Arnon Grunberg—author of a number of books, including Tirza, which is one of my favorite Open Letter titles from 2013—has a really fantastic essay about a trip to Thessaloniki in the new issue of The Believer.
You need to read the whole long thing, but here’s a bit to entice you:
Until recently, wars had a venue. They had a front. Wars had a beginning, and often came to a clear end. Then the war against terrorism came along. This war was everywhere and nowhere; it could pop up anyplace. And although the war was more manifest in some places than others—Afghanistan and Iraq, for example—it remained elusive. Then the financial crisis hit, and proved every bit as elusive as the “real” wars at the start of the twenty-first century. The crisis, too, was everywhere and nowhere, but it did have a single nation at its epicenter: Greece.
Not at Lehman Brothers, which collapsed in 2008, and not on Wall Street; Greece was where the fire broke out. One heard the word contamination again and again, but this time it was no imperial cultural contamination, no creeping process of civilization. This time the crisis was a contagion: debts and obligations that would never be repaid, a gradual deterioration of the financial immune system.
And so, in the darkest days of winter, I decided to set off for Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. Cities like that are often at least as interesting as the capital, and if God is in the details, then the truth is going to be revealed at the periphery. In conversations with people working in various capacities to regenerate Greek social and economic life, I would try to assess the collateral damage from this newest international conflagration. But I also went to Thessaloniki to meet its mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, who had recently rocketed to international stardom. In newspaper articles he was portrayed as a “good Greek,” a man who wanted to combat corruption, who did not compare Angela Merkel to Hitler, who did not blame everything on capitalism, and who had no desire to defend in veiled terms the country’s nepotism and status quo. In those articles one detected an unmistakable relief at the fact that a good Greek had been found.
I would spend Christmas in Thessaloniki—the light in the darkened world of the crisis.
Check out the whole thing, and then buy Tirza. We could really use the sales. Oh, and if you’re reading this and have $80,000 you’d like to donate to the World’s Coolest Publishing House, please call me. Please.
The MLA conference starts today in Seattle, and I’ll be there all weekend manning the booth that Open Letter is sharing with Archipelago and Counterpath. If you happen to be attending, stop on by. I’ll have copies of a bunch of our books AND the brand-new uber-cool Spring/Summer 2012 catalog, which you have to see to believe. All that could fall under the “2012 IS FOR SUPERLATIVES” header, but seriously, Nate outdid himself with this catalog cover . . .
(Sidebar: I’ll be at the booth most all of the time, except when I’m attending The Material History of Spider-Man, which could well be the coolest MLA panel ever. And one that I might “dress up” for.)
Anyway, as I’ve done every year since Three Percent started, it’s time for our annual reposting of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 2004 article about attending the MLA. I know this is Gideon’s juvenilia (his first book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, comes out from Riverhead next May), but it’s just too damn choice to pass up. (And still remarkably on point.)
It makes sense, then, that the last really big event of the conference—#585, “Is Now the Time for Paul de Man?”—feels like a resounding celebration of that communal autonomy and collective idiosyncrasy. Paul de Man was a Yale professor from Belgium whose writings in the seventies and early eighties catapulted deconstruction to the top of the theoretical heap, and launched his reputation as a sort of Gene Simmons of the academy—a little controversial, a little over-the-top, definitely cheesy and overblown in a seventies-ish sort of way, but a quintessential rock star nonetheless. He died in 1983; a few years later, someone dug up some Nazi collaborationist writing he’d done for a Belgian newspaper during the war, and it became a big conflagration. The scandal was used as a way for critics of the academy to dishonor the professoriate. “See?” they sneered. “Being a deconstructionist is one tiny step removed from being a Nazi.” It was the perfect link between professor-as-political-menace and professor-as-hopeless-obfuscator. So it’s not surprising that even now, twenty years after his death and fifteen after the scandal, the MLA is still trying to come to grips with de Man.
The subdivided ballroom is as packed as, well, a rock concert. There are upwards of five hundred people here—easily the most at any single event—all dressed up in their ecru scarves and horn-rims, lined up three-deep along the walls, necks craned and heads nodding furiously; it occurs to me, to take this rock analogy one step further, that the constant nodding (“Oh, but of course, I am understanding you perfectly”) is like a restrained form of headbanging. Everyone looks healthier and more stylish than anyone I’ve seen all weekend. Even the panelists are sartorially impressive: Ian Grant Balfour of York University in Toronto looks as distinguished as his name sounds, with thick black rectangular auteur glasses and a charcoal blazer over a tight black turtleneck. Mark Hansen of Princeton is the tallest man I’ve seen at the whole conference, at least eight or eleven feet tall, and is wearing a neon yellow shirt. Gayatri Spivak is cloaked in a radiant red sari. Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, is sort of short and has neither cool glasses nor a red sari, but he’s a publisher, not an academic.
