“Talk” is another book acquired some time ago but left initially unread, sitting in a stack on a table, even reshuffled, as if for a game of solitaire, or as if it needed to thaw or season before consuming, opened for a few bites but put back down for something else, but when picked up again finally found its taste delightful, finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. And nothing will do but I must talk about it. Did I pick “Talk” out of the free library book box down on the corner? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t really matter except that I’ve started these short short reviews here at The Toads I’m tagging “Lit Crit Shorts,” though they are not proper reviews, as was discussed off-line after my posting of an LCS of “The Ant.” By proper is meant the reviewer talks mainly about the book in hand, gives it a few stars, or fewer, to indicate degree to which it was liked or is being recommended: ***** or *** or *. Of course you can like something without it at all being good or good for you. In any case, I’m not interested in writing that kind of review. But neither are these so-called Lit Crit Shorts an original form. The New Yorker in a weekly feature publishes four “briefly noted” book reviews, single paragraphs, an art form in its own right. Clear and concise sentences too, unlike the ones you’ll likely stumble over here at The Toads, like miscreant directions in an unfamiliar part of town. Not that I can’t write a perfectly navigable sentence or a proper book review, one that will get a reader home safely. And there are templates for that sort of thing. Plates that match. And how do you cast something without a mold? Still, it’s the reflective, personal (as in personal essay) response to a reading I’m interested in, not a discussion of whether or not the thing holds true to a tradition or has lit out for some territory previously uncharted, though of course that’s important too and there’s no reason it can’t be included, in any form desired. Authors of course, their publishers and company, are interested in reviews that will cause their books to fly off shelves. Click here to order now! But if someone is not likely to read your book, why would they read a review of your book? And if they are going to read your book, why would they want to read a review of your book? Likewise, I won’t watch movie trailers, unless I’m not going to see the movie. And I’m not just talking about spoiler alert here. I love reading TNY “Briefly Noted” reviews, yet in some 50 years of reading The New Yorker, I’m not sure I’ve ever ran out and purchased a book as a result of seeing it “Briefly Noted.” I’m probably an exception here, but I’m not sure that readers of book reviews are the same readers as those of the books. I read book reviews for the book review, not for the book. And longer reviews demand, or should require, a degree of research the common writer is not likely qualified to conduct. And, yes, if there is such a thing as a common reader, why should there not also be someone called a common writer? We don’t all need or want to be specialists. The generalist can bring to a study a perspective the specialist is too close to envision. But the ease with which we are all able to opine these days calls for double checking of a speaker’s ethos, logos, and pathos – their means of persuasion, an ability to read into a speaker’s presuppositions, assumptions, and biases. And it does indeed appear, alas, the ability to check independently for reliability, credibility, authority – in short, to check sources – is startlingly uncommon. We don’t need to crave facts, or only facts, there’s no fun in just that; it’s good to able to deconstruct a statement to its constituent parts, to read the book in a bumper sticker. That is what mechanics do, and what readers ought to aspire to do. A prerequisite to talking about books is the ability to listen to a book, and it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time. You can follow that link, btw, to a New Yorker Page Turner book review from July 1, 2015, where the reviewer, Molly Fischer, finds the novel “Talk” “weirdly arduous.” It reminded her of Sartre’s play “No Exit,” where hell is described as “other people,” of which there are three, same as Rosenkrantz’s “Talk,” though Sartre included a valet. I also thought of “No Exit” while I was reading “Talk,” but I didn’t find reading “Talk” any more arduous than watching the TV sitcom “Friends,” which Stephen Koch suggests in his introduction to the 2015 copy might be a successor to “Talk.” I did think of tweets and today’s social media and the like, which Molly also tangents into, but only because of their notable absence from “Talk.” I liked “Talk” because it was written around and takes place in 1965, on the beach, with little to distract the characters but the distractions of their own making. They indeed come of age in an existential time and place, with the privilege of being able to make their own choices, and make them they do, with one another’s help through the knack (dare I say art) of talking and listening. And “Talk” is interesting for not only what is said but what the characters don’t talk about, or talk very little about. They no doubt would have very few followers on a social media platform like today’s Twitter. Their talk isn’t about nothing, in spite of its being existentially grounded. “Talk” reminded me also of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting on the beach, “Talk” might have been subtitled. “Talk” I recommend especially for readers who today might be around the age of 30, as well as for readers who may have been somewhere in their formative years in the mid 1960’s. “Talk” is a modern classic.
Reading James Woods’s review of Valtat’s “03” (New Yorker, September 6), when a comment pops up like the pea in the mattress he opens with, keeping us awake: “He [Camus] proposed four roles…: the conqueror, the seducer, the actor, and the writer. (One notes the convenient glamour of Camus’s chosen roles: not, say, the policeman, the bus conductor, the bureaucrat, and the shopkeeper).” But Wood’s comment might say more about Woods than about Camus, for Woods can’t seem to imagine a hero who is a plumber, a gardener, a clerk, a waitress. Besides, it’s not entirely accurate, as we find if we take a look at Camus’s actual heroes. But in context, Woods wants Camus to lead the way into Valtat’s four-types Camus imitation: “The exile, the rock musician, the eccentric, the suicide,” which, in turn, permits Woods to introduce his own, fifth role, that of the “…arrest[ed], of helpless delay, of simply coming to a stop while continuing to live,” the condition most adolescents find themselves consigned to once reaching adulthood.
It was some time ago, in an issue of Reed Magazine, we read with interest an article by a Reed English professor about what jobs an English major might aspire to. The breadth of the suggestions was anemic and seemed to reflect an academically enculturated world view: law school, teaching – that was about it, no mention of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet who (albeit trained as a lawyer) enjoyed a career as Claims V. P. with the Hartford; of Ted Kooser, US poet laureate who spent his adult working life at Lincoln Life, in Nebraska; of Kafka, who spent time employed by two European insurers.
Not that it matters, for the question in point is what bearing one’s occupation has on one’s role. When Sartre says that the existentialist’s existence precedes his essence, is he talking about finding a job? When Jesus said “follow me,” was he talking about joining a laborer’s union?
I’m not sure if Woods intends to dis Camus, adolescents, or both: “’03’ is indeed a moralist’s novel: I was often reminded of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ that great outburst so loved by adolescents,” as if adolescents can’t fully know what it means to live, to suffer, to read, to write, to have to decide who to follow, and what book to take along. Alas, the current generation of adolescents will certainly have plenty of time on their hands thinking about it, as they go about applying for jobs that don’t exist.
There is no place to hide in the existentialism of Sartre and Beauvoir, but one does not go there to hide, but to realize. Jesus was the first existentialist (as Kierkegaard showed), and the early Christians lived by choice, reborn in an existential rejection of a status quo existence, rejecting their birth rights (and wrongs), if they had any, their birth situation, for a choice that gave meaning to their lives. The early Christians chose choice; they chose freedom, and the choice was all encompassing.
Beauvoir is far more devastating than Sartre in criticizing roles, lifestyle as identity, faces prepared to meet faces. She obliterates the sub-man, the serious man, the nihilist, the adventurer, the passionate man.
Jazz is the music of the existentialist. The jazz musician takes up his instrument, develops a musical attitude. His tone reveals his attitude toward the piece, an attitude that must change with each playing. The music is constantly being reborn, the jazz musician improvising, every measure a rebirth, every performance one of doubt – otherwise, why play it yet again, yet again differently?
Where is the religion that might do for Christianity what jazz has done for music? “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity).