Tag Archives: literary criticism

Articles We Love: A Valentine’s Reading List

For all our fellow nerdy types out there, this Valentine’s Day, we’re highlighting scholarship from our journals on the literature and economics of love. The selection includes a study on falling divorce rates, an analysis of the courtly love lyrics of medieval Spain and Germany, an article on queer erotics and political action in poetry, and more. All articles listed here are freely available until the end of the month.

Motifs of Love in the Courtly Love Lyric of Moslem Spain and Hohenstaufen Germany by Charles M. Barrack, Monatshefte 105.2 (2013)

“My intention is to demonstrate the striking—even contradictory—attitude of the supplicant minstrel in both traditions to the object of his affection, viz., a noble but distant lady. Let us term this the ‘Platonic-Erotic Dilemma’: Is the beloved a distant, sublime, edifying force or a mere mortal capable of physical love?”

Why Have Divorce Rates Fallen? The Role of Women’s Age at Marriage by Dana Rotz, Journal of Human Resources 51.4 (2016)

“American divorce rates rose from the 1950s to the 1970s peaked around 1980, and have fallen ever since. The mean age at marriage also substantially increased after 1970. I explore the extent to which the rise in age at marriage can explain the decrease in divorce rates for cohorts marrying after 1980.”

Life, War, and Love: The Queer Anarchism of Robert Duncan’s Poetic Action during the Vietnam War by Eric Keenaghan, Contemporary Literature vol. 49.4 (2008)

“The queerness I associate with Duncan’s poetic anarchism, then, is related to the emphasis he places on how eroticism facilitates subjects’ resistance to the liberalist attitudes promoted by the biopolitical state. Whereas many gay and lesbian thinkers and activists promoted sex and eroticism as a means of resisting the state, Duncan was preoccupied with how language is an erotic vehicle mediating embodied experience and promoting transformative passions.”

Lucky in Life, Unlucky in Love? The Effect of Random Income Shocks on Marriage and Divorce by Scott Hankins and Mark Hoekstra, Journal of Human Resources 46.2 (2011)

“There are several reasons why positive income shocks could affect marital decisions. For married couples, more generous cash transfers may have a stabilization effect and relax financial constraints and arguments that lead to divorce. . . . On the other hand, increased resources may enable unhappy couples to incur the costs associated with divorce.”

Cosmopolitan Love: The One and the World in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission by Ashley T. Shelden, Contemporary Literature 53.2 (2012)

“Most critics will agree that the adjective cosmopolitan describes not just a way of organizing the world or a type of subject position but also a stance that pertains, in particular, to the ethical relation to the other. Few critics, however, in their explorations of the ethics of cosmopolitanism, inquire into what one might call the fundamental analytical category of ethics: love.”

Kathleen Fraser and the Transmutation of Love by Jeanne Heuving, Contemporary Literature 51.3 (2010)

“Fraser changes from writing through a poetic speaker as lover addressing her beloved to a transpersonal love writing, or a libidinized ‘field poetics’ (Translating 176). In the course of her career, Fraser comes to write an erotically charged prosody through a “projective” poetics that rejects individuated poetic speakers and cathects directly with her poems’ others and languages—engaging material aspects of language and of the page itself.”

Toni Morrison and Contemporary Literature

This month marks the publication of The Toni Morrison Book Club, a book honoring Morrison’s legacy and role as a central figure in American writing. Since her work has also been a frequent topic in our journal Contemporary Literature, we’ve assembled a reading list of articles on her fiction, including an excellent 1983 interview with Morrison.


Contemporary Literature

An An Interview with Toni Morrison, conducted by Nellie McKay, vol. 24.4 (1983)

“Locating Paradise in the Post–Civil Rights Era: Toni Morrison and Critical Race Theory” by Richard L. Schur, vol. 45.2 (2004). Read the full article, freely available until the end of February.

“Blackness and Art in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby” by Linda Krumholz, vol. 29.2 (2008). Read the full article, freely available until the end of February.

“Self, society, and myth in Toni Morrison’s fiction” by Cynthia A. Davis, vol. 23.3 (1982)

“The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” by Barbara Schapiro, vol. 32.2 (1991)

“‘Rememory’: Primal Scenes and Constructions in Toni Morrison’s Novels” by Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, vol. 31.3 (1990)

“Form Matters: Toni Morrison’s Sula and the Ethics of Narrative” by Axel Nissen, vol. 40.2 (1999)

“Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” by Kristin Boudreau, vol. 36.3 (1995)

“The House a Ghost Built: Nommo, Allegory, and the Ethics of Reading in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” by William R. Handley, vol. 36.4 (1995)

“‘Apple Pie’ Ideology and the Politics of Appetite in the Novels of Toni Morrison” by Emma Parker, vol. 39.4 (1998)

“Descent in the ‘House of Chloe’: Race, Rape, and Identity in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby” by John N. Duvall, vol. 38.2 (1997)

“Impossible Voices: Ethnic Postmodern Narration in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest” by Caroline Rod, vol. 41.4 (2000)

“Paradise Lost and Found: Dualism and Edenic Myth in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby” by Lauren Lepow, vol. 28.3 (1987)

“The Novelist as Conservator: Stories and Comprehension in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon” by Theodore O. Mason, Jr., vol. 29.4 (1988)


CALL FOR PAPERS AND INTERVIEWS: Contemporary Literature seeks scholarly essays on post-World War II literature written in English which offer scope, supply a new dimension to conventional approaches, or transform customary ways of reading writers. Additionally, CL welcomes interviews that focus on an author’s writing, pursue and elaborate a line of questioning and response, and provide insight into central aspects of the writer’s significance. Past interviews have featured writers such as Dorothy AllisonRae ArmantroutEdwidge DanticatRachael KushnerBen LernerViet Thanh NguyenAfaa Michael Weaver, and Charles Yu.

See the journal’s submission guidelines for more information. Questions may be directed to the editorial office at CL@english.wisc.edu.

Freedom of Expression and the Exiled Writer: A Reading List from Contemporary Literature Journal

To mark Banned Books Week, we are sharing a collection of articles and interviews from Contemporary Literature journal featuring writers whose work has been censored, or who have faced government persecution in response to their writing.


“I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”

Ha Jin

Chinese writer Ha Jin came to the United States to complete doctoral studies in American literature and opted to emigrate permanently following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. From studying literature, he turned to writing poetry and then fiction, and to date he has published eight novels, seven books of poetry, and four short story collections.

In a New York Times op-ed, published a few days before the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, he explains his decision to write in English: “if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English.” He continues, “To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal. But loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”

In this Contemporary Literature interview, conducted by Jerry A. Varsava, Ha Jin discusses growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when books were burned and schools were shuttered, as well as his decision to join the “great [English literary] tradition where nonnative writers [have become] essential writers.”

Read the interview, freely available for the rest of September: “An Interview with Ha Jin”


“If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”

Niyi Osundare

Niyi Osundare is a Nigerian poet known as “The People’s Poet” for his commitment to making poetry accessible to all and reflective of common life. He uses elements of the Yoruba oral tradition, which he transmits through his English-language writing.

In this 2000 interview with Cynthia Hogue and Nancy Easterlin for Contemporary Literature, Osundare describes the struggle of the artist writing under a dictatorship, summing up the situation with this parable: “once an English writer came to an African colleague and complained about the apparent irrelevance of Western writers. The African then told the Western artist, ‘Well, when we talk in Africa, the government listens, but that is not the end of the story. The government listens in a different way. They put us in jail.’”

But democracy also hampers the artist in certain ways, Osundare finds, having emigrated to the US in 1997. Comparing US literature and African literature, he notes, “Democracy leads to the flowering of free opinions, of public consciousness, and, without this, creativity cannot really take place. But democracy also leads to a kind of complacency which may undermine that dissonance and eliminate that kick in the stomach that is necessary for every creative activity. . . . If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”

Osundare believes in a “golden mean” that writers should strive for. And while Osundare’s work often has political themes, Isidore Diala argues in this Contemporary Literature article that the poet’s work contains a “vibrant and sustained global humanistic vision” that has been overlooked by critics who focus too narrowly on the poems’ Nigeria-specific social and political commentary.

Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Burden of the Visionary Artist: Niyi Osundare’s Poetry,” by Isidore Diala

And read the interview on JSTOR: “An Interview with Niyi Osundare”


“How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together? Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?”

Jini Kim Watson on NINOTCHKA ROSCA

In 1973, Filipina writer Ninotchka Rosca was imprisoned under the Marcos dictatorship for her antigovernmental journalism. Later, from exile in the U.S., she wrote a short story collection, The Monsoon Collection, and a novel, State of War, about life during the Marcos regime. In the outlines of Rosca’s biography, argues Jini Kim Watson in her article “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” we find that the “repressive, unchecked (usually third-world) dictatorial state is conceived of in inherent opposition to the freedom and free speech of committed writers.” This vision of the relationship between the writer and the authoritarian state is seen, for example, in the literary and humanitarian organization PEN International, which fights for freedom of expression and strives to protect writers from state persecution.

While writers do face very real persecution, Watson argues that it is dangerous to oversimplify the dynamic between writers and the authoritarian state, since this could imply that third-world states are simply “tyrannical and backwards”—a judgment that privileges Western norms of “good” government and ignores the agency of individual citizens. “How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together?” Watson asks. “Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?” Watson puts these questions to Rosca’s State of War, examining the ways the novel confounds a simplistic view of state tyranny through formal experimentation and a nuanced narrative.

Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” by Jini Kim Watson


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A belief in jest: anarchic arts in postmodern Russia

Our guest blogger today is Alexandar Mihailovic, whose book The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia is published this week. The art collective known as the Mitki emerged in Leningrad during the late Soviet period.

My road to writing The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia was a circuitous one. I first discovered the Mitki by buying a pirated recording of their music at the Kiev train station in Moscow. Who were these satirical dabblers in paint, print, and sound? Like Yeats’s jester, the Mitki tossed up the gaudy “cap and bells” of their collective disinhibition to a public struggling to understand its sudden citizenship in a new country. Very quickly, other questions jostled for attention. How can artists categorize themselves as “non-conformist” while belonging to a movement?  And why do they occasionally regard alcoholism as a productive catalyst for artistic creation, while also acknowledging it as a social ill?

One of the artistic productions by the Mitki that first caught my eye was Olga Florensky’s remarkable 1994 claymation film A Story About the Miracle of Miracles (Rasskaz o chude iz chudes), a quasi-steampunk narrative of pre-Emancipation Russian military history that is also a reworking of Nikolai Leskov’s 1881 story “Lefty” [Levsha]. In Florensky’s film, a mechanical leg takes on a life of its own, separating from its owner, the military officer Major Propoitsyn. (Watch the short film on YouTube.)

Florensky wrote her first version of this story in July 1986, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s dry law and at the height of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. She points to the ways in which the machines of war may contain sub-routines for renouncing their bellicose owners. The fact that the name of the Major, Propoitsyn, contains the word ‘drunkard’ (propoitsa) also suggests that imperial ambitions are expressions of unhealthy political passion.  As Florensky put it in the program essay for her 1999 exhibit Taxidermy, “the more I think about the role of effigies in the life of man, the more I find myself leaning toward the following idea: can it be that he doesn’t have to kill, in satisfying his despotic creative urges? Or, as one friend put it—a Russian born in Germany, with an uncertain grasp of the language of his ancestors—that he does not have to enmortify [primertvliat’] animals? Let the ARTIFICIAL ANIMAL be utterly artificial—may it go with God, in all its violations of anatomy and truth!”

