Le seul mot juste

Late in his life, the French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) suffered debilitating financial difficulties, irrelevance with the critics, and a string of unsuccessful plays. Despite this, his art and his vision of it became ever more sophisticated. In letters to his lover, Louise Colet, Flaubert claimed there is “le seul mot juste,” or “the unique right word,” and repeatedly declared that there is no such thing as a synonym. In my thirties, as a young writer looking to Flaubert for what he had to teach, I disregarded this central idea. I chose vagueness, not understanding the importance of precision. Besides, I told myself, you can never control how a reader interprets your words anyway!

What a fool I was. I know now that when dealing with the ambiguities literature MUST deal with, an author has to be as precise and clear as they can be. Vagueness is not the same as ambiguity. And despite an author’s inability to control how a reader interprets their work, isn’t it advisable to be as concise as possible with one’s ideas to limit the flowering of false interpretations and impressions? Of course, sometimes vagueness comes into vogue, as evidenced by the successful career of Ernest Hemingway, who never deigned to describe a color in his life. For Hemingway and his dutiful readers, there is only one shade of blue, or of any color, no color has gradations. While I understand Hemingway’s point, his slavish devotion to his method is hidden beneath a veil of cartoon realism. Literature cannot fully represent human reality, yes; but should we accompany the rubbery boundaries of literature with language that just ‘makes do?’

There really is the right word for every situation. But keep in mind Flaubert himself did not use the word “perfect”. There is no “perfect” word. But there is the word that works better than any other.

Currently Watching

Currently watching – Taste of Cherry, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 1997. Born in 1940, Kiarostami was an Iranian filmmaker and pivotal member of the Iranian New Wave of the 60s and 70s, examining political and philosophical issues in poetic, allegorical films. Taste of Cherry is a bit of a cult movie, and tells the story of a man looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. It won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and I have read multiple essays gushing about the performance of the film’s star, Homayoun Ershadi, who apparently burns up the screen in this complex, enigmatic role.

Currently Reading

Currently reading – The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen, 2015. Born in 1970, Daoud is an Algerian writer and journalist. This book retells the story of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, but from the point of view of a brother of the unnamed murdered Arab.

Rachel Kushner and The Mars Room

The American writer Rachel Kushner was born in Eugene, Oregon in 1968. She was the daughter of two scientists, got a “job” sorting books at a Feminist book store when she was 5, and entered UC Berkeley as a Freshman at age 16. She got her MFA at Columbia. She is the author of three novels: Telex from Cuba (2008), an examination of pre-Revolution Cuba; The Flamethrowers (2013), a panoramic depiction of the 1970s New York art scene; and The Mars Room (2018), a fugue of a novel that paints a picture of the despairing lives trapped in down-and-out San Francisco and the California penitentiary system.

Like many contemporary writers, Kushner’s work is socially conscious. She is more morally ambiguous and frank about the complexities of social problems than many other writers, but, at the same time she is – obliquely – more furious, probably because she’s usually the most knowledgable person on the subject. She also walks the walk – Kushner advocates for incarcerated people, has taught classes in correctional facilities, and deeply researched America’s incarceration system, covertly touring prisons as a pretend correctional student. The Mars Room, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, was the result of Kushner’s research and advocacy. And while Kushner herself might have a clinical mind guarding her caring heart when it comes to her subject matter, the voices of her characters show no restraint – they are desperate, gone from cold survival in their outside lives to eternal, calculating minutes in prison.   

Kushner has repeatedly named Don Delillo as a major influence in her writing, but her style is much less starchy, and her characters leap off the page. While many contemporary writers depicting the present (or relative present ) tend to either crowd their fiction with disposable ephemera or place their stories in timeless settings that feel modern, Kushner however takes a slice of California between 2003 and 2008, and completely envelops it in an impervious amber of language. The Mars Room’s reality feels as interminable as its characters’ prison sentences, and its moral questions equally intractable.

Pedro Páramo

Pedro Páramo, a short novel written by Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, was published in Mexico by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1955. Years later, famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, progenitor of the Latin American Boom and Magical Realism, claimed that Pedro Páramo was one of the greatest texts written in any language. In a foreword to the 1980 edition of the novel, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez confessed that when he fell into creative paralysis after his first five books, it was his discovery of Pedro Páramo in 1961 that inspired him to write again and compose his masterpiece, A Hundred Years of Solitude. Rulfo’s work, Márquez declared, would endure like Sophocles. More than half a century after it was first published, Pedro Páramo has been translated into over 30 languages and has sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone. But what is Pedro Páramo? What is all the fuss about, and why has no one ever heard of this book?

Well. Pedro Páramo is a 139-page novel that only sold about 2,000 copies in its first four years, partly due to critics’ bafflement and venom upon its release. But people who did read it talked about it, and wrote about it, and shared it with their friends. Slowly, the slim text passed itself around the world. Juan Rulfo, the novel’s author, was born in Apulco, Mexico in 1917, to a family of wealthy landowners; but both of Rulfo’s parents died by the time he was ten, and his family’s fortunes were ruined in the Mexican Revolution. He bounced around the country between different schools but never attended university, only auditing classes; he worked to support himself, though he dreamed of school, and he moved from one menial job to another until he received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Institute, which allowed him to write his first book, a collection of realistic stories. Pedro Páramo was his follow-up novel.

The book begins with urgency – the narrator has promised his mother on her death bed that he would visit his estranged father. But the narrator soon warns the reader that his “head began to swim with dreams and my imagination took flight.” What then started as a quiet, pastoral journey soon begins to ooze with dread, despair, and ghastly visions. The characters the narrator meets on his journey are dead, ghosts, everyone is dead, and the town he has arrived in is haunted by souls forever reliving their sorrows, griefs, and disappointments in an eternal doldrums. Like most metaphysics, Rulfo’s characters’ afterlives are inspired by the routines and minutiae of their mortal lives, and these ghosts forget that they are dead, and sometimes forget they were ever alive.

I want to say one more thing about Pedro Páramo. While critical to the development of Latin American magical realism, the novel itself cannot be classified as magical realism. There is no mixture of whimsy and fancy into the concrete realities of life. There is no wonder and bittersweet magic. Pedro Páramo is instead a catalog of bloodless horrors, more Inferno than Ficciones or Like Water for Chocolate; and its brevity is the greatest terror of all – for Rulfo, the nothingness awaiting the living needs little explanation.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Art Blakey was a jazz drummer, composer and bandleader born in sooty Pittsburgh on October 11, 1919. His father was a Southern migrant who had come up to the labor-hungry and slightly less Jim Crow North with his extended family sometime after 1910. Historians are shaky on Blakey’s mother’s identity – there are conflicting accounts, but they all agree she died shortly after Blakey’s birth and that he was mostly raised by friends of the family. Somehow he managed to master the piano, and he was working as a professional musician and living as an adult as early as the seventh grade. He was talented and cunning; he made a good living playing music; and soon enough he was a real adult, and touring the country, complete with the requisite beating by a Southern cop that left Blakey with a steel plate in his head. But at some point in the 1930s, Blakey switched from the piano to the drums. Jazz myth holds he did so at gunpoint; but the this story has been questioned, including by Blakey himself when he was alive. After the war, Blakey fled to Africa between 1945-1947. When he came back, he started his own band.

The Jazz Messengers was conceived as a roundtable of jazz musicians, but soon became in incubator of young talent, some of which became as famous or more famous than Blakey himself – Keith Jarrett, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan… the list goes on. Blakey toured, recorded music, and dedicated himself to jazz. During the course of his life, he married four times, fathered ten children, briefly converted to Islam and changed his name, and he was also a heavy drug user and smoker. Arthur Blakey died of lung cancer on October 16th, 1990, five days shy of his seventy-first birthday. He left behind jazz recordings that will live on forever.

“Moanin’” is a good Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers album to start with. But I prefer “Just Coolin’”. Blakey really goes all in on the drums on that record.

The Bounties of Nature

The meme “Nature is Healing!” was inspired by the supposed “healing” or “return” of our ailing Mother Nature as a result of the decrease in human activity due to the pandemic. But, like many of you, I’m sure, I have witnessed signs that Spring has been more bountiful than usual this year. Here at Casa de Snee, we have been delighted by the booming population of baby rabbits, who step curiously across the backyard, chomp on flowers they’re not allowed to eat, and shoot like pinballs when my German Shepherd, Lottie, is let out. It’s a sign of beauty in an otherwise insane world. And yes, I’m sure some of these adorable bunnies will be consumed by coyotes (maybe their population is booming too?), but doesn’t something eat us all in the end?

Pictured here are some lovely cactus flowers which bloomed overnight. I think this is the fourth time these cacti have bloomed this year. I wish I could say they have an intoxicating aroma, but really they just faintly smell of cheap dish soap. I guess we’ll just have to settle for them being so damn beautiful.

I swear the Spring has been longer and cooler in Phoenix this year than in the previous eight I have experienced since I moved here in 2012. It has been wonderful. However, slowly but surely, the cool mornings are growing shorter, and the afternoons are growing hotter, and hotter. Summer is coming in the desert.

The Family Idiot

In the long history of literature, there have always been those writers who, usually in the waning years of their lives, undertake gargantuan, overly ambitious projects that they could never hope to finish. In the case of the French Existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, this project was The Family Idiot, a five volume, 3,000 page, psychoanalytic biographical “novel” documenting the life (in all its excruciating detail) of 19th century French master Gustave Flaubert. This endeavor took up ten years of Sartre’s life, was left unfinished at his death, and pretty much destroyed his eyesight. Why was he compelled to do this? Why is anyone?

While Madame Bovary is rightly considered one of the most important novels of all time, people forget that it also solved, in one, sure stroke, a huge crisis in literature. The modern, industrialized, capitalistic world, and its modern cascade of social class, had caged artists of the mid 19th century into a confused identity – romanticism was trivial in the new, polluted, scientific society, and literature was paralyzed into stagnancy. Flaubert’s novel of a provincial woman revealing the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of French bourgeois life, scandalized society so much that they put him on trial for indecency. And realism, as we know it, was born.

The climax of Sartre’s The Family Idiot comes at around page 2,000, when Flaubert, at the age of 25 in 1846, has a debilitating “fit,” which some scholars have attributed to epilepsy (Flaubert never had another one). Flaubert’s father, a doctor, declares his son is not healthy enough for the career in law he has been studying for, and must be taken care of by the family for the rest of his life. And Flaubert is free to create. Sartre argues that this “fit” was not a medical incident, but a “willful act,” to save Flaubert’s life and provide him the environment to write. A curious idea from Sartre, who once claimed there is no such thing as an individual.

Steve Reich

Born in 1936, Steve Reich is an American minimalist composer whose work has been heavily influenced by jazz and African rhythms, as well as a deep Jewish spirituality. Known for his fascination with counterpoint, “phasing” (where the composition slowly changes incrementally over time), and his preference for rhythm over melody, Reich made most of his innovations in the sixties and seventies when minimalism exploded across the classical music scene with the work of such greats as Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Steve Reich is my favorite composer of all time – there really is nothing else like his work, he is a complete original who cannot be imitated.

I discovered Steve Reich while listening to WNYC2, which then became Q2, an internet radio stream run by WNYC in New York. Q2 offered something I couldn’t find anywhere else, something I didn’t even know about before I discovered it – modern classical music, by living composers. Q2 eventually became part of WNYC’s New Sounds radio stream, and it doesn’t play as much modern classical anymore, but it’s still a pretty good stream. At its height though, it had great radio hosts, and interviews and soundbites from most of the notable modern composers of today.

Reich’s most famous work is probably “Music for 18 Musicians”, which I have on vinyl. Of course, most performances of this piece include more than 18 musicians, because the original version required many of the musicians to play multiple instruments. Somewhere between Balinese gamelan music and Western impressionism, “Music for 18 Musicians” is best described as a 57 minute “pulse”. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the piece’s uncompromising originality just cannot be underestimated.