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.
According to Rachel Deahl at PW Sam Zell (and presumably the rest of the Tribune Co. employees with their insane capitalization) has finally had his way with the standalone L.A. Times Book Review section and is folding it into the Calendar Section. (Man, that seems like an insult—couldn’t they at least fold the Calendar into the Books Section?) Even worse is the fact that they’re laying off two dedicated book review editors.
Of course, the Tribune Co. is still “committed” to books (and winning the World Series one century after the perennial “wait till next year” campaign began . . . good luck with that one, Cubbies!):
Nancy Sullivan, executive director of corporate communications at the paper, would not comment on any staff cuts or the future of the standalone book review section. Noting that more definitive news would be issued next week, she said that “the Times remains committed to book review coverage. What form that takes is what’s under evaluation.” But Wasserman said that the book review staff has been cut from five to three, and book review coverage will be placed in the Calendar section of the paper where it will share space with features.
Wasserman—along with three other past L.A. Times book review editors—released a statement about this situation:
The dismantling of the Sunday Book Review section and the migration of a few surviving reviews to the Sunday Calendar section represents a historic retreat from the large ambitions which accompanied the birth of the section. [. . .]
Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review, a philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of the city and the region, will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.
We urge readers and writers alike to join with us as we protest this sad and backward step.
This is really depressing . . . I’m afraid to google the actual answer, but I think that means that there’s only 2 or 3 remaining standalone book sections in the U.S.
There’s a great fiction chronicle Sunday’s New York Times Book Review by Alison McCulloch. A few international writers are featured, including two of my favorites: Jean Echenoz and Robert Walser.
Ravel by Jean Echenoz has been getting some decent praise, and Ms. McCulloch calls it a “beautifully musical little novel.”
The Assistant by Robert Walser has already gotten some play here at Three Percent, and it’s great to see it get some deserved attention in the Times.
Benjamin Weissman reviewed the Walser for the L.A. Times this past weekend, and has this to say:
The Assistant has, at times, the rambling feel of a journal. Perhaps it could have benefited from a rigorous edit, but Walser fans will appreciate the loose approach. Not since Laurence Sterne has the digression been taken on such lovely excursions, in the form of a mental walkabout that occurs in nearly every scene.
Which makes me even more interested in reading this.
One of the most consistently interesting weekly roundups is Susan Salter Reynolds’s “Discoveries” column at the L.A. Times. She’s one of the few reviewers who does an excellent job covering translations from independent presses, usually covering titles that no one else is writing about.
This week’s column is no exception, featuring three books about life in Iraq, both pre- and post-Hussein.
Two of the books she writes about—Outcast by Shimon Ballas and I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon—are from City Lights, and the third—The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra—is from Nan Talese.
All three sound interesting, and taken together, cover a range of emotional responses and political situations.
In Outcast a Jewish scholar who has converted to Islam is appalled to see his works perverted into attacks against Jews.
The Sirens of Baghdad is the story of a student whose life is wrecked during the American invasion, leading him to join a radical group planning a mission that is “a thousand times more awesome than the attacks of September 11.”
A student detained for making fun of Hussein is the protagonist of I’jaam. In jail he writes a sarcastic history of life under Saddam, omitting all diacritical dots, and thereby altering his text and hiding his contempt. (I wish I knew more about the Arabic language . . . )
It’s great to see that Arabic books about Iraq are making their way into English, although it sort of supports by quasi-serious hypothesis that readers are most interested in books from the countries America bombs.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .