Book Group: Helen DeWitt's "The Last Samurai" - Discussion Thread

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Hello :-)

It's a four week schedule starting today with subsequent sections starting on consecutive Sundays.

The sections are as follows:

US Edition

week 1: 1-98
week 2: 99-189 [from chapter titled 'i. We never get off at Sloane Square for Nebraska fried chicken']
Week 3: 191-358 [from Donald richie quote, chapter starts '20 march 1993']
Week 4: 358-end [from "i decided not to apply to Oxford to read Classics at the age of 11"]

UK Edition

Week 1: 1-91
Week 2: 92-177
Week 3: 177-327
Week 4: 327- end

This seems a good schedule because we have some light weeks to start off with which will make it possible for anyone who wants to join in a little later to catch up with the rest of us.

Enjoy and start the discussion!

jed_, Sunday, 5 September 2010 14:08 (thirteen years ago) link

Are we discussing at the beginning if the week as though we've completed the section, or are we just assuming that we all will had completed the section by the beginning of the next week and discussing as we go?

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Sunday, 5 September 2010 16:18 (thirteen years ago) link

i think we just discuss as we read, i'm not sure actually. can't really work it out myself :/

jed_, Sunday, 5 September 2010 16:27 (thirteen years ago) link

Reckon post as you read is the best way. If you haven't read it, it might be worth avoiding the thread to avoid spoiler plot/theme/style developments, and then you can join in as and when you feel like it? (never done anything like this before, so just guessing how it might go here)

GamalielRatsey, Sunday, 5 September 2010 17:50 (thirteen years ago) link

sounds about right to me. i can't imagine there will be many spoilers in this really. not in the first two weeks anyway.

jed_, Sunday, 5 September 2010 18:44 (thirteen years ago) link

That must be the way to do it - the most enthusiastic readers will be pushing up against the reasonably leisurely timescale quite soon, and we need to let them start venting lest they race away without us and we get no discussion at all.

Ismael Klata, Sunday, 5 September 2010 18:45 (thirteen years ago) link

ok, so:


How Sibylla’s father met her mother, and how he went to a second-rate theological school (thus blowing his previous admission to Harvard) at his Methodist minister father’s behest to ‘give the other side a chance’.

Her father was an atheist and her mother was a pianist who wasn’t allowed to be a musician by her exacting Viennese father.

i —Let’s make bamboo spears! Let’s kill all the bandits!
—You can’t.
—That’s impossible.

[Summary of The Seven Samurai]

1 Do Samurai Speak Penguin Japanese?

The narrator, Sibylla, is writing the story of how she came to leave academia at the age of 23, take a data-entry job, and give birth to a son, L (Ludo, Ludoviticus), whose already evident genius seems to be her reason for writing for posterity.

While she re-types old magazine articles L learns words on flash cards, reads books while asking his mother to explain words he doesn’t know, and re-watches The Seven Samurai, which his mother hopes will supply him with a father figure, while he reads the subtitles. He is anxious to learn the syllabaries for Japanese and to learn Greek; his mother makes a deal with him to read a number of other books, including the Odyssey (in English), before she will start.

On a day in 1986 that Sibylla is nudged into going to a party as a favor to someone at her work (a publisher), she buys Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony and reads it rapturously, then talks everyone’s ear off at the party about it. Eventually the famous writer everyone had expected shows up, Liberace (no not the), and eventually Sibylla and Liberace make it back to his place and despite her contempt for him she eventually moves in on him and sleeps with him to shut him up. (She has never, as of the time of writing, told him about Ludo.)


Sibylla continues the story of her family: how her mother stood up to her grandfather and went to the Julliard to demand an audition, somewhat embarrassed herself but impressed the auditor enough to be given advice for how to practice until she was ready for a real audition, and then returned home to practice an annoying exercise for months until she eventually took up practicing in Sibylla’s father’s motel (the property he had bought under advice from the man he beat at pool in the prologue).

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 08:06 (thirteen years ago) link

i'm not sure what i think about sibylla. she's an extremely well-observed character—i feel like i've met plenty of people (in and around academia!) like her before, and now surely read blogs by sibyllas with that same kind of combination of fascination with intellectual minutiae; wild swings in interest and attention; contempt for others (check the charge of people making 'logical fallacies', always a slightly suspect sign); and conception of the purity of her love for what populates her intellectual world.

besides translation, the proper use and development of talent is obviously a theme. it's been a long time since i've seen 'the seven samurai', so apart from the bits on it in the story i don't know, but it does seem as if apart from the expressed purpose of giving L. some male role models (ha), there's some connection between the talents of the figures in the story (sibylla's father and mother, her, L, others) and the way the samurai act about fighting and their swordsmanship. it would seem that sibylla sort of fancies herself as more noble or purely devoted to… whatever, to language or translation or marvelous things, because she chose to leave oxford and not 'contribute to human knowledge'. but in terms of the story it's not clear what that means for her own talent. it might have been developed further or used to some benefit before she had L, but the story suggests that she was just doing office work and amusing herself in her spare time. after she has L, and scraping out a living as a freelance data-entrant (after being downsized out of the secretary's job at the publisher?), it seems unlikely that she's putting much into developing or using her talent, EXCEPT in raising her little genius. obviously a lot of that comes from him, but because of her family history with talented people's wasted talents, we might suspect that she sees this as her opportunity to make what she can of hers.

she seems like a little bit of a pseud.

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 08:24 (thirteen years ago) link

"after she has L, and scraping out a living as a freelance data-entrant (after being downsized out of the secretary's job at the publisher?"

i assumed this was a single-mother issue ... ?

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:04 (thirteen years ago) link

(also ludo is reading the odyssey in greek, surely? he's asking about words and copying them onto index cards. also reading bits of the bible in hebrew.)

i started this properly this morning and got to the end of the first chunk without really wanting to stop, but had to go to work and do some other things. it's pretty good! compulsive! better than the last three things i read!

but also it's kind of, i don't know ... if it manages to be any larger than it already is i'll be surprised. (action of the novel so far = a woman watches a movie with her kid)

how seriously do we take sibylla's notion about how language in books ought to work? i mean - is that the plan of the novel we're reading, or is that novel a gesture towards it, or is it a passing idea which merely demonstrates some similarity with the novel we happen to be reading?

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:08 (thirteen years ago) link

also i do not like the names - characters called sibyl and ludo make the part of my brain that knows what these words mean clam up defensively and refuse to actually deal with that sort of thing and whatever relevance it might hold

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:08 (thirteen years ago) link

just finished the prologue, some initial observations:

struck me as interesting the way the narrator's grandfather is referenced: - in fact the first sentence makes it quite explicit, right? "my father's father," not "my grandfather." and in the first few pages the agency of the grandfather is seemingly removed - 'something' speaks through him, 'the beautiful voice' - what is the point of the metonymy? is it meant to emphasize the influence the grandfather has over the father - that he sees his father as some kind of divinity, perhaps, until the grandfather's advice strands him at the theological college with no future. at that point in the narrative, he reverts back to being a grandfather.

also find the repetition of the first few pages interesting - almost like a retelling of the three little pigs - and the progression from head -> dean -> deputy dean. and the parallelism between the narrator's father's story and buddy's. also the irony that his biggest influence during theological school is a would-be rabbi from the synagogue.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Monday, 6 September 2010 15:44 (thirteen years ago) link

also, can't help but spitball at the significance of the seven samurai review inserted before the first chapter - number crunching & some slight stretching generates a tenuous link between those who have given up their dreams (buddy & his 2 sisters/1 brother) and those who haven't (the narrator's father, mother, and presumably herself) - similar to the three samurai left after the attack - and gives the title of the book more...foreshadowing power.

well, I suppose I should read more before I spout off through the ass. quick read so far, think the 140-ish page a week schedule is actually quite quite doable.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Monday, 6 September 2010 15:51 (thirteen years ago) link

i'll be starting the thread for smartasses who have already finished it by the end of the week, probably

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:57 (thirteen years ago) link

thom, i'm not sure about her job because i didn't notice any mention of the switch. her job with the publisher was as a secretary, but then she says they'd received word that they'd been acquired and everyone's jobs were safe, which they assumed meant most people would be let go. i assumed she was working for someone else now. but needing a different job because of L makes sense.

i sort of think that all the names are sibylla's doing, including hers and ludo's—look at how habitually she turns other people into translations of renowned people (liberace, lord leighton). so if they Mean Something they mean it mainly through the lens of her character.

i've guessed that to the extent that we're supposed to take her ideas about language seriously, she herself doesn't think they're all that choate, or that the book she's writing demonstrates the kind of thing she was imagining during the party. it seems as if maybe she could think ludo is the one who will be able to write a book fulfilling her vision.

according to the plan ludo must have been reading the odyssey in translation but he gets done with his assignment so fast, or else he breaks down sibylla's resistance to teaching him any greek before he's actually at that point, that it seems like soon he must be reading it in greek.

(speaking of which, the only greek i have comes from reading epictetus with a teacher a couple summers ago. but since i learned 'and' = 'kai', i could make out its appearance in the numeric prefixes when ludo was running through the '-syllabic' sequence, that was pretty cool.)

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 17:31 (thirteen years ago) link

dayo, doesn't sibylla's mother sort of trail off from practicing? or would you count her opposition to her father as the main thing?

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 17:33 (thirteen years ago) link

ah damn I didn't look at ILX again after ledge worked out his reading at 120 pgs a week. And this i what i have read today. But I'll read up to 198pp on Sunday.

A few bits and bobs:

- I thought her job was data entry because its about 7 quid an hour right? Secretaries get a much better rate. lol.

- Terrific posts so far: the development of talent as a theme is very well put. V striking how the narrator talks of Mozart's sister who got the exact same education but got nowhere with her music as 'proof' that women were no good at it. The scenes of L reading/learning on public transport remind me of a time when I was observing a father, on a Sunday, reading to his child about human biology, but the child was getting quite upset and not in the mood and making a scene on the train. V bizarre thing I would forget until a time like this!

- But in terms of using Seven Samurai as nurturing device I thought it was not only about providing a male model but also a model of how a group interact and work together on a goal, of providing a model of wider social interaction. L does not seem to have friends, and spends all his time with mother. (what his age? Love this...thought it quite er, Proustian how I couldn't work out whether he was 3 or 6 or a nearly fully formed adult until he would dialogue and it would be all choppy bits of 'I read THIS (a), then THIS (b), then THIS (c), etc. and again the scenes of the child and mother reading, talking, arguing all went back to The Way by Swann's)

- Great bits of high/low cult: Liberace (no not the...yeah right!) and Schoenberg inhabiting the same world (she thought of Schoenberg as a genius, but she slept with Liberace!).

- The audition scene was wonderful.

- A couple more things but as those might be 20 pages ahead I'll stop and start again next week.

- to the add to the way its written: the shifts from normal punctuation to no punctuation. Must go back for a 2nd look.

xyzzzz__, Monday, 6 September 2010 18:39 (thirteen years ago) link

Not sure if Sibylla gets into this yet, but so far as I can tell this

model of how a group interact and work together on a goal

is a big part of it. Part of the concern about a lack of strong role models for Sibylla is that without a rigid code of honour or structure for L's intellect to be contained by or guided by, he could end up an amoral genius - there's a bit about throwing people out of planes in Argentina or something? Need to find time to scan over this section again. The importance of moral and aesthetic distinction is big for Sibylla, and how meaning is ascribed to actions. (There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation.) (And also, the importance of social niceties, re: how she ends up sleeping with Liberace.)

Beauty for its own sake, genius for its own sake, etc. etc. is embarrassing or gauche or whatever - "his fault was not a lack of skill: it is the faultlessness of his skill which makes the paintings embarrassing to watch). Ugh rain on my computer, more thoughts later.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 18:51 (thirteen years ago) link

Starting the section properly from the beginning. This is more interesting than constitutional law anyhow.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 18:54 (thirteen years ago) link

Also, keep an eye on that hypothetical game that Sibylla's father plays - the idea of chance and fate and whether your options are ever truly closed is something that weighs on Sibylla heavily over the course of the novel.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 18:59 (thirteen years ago) link

I feel strangely inarticulate about a book I've spent so much time thinking about.

If I had not read Roemer, not dropped out, never have met Liberace, and the world would be short a -

This plays out the way her father's hotel scheme does. Ludo in some senses is the redemptive opportunity for S's supposedly squandered brilliance. Tied in some ways to her desire to (if unable to fulfill her genius due to the institutionalized structures of knowledge creation) midwife brilliance..."Rilke was the secretary of Rodin", etc.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:08 (thirteen years ago) link

xyzzzz, i don't know if you caught this, but when sibylla's talking about mozart's sister she's mentioning someone's theory, which she shoots down in a way that parallels her take on the homer scholar.

the form of the prose is interesting, when it's part of sibylla's story in the process of its being written out, it seems writerly, but then when it's broken apart by her conversations with ludo, everything seems as if it's all on the same plane and we're just switching back and forth between fixed contexts. particularly in the way the writing is suspended mid-sentence and then resumed. it seems there's something very phenomenologically apt about that—fits the way book people interact with books-and-the-world.

a bit of the no-punctuation seems to my eye to be a very british suppression of commas during short lists, but it's amplified by a bit of roughness in the contours of the sentences when sibylla is at her most imaginative / rapturous about some idea.

i would like to understand better what to make of the party scene and subsequent conception scene. i think it goes well beyond social niceties. sibylla finds it all too easy to just put up a front (far more than a front), given how highly she rates her own rationality and faults the stupidity of others. ('bandits' she can't kill?)

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 19:13 (thirteen years ago) link

Riding on the Circle Line is anoter fairly obvious metaphor, I suppose, but an apt one. Day follows day, and they go round and round, Iterations and repetition are key, perhaps. The Seven Samurai is watched again and again, S's mother plays Chopin's Revolutionary Étude for the 63rd time. Kambei and Katsushiro's repeated test with the stick and the door will crop up more than once.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:19 (thirteen years ago) link

Yeah, j, it is more than social niceties. That sort of ambivalence about "what is done" or "what is expected" vs "what is rational" or "what Sibylla believes" is something central o her outlook? I feel like the certainty of her aesthetic and moral beliefs make it easy to live in her headspace early in the book. It wasn't until the second time I read it that it struck me how flawed and damaged a character she is - I'm still not sure if she's presented to us as someone to admire or not.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:24 (thirteen years ago) link

Love love love the touch of her father putting the Origin of Species in every drawer of his motels.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:25 (thirteen years ago) link

sibylla herself exhibits some of the repetitiveness that we see much more clearly in ludo since he's an enthusiastic genius right at the stage of his learning where most of it is rote—like when she's describing beautiful languages and expresses her affection for them by listing out the grammatical cases, as if she were in a school exercise. we're not given much evidence of it in her back-story up to oxford, but that kind of formal assiduousness about the basic facts surely was a core part of her education (self-imposed or otherwise), which should mean that her abandonment of research at oxford was in serious tension with some of her most important convictions.

alex, one nice thing about the mother story is that her practice is shown after the audition to have been completely pointless or harmful—barely enough to get her foot in the door. and the teacher responds by giving her: a different and even less satisfying form of repetitive practice.

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 19:36 (thirteen years ago) link

Yes! And she keeps it up well into Sibylla's teenage years.

(Seriously I can't wait until we get to the back half of the book, because if y'all have already cottoned on to this stuff there are a HEAP of dysfunctional geniuses to dig your teeth into once we get there. The book is basically a perpetual search for someone not permanently crippled by their brain.)

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:41 (thirteen years ago) link

My favourite line in the book is "There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom." and this is also pretty central to Sibylla, imo. Her abandonment of research at Oxford is in part grounded in a disdain that she's expected to hew to pointless structures that limit her personal exploration.

Also, the "something looked through my grandfather's eyes" is a structure used on both sides of the family. "It's only fair to give the other side a chance" and ""Being an accountant, it's not the end of the world." are the same thing. Compromising oneself or taking the easy way out intellectually are pretty much the only cardinal sins in Sibylla's world. That "something" might be the same thing as the "Alien" that taunts Sibylla with her insecurities about motherhood. "It's only fair to give the other side a chance" it says - this time referring to Liberace and letting Ludo meet him, If L is a samurai, what is he being trained for? Is he being trained to meet Liberace? To make his way in the world?

(Also, her grandfather the engineering professor is another example of the tension between bureaucracy/institutions and true knowledge. Totally forgot about him. DeWitt actually wrote a piece for the Yale review of books that expounds her thoughts on this further -

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:56 (thirteen years ago) link

I read the 91 pages in one go - quite unusual for me, and I could've kept going so it definitely passes the readability test. Helped possibly by there being lots of skimmable/skippable passages - nothing on earth is going to get me interested in things greek I'm afraid.

The argentine throwing-people-from-helicopters bit really jarred with me, like it was half-a-sentence thrown in a propos of nothing, just to be provocative, and I was quite annoyed. Then it reappeared a page further on and I thought 'ah, there was a point after all', but of course it hasn't been touched on since and I can't remember what on earth I thought the point might have been. It doesn't strike me as a particularly rational episode, though at least it isn't the holocaust - I do hope the book isn't heading there.

Ismael Klata, Monday, 6 September 2010 21:45 (thirteen years ago) link

i haven't read the discussion yet but i'm not far from this week's end point. the fact that i'm annoyed by certain aspects of it but enjoying it very much overall bodes well for some interesting discussion. i don't think i've read anything like it before though - it's quite a unique book!

jed_, Monday, 6 September 2010 21:51 (thirteen years ago) link

Enjoying a lot, & I prob will end up racing ahead - want to finish before I go away next Tuesday - if you do start a 'smart-arse early finishers' thread, Thomp, I'll be in.

Not sure what I've got to add at this point. It's very good on what the world does to talent and capacity in its various forms - what massive potential becomes when circumstance steps in; horror of making choices in a world of fluid & unlimited possibility; complementary problem of that becoming amorphous dilettantism. That 'what is all this - the prodigy's education, Sibylla's own accumulation of languages - for?' question is the killer. (I Samuel is in there. He knew what to do - God told him.) Most general form - how do people end up what they and where they are?

S knocks the Julliard guy's exercises for her mother, in favour of 'thought' (is too much thought a problem here? (see JS Mill needing Wordsworth to open him up from child prodigy dryness iirc)). How admirable is her distaste for the hard boring work - the exercises, scholarly slog of reading German monographs etc?