The actual papers delivered are so bizarre and freakish and sodden with jargon as to make them utterly incomprehensible. But it is a truly virtuosic incomprehensibility that makes sense only as a kind of poetic performance. It is an incomprehensibility that defies all notions of accessibility to outsiders, a gala event high up in the penthouse of the ivory tower. It’s an incomprehensibility that affirms the professors’ power to decide for themselves what counts and what is meaningful in their world, an incomprehensibility that reclaims de Man as someone important to them for their own private reasons. The de Man they remember was de Man the scholar, not de Man the Nazi, and they thus reinscribe in thick confident lines the boundaries of who they are. Those boundaries declare that de Man the scholar was not and will never be accountable as a scholar for what he said and did in the political sphere, just as de Man the citizen was not and will never be held accountable in politics for what he wrote in the scholarly sphere. To the general public, the panelists assert: you may hold us accountable when we write op-ed pieces, and you may obviously hold us accountable as teachers, but when we write for other scholars we answer only to other scholars. To the right-wing critics: you may hold us accountable for our political views as citizens and as educators, but our political views and our scholarly arts may not for your purposes be wedded.
The night before, I had spoken with one grad student who studies Hawthorne. When he tells people that, they say, “Oh, sure, I read The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade.” “It’s no wonder,” he said, “that deconstruction and other fashionable theories have caught on so hard in nineteenth-century American lit. It takes a subject that everyone thinks they know everything about and makes it sexier, gives a new and exciting way to read it.” In other words, it makes it their own again. It’s not as though they have some exclusive ecclesial privilege over the material, it’s just that they’ve spent years and years reading everything that’s ever been written about Hawthorne, so, yes, in some unmagical and undivine way, it is very much theirs. The fact that we all speak English doesn’t mean that they’re doing something any of us could pick up casually in our spare time.
So as much as I want to grab the panelists by their modish lapels and shake them and demand to know exactly what the hell they’re talking about, it is not my right to do so, for I am not there by invitation, I am not a member of their community, and I have no right to expect that their words should mean anything to me. I still think their tortured, overwrought sentences are for the most part patently absurd, and when Mark Hansen refers to the film Memento as an example of “retentional finitude in a particularly acute form”—which is immediately before he talks about “the breakdown of cinema as a temporal object”—I recoil. But I don’t recoil because I think they are maiming the English language or making a big deal out of stupid things. I recoil because their absurdities no longer seem sublime: I no longer think their argot is cool, their community Olympian, their idiosyncrasies magisterial. Their language isn’t jargon, it’s slang. Their pursuits are neither irrelevant nor transcendent, they’re peculiar—and fantastic, in the true sense of the word. The mood around me is triumphant.
Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets came out a few months ago, but with Iceland and its overturned government in the news these days, it’s a pretty good time for reviews to be appearing . . . Just this week two new reviews came out, the first being Lara Tupper’s piece in The Believer, which puts Olafsson’s novel about a man stuck hiding under a bed in some nice artistic company:
In a few ways, The Pets parallels Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which Ólafsson translated into Icelandic. Both focus on chance meetings; both feature a linguist. Auster’s interest in possessions, or loss of possessions, seems influential as well: the duty-free liquor in The Pets is a source of comedy and a partial cause of Emil’s extended entrapment—that and his inability to face the messy entanglements in his living room. Emil, frozen by embarrassment, unwilling to emerge, instead worries about the mishandling of his CD collection.
Ólafsson, who cites David Lynch as an influence, enjoys comic “scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time.” The bed premise affords exactly this sort of comedy.
The other is from Bill Marx at PRI’s The World, which focuses more on reading this novel in light of Iceland’s financial implosion:
Let economics professors conjecture about how and why Iceland flat-lined; fiction probably furnishes more understanding of the self-destructive reasons behind the country’s financial breakdown. Creative writers often deal with accounts due, moral, financial, and otherwise; they can also train a prophetically comic and/or philosophical eye on the national collective unconscious, in this case a blend of cowardice, blindness, and greed.
I suspect that is not what novelist Bragi Ólafsson set out to do in this breezily acidic short novel (first published in 2001), but as a study of radical denial, a small scale vision of blindfolded lemmings marching toward the cliff, The Pets works as a raffishly amusing allegory of utter irresponsibility. It blows a warning whistle that sounds far outside of the Arctic Circle.
Ironically, Ólafsson himself was once a lucrative Icelandic export; he played bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. The Pets, the first of his four novels to be translated into English, received critical acclaim in Iceland, as have his other books. Judging by this tale, Ólafsson specializes in a kind of impish deadpan, wry studies in what happens when the links between real estate and the psyche break.
The book (which we did in a beautiful—and cheap—paper-over-board edition is available at bookstores everywhere, on our website.
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