Several nineteenth-century Russian writers—most notably Tolstoy and Saltykov-Shchedrin—famously regarded literature as a criticism of everyday life. In the work of the Mitki, we encounter the group practice of documenting dialectical shifts, of showing us just how states of servitude and conformity can give way to sunburst recognitions of freedom, how jingoism engenders pacifism, and how inebriation may be countered by a sobriety that is no less heady than the intoxication that preceded it. No wonder that Florensky’s original name for “Major Drunkard” (Propoitsyn) was Nepeitsyn (non-drinker).

The Mitki’s body of work speaks in a dizzying range of tones and moves along descending scales of affect—from punchy instruction to the sotto voce of a political unconscious begging to be heard.

Alexandar Mihailovic is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and Russian at Hofstra University and visiting professor of Slavic studies at Brown University. His books include Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse; an edited volume, Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries; and a coedited book, Navid Kermani: Contemporary German Writers.

 

New Books & New Paperbacks, January 2018

We’re pleased to announce the following books to be published this month.

January 9, 2018
Defending the Masses: A Progressive Lawyer’s Battles for Free Speech
Eric B. Easton

“An early twentieth-century champion of the cause of free speech for the American people, Gilbert Roe has found an ideal interpreter in Eric B. Easton, whose own legal background serves him well in analyzing Roe’s brilliantly argued wartime freedom of speech cases.”—Richard Drake,author of The Education of an Anti-Imperialist

“Gilbert Roe was a remarkable person who associated with and defended the rights of many of the most fascinating people of the Progressive Era. Easton brings all these stories to life in his wonderfully accessible biography.”—Mark Graber,author of Transforming Free Speech

 

January 9, 2018
In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand
Tyrell Haberkorn

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies

“Powerfully uncovers and documents many episodes of state intimidation and violence in postwar Thailand. Haberkorn deftly probes the nature and domestic actions of the Thai state and holds it accountable for its own history.”—Ben Kiernan, author of The Pol Pot Regime and Viet Nam

“This stunning new book goes far beyond Thailand’s heartrending experience of serial dictatorship without accountability and state formation grounded on impunity for crime. Haberkorn also compellingly engages Thailand’s place in the rise of human rights movements. Her documentation of an ‘injustice cascade’ reorients the study of global history and politics.”—Samuel Moyn, author of Human Rights and the Uses of History

“Required reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Thailand. Haberkorn reveals a state where political violence is normalized as it has established and maintained a narrow royalist and elitist regime.”—Kevin Hewison, editor of Political Change in Thailand


January 9, 2018
Now in paperback
Winner of the Kulczycki Book Prize in Polish Studies
Primed for Violence: Murder, Antisemitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland
Paul Brykczynski

“An outstanding and welcome contribution to scholarship on Polish nationalism, the history of antisemitism, political violence, fascism, and democratic politics [that] will resonate with the public at large as we grapple with contemporary challenges to democracy across the globe.”Slavic Review

“This assiduously researched, impeccably argued, and well-illustrated book should be required reading for anyone interested in modern Polish history and/or the evolution of the Polish nation more broadly.”Polish Review


January 16, 2018

Tragic Rites: Narrative and Ritual in Sophoclean Drama
Adriana E. Brook

Wisconsin Studies in Classics

Presenting an innovative new reading of Sophocles’ plays, Tragic Rites analyzes the poetic and narrative function of ritual in the seven extant plays of Sophocles. Adriana Brook closely examines four of them—Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus—in the context of her wide-ranging consideration of the entire Sophoclean corpus.

“Brook throws new light on the representation of rituals in Sophoclean tragedy, especially of incomplete, incorrectly performed, or corrupted rituals that shape audiences’ and readers’ emotional, ethical, and intellectual responses to each play’s dramatic action and characterization, concern with identity and community, and ambiguous narrative and moral closure.”—Seth L. Schein, author of Sophocles’ Philoctetes


January 23, 2018
Conflicted Memory: Military Cultural Interventions and the Human Rights Era in Peru
Cynthia E. Milton

Critical Human Rights Series

“Brings to light how military ‘entrepreneurs of memory’ strategically place memory products in a memory marketplace. A major intervention in debates about Peru’s internal armed conflict of the 1980s and ’90s and its aftermath, which will interest scholars in many disciplines and regions.”—Paulo Drinot, coeditor of Peculiar Revolution

“This incisive analysis of Peruvian countermemories explores the military’s seemingly failed cultural memory production, its lack of artistry and inability to suppress evidence. Though the military is unable to fully reclaim heroic and self-sacrificing patriotism, Milton nonetheless recognizes its success in shaping memory politics and current political debates.”—Leigh Payne, author of Unsettling Accounts

“Impressively documents the military’s diverse interventions in Peru’s culture—memoirs, ‘truth’ reports, films, novels, and memorials—and its numerous attempts to censor cultural productions that challenge its preferred narrative.”—Jo-Marie Burt, author of Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru

AIDS Readings

December 1 is World AIDS Day. HIV/AIDS has wrought enormous suffering worldwide and caused more than 35 million deaths. The nine books that follow are testimony to that devastation.

Anne-christine d’Adesky
A personal history of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris by a pioneering American AIDS journalist, lesbian activist, and daughter of French-Haitian elites. Anne-christine d’Adesky remembers “the poxed generation” of AIDS—their lives, their battles, and their determination to find love and make art in the heartbreaking years before lifesaving protease drugs arrived.
“Never far from the mad joy of writing, loving, and being alive, even as it investigates our horribly mundane capacity for horror, this book is a masterpiece.” —Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave
Kenny Fries
Kenny Fries embarks on a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, a society historically hostile to difference. When he is diagnosed as HIV positive, all his assumptions about Japan, the body, and mortality are shaken, and he must find a way to reenter life on new terms.
“Fries writes out of the pure hot emergency of a mortal being trying to keep himself alive. So much is at stake here—health, affection, culture, trauma, language—but its greatest surprise is what thrives in the midst of suffering. A beautiful book.”—Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door
David Caron
The deluge of metaphors triggered in 1981 in France by the first public reports of what would turn out to be the AIDS epidemic spread with far greater speed and efficiency than the virus itself.
“Literary and cultural analysis come together here as Caron casts brilliant light on the disastrously inadequate public response to the AIDS pandemic in France. . . . He shows how literature supplied the communitarian voice that would otherwise have been lacking.”—Ross Chambers, author of Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author
David Gere
“Anyone interested in dance or in gay culture or in art and politics should, as I did, find this a fascinating book, impossible to put down.”—Sally Banes, editor of Reinventing Dance in the 1960s
Edited by Edmund White
In Cooperation with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS
“A poignant reminder of the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on the arts.”—Library Journal
“A searing, and often bitingly funny collection of personal essays by almost two dozen writers—John Berendt, Brad Gooch, Allan Gurganus, and Sarah Schulman among them—Loss within Loss remembers over twenty creative artists lost to AIDS.”— The Advocate
Severino J. Albuquerque
Co-winner of the 2004 Roberto Reis BRASA Book Award
 “Albuquerque’s work . . . provides an archaeology of theatrical representations of homosexuality in Brazil, an alternative history of Brazilian theater from the margins, a critical analysis of canonical and non-canonical plays infused with the insights of feminist and queer theory, as well as a history of the representation of AIDS in Brazilian culture.”—Fernando Arenas, University of Minnesota
Michael Schiavi
The biography of gay-rights giant Vito Russo, the man who wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, commonly regarded as the foundational text of gay and lesbian film studies. A founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and cofounder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo lived at the center of the most important gay cultural turning points in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
G. Thomas Couser    Foreword by Nancy Mairs
A provocative look at writing by and about people with illness or disability—in particular HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, deafness, and paralysis—who challenge the stigmas attached to their conditions by telling their lives in their own ways and on their own terms.
Lesléa Newman
“Although pain plays a part in this volume, many of the tales celebrate with warmth and good humor the courageous maintenance of the Jewish tradition in radical relationships. . . . Contemporary characters confront both timely issues, like AIDS, and eternal ones, such as a lovers’ quarrel or a mother-daughter misunderstanding.”—Publishers Weekly

The Path of Totality: Illuminating THE DISINTEGRATIONS

On August 21, the United States experienced its first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in almost one hundred years. The next day, August 22, we officially published Alistair McCartney’s new novel The Disintegrations. Here, McCartney reflects on the eclipse and other books that inspired his.

