Writing about Writing


My scheme to write weekly on my reading was almost thwarted. Nipped in the bud. You see, I didn’t read much this week but instead watched a ton of movies. I’ve been wanting to revisit a lot of Hitchcock, as Michael Wood’s amazing new book on him is out. And, well, one thing led to another, and I got to using all my spare time not looking at words but looking at the screen.

I’m not one to really impose a distinction between seeing and reading, and was thinking about writing on the films themselves here. But then I began looking at a related book, and so the issue became moot. And really, how couldn’t I have picked up, at some point, Francois Truffaut’s legendary 1966 book on Hitchcock, built up out of his 1962 interviews of the director?

The book has actually become the subject of a movie in its own right by Kent Jones coming out soon. As that will probably show — in its numerous interviews with famous directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, et. al. — the book has attained the status of a bible of filmmaking and become a repository of wisdom that, rightly understood, initiates one into the secrets of the great filmmaker and about film in general.

But, it should be said, this is not just because it contains the lengthiest reflections of most amazing director in film history on his own films. The book is so important because of the thoroughness of Truffaut’s attempt to make himself understand, to make the reader understand, and even to make Hitchcock himself understand — Hitchcock.

This effort extends from the introduction — which presents Hitchcock as the best example of the auteur filmmaker — to the innumerable stills throughout the book which isolate techniques and take apart entire scenes and sequences. Because Truffaut is so thorough, we get nearly all the major theories behind Hitchcock’s work, or as Hitchcock calls them, “generalizations:” the theory of the MacGuffin, understanding surprise vs. suspense, etc.

Along the way, too, we get happenstance profundities like this:

“To me one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.’ Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

That’s utterly brilliant, and brilliant in a way that Hitchcock is consistently throughout the book. It starts out with a pat consideration of the necessaries of a person’s job in a particular film. It’s perspectivised, in the way that Hitchcock always perspectivised things: Hitchcock naturally talks of the cardinal sins “for a script-writer,” and not one of the sins “of script-writing,” as he might well have done. The implication is that the fault is a fault for a person, and that as such, it is not only wrong in general, but it keeps him from his goal. It’s not a broad statement about what every script should be like: it doesn’t deal in absolutes that imply scripts can be dialogue-free.

And yet it then proceeds to something more general: dialogue should be just a sound. But even here Hitchcock is strangely concrete. The generalization carries its point not just because it is general, but because it is perverse: dialogue just happens to come out of the mouths of people, and it should be that way. There is a comprehension of the way things should be which, rather than critiquing the way all scripts are written, aims to get you to understand the way things could be nearly the opposite of the way you naturally look at them. It’s like when Hitchcock says that James Stewart in Vertigo is essentially a necrophiliac. You see immediately what he means, and how it appeared nearly the opposite of what we thought was normal. Hitchcock is confident about his own tastes even when they smack of perversity precisely because he knows they can show things are otherwise than they seem.

But getting Hitchcock to dispense such brilliance isn’t just due to Truffaut’s genius for interviewing. It is in many ways the result of the circumstance, which, like a true filmmaker, Truffaut works hard to exploit. There is, first, the fact that everything has to be translated from French to English, English to French, for the interview to even begin. This imposes a concreteness on everyone’s language: “generalizations” of any sort be only so general and have to take liberties that allow them to make sense in another language. At the same time, Hitchcock’s responses have to be direct, but can also become detailed in ways he couldn’t be elsewhere: he’s addressing a fellow-filmmaker, interested in the techniques, the money, things like that, just as much as any broad thematic questions, and the temptation for Hitchcock with someone like this across the table is to make the most of this.

And then just the nature of the interview format itself. Take this instance: in talking about the underwhelming Under Capricorn (1949), Hitchcock states how “infantile,” “juvenile,” and “stupid” he was for getting Ingrid Bergman for the thing (more for the reason that he wanted to run around arm and arm with her at premiers, rubbing the fact that he got the most popular actress in America in the noses of all the rest of the directors), and for not getting the right writer.

Hitchcock says that all this was some reason for the failures of the film:

For the director there should be no question on this one matter: whenever you feel yourself entering an area of doubt or vagueness, whether it be in respect to the writer, the subject matter, or whatever it is, you’ve got to run for cover. When you feel you’re at a loss, you must go for the tried and true!

But then Truffaut does not let it stand at that. He comes right back with: “What do you mean ‘to run for cover’ under ‘the tried and true?’”

And this pushback allows Hitchcock to get more specific, more creative, more direct, to say more of what he means, to expand: if you’re lost in a forest, he continues, you don’t just light out in the fastest direction, nor do you rely on blind intuition to help you out of the bind. You go right back to where you know you were, the path you got lost from, and find your way out:

I mean literally, that whenever there is confusion or doubt in your mind, the first thing to do is recover your bearings. Any guide or explorer will tell you that.

As much as filmmaking is about making something out of uncertainty, certainties — about what people like, about popular taste, about human nature and what it wants to see, about what you’ve done in the past that works — have their use too.

This may well be an instance of a Frenchman’s tedious need for logic and intellectual precision here. But, even more than that, it it issues simply from the fact of dialogue: the fact that any of Hitchcock’s statements is not the pronouncement of one person but issues from a need for another person to understand. The pushback it meets allows greater play with the concepts involved, to see even Hitchcock’s concrete words not as the final word on anything but as just another step in describing a long process.

All this makes the book more than just a key to Hitchcock or a sort of confession of all the professional tricks he employs: it becomes, the more you read it, a way to understand filmmaking as a process in dialogue with itself, as exploratory conversation. It makes you realize that even Hitchcock does what he does in order to try and be able to think with it and through it, add to what he is doing. That it is more than just a kind of formal invention or new artistic method applied to material, but a genuine mode of inquiry into things. That in doing what it does, it’s already asking questions, about art and also about life.

Hitchcock’s remark about how total plausibility just leads to documentary — something he comes back to continually while asserting that the essence of his films is suspense and not mere surprise — reflects this, and shows the other side of that point about what to do when you’re lost. Though you need certainties, you only really need them when you’re out breaking new ground. Otherwise you’re not really going anywhere.

Castellanos Moya, The Jinx, etc.

More news: my piece on Castellanos Moya is up at The Millions, and I tried out Medium for a post on the crazy finale of The Jinx.

Upcoming: a look at John Benditt’s new book The Boatmaker, and I’m beginning work on a review of the Joseph Mitchell biography.

Recent news

I have a new piece at the JHIBlog, the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, a great space for engaging as well as rigorous thought.  I hope to maybe contribute something there also in the future.

Coming up soon, I’ll have a review of Horacio Castellanos Moya at The Millions.  I think it’s the most fun I’ve had writing a review.

Then, I’m writing a piece on the new biography of Joseph Mitchell, Man in Profile, by Thomas Kunkel, which the New Yorker has been making so much hay about this last year.  I’m not sure where it will appear yet.

Then there are some pieces on Lionel Trilling, which I will post here, Edward Mendelson’s new book, and Jonathan Franzen’s recent remarks on morality.

And some writing on old films I’ve been watching and rewatching lately: Double Indemnity, Passage to Marsaille, The Long Goodbye.  I’ll be starting a little movie review section here, too: Citizenfour will be up next.

Also hopefully I’ll be getting some reviews of the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall out when it hits our shores in April.

Some books to get excited about in 2015

I’m stealing a great idea circulating about the interwebs (I saw it on The Millions) and am going to list some of the books to look forward to in the first part (mostly) of 2015.  Some of them I’ll be reviewing, but others are just going to make for great reading.

First, in just a few days, we’ll have the American publication of a novel already out elsewhere in the English speaking world, Amnesia, by Peter Carey.  Carey–the amazing Australian double Man Booker Prizer–has written a lively, rollicking political novel chronicling the farcical downfall of a prominent left-wing Australian journalist chock full of theories about American-Australia relations and strange CIA plots in the 1970s.  It’s prose is simply amazing, a pitch-perfect parody of media blowhard lingo, and dissects much that is wrong with a backwards-looking left as it tries to deal with the political scandal of a mysterious hacker–known to the protagonist–somehow freeing the populations of the US’s prison system in one massive internet attack.  I don’t think we’ll read anything this well-written the rest of the year.