In terms of style, manages the breaks and jumps of the Sibylla passages faultlessly, but am almost more impressed by the drive & momentum of the two family narratives - super readable.

portrait of velleity (woof), Monday, 6 September 2010 22:42 (thirteen years ago) link

i'm curious about sibylla's attitude toward diligence, so i thought i'd go through the books she mentions to see if they have any particular bearing on her character, or if they show some sort of pattern of omission. (that question comes up anyway because of how heterodox her reading is, and because of her character and the story and such, but i was struck by seeing mention of the philosopher michael dummett's book of collected essays, 'truth and other enigmas', and then just at the beginning of the next section we have yet to read, the philosopher alberto coffa's 'the semantic tradition from kant to carnap', a history covering much-neglected material that belongs to the prehistory of the analytic philosophy that runs from frege through russell and wittgenstein to carnap—neither of which is anything less than scrupulously diligent. there's also the interesting biographical bit connected with dummett, whose book frege: philosophy of language came with a preface apologizing for the delay in completing the book because dummett took time off to engage in anti-racist political activity.)

the first thing i went looking for was an electronic copy of sibylla's fateful aristarchs athetesen in der homerkritik. i couldn't find it but this contemporaneous review is hilarious in comparison with the way sibylla rejects what she barely makes out of the german. (i would like to see a later take on the same scholarly issue, because sibylla aside those things have their ways of being utterly reversed by diligent, sober, competent, reasonable etc. etc. decades later.)

what she says about roemer is pretty telling vis a vis the distribution of talent, anxieties and resentments over genius and such:

'Now it is patently, blatantly obvious that this is insane. If you are going to shuffle all the names around so that one person is always the genius, this means that you have decided not to believe your source whenever it says someone else said something good or the genius said something bad—but the source is your only reason for thinking the genius was a genius in the first place. Anyone who had stopped to think for two seconds would have seen the problem, but Roemer had managed to write an entire scholarly treatise without thinking for two seconds.'

one of her main beefs here: 'one person is always the genius'.

j., Tuesday, 7 September 2010 01:56 (thirteen years ago) link

some bits and pieces:

sidis the child prodigy.

lord leighton's greek girls playing at ball and syracusan bride.

ukiyo-e prints by utamaro.

the rosetta stone, which sibylla says she believes was 'originally a rather pompous thing to erect' that was nevertheless a gift to posterity (to which she happens to be writing her story). i had never read the inscription before. it sounds very… administrative.

j., Tuesday, 7 September 2010 02:28 (thirteen years ago) link

chopin's revolutionary etude - note questions of technique, worldly significance.

j., Tuesday, 7 September 2010 02:30 (thirteen years ago) link

Beauty for its own sake, genius for its own sake, etc. etc. is embarrassing or gauche or whatever - "his fault was not a lack of skill: it is the faultlessness of his skill which makes the paintings embarrassing to watch)

Don't see this so much as 'beauty for its own sake' as the dominance of technique - all surface, no feeling. Exquisite prose littered with logical fallacies. This could tie in with her mother's ultimately unsuccessful practicing regime, all technique (loose wrists!), no 'thought'. But that's getting into notions of creativity, which is not the direction the book seems to be going in.

Spotted a nice pun - 'ought implies cant' - although it's somewhat thrown away, dismissed as something that Liberace believes.

ledge, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 09:04 (thirteen years ago) link

Today I'm marvelling at how self-obsessed the narrator is. Except for the parents, who are basically proxy narrators in their sections, we get barely a description of what any character looks like or does, other than what they say and (occasionally) what their voices sound like. Roemer is as real to me as Ludo. The exceptions are the quite minor characters who act as agents of change - Buddy, the Juillard tutor, the pool-playing guy. Liberace to an extent, but I feel only because she can't avoid doing so as cause for her own reactions. It's a bit odd.

Ismael Klata, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 12:36 (thirteen years ago) link

Is that self-obsession? It's more like an unhealthy reliance on pure thought - she's thinking and arguing and picking holes in what people say - all verbal/cerebral. Is she not a bit disconnected from herself? Like surely you're meant to be a bit 'o rly' at her account of how and why she sleeps with Liberace.

portrait of velleity (woof), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 12:45 (thirteen years ago) link

That's probably a better way of putting it, yes. Ideally you'd want your kid to be a greater physical presence to you than a wailing voice who occasionally needs to be dumped upstairs.

Ismael Klata, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 12:49 (thirteen years ago) link

well he's more than a wailing voice, he's a questioning, information devouring, knowledge vampire, who might well leave little time/effort left for a proper mother/son relationship.

ledge, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 13:07 (thirteen years ago) link

"knowledge vampire"

is the best thing to come out of this thread so far.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 13:08 (thirteen years ago) link

just got to page 50 - so far I'm struck by how...quantitative the writing has been. it picks up on S's father's calculation of odds and runs with it - right, breaking down everything into accountable numbers and categories - from the description of the japanese language, to teaching L how to calculate sums, to the very precise portioning of her day - all of it is very calculative.

I feel that there's a subtle critique of the Age of Enlightenment and all that it brought - blind adherence to Reason, already sent up in the description of the German book that S reads at Oxford which makes her abandon her studies. perhaps she's saying that it's all a mask - rationality used to justify irrational human desires? that perhaps the pursuit of Reason is akin to picking a scab - something you can't help but do but you know will lead you to more pain in the future.

and of course I can't help but notice that L is getting a very, very classical education in learning Hebrew, Greek, reading the Odyssey.

and as touched upon upthread, the transmission of knowledge, how much of it springs a priori and how much of its helped along by the teacher - it does seem S has a lot of trouble keeping the reins on L, L is certainly outpacing her so far. a contrast to the relationship between S's father and grandfather, the dictums handed out...almost without reason...from a higher authority, backed only by the seniority of the source.

interesting to see how the samurai/Japanese part plays out - the obvious prediction is that the Eastern tradition will be set up as a counterpoint to the Western tradition of Enlightenment and Rationality, hope DeWitt will spin something more rational out of this.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 14:30 (thirteen years ago) link

err, the very last rational should be 'interesting'

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 14:31 (thirteen years ago) link

oh, and S's occupation - a typist who transcribes articles and such - immediately brings to mind flaubert's bouvard et pecuchet, the two most famous copy clerks in the history of literature. the transmission of knowledge - whether it is received calmly and without complaint or introspection, or received critically and with an untrusting eye - is obviously a big theme here.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 14:34 (thirteen years ago) link

Ok, I'm going to post my thoughts before reading the thread first, and then have a look through. I suppose the first thing to say is that it's very enjoyable. I'd read the first couple of chapters when I got and whizzed through them.

The first chapter reminded me a lot of Peter de Vries - the compressed humour describing an intelligent assimilation into the American middle-classes, plus of course the strong element that religion (and love) plays the process. The epigrammatic wit is also similar - 'a clever man so rarely needs to think'.

One of the things, I think, makes the structural games of the following chapters so enjoyable is that they're predicated not on aesthetic whim (not that there's anything wrong with that) but on the distractions of a child, the necessity for work, the boringness of work, all things that are kin to all of us I'd imagine (well, not necessarily the child bit - but boredom, distractions, necessity etc).

