Is the density a prerequisite then? In the article, Babbitt simply seems to think that any piece below a certain level of information density just isn’t going to be interesting, and for him, no doubt that is true. But this reduces density to a qualifying factor. Is anything below the threshold just going to be dismissed?
Well no; Stockhausen found some interesting bits in the techno pieces too. But it places the elites in a position where they must discount their own antecedents. This is the problem of so many literary snobs today: they either have to trash Dickens, Cervantes, and Chaucer as being as unworthy of attention as the mass-marketed pablum of today (or else appeal to a dubious “people used to appreciate books more!”), or they have to say that these authors had qualities that were never appreciated by the mass of readers even then. Moore’s polemic hits the wall when he is forced into defending complexity, difficulty, and wordplay for its own sake, as though such qualities had intrinsic merit independent of the content of a work. But appealing to such objective qualities is the safest way to delineate one’s opinions from those of the hoi polloi.
Of course, in music, the complexity really is the content (there are no messy semantics here, for the most part), so Babbitt goes the first route and pretty much proclaims new music to be of a wholly different quality and merit than all previous musics; maybe not universally better, but unmistakably different. And so Beethoven is definitely not dense enough. But at this point, well, he has established a new genre of technical music and no longer has any claim to identify with “music” as it has been known throughout the history of the world, whether gamelan, raga, Gesualdo, or Telemann. And if he does not want to claim the inherited mantle of “music,” then should anyone deny him the right to proclaim worthiness in whatever undefined field of art he occupies?
The thing is, I suspect most composers and writers do want to claim the mantle of their supposed predecessors. They would rather be the next Dostoevsky than the next Robert Grenier.
Criteria 2. Expertise
Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.
Ah, the old art-as-science argument. The Social Text people trotted this one out during the Sokal Hoax in the 90s, saying that of course literary theory wasn’t comprehensible to non-experts, just as quantum physics wasn’t. Babbitt trained as a mathematician and so perhaps has better purchase on these arguments than the critical theorists, but even he hedges slightly:
I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study. I do question whether these differences, by their nature, justify the denial to music’s development of assistance granted these other fields. Immediate “practical” applicability (which may be said to have its musical analogue in “immediate extensibility of a compositional technique”) is certainly not a necessary condition for the support of scientific research.
But nonetheless, if the funding is there, go for it! (And certainly coming from a science background, Babbitt saw how much grant money there was being thrown at math and science at that time.)
And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.
There were a couple superficial reasons why the critical theorists couldn’t use the expertise argument to outflank their detractors. First, there was a shortage of autonomous results: a book of theory, even Of Grammatology, simply does not have the aesthetic standing that a piece of music or even poetrydoes. Patrons of the arts will support philosophy in a pinch (less so these days!), but they do prefer their arts to be lively, even if they are incomprehensible.
Second, there was no theoretical method to which they could appeal, the main direction of critical theory being to dismantle method. Babbitt (and his forebears) have no such issues. They produce music that can be and occasionally is performed, and Babbitt was only one of many who produced extensive theoretical background depicting the exact mechanisms by which works were composed. Even Xenakis produced a book about stochastic music. So ironically, the scientific argument holds together better here than it does in literature.
The problem is the reverse of before. It now makes the expertise a prerequisite for enjoying the music. Or at least, there’s something very puzzling that an appeal to expertise might be needed for something that could be appreciated viscerally and without a background in close listening and musical theory. I suppose I can pick up a physics paper or the Principia and marvel at their visual elegance and the mysterious arrangement of symbols, but that’s a bit difference than enjoying the “moments” of a Stockhausen or Webern piece in a plebeian way, at least to my mind. But such enjoyment is now bastardized, if not wholly illegitimate. And this is not a criterion by which any artist, even an ardent serialist, wishes to live by.
So why use these two criteria of complexity and expertise? Ultimately, I think it’s just a highly developed quantitative argument attempting to marshal seemingly objective measures in the service of judging art, or at least one type of art. I have to admit to giving some grudging respect to Babbitt’s callow words here because he is more objective than every literary or art critic from Longinus onward who thought that ever-so-vague statements of aesthetic guidelines would be sufficient to help everyone decide which art was good from thereon out.
Complexity and listener expertise (comprehension, that is): if these become the metrics by which music is judged, then we really can judge what new piece of music is “interesting” and back it up with evidence. True, the connection of these metrics to enjoyment remain speculative, but hasn’t every aesthetician also insisted that there were more objective measures than a simple statement of like and dislike? At least here we have them. It bothers me far less than the territorial ramblings of aesthetic polemicists struggling to articulate why they are the first to have discovered the actual path to the soul of humanity.
There is something very particular about Bergotte that I want to point out because I believe it illustrates how cagey Proust is about letting “authority” seep into his novel. I’ve already mentioned how the people who have most influenced young Marcel, like Bloch and Bergotte, but also Swann and Odette, are invariably undercut by being painted in a very different light, either in their interactions with others, or through being seen differently in the past or the future. In the case of Bergotte, you have the first character who could be considered a genius. His effects on people are mixed. He can be so novel in his verbiage that people are disappointed, because they cannot attach it to anything in their experience. The impression he makes is decidedly not rational:
Doubtless again to distinguish himself from the previous generation, too fond as it had been of abstractions, of weighty commonplaces, when Bergotte wished to speak favourably of a book, what he would emphasise, what he would quote with approval would always be some scene that furnished the reader with an image, some picture that had no rational meaning. “Ah, yes!” he would exclaim, “it’s good! There’s a little girl in an orange shawl. It’s excellent!” or again, “Oh yes, there’s a passage in which there’s a regiment marching along the street; yes, it’s good!”…And it is true that there was in Bergotte’s style a kind of harmony similar to that for which the ancients used to praise certain of their orators in terms which we now find hard to understand, accustomed as we are to our own modern tongues in which effects of that kind are not sought. (598)
This “kind of harmony” is more insidious than the substance of what Bergotte is saying. We’ve already seen his impact on Marcel, which contained as much of Marcel as it did of Bergotte, and Bergotte’s attunement to a certain type of intellectual disposition at the expense of his interactions with those around him, but the emphasis on his mode of speaking further points away from the substance of what he says and more towards the style, one which fosters agreement even when the reader isn’t sure with what he is agreeing. The influence of the style seems unavoidable:
There were other characteristics of his elocution which he shared not with the members of his family, but with certain contemporary writers. Younger men who were beginning to repudiate him and disclaimed any intellectual affinity with him nevertheless displayed it willy-nilly by employing the same adverbs, the same prepositions that he incessantly repeated, by constructing their sentences in the same way, speaking in the same quiescent, lingering tone, in reaction against the eloquent and facile language of an earlier generation…His way of thinking, inoculated into them, had led them to those alterations of syntax and accentuation which bear a necessary relation to originality of mind. (598)
What the younger writers take from Bergotte is not his ideology, which they reject, but the power in his style. Yet it is through his style that he wields his influence, both over people who cannot quite comprehend what he is saying, and in the next generation of writers. The notion of speech that is more about style and influence than ideological substance puts me in mind of Mynheer Peeperkorn, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Let me start by saying that I find Mynheer one of the most irritating characters in literature, and he’s a good part of my low estimation of the book. But his flaws and Mann’s flaws are relevant to what Proust does with Bergotte. Let’s take a look at some of Mynheer’s speech:
“Gentleman–,” the Dutchman said, raising his lance-nailed captain’s hand in a gesture that both implored and commanded. “Fine, gentlemen, agreed, excellent! Asceticism–indulgence–sensual lust–let me say that–by all means! Eminently important! Eminently controversial! And yet, permit me to say–I fear that we are about to commit a–ladies and gentlemen, we are avoiding, we are irresponsibly avoiding the holiest of–” He took a deep breath. “This air, ladies and gentlemen, this day’s foehn air so rich in character, so tenderly enervating, suggestive and reminiscent of spring’s fragrance–we should not breathe it in merely so that in the form of–I implore you: we should not do it. That is an insult. For its own sweet, simple sake, we must totally and fully–oh, and with our highest and most perceptive–settled, ladies and gentlemen! And only as an act in purest praise of its properties should we then release it from our–but I must break off, ladies and gentlemen. I must break off in honor of this–” (582)
(This surely must be less annoying in German.) After thirty pages of this sort of thing, you can’t wait for the impotent old life force to off himself. Yet in the book, this sort of logorrhea gains him a little cult following who cheerfully follow him and his irrational ramblings off the cliff of reason. The protagonist Hans Castorp decides that the rational characters “simply shrank beside Peeperkorn” and discusses how Mynheer being drunk “only made him grander and more awe-inspiring,” and it’s all very uninspiring, no more so than when Mynheer opens his mouth. That he’s patently saying nothing is a fact; it’s his mystical life force or whatever ineffable thing Mann was thinking about on that day that is the attractive force. It’s unconvincing because there is nothing of that attraction communicated in the book. Bergotte, on the other hand, does come across as a great spirit, less in what he says or what he does, more in the description of that effect. It’s made more convincing by the portrayal of it as only part of his nature, and the description of how his particular genius can sometimes estrange him from people as much as enamor people of him. With Mann, Mynheer is the nonnegotiable life force, while with Proust, Bergotte is presented in terms of his effects on particular types of people. There’s some, but not much, “there” there. So while Mynheer Peeperkorn belongs to a line that eventually extends down to Jubal Harshaw and “Henry Miller” the character(not in their positions in the novel, but in their universal effects on those around them–see also Wyndham Lewis), Bergotte is Oz and the man behind the curtain simultaneously, as well as a heterogeneity of experience that does not permit him to be one thing to all people. The contrast is deeper than the nature of the individual character; it’s a question of approach, and it reminded me of a passage from way back in “Combray” in the first volume:
These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement. A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (91)
What is Proust doing if not to portray, first, the repetitions and lack of change amongst characters, and second, the simultaneous coexistence of contradictory characteristics in a character depending on the situation? I find this to be the best answer to the charges of myopia that I and plenty of others have leveled against the novel, of asking why the vagaries of these high-class French people have any significance. Well, to do the sort of examination here, I believe that Proust had to stick very close to his own past experience, mutating it but hardly abandoning it. I don’t see how he could have constructed such elaborate characters except by starting from known exemplars and then reconstructing/reshuffling them. I could be wrong, but that’s my best guess. Proust’s endless efforts to detach his writing from one particular view of his situations also goes a way to redeeming the choice of subject matter, since it becomes secondary to the approach. This is probably the penultimate entry on “Mme Swann at Home,” which is by a wide margin the richest section in the first two books. (The remaining section of Within a Budding Grove is thankfully much more linear and breezy.) It’s hardly self-contained, so it’s bizarre that it begins the second volume, but there you have it. The message that I take from it, above all else, is that everything–past, present, and future–is subject to revision over time. Of course, a thousand pages of showing that principle in action over everything and everyone Proust can think of has a far more profound effect than just saying it.
When I first heard Ursonate, I thought it was the tedious ramblings of a mental patient. The dadaist Schwitters is better known for his paintings, but his sound poetry has had a more esoteric influence. Ursonate in particular was one of the earliest works to treat pure spoken syllables as musical form. Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara were playing in similar areas, but Schwitters’ work has more of a pleasing, formally poetic structure. So said Schwitters:
You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose.
I heard it years later with more open ears, and felt the rhythm, but also felt the boredom. Over the course of about forty-five minutes, Schwitters’ stiff recitation of the score couldn’t sustain interest:
And that was that, until I recently heard Eberhard Blum’s version. Blum is mostly known as a flautist who worked with Morton Feldman and recorded some of his longer endurance tests. But his version of Ursonate is revelatory. There are three other versions here: Schwitters’ original, and links to Jaap Blonk’s rather bombastic recital (I prefer him on his own work, which is more pyrotechnical and more playful) and Christian Bok’s rather overexcited version, about which he says:
[My] “Ursonate” is what I imagine the poem by Kurt Schwitters might sound like if performed at high speed by F.T. Marinetti.
Blonk and Bok’s versions benefit from being delivered at roughly twice the speed of the original, but I didn’t make it through either of them in one sitting.
Blum’s version is different, though it’s also just as fast. His voice is far more sonorous, and he works very hard to bring in traditional musical qualities to the text; he comes closer to singing it than any of the others, and there are discernable notes and even melodies that get associated with specific phrases. This makes it all easier to take, but it also vindicates Schwitters’ original text: given enough of a dynamic vocalizing, sections stick in the memory more easily and Schwitters’ structure becomes more apparent. The irony is that Blum has to bring so much traditional musical baggage in to draw out these qualities.
Unfortunately, the Blum version is out of print, a casualty of the Hat label, but I can offer an excerpt from the third movement: Scherzo (2 mb). Reissue!