In early February, the amazing cultural critic Morris Dickstein does what most amazing cultural critics do in the twilight of their careers: he comes out with a memoir.  It’s something like the culmination of a critic’s career: after all these years judging other people’s work, you get to talk a little about the person making those judgments, and the formative elements of that strange, powerful, insistence to be pleased and share your pleasures which we call one’s taste.  It looks as if Dickstein is following in the venerable tradition of New York critics who also feel impelled to document the social history that surrounded them, as the memoir looks outward and recalls a lot of childhood memories, as well as later thoughts on changing neighborhoods.  The book does this–along with profiling influences and teachers like Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren–rather than follow the more recent trend among younger critics in particular of talking directly about one’s intimate relationships with books and culture, characters and atmospheres of ideas.  Though I’m partial to this new writing–with some reservations, since some of it is much too sappy–this historical view will be refreshing to see here, since few people can synthesize cultural events and place them in perspective so smoothly, so unforcedly as Dickstein.  His writing always manages to be free from the chill determinist air of historicism, even as it always remains broad in scope.  To apply this rare ability to the events in his own life should make for great reading.

In March we have Horacio Castellanos Moya’s new book, The Dream of My Return, translated by Katherine Silver–New Directions’ amazingly productive translator, who is worthy more mention and more repute in her own right.  Castellanos Moya, of course, should be much more well known too, and not just by the sometime fans of Latin American literature.  His prickly, hesitant style brings out the silences and neuroticisms that emerge when living in the shadow of violence, the personal and individual struggles involved in living in a violent society, and this is something Americans can relate to just fine.  It may be more fun being mystified and awed and horrified and made paranoid by the grim carnival that is Roberto Bolaño’s picture of Latin American life, but Castellanos Moya keeps Latin American literature from becoming a kind of “Law and Order”-like, “ripped from the headlines” spectacle, by probing into more uncomfortable and awkward psychological dramas.  It also suggests continuities between these hesitations and hiccups and the tradition of politics of resistance in Latin America, perhaps the one political tradition with staying power in the Caribbean and Central America.

In April, we have the book which makes me most excited: Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile, the first biography of Joseph Mitchell.  Mitchell has always been recognized as a master journalist, his New Yorker profiles taken apart and analyzed by aspiring writers as perfect examples of the genre.  But now, as the new interest in nonfiction storms the literary world, his reputation as an artist seems to be growing.  Inspiring the New Journalism’s blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, but uninterested in too-often narcissistic narration used to do this work, Mitchell’s incredible and selfless devotion to his subjects suggests fresh possibilities in American writing, and now we get to know a bit more about the motives behind the work.  His strange forty year silence after his last profile was published in the sixties–a silence which so strangely resembles that of one of his subjects (the strange “Professor Seagull”  Joe Gould)–added a layer of mystery and complication to this artistic vision, and Kunkel’s explanation of it will be fascinating to hear.

Then, there’s Langdon Hammer’s biography of James Merrill.  Hammer is one of the best critics in the United States, sure of touch, impeccably informed.  Every sentence of this chronicle should contain some slight insight worth chewing over.  Merrill, precise, poignant, playful, brilliant at wringing changes on form, but also perplexing, containing multitudes–Merrill couldn’t have been a better subject for him.

Then, Toni Morrison has a small novel (just under 200 pages), called God Help the Child.  It tells the interweaving tale of Bride, Sweetness, and Rain, and sounds like it will be another baroque semisymbolic story like her earlier novels, less domestic than Home, more along the ragged, rough, untamed exposed lines of A Mercy.  But that’s just an initial impression, and as always we’ll be sure to savor the sentences and the thoughts of which the book will be made up.

In July, we have the American debut of Xiao Bai, the Chinese author of Game Point (a 2010 novel about gamblers and hustlers) and movie translator.  The novel is called Concession, and it portrays Shanghai in the 1930s with some vividness, as it narrates a story of crime and gangsters.  We’ll see whether it proves a little too literal, a little too documentary, to be truly a work of art, whether it relies on its seedy background for suspense or gives us some real plot.  What’s promising here is that the intrigue starts with a neat twist of just this sort: a man discovers one of the women in a photo he took has turned up dead.  Hopefully, the novel will have more incidents like this one, charged with meaning and with a self-consciousness about recreating the past which shows it isn’t just nostalgia porn.

Finally, in September, we have Jonathan Franzen with his unbearably-titled Purity.  You’ll have to read it, to do your cultural duty, and naturally you’ll also have to admire its prose, as well as respect its moral aspirations.  What is in truth so exciting about this book is not the book but the ferment already surrounding it. Franzen has only become more and more a crusader since his last big brick Freedom hit bookstores.  He seems more focused in his mission.  At the same time, that mission seems more and more doomed as the realities of his Aughts-era-angst about the fragmentation and political polarization of American culture fade further and further into irrelevancy.   I’m anticipating some backlash by a less moralistic, more vivacious, more scrappy younger generation of readers. It will be glorious fun to watch, another great event in this upcoming book season.