Her voice has that catholic approach to knowledge which I associate with some American writers, Douglas Hofstadter in Godel, Escher, Bach for intance. The high and the low is inseperable.

The general tone is also totally unpompous, which makes it an utter pleasure to read. Elements like fate and chance, which are often dealt with maundering seriousness are dealt with deftly and playfully. And, hey, I learnt stuff too. Great.

Ok, now I'm going to read through the thread, see what's what.

GamalielRatsey, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 08:09 (thirteen years ago) link

the compressed humour describing an intelligent assimilation into the American middle-classes

This in itself was too compressed. What I meant to say was perhaps 'compressed humour describing a relucant, but nevertheless articulate assimilation into the... not middle I don't think... clerical? business classes?

I felt the seduction scene was deliberately arch, and it's amusing the way she's 'bored' into sleeping with him.

GamalielRatsey, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 08:46 (thirteen years ago) link

when she's describing beautiful languages and expresses her affection for them by listing out the grammatical cases

yo ppl do this

this is proving a great book to pester my girlfriend about.

'what is this word' 'ganglion' 'how does gamma alpha gamma gamma make gang' 'two gammas together make an ng' 'oh'

'what even is a ganglion in greek anyway' 'go away'


an utter pleasure to read

i totally concur with this, i am going to get into work late because i decided to find time to finish part two today. i am enjoying this more than any of the other ten books i am currently reading and it is not even close.


does anyone want to hazard a guess who liberace and lord leighton are figures for?

thomp, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 10:13 (thirteen years ago) link

i'm curious about sibylla's attitude toward diligence, so i thought i'd go through the books she mentions to see if they have any particular bearing on her character, or if they show some sort of pattern of omission. (...)

doesn't she also mention reading and rereading leave it to psmith?

thomp, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 10:15 (thirteen years ago) link

Yeah, got the impression that was her comfort book. (again, one of the iterations - says she reads it something like 23 times, like the Revolutionary Etude and the Chopin's Prelude 23.)

GamalielRatsey, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 10:37 (thirteen years ago) link

when she's describing beautiful languages and expresses her affection for them by listing out the grammatical cases

yo ppl do this

i'm well aware! just saying, it marks her as a certain kind of person. (also, she's a linguist/classicist.)

re comfort books, notice that she also derives comfort from gesenius' hebrew grammar. to the point, apparently, that it helps stave off suicidal thoughts (better than anything you could get from a 'help line'). i'm not sure how to take the detail she focuses on—'excepting the phoenician' or somewhat. gives the impression of a kind of aestheticized attitude toward the things rather than the scholarly/scientific one it seems to aim at.

j., Wednesday, 8 September 2010 15:03 (thirteen years ago) link

Is "Penguin English" a real term? Did the character mean "pidgin"?

Mosquepanik at Ground Zero (abanana), Wednesday, 8 September 2010 17:57 (thirteen years ago) link

had maybe 1 or 2 stylistic misgivings over the first ~70 pages but they all resolve with extreme suddenness and the rest of the book is nothing short of gripping

imago, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 23:17 (five years ago) link

silby otm

one of the great things about this book is that it makes "genius" a completely unintimidating inconvenient mundane thing like everything else in life

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:13 (five years ago) link

This is a bit of a basic bitch question about this book, BUT, I loved the introduction (10 pages or so) then immediately struggled with the first chapter and the new narrator, and gave up. Does it stay that full-on for the whole book?

― Chuck_Tatum, Tuesday, December 18, 2018 3:34 PM (four hours ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

sibylla's narrating the prologue, so i don't understand your question

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:14 (five years ago) link

nearly every other chapter is a dramatic shift in tone/style but it never returns to the style of the prologue

― flopson, Tuesday, December 18, 2018 3:57 PM (four hours ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

i also disagree with this, sibylla's whole thing with liberace is as much of a yarn as the prologue

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:15 (five years ago) link

agree to disagree. i got like, mythical vibes from the prologue

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:26 (five years ago) link

don't know what a yarn means, but there are many parts of the book i would describe as 'yarns' yet not similar

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:27 (five years ago) link

i guess i don’t get it when the vibe of the prologue continues in the first chapter when sybilla picks up the thread with her father and her mother, it’s basically the same style

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:42 (five years ago) link

i am really good at spelling sibylla wrong on the first try every time

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:43 (five years ago) link

i don’t necessarily even know what i mean but a yarn but i guess i mean when whenever this novel really slides into a mostly unbroken story. yamamoto part has that fuckin incredible power too

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:45 (five years ago) link

this just in: i unconsciously stole “yarn” from the time blurb on the back cover

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:46 (five years ago) link

maybe the thing is that with this book i feel like i am encountering a brain not a series of styles

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:54 (five years ago) link

haha i remember that from the back cover now you mention it!

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 04:08 (five years ago) link

i guess i don’t get it when the vibe of the prologue continues in the first chapter when sybilla picks up the thread with her father and her mother, it’s basically the same style

― jolene club remix (BradNelson), Tuesday, December 18, 2018 10:42 PM (forty-four minutes ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

oh i think i meant this whole part

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 04:27 (five years ago) link

Ah, the first chapter felt so different and more difficult to me tha the prologue, that I assumed they were different narrators.

But I’ve just rebought it so it’s now my Christmas holiday read.

Chuck_Tatum, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 10:19 (five years ago) link

ludo isn't like me anyway, he's like our dearly departed nakhchivan

imago, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 20:24 (five years ago) link

i'm in the 11yo ludo narration rn. been thinking about recommending this book to my mom bc she's a former teacher who was v frustrated with the educational system but also i think she'd just like ludo a lot ("here mom enjoy this 500 page experimental novel some of which is in japanese and greek")

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 14:58 (five years ago) link

also i cannot overstate how much of a blast this book is. it's so fun! i never want to stop reading it

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:08 (five years ago) link

also i studied japanese for five years (but: almost a decade ago at this point) and lol at how much it is *not* helping me with the japanese sections, mostly bc ludo and sibylla immediately attack it from the angle of kanji-memorization and grammar, which is the complete inverse of how it was taught to me

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:10 (five years ago) link

but i think that's part of the point (also it's not like the sections are hard or aren't ever thoroughly translated), what with sibylla trying to develop this linear approach to mastery and ludo skipping straight to learning the characters for "turtle" and "gloom"

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:19 (five years ago) link

Blah, y'all are making me want to read this again.

I read it 6 or 7 years ago, but I'm not sure I got it. Or I didn't entirely pick up on the 'anti-elitist' aspect (Christian Lorentz in that Vulture canon piece):

Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it. She recognizes that she’s done something out of the ordinary by teaching the kid The Iliad so young, following the example of J.S. Mill, who did Greek at age 3. She knows he’s a “Boy Wonder” and she encourages him in every way to follow his omnivorous instincts. But she also believes that the problem with everybody else — literally everybody else — is that they haven’t been properly taught and have gone out of their way, most of the time, to avoid difficult things, like thinking. Otherwise we’d be living in a world of Ludos.

So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius. But the novel’s characters, especially Sibylla, are aware that youthful talent can be thwarted at any turn.

jmm, Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:21 (five years ago) link

while reading the book i felt its position on the education system and the ethics of raising a child in this way was somewhat ambiguous (the school Ludo attends is clearly not right for him, but Sibyll's interactions with the staff are also pretty erratic) but then in the epilogue HdW strongly advocates for reforming the education system to breed and nurture child prodigies. i felt that was a bit intrusive of her

flopson, Thursday, 20 December 2018 20:49 (five years ago) link

I never got the idea that Helen DeWitt was advocating any particular approach to childhood education. It felt to me she was purely playing with ideas to see what sort of characters might attempt them, and what sort of a story might evolve out of those characters and ideas. The whole book felt like an exercise in intense mental playfulness, made manifest by projecting it into a story.

A is for (Aimless), Thursday, 20 December 2018 21:04 (five years ago) link

i agree that that is true of the book itself. but in the epilogue there's a weird call-to-arms. my copy is in a box in my mom's basement so i can't check it out now

flopson, Thursday, 20 December 2018 21:22 (five years ago) link

the red devlin section really hurt my feelings

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, 29 December 2018 20:34 (five years ago) link

but then in the epilogue HdW strongly advocates for reforming the education system to breed and nurture child prodigies. i felt that was a bit intrusive of her

― flopson, Thursday, December 20, 2018 1:49 PM (one week ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

imo sibylla wrote the afterward and signed it “helen dewitt”

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, 29 December 2018 20:48 (five years ago) link

also the afterword isn’t really part of the text and is just curious about the possibilities of a world where kids were allowed to explore and master whatever interests them

i think there’s elitist/anti-elitist themes floating throughout the book but i find it weird that lorentz singled them out when attempting to summarize this book, bc it’s far more about... idk, roughly a thousand other things. art and intelligence and mastery and the profound isolation and suicidal gloom that lurks around them. devlin is written off early by sibylla as a shitty writer but he got so close to his subject, mastered his one skill so thoroughly that he was the only person who could do it, and then he could no longer bring himself to do it

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, 29 December 2018 21:42 (five years ago) link

imo sibylla wrote the afterward and signed it “helen dewitt”

― jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, December 29, 2018 3:48 PM (one hour ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink


flopson, Saturday, 29 December 2018 22:12 (five years ago) link

three years pass...

she has a new novella! titled "the english understand wool"

na (NA), Thursday, 11 August 2022 17:05 (one year ago) link

two weeks pass...

thanks for the link xyzzzz__. I've just finished The English Understand Wool, and I need to collect my thoughts on it. But I did laugh out loud in public once and finished with a massive grin on my face. There is a great suppleness + tension in her writing, which I think is unmatched elsewhere.

The only thing I would say is, for those who think they are going to read the novella (barely even that tbh) - don't read that review. Any sort of clumsy-ish summary of the plot knackers the balance and structure in the story itself.

Fizzles, Friday, 26 August 2022 21:20 (one year ago) link

nothing against the review, which is fine and touches on a couple of points, perhaps slightly peripheral, of interest, but the book is so condensed to its own purpose that any description of what takes place is going to botch it.

Fizzles, Friday, 26 August 2022 21:21 (one year ago) link

the approach to reading this book involved a sort of delicacy. it's extremely short, barely a novella, and I didn't want to read it in a frame of mind that wasn't in some way tuned up to read it. Blink and you miss it. also, reading a new book by a writer that you like always produces a sense of wariness. *what if they fuck it up*.

I loved many of the stories in Some Trick but not all of them - though admittedly the ones I didn't like were the older ones, written at Oxford, which were just ok, and a couple of the music ones felt a bit 'off'.

There is tension in her writing akin to Jonathan Swift's, created by layers of meaning, of irony working at a fine level of detail. 'This is language on a hair trigger' as Geoffrey Hill said of another writer in one of his lectures. It's not quite that razor's edge at the level of language as such, but it is working somewhere there at a conceptual level. It doesn't matter as such - it's a technical observation - but the effect is very fine and enjoyable.

So I re-read Some Trick. I reread most of Against the Gods, by Peter Bernstein, about the history of risk and probability, and mentioned by DeWitt in one of the ST stories. I read a couple of the pieces in Erving Goffman's Interaction Ritual (a fascinating book!), also mentioned.

I was in Cádiz, which is a favourite city, not least because its cool, dark, narrow streets open periodically onto tree-shaded plazas, with fountains and ornate benches in dappled shade, perfect for reading.

it's v much in the same vein as the better stories in Some Trick. In fact it covers a number of the same obsessions. The nature of people who are able to achieve things... wrong word... do? *accomplish* things. The nature of the things that we might term *accomplishments*. What sets them apart. A specificity of terminology, of language, representing decisions about taste - knowing the difference between x and y and your preferences - and in The English Understand Wool of *terroir*, what it means to *understand* something, what 'social conjunctions' cause certain qualities to flourish. What it means for something to be innate.... or not. Can you fake that understanding? What would it mean to be fake. There is something indefatigable and

Also, what are the things the world can give us? What skills? What thoughts? Being specific about these things leads to the world looking quite fantastic and strange.

I suppose in one sense all of HDW's writing are fables about τέχνη/techne.

There is also an irony of snobbery at play, and some publisher/book industry irritation (what the article xyzzzz linked is getting at - HDW is clearly very exacting to work with, and in one light this book is all about justifying that, but i think it's quite a limited angle really).

It's a very sparse book. Some of the chapters are only a few lines long. So you sometimes wonder what HDW is playing at. What is this innocuous chapter doing? I don't know. I haven't really got to the bottom of it. Part of me wonders if after all this obsession is really ultimately rather slender?

It was good that I had read the Goffman, because the notions of 'face' and poise play a role. And HDW is usually generous with her reference points – ie she tells you what they are, though here it was chasing references via Some Trick. I wonder if The English Understand Wool was in fact an uncompleted short story, or superfluous to the 'trick' (as in whist or bridge

I'm reminded of something I realised when I was putting some thoughts down about High Rise by Ballard. I realised that although his ideas were very exciting and prophetic feeling, his models were quite conservative for the time he was writing: 19th century exploration novels, psychoanalysis of the jungian variety, anthropology of the Claude Levi-Strauss variety. But that didn't matter. It gave his stories a very basic set of dynamics which he could pursue to the utmost extent to generate something quite radical and exciting. People in his books operated according to the models he put in place. But he was still conservative.

i think HDW also uses theory, or non literary models to drive her writing - anthropology ofc, coding and statistics, art philosophy. There are people who understand the models (the savants, the accomplishers, the slightly lacking in affect or very odd) and try and operate via those models as a way of operating in and understanding the world, and there are those who do not know about the models. do not care. the humour comes out of the interaction between the two. it's clear that DeWitt's sympathies are with the former, but it's not entirely one way. That two way street is most obvious in Lightning Rods, but it's also here.

The other reason I like her. There was a thing doing the rounds on twitter, some business grad's idea of the 100 books you *must* read and ofc it was full of nn taleb, gladwell, thiel etc and of course a lot of book twitter was eye-rolling the hell out of it, and with some reason. that whole slate star codex/tyler cowen stuff is p nauseating, but HDW connects the methodologies, and the thinking of the modern age, and much of its insanity to the notion of *accomplishing* things (they may not be good things of course). This is another of her frictions and amusements. How do you *get* published, what trade offs do you end up making to be successful, how do you operate in the world?

So, I enjoyed it a lot and read it quickly, so then I read it again. And it was noticeable the way she manages the structure of the plot and emotional dramatic irony throughout - there's a lot of amusement to be had by reading it again, knowing what will take place.

i think there are only two lines that are possibly slightly off, one irrelevant (aisle seat on plane), one very important (pdf), but i'm assuming HDW must have encountered the latter, possibly even it was the prompt for the story.

It's *really* short. Don't read a review, read the book first then read the review.

Fizzles, Sunday, 28 August 2022 15:25 (one year ago) link

oh, couple of other things. it was a good book to read in Cádiz:

It was, in fact, better to have six weeks at one’s disposal. Maman liked to go to places where there are secret lives. Grenada, Venice, even, yes, Paris—places where one can, of course, walk the public streets, the walls are high, barred, occasionally one catches a glimpse of a garden, or an open window at night, high above the street, spills golden light from a room lined with ancient volumes. (This is undoubtedly why she chose a residence in Marrakech.) Six weeks offer the courtesy of time. One will not be thrust in by chance invitations from the fool of the family, an impulsive youngster whose social blunders leave everyone rolling their eyes. There is the possibility of invitations of value. It is of no importance if these do not come; what matters is the glimpse of the garden, only to be entered by the favorites of chance.

'places where there are secret lives' – yes (and with reason in the context).

As usual I didn't finish a sentence in the previous post:

I wonder if The English Understand Wool was in fact an uncompleted short story, or superfluous to the 'trick' (as in whist or bridge) in Some Trick, as it shares much with stories in that collection. And incidentially, bridge as a transactional and communication system is also an obsession which overlaps w the goffman obviously. what are our communication transactions, our plays? again how do the two 'sides' outlined above transact?

What happens to the underabsorbtion of feeling in these systems?

Fizzles, Sunday, 28 August 2022 15:48 (one year ago) link

Very appealing, intriguing takes, thanks! There are people who understand the models (the savants, the accomplishers, the slightly lacking in affect or very odd) and try and operate via those models as a way of operating in and understanding the world, reminded me of Pynchon writing (no idea if this is accurate) that Norbert Weiner's model of human cognition as basis for user-friendly/mirroring AI had turned out to be wrong, according to later neurological research---but meanwhile people using computers were adjusting themselves to this false/limited model: which might be the false/limited basis for his early stories about modern human attraction to reductive, though massive, mechanistic, inanimate patterning (ain't got no soul, going with his hipster Huguenot-descendant aversions). Stories which he's harsh on in the intro to Slow Learner, which collects a number of them, but he's also down on Lot 49, and it's easy to connect that to themes of V., and some of Gravity's Rainbow. Which (young and/or older TP's creative misprision in there somewhere? Let it roll if so, I say) goes w what you describe as DeWitt's irony and also her not taking sides between model-minded weirdos and others.

dow, Sunday, 28 August 2022 21:20 (one year ago) link

Also, what you say about Ballard reminds me of his 1978 conversation w Jon Savage, in Search and Destroy (also in an issue of RE:Search):

S&D:That's another thing very noticeable in High-Rise and Concrete Island that modern isolation -- because of all that, as in the case of the guy an the Concrete Island, you can actually be on the road trying to hitch a ride -- you might as well be light years away.

JGB: You can't stop here and you can't stop there -- well even if you wanted to if you’re driving along, say the Westway near Shepherd's Bush at 60 miles an hour, and you saw somebody bleeding by the roadside -- you try to stop, you'll be in a multi-car pile-up, you'd be dead, you'd be hit by about 15 or 20 cars. And of course you don't want to stop -- the whole system is engineered around the assumption that nobody is going to express any impulsive charity -- or do anything impulsive, for that matter! You no more can express some original impulse than somebody riding a rollercoaster who suddenly decided to got off -- once the rollercoaster begins you have to ride it through to the end. Many of these modern roads are beautifully landscaped, actually.

So, thinking also of Weiner's control systems, w loops and feedback: where the hell does this kind of design come from? Maybe Caro's Robert Moses bio gives some insight.

dow, Sunday, 28 August 2022 21:34 (one year ago) link

oops, meant to link:

dow, Sunday, 28 August 2022 21:35 (one year ago) link

Also, re models, patterning, loops, living by, makes me think of Didion's Where I Was From, about getting a headful of California Golden State mythos at an early age, what that does to people, including herself, very gradually coming to terms with it---

dow, Sunday, 28 August 2022 21:43 (one year ago) link

I think Fizzles is very on point re Ballard’s novels, though in his short fiction he really let his structural experiments go wild in a very un 19th century way.

Tsar Bombadil (James Morrison), Sunday, 28 August 2022 23:50 (one year ago) link

i need to process those posts, dow, i think there's a lot in what you say (i'm sort of circling around how ontologies of metadata in media interact with emotional states and recommendations in a limiting or creatively deterministic way at the moment), but i'm not sure it's exactly an HDW concern as such, or rather it's much more ludic with HDW. systems as a quite humanistic, serious and ethical *game*. i don't feel i'm being v clear in my own head about all this tbh.

aiui the great west road and the westway were both modelled on Moses' parkways. i feel that statistics and probability is the base of any common interests in systematisation. Seeing Like a State is an obvious place to look.

Agree w JM on the short fiction. Which reminds me of something i meant to post a while ago: A while ago, I read two short stories, The Vats by Walter de la Mare in 1917, and JG Ballard's *The Waiting Grounds* (1959). There are have numerous similarities, and a comparison seemed valid, so i wrote quotes, parallels and differences down either side of a line i drew in a notepad. I seem to have mislaid the notepad in an ill-advised tidying-up session, but i circle back to it periodically, as it's not a comparison i've seen made anywhere else.

They are both about Time: Time on a vast, theistic or metaphysical scale. They are also both about how that version of Time may be specifically accessible in a particular type of landscape, via inhuman constructions.

We came at once to a standstill amid the far-flung stretches of the unknown plateau on which we had re-found ourselves, and with eyes fixed upon these astonishing objects, stood and stared. I have called them Vats. Vats they were not; but rather sunken Reservoirs; vast semi-spherical primeval Cisterns, of an area many times that of the bloated and swollen gasometers which float like huge flattened bubbles between earth and heaven under the sunlit clouds of the Thames. But no sunbeams dispread themselves here. They lay slumbering in a grave, crystal light, which lapped, deep as the Tuscarora Trough, above and around their prodigious stone plates, or slats, or slabs, or laminae; their steep slopes washed by the rarefied atmosphere of their site, and in hue of a hoary green.

anyway... this isn't the thread for it.

i am interested to hear ilxor's thoughts on The English Understand Wool - as you can tell from the above i'm really fumbling around it. it has all sorts of positive what I might call secondary qualities or indicators. like the fact you can't really describe any aspect of the book without giving out an important element of the whole, far better in its own context than taken out of it and plonked here or in a review. which is why or partly why my thoughts above are deliberately so abstract. and while i'm still fumbling around, i don't want to *mess it up*. another good secondary indicator or quality: i find myself continually thinking about it, so i'm v much still in the *woolgathering* stage as it were.

Fizzles, Monday, 29 August 2022 13:04 (one year ago) link

i'm not sure it's exactly an HDW concern as such, or rather it's much more ludic with HDW. systems as a quite humanistic, serious and ethical *game*. i don't feel i'm being v clear in my own head about all this tbh.
It seems clear enough. I may not should let my own associations fly around like that. We should all worry less about spoilers, long as we don't grin the text to pieces, like some of Merve Emre's long-ass New Yorker essays (not that other mags don't do this, but that's mainly what I read)

dow, Monday, 29 August 2022 18:31 (one year ago) link

I raved about TEUW on twitter and Helen deWitt responded and I am somewhat starstruck.

Tsar Bombadil (James Morrison), Tuesday, 30 August 2022 00:24 (one year ago) link

Congratz! I never thought to look for her on Twitter---(oh that was meant to be *grind* the text to pieces)

dow, Tuesday, 30 August 2022 02:17 (one year ago) link

Are you a student who's passionate about translation? The OAT needs you! We are now accepting applications for various roles ahead of our second issue in the winter. Check out the link in our bio for more!

— Oxford Anthology of Translation (@oatanthology) August 28, 2022

dow, Tuesday, 30 August 2022 02:38 (one year ago) link

DeWitt retweeted that, characteristically enough.

dow, Tuesday, 30 August 2022 02:39 (one year ago) link

was re-reading the v amusing, geneous and insightful piece on pierre michon by wyatt mason in the nyrb, and a phrase at the end struck me cos it seemed so appropriate for The English Understand Wool:

the distilledness of his work, its compression and *the yields of exclusion*

tho as i write that down, i realise again, that it's not quite right – there's not a sense of exclusion, of the sort you might get in evelyn waugh or pg wodehouse dialogue, or indeed in michon. in TEUW it's more a sort of *exactness*.

Fizzles, Thursday, 1 September 2022 14:35 (one year ago) link

Behind the scenes on the narrator's wine choice in TEUW

Ha. No, my first choice was ludicrously wrong for a supposedly knowledgeable narrator, then had LONG email exchange w Lena Devos, France-based Russian translator of Some Trick, who was SO helpful re wine & meal

— Helen DeWitt (@helendewitt) August 30, 2022

Tsar Bombadil (James Morrison), Friday, 2 September 2022 00:52 (one year ago) link

Fizzles - about this WOOL book that you like: what is it about and why does it have this title?

the pinefox, Friday, 2 September 2022 14:10 (one year ago) link

three weeks pass...

i think i won't answer that, partly because it's so incredibly short, that you can answer both those questions after something less than an hour of reading, partly because it's so well put together that to add my summary information... i don't think there's enough words for my view to dilute into without affecting the effect!

nice interview in berlin here (nothing on The English Understand Wool though).

Fizzles, Wednesday, 28 September 2022 18:03 (one year ago) link

i'm not sure it's exactly an HDW concern as such, or rather it's much more ludic with HDW. systems as a quite humanistic, serious and ethical *game*.
Right, the sense of play (& Ludo the creation of Sybill/"Sybill" and their creator HDW): the serious comedy of this single parent (meeting up again with the woman she says saved her life, mentioning other people who have helped her in bad times, o and how she got to be a single parent) margin rider, individualist connected to her peculiar (but somewhat oblique-stroke familiar to me) family tradition and to the academy she's outside of, also a creative spirit, with life as her environmental art, and if there's "creative misprision" in some of that, also a tour de force re something good or powerfully developmental (life or lifelike) coming from what seems like a bad idea and/or is based on misunderstanding, getting the facts wrong (if for inst Pynchon is xpost right about Weiner getting human cognition wrong, and also he says in his intro to Slow Learner that he found out after writing a lot of his early fiction with entrophy as a central theme, that he'd misunderstood the original concept of entrophy---but he and Weiner ran with what they had, ready or not, here they come, likewise Sybilla and Ludo and others)/

dow, Thursday, 29 September 2022 01:18 (one year ago) link

one month passes...

i enjoyed the novella but the cover is incredibly hideous in design and also in feel (feels like some weird cheap kids book). the design is so ugly that maybe it's good. not sure.

na (NA), Friday, 11 November 2022 16:19 (one year ago) link

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