August 18, 2014

WWI: The Shock of the New

Out of the wreckage of World War 1 come the incandescent modernists -- none burning brighter than James Joyce and his Ulysses. And don't forget Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso, too. It’s a rebel alliance of high-art anarchists. A century later, their lights are still on. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces?

Out of the mire and death of World War One, even before the shooting stops, comes the strangest thing: the novel of the century.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, transposing the wily warrior of Greek myth into the buried consciousness of a single day in Dublin in 1904. The global war was only part of the nightmare from which Joyce was trying to awake. From his teens, he’d set himself against every orthodoxy of provincial Ireland, against the pieties of family, church and Empire. Even before pre-publication, Ulysses became the fighting flag of Modernism: a sort of cracked “true realism,” an anti-violent anarchism in prose, poetry and painting, too. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces: Mrs. DallowayThe Waste-Land? Have you made it through Ulysses? Is history a nightmare we’re still sleeping through?

Podcast • March 8, 2011

Anthony Burgess: Language as Music, and Vice Versa

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) ...

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) of mindless mayhem was perhaps the least of his efforts, but what he really wanted apart from his endless book production — essays, plays, criticism, and novels of all sizes and styles — was to be understood for the music he wrote. The bet here is that the Burgess symphonies, songs and chamber music that Paul Phillips is sharing will not make the world forget Burgess’ Enderby series of novels, or his fantasy on Shakespeare’s sex life, Nothing like the Sun, or his all-encompassing “life” of a 20th Century expatriate English writer, Earthly Powers. But let’s hope anyway that surprise and delight are reason enough to digress on multiple senses and gifts — reason enough to grant Anthony Burgess’s heart’s desire. “I wish,” he said, “people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”

Anthony Burgess never forgot being stricken by music as a tot — by “a quite incredible flute solo” he heard on the radio, “sinuous, exotic, erotic.” It turned out to be Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It was a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities,” and it triggered Burgess’s self-education at the piano, then in composition and orchestration. His family persuaded him that there was no money in music, but his artistic life became a synesthetic web of words and music — much as Thomas Mann rendered the experience of Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus: “… music and language, he insisted, belonged together, were fundamentally one. Language was music, music a language, and when separated, each always recalled the other, imitated the other, made use of the other means, always to be understood as the substitute for the other.”

Anthony Burgess by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books

I agree that the musico-literary analogies can be pretty tenuous, but in the widest possible formal sense — sonata form, opera, and so on — we’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities. The Napoleon novel I’m writing apes the Eroica formally: irritable, quick, swiftly transitional in the first movement (up to Napoleon’s coronation); slow, very leisurely, with a binding beat suggesting a funeral march for the second… As for the reader having to know about music, it doesn’t really matter much. In one novel I wrote, “The orchestra lunged into a loud chord of twelve notes, all of them different.” Musicians hear the discord, non-musicians don’t, but there’s nothing there to baffle them and prevent them reading on. I don’t understand baseball terms, but I can still enjoy Malamud’s The Natural. I don’t play bridge, but I find the bridge game in Fleming’s Moonraker absorbing. It’s the emotions conveyed that matter, not what the players are doing with their hands.

… I still play jazz, chiefly on a four-octave electric organ, and I prefer this to listening to it. I don’t think jazz is for listening but for playing. I’d like to write a novel about a jazz pianist or, better, about a pub pianist, which I once was, like my father before me. I don’t think rock leads on to a liking for jazz. The kids are depressingly static in their tastes. They do so want words, and jazz gets along very nicely without words.

… I enjoy writing music precisely because one is divorced from “human” considerations like belief, conduct. Pure form, nothing more. But then I tend to despise music just because it is so mindless. I’ve been writing a string quartet based on a musical theme that Shakespeare throws at us, in sol-fa notation, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the theme is CDGAEF), and it’s been pure, bliss. I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by it, on planes, in hotel bedrooms, anywhere where I had nothing else to do and there was no bloody Muzak playing. (Don’t the Muzak purveyors ever think of the people who actually have to write music?) Now I’m a little ashamed that the music engages nothing but purely formal problems. So I oscillate between a hankering after pure form and a realization that literature is probably valuable because it says things.