Writing the real

Tom McCarthy takes on the Reality Hunger in the latest London Review of Books and tries to show the real isn’t real.  The result–extremely rare for anything printed in the LRB–is disastrous:

Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real.

This is much worse than Adelle Waldman’s flimsy rebuttal of David Shields in The New Yorker last week.  Waldman was generous; here, McCarthy is just reactionary.  Reactionary, too, in the most classic sense: this says nothing new, nor means to say anything new.  All he does is repeat a line of thinking which now has become insufferably boring and incredibly out of touch–relevant, precisely, “half a century ago.”

What is that line of thinking?  Well, simply that fiction is everything, reality nothing.  McCarthy is utterly unwilling to imagine that the real might be more than a trauma, an event, a undermining of the yearning to be beyond convention–in other words, as anything more than more fiction.

We’ve heard this line over and over and over again.  But it has serious limitations, and it fails entirely to even try to grasp what the new creative non-fiction is doing.

For McCarthy, the real can only be revealed to be just what it was in fiction.  But what characterizes the new reality-fascination and creative-nonfiction movement is not a hostility to fiction but a belief that fiction shows reality is more real than it at first appeared.

If that makes fiction a branch of non-fiction, so be it.  If that seems to limit its role, too bad.  This limit is acceptable because it is still allows more freedom to move and create than the view McCarthy lays down.  It is acceptable because asserting fiction is the end all and be all of everything has become, through the endless repetition of Derridian and Foucauldian points like McCarthy’s, really a pronouncement about reality and how you should live it with fiction always in mind.

Moreover, the sense that we don’t do this already, the suspicion that everyone somehow innocently, ignorantly thinks everything is authentic, natural, non-fictional, and that this new creative work is just more of that–all this shows just how crudely moralistic this attitude has become.  No one is denying Perec looks at historical violence when he writes a whole book without the letter e; no one has ever thought that Flaubert is merely a documentarian.  The unwillingness to recognize this, and the hostility McCarthy directs against this straw-man, is disturbing.

It’s nothing more, really, than the anger of a petulant young English professor frustrated that his students won’t look at a book on its own terms.  What this professor fails to understand however, is that the answer to any situation where people fail to imagine the full extent of fictional possibilities is not to berate them with quotes from authorities like Nietzsche (who even Derrida said was not the “truth is a lie” metaphor-monger McCarthy makes him out to be) and Foucault (who didn’t tell us about “the constructedness of all social contexts,” as McCarthy puts it, so much as demonstrate the dynamics of power and oppression were not vertical but horizontal, circulated around everywhere).  It is simply to help them better understand the place of the fiction in their lives–something this creative non-fiction does.

Meanwhile, sanctifying fiction by way of these authorities so much makes it nearly empty as a category–turning it into something that merely disrupts the world, robs it of any ability to explore that world and others.  To say the real is trauma in fiction, merely, is to purify fiction of everything messy that lets it involve itself in the world.  It is just this sort of messiness that the new creative non-fiction seeks to explore.

To write about the real is precisely not to speculate on the words “real” or “realism.” It is not to speculate at all, but to create.  It is to see where untruth can take us, and what it can do for us, and the effort is worthy of a more generous consideration than the one in the LRB’s pages.

Annoying, Brilliant Kafka


Rivka Galchen has a great review of Reiner Stach’s massive biography of Kafka in the latest London Review of Books.  In it she deals with the weirdness many people encounter when they read more about this “unusually well-documented” figure.  Kafka often surprises you by sharing the same perspective of wonder at his own life.  It’s as if he wasn’t the person who actually lived it, actually is the person you are reading about, but is in fact also an observer of his life.  The result is very funny and very tragic at the same time.  Very Kafkaesque.

In many ways, Galchen says, this is because he is so very obsessed with his work:

One element of the comedy of Kafka’s biography is the way his life, at whatever moment, is dwarfed by his work. Whether or not the reasonably capable writer and insurance official living in Prague through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and into the 1920s resembles the Kafka of your imagination depends in part on how attentively you’ve followed each succession of corrective articles and introductions, but also on your ability to assimilate dissonant information, and on how substantial external life seems to you.

But also it is because the position of alienation from himself is, for all its bizarre nature, actually congenial to him.  It allows him, in particular, to be ruthless with himself, and express things that couldn’t be said if he were as committed (or resigned) to his own depressing life as, say, Melville’s Bartleby is:

If for many years, much of the reading public saw Kafka as a kind of cousin of Bartleby – if we were most swayed, say, by his never finishing his novels, or by his talk of ghosts and the unbearability of everything – it now seems hard not to see that although Kafka truly was a Bartleby-kin, he was at the same time just as much Bartleby’s well-intentioned, overwhelmed, frustrated boss. Kafka himself found Kafka difficult.

The stance outside himself allows himself to inquire into what the hell all this living business is about, to express frustrations with it that run deeper than the usual list of grievances we have about living.  This is especially so with his diaries and letters, which narrate his own activities often in the third person, where he says things like the following (which Galchen quotes):

He could have resigned himself to a prison. To end as a prisoner – that could be a life’s ambition. But it was a barred cage. Casually and imperiously, as if at home, the racket of the world streamed out and in through the bars, the prisoner was really free, he could take part in everything, nothing that went on outside escaped him, he could simply have left the cage, the bars were yards apart, he was not even imprisoned.

These sorts of thoughts would be, if entertained directly, too depressing for words.  Galchen quotes, too, a letter to Max Brod about “his enormous dread over a pretty insignificant decision about whether to take a trip to Georgental:”

He has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived. By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. The only essential thing for life is forgoing smugness, moving into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. One might argue that this is a matter of fate and is not given to anyone’s hand. But then why this sense of remorse; why does the remorse never stop? To become finer and more savoury? That, too. But why do such nights always end on this note: I could live and I do not live. The second major reason – perhaps it is all really one, I don’t seem to be able to sort them apart now – is the idea: “What I have toyed with is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other people’s and my death will be all the more terrible.”

As a reflection about Kafka himself–which can only be moved to talk about “my life,” to use the word “I” fictionally, in quotes–this is too much to take.  Galchen summarizes the only response it could generate: “Brod replies saying, basically, that he can’t take Kafka’s complaint too seriously.”  But knowing when to draw the line like this is also what made Brod Kafka’s most sympathetic reader: he understood that the speculations of this sort are not really about Kafka’s own despair, but are an inquiry into just how deeply absurd and depressing life can be.

This seems strange, that we would have to deny the reality of a speculation based on the sheer nature of its content.  But what Brod instinctively understood is that this content is also a natural result of the style of speculation: that to take such an alienated view of existence, to write from it, also issues in conclusions about living that can’t be lived.  They issue from life, like all writing does; but they have to be regarded as in some sense unreal, because no real person could actually utter them and still resign himself to living.  They are impossible reflections, and they hit home because in our despair they almost can be lived–and that desperate acts like suicide, for instance, seem to be motivated by them.

But in this content we in fact reach a limit of nonfiction, a limit that is reflected in the limitedness of our character: that we can’t actually live our own death, as the old Wittgensteinian saw goes, and that we can’t do this also, and even especially, when this death is understood in a wider sense, when we see it as life.  It would seem to be the opposite–seeing death in and as your life would seem to make life indeed a form of death.  And to admit one can’t live death would seem to deny the suffering that is in life.  But that thought revolves around the false equivalence of pain with death, refuses to admit that there is suffering out there which is worse than death, and fundamentally, just as a thought cannot be real: we can’t live our own death even when we see death everywhere, when our existence seems so dreary, never quite fully lived, that it almost approximates the condition of nonliving.  We can’t live our own death even when we regard ourselves as “dying our whole life long.”

This would seem to be a problem if you are a writer of nonfiction who concentrates upon, indeed is obsessed by, this view of living, and Brod’s action appears insensitive if you are interested in Kafka as this sort of writer merely.  But Brod knew the impossibility of living your death also shows the place of fiction in our lives.  It shows why, in fact, however much we may be committed to nonfiction, fiction can’t go away.  The unreal needs, in some sense, to be lived, and fiction is the way to live it.

What made Brod reject entertaining the thoughts of Kafka here, then, is what also made him so assiduously devote himself to the publication and promotion of his friend’s work, as Galchen points out.  It is because he needed to live this impossibility so much in his nonfictional writing that Kafka’s fiction is so very good.   Brod had known deeply how, in his life, as Galchen puts it, “Kafka’s singular brilliance and annoyingness are perfectly bound.”