This weekend, David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times joined the chorus of people begging James Franco to “just stop.” Generally speaking, I couldn’t care less about Franco (he was awesome in Spring Breakers), although using Indiegogo in a pretty hypocritical fashion to raise money to film his own short stories is a bit of egotistical circle jerking that does make me cringe.
But back to David Ulin’s piece. His ire comes from the introduction that James “I’m Going to Do One of Everything” Franco wrote for Damion Searls’s recent retranslation of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which is available from Penguin Classics.
It makes total sense that Penguin would ask a James Franco to write an intro for this book—since everyone knows Franco, whereas 98% of people under the age of 25 have never heard of Hesse1, and anything to sell books.
What Ulin take umbrage towards is how self-indulgent and pointless this introduction is, a reaction that I can totally get on board with. (As can most people who favor quality over celebrity.)
His foreword, brief at less than three pages, highlights his discovery of the novel, as a 19-year-old UCLA dropout.
“Working at the North Campus eatery,” he writes, describing his own alienation, “I was serving the students who once had been my classmates.” He cannot explain to them why his decision to pursue acting over academics is so important, so elemental, but in the pages of Hesse’s novel, he feels understood.
To be fair, the situation Franco describes is one many readers will have experienced, that of finding one’s self in a book. It’s similar to the way I felt at the same age about On the Road, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Camus’s The Stranger (and, yes, even, Steppenwolf and Siddhartha), as if in their pages, my inner life had somehow been written into being.
Franco, however, never pierces those surfaces, never explains to us his love for Hesse’s novel and what it means. The closest he comes is to observe that “Demian became my Demian, a voice I could listen to and contemplate as I tried to find my way from childhood to adulthood and into the world of art.”
Yes, yes, I want to say, but give me some insight on your relationship with the book. At its best, after all, what Demian has to offer is an abiding sense of conflict, of a character caught in the middle, between what’s expected and something more undetermined and wild. This, though, is a conflict Franco doesn’t seem to recognize.
Part of the problem is that Franco insists on writing about himself rather than Hesse’s novel, which leaves him unable to see the book on broader terms. Yet whatever the reason, his pat and superficial foreword is little more than a distraction — the very thing, in other words, that Hesse and Demian argue against.
David’s totally on point with his critique, but just to give you an example of just how bad this intro is, check out this paragraph:
After a couple of months [working at the North Campus eatery] I started reading Demian. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but one day, without warning, I hung up my apron and walked out the back, never to return. I had planned to work that day, so once I’d taken my exit, I didn’t know where to go. With Demian folded in my pocket, I headed into Westwood, full of passion because of what I had done. On the edge of campus I ran into one of my former classmates, a girl I once had flirted with, sunning herself on the grass. I told her what had happened, but it didn’t seem to register. I felt as if I had taken another step away from a conformist life and another step toward artistic freedom, but, talking to her, I sounded to myself like an immature kid who had quit his job.
I’m not sure which bit is better: “I’m not sure if there was a connection” or “a girl I once had flirted with.”
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
So, I just actually read the Penguin Classics (“Because what you read matters.”) press release until right now. Here’s the header:
Featuring a Foreword and Cover Art by James Franco.
Cover art! See—one of everything! Oh, that Jimmy. Aside from the fact that both faces sort of look like Franco himself, the cover art isn’t bad.
The back side of the press release is killer though. There are bios for all the players: Hesse (who, mind you, won the Nobel Prize in 1946 and, for a time, was one of the most popular and respected writers in the world), Damion Searls, Ralph Freedman (professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton), and James Franco. There is exactly one photo on this back page . . . this one:
That’s right! Hermann Hesse! Oh, nevermind. Not sure if you can see in this pic, but Franco’s bio is also twice as long as Searls’s and about 18X Hesse’s.
Thank you, Penguin Random House Worldwide DominationCorp for making my morning with this shit. It’s hard to come slave away for literature that’s respected by a core group of readers’ readers when it’s so nice outside and no one is on campus. But the amount of true gut laughter I’ve experienced this morning reading Franco’s intro and this press release is so therapeutic. Totally mitigates the interior existential malaise at the fact that quality means to little to so many people these days. And that by criticizing the Franco Technique, I’m sure people will label me as an elitist, instead of someone who cares about literature and the value of thought. (Is there a difference though, really?)
I’ll end with the immortal words of
Riff Raff Alien, the best character Franco has ever played: “SPRING BREAK FOREVER, BITCHES!”
1 This is a verifiable fact.
I just received a copy of The Jokers last week, and as soon as I finish it I’m going to write my own appreciation of just how awesome Albert Cossery is. I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before this summer . . . His books are incredibly funny, smart, well-crafted—but more on that in a later post.
In the meantime, here’s David Ulin’s wonderful review of both Cossery books that came out this year: The Jokers (translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by NYRB) and A Splendid Conspiracy (translated by Alyson Waters, published by New Directions):
The Jokers is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is A Splendid Conspiracy, from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. The Jokers is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. . . . But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”
Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.
Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes.
Cossery’s definitely worth checking out . . . I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find both of these books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist for this year . . . (Again, I’m not on the judging committee, so this is pure speculation.)
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