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, from the Paris Review Interview, Spring 1973

Composer-Conductor Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, is leading the Brown Symphony Orchestra in Anthony Burgess’ “Mr. W. S.” this winter. With the Manchester University Press and Macmillan, he has just published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess.

Podcast • April 9, 2010

David Shields: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach
David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach:

So much of the gesture of my book is about rescuing nonfiction as art.

Why can Finnegans Wake be a tissue of citations and quotations without reference? Why can so many poems — whether it’s “Paradise Lost” or “The Wasteland” — be tissues of citation? James Joyce famously said, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.” The 1812 Overture has buried within it the French national anthem. Writers, composers and visual artists from the beginning of time have endlessly appropriated each other’s work. It’s only now in our extraordinarily literal-minded and litigious society that we absurdly have the lawyers telling the artists what they can’t create.

Two of my bêtes noirs are Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen. I use them because they’re relatively easy and large targets. You know, they’re both highly praised and commercially successful writers whose work bores me beyond tears. They’re antiquarians to me. They’re entertaining the troops as the ship goes down. They’re just utterly devoted to a 1910 version of the novel, pre-James Joyce essentially. To me it’s pure nostalgia that people find such works of interest. It’s essentially an escape from the thrillingly vertiginous nature of contemporary existence to retire and retreat into the cocoon of the well-made novel.

It seems to me obvious that in 20 years or less there will not be publishers. It’s hard to believe there will be these brick-and-mortar buildings, and someone will take a book, publish it, send it to a warehouse New Jersey and then to Denver on the off chance that a Denver bookstore wants three copies and when no one wants it, will mail those books back to New Jersey. It’s just a completely irrelevant model.

Somehow the remix is what we want. There’s a wonderful line in my book by Adam Gopnik where he talks about something that is really a beautiful statement of the kind of art that we’re talking about. And Gopnik says, “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity, expressed in genuine awkwardness or in an authentic disorder.” Gee, those are marching orders for me.

After writing Moby-Dick Melville wrote to Hawthorne and said, “I wrote a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” That should be the goal of every writer.

Nietzsche said, “I want to write in ten sentences what everyone says in a book, or rather, what everyone else doesn’t say in a whole book.”

There’s something about the very nature of compression and concision that forces a kind of raw candor. So I would say Nietzsche, Pascal, Rochefoucauld, Sterne, and Melville are giants to me. And you could see them as in a way — and this’ll sound absurd — but they’re kind of bloggers, you know? They’re writing down stuff.

We’re here on the planet. Let’s try to figure out a little about our existence. I’m going to tell you how I solve being alive right now. So listen up.

I have no consoling religions, no consoling god. We are existentially alone on the planet. We can’t know what each other is thinking and feeling. I want art that builds a bridge across that abyss.

Walter Benjamin says all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. That is tattooed to my forehead.

What I love about [my students] is their impatience, their Attention Deficit Disorder, their hunger, their weariness with formula, their desire to have voice just command them, and how little the Dickensian model holds for 2010.

We’ll all be dead in 50 years, perhaps less. Here’s our chance to communicate with each other. Bring the pain.

David Shields in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March 17, 2010.

David Shields is a name-dropper, too, who incites name-dropping in others. In an hour’s conversation, we referred to these, among others, in alphabetical order:

Theodore Adorno


St. Augustine

Nicholson Baker

Walter Benjamin

Anne Carson

DJ Dangermouse

Larry David

Don Delillo

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anatole France

Jonathan Franzen

Amy Fusselman

William Gibson

Jesse Helms


Dennis Johnson

Michiko Kakutani

Wayne Koestenbaum

Jaron Lanier

Maya Lin

Robert Mapplethorpe

David Markson

Ian McEwan

Herman Melville

Michel de Montaigne

Vladimir Nabokov


George Orwell

Orhan Pamuk

Blaise Pascal

Marcel Proust

François de La Rochefoucauld

Chris Rock

Philip Roth

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Vincent Scully

William Shakespeare

Tristram Shandy

Sarah Silverman

Zadie Smith

Laurence Sterne

Alexander Theroux

Leo Tolstoy

John Updike

David Foster Wallace