During the recent eclipse, the moon or its shadow blocked the sun; in some places that lay in the so-called path of totality, it did so completely, for up to two and half minutes.

When I found out the official publication date for The Disintegrations was the day after the solar eclipse, it struck me as a good omen. On further reflection, it also struck me as appropriate: this is a book about a guy who’s trying to unravel the secret of death, a book that aims to cloak the reader in at least partial, temporary darkness.

The process of writing The Disintegrations was long and arduous. It took me about nine years to realize the book. The challenges this novel presented were related to content—writing about death and the dead is an impossible task—but form was also a challenge, as I tried to figure out the right structure to hold together the pieces I was assembling.

Like most writers, I turned to other books while attempting to solve this aesthetic problem. These eleven books helped me figure it out, placed me in their path of totality, their shadows providing a source of illumination.

Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972; Translator Ralph Mannheim, 1975.
I first read this novella from Handke as a student in the late 1990s, and it floored me, in particular this Austrian author’s ability to write about the suicide of his mother with such objectivity: “My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks: I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away, and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.” (199).

One of the main struggles I encountered in writing The Disintegrations was finding the right voice and tone to articulate death, one that didn’t make my skin crawl. I re-read A Sorrow and it acted as a signpost for me, to help me locate that register. Although my book springs from nonfiction—all my writing does—through my point of view, it becomes fiction. Handke’s definition of fiction in an interview from 1980 resonates deeply with me: “[My novels] are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction.”

Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence, 1948; Translator Lydia Davis, 1976.
I was already well into writing The Disintegrations (which for years I was calling The Death Book) when I read the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s miraculous little novel (or récit) Death Sentence.  Like Handke’s novella it’s less than one hundred pages. Blanchot’s strange, crystalline perspective on death, thanks to Lydia Davis’ incredible translation, was essential:  “These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth” (1).

I reread this book about a year later, to keep learning how to write my own book. Like all astonishing books, it continued both to teach me and to elude me. Its style, both simple and ambiguous, was crucial as I forged my own style. The compression of Blanchot’s work guided me in radically compressing my own book from a much longer draft. (Earlier versions were three times as long as the “final” product.)  Blanchot wrote not novels but récits, which is what The Disintegrations is: a book where the author and narrator are one and the same, a self-reflexive book that is as much about what cannot be told as what can, a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction. As Lars Iyer writes in “Blanchot, Narration, and The Event,” a “récit would interrupt both the assurance of the novelist who creates and preserves a world and also the assurance of the reader, for whom the world the novel imitates is the same world he or she inhabits.” More than any other writer, Blanchot showed me how to write from a place of impossibility: the impossibility of representing or writing (about) death, the impossibility of representing anything.

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, 1886; translator John Ashbery, 2011.
I’ve loved the Illuminations since I was a teenager, rereading the Louise Varese translation almost every year. Rimbaud is in my bloodstream. For my fortieth birthday, my friend David Schweizer gave me a copy of the new Ashbery translation of Rimbaud, and it reignited my relationship to this beloved book. Although thematically The Disintegrations is perhaps more my version of A Season in Hell, if you look at any of the less narrative-driven chapters such as “A Hole in the World” or “Disintegration” or “Data” or “Odors” or “Immortality,” you see the trace of Rimbaud’s prose poems throughout this book. I am , if truth be told, a poet who disguises himself as a prose writer. You also see this majestic book’s influence in the title, The Disintegrations, a phrase which, when I hit upon it, struck me as the dark mirror image of the Illuminations. Throughout this book, my narrator finds himself in an inverted mode of astonishment, a negative state of wonder.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 1975; Translator Jonathan Griffin, 1977.
My initial “finished” draft of the book was written in a much more straightforward, linear manner (or, at least, my version of linear). Of course, I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the draft that this is not the kind of novel I should be writing. I did a radical revision last year, gutting the book, re-tuning the voice, rewiring the apparatus. Blanchot’s notion of the récit helped me realize this. So did the great filmmaker Robert Bresson’s summary of the non-linear nature of the aesthetic process:  “My movie [book] is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film [in the book] but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen [the page], come to life again, like flowers in water.” (p. 23)

Although I would not have minded getting to the final version sooner, Bresson’s characterization of the process as a dialectic of creation and destruction gave a logic to my own drawn-out process in which I built the book, destroyed it, then reordered it into what it was meant to be.

Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” in Against Interpretation, 1966.
Following the major revision, which was profoundly liberating (the only “easy” stage of writing this book), I did a line edit that was far more excruciating. I’d get up at 4 a.m. in the February dark, so I had time before I went to work. I was especially struggling with one of the stories “Eun Kang and the Ocean.” Robert Bresson’s films Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably had been essential for me at various stages of writing, in ways that I can’t put into words, something to do with their purity, their directness and indirectness, their formal coolness, and I found myself reading Sontag’s essay on his films in Against Interpretation (one of my favorite books ever) to help me articulate the power of Bresson’s work: “The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence—an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.” (181). Reading this allowed me to continue narrating Eun Kang’s story, to sustain a detachment to my subject, and to strive towards my perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

My perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.
Although European writers are my primary source of inspiration, in some ways I think of The Disintegrations as my American book. I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent when one of my older sisters passed it on to me. In Australia, at least in the 1980s, Catcher wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous or canonical as it is here in the States. Anyway, I found myself rereading it fairly early on in writing The Disintegrations, and I was astonished by the book, how complex and perverse it is beneath a seemingly simple narrative. And of course, there’s the purity of the voice of the adorable Holden Caulfield, whom I continue to have a big crush on. Needless to say Catcher was a major influence on The Disintegrations, an influence I had to tone down, pull back on, distort, even reject, as I was striving for a less intimate effect and a less forthcoming voice. But the ghost of Salinger and Holden Caulfield is still in The Disintegrations, especially in the sections “The Weight”, “Chris, a Recipe”, and “How to Dispose of Me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or,The Whale, 1851.
While we’re on the subject of American classics, Moby Dick also cast its spell on me during the writing process, just as it has cast its spell on so many writers. In that earlier, much lengthier draft—which incidentally was titled The Death Book; or, The Disintegrations in homage to Melville’s title—I had a bunch of epigraphs on death, just like the “Extracts” section of quotes about whales in Melville’s novel, and I included this line from Melville himself: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of life and death” (p 42). Luckily I saw reason. To try to write one’s own Moby Dick is a quest as futile and full of hubris as Captain Ahab’s. I realized the goal of my death book was far more modest. But Melville continued to inspire me. The Disintegrations remains a book about a guy as single-minded as Ahab and as solitary as Ishmael, on a dangerous quest to find the unknowable. Melville’s (or Ishmael’s) assertion that we’ve gotten the life-death equation wrong is a major theme in the narrative. And Melville’s glorious chapter headings and the book’s protean form can absolutely be seen in the structure I ended up employing to articulate the ineffable.

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer, 1977.
Joan Didion is one of my favorite living American writers. The Disintegrations owes so much to her astringent, acute perspective on the interplay between sunshine and death in California. I love her nonfiction but also her fiction. Apart from the voice and tone, the major difficulty with writing my own book was coming up with a structure to contain the fragments. When I undertook that radical revision, restructuring the linear narrative I’d created, Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer was so instructive as a model of how to do this. Didion’s organic, fugue-like composition, her use of repetition and recurring motifs, and the cool, precise use of first person, really showed me how to tap into my own narrative fugue.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights, 1848; Translator Alan Myers, 1995.
I was pretty aware of the influences on this work as I wrote, but one that took me by surprise was “White Nights,” an early short story of Dostoevsky’s. I’d read it a long time ago and picked it up to reread. I was struck not only by how beautiful it is but also by how much the story inspired The Disintegrations. “White Nights” tells the story of a lonely guy in Saint Petersburg who wanders around at night, who thinks too much, and who meets a young woman he falls in love with, but who can’t love him back. (Incidentally, Bresson’s Four Nights is a retelling of this book.)

The more straightforward version of The Disintegrations saw my narrator wandering around the cemetery with an unnamed companion, telling him all his ideas about death. As I mentioned, I had to do away with that artifice, but Dostoevsky’s discursive, philosophical, morbid, dreamy tone is still very much at play in what you’re reading—see the chapter “An Encounter” as an example. Like his narrator, mine is similarly “oppressed by such strange thoughts, such gloomy sensations; questions still so obscure to me are crowding into my brain and I seem to have neither power nor will to settle them” (33).  The Disintegrations may appear to be unconventional, but in many ways it’s quite old-fashioned, a nineteenth-century novel of ideas rewired for this century. Dostoevsky is one of those writers who have been with me since I was a teenager and follow me around whether I like it or not.

Dennis Cooper, The Marbled Swarm, 2011.
For me, Cooper is up there with Didion as one of the greatest living American writers. I’ve read all his novels. He’s one of the few contemporary American writers who create absolute fictive worlds; by this I mean a book that is placed under the extreme pressure of the author’s totalizing vision—the outside world no longer matters. These are the kinds of books I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. The Marbled Swarm has this propulsive narrative rhythm to it that was really important to me as I constructed my book’s own idiosyncratic rhythm. I was thinking a lot about my narrator’s secrets, what he reveals, what he doesn’t reveal, what’s unknown to him, what is untellable. Cooper’s masterful work, and its ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic focus on concealment, was a guiding light.

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, 1992; translator Michael Hulse, 1996.
I discovered Sebald’s work as an MFA student in the late 1990s. Like so many readers, I was immediately bewitched; I devoured all his books. He died during my final MFA residency, while I was rereading The Rings of Saturn. But it’s The Emigrants, the first of his books that I read, that has stayed with me the most: the delicacy and obliqueness with which he approaches the Holocaust. And of course his amazing fusion of genres—each book an alchemical combination of fiction, memoir, travelogue, history and biography—as well as his deft combining of the traditional and the experimental.

Sebald is one of those writers that I think you don’t want to get too close to, aesthetically. His work is so singular that to be too influenced by it, at least literally, would just result in a pale imitation. I work in an entirely different register, yet my blurring of genres in The Disintegrations—fiction and nonfiction, story and eulogy, poetry and obituary—owes so much to Sebald, as does the  book’s voice and tone in which I try to tread lightly. The trace of his voice, still so strong sixteen years after his death, can be seen in a story like “Aino’s Song”, especially the character of Herta, as well as “My Grandfather’s Hemorrhage.”

Alistair McCartney

Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White debut fiction award. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.

 

The History of Terrorism is Written in Blood

Today the University of Wisconsin Press releases Written in Blood: Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881. Author Lynn Patyk reveals the spark hidden in Russian literature that ignited terrorism across history.

Another day, another attack. Somewhere in the world, a suicide bomber kills himself and countless others at a teeming market, in a subway car, at a pop concert. Terrorism seems so fundamentally a part of our reality and so numbingly endless that it is hard to imagine that it has a history, or that this history may even be told in the heroic mode. But, in fact, historians have traditionally credited Russian revolutionaries of the mid-nineteenth century—or “Nihilists” as they were called—with the invention of terrorism, which they deployed in their struggle with Russian autocracy. While the means (systematic political assassination) were morally odious, a significant segment of progressive public opinion in Russia and abroad could endorse the terrorists’ ends: the overthrow of tyranny and the introduction of Western-style freedoms.
In the case of nineteenth-century Russia, terrorism had a very particular and powerful impetus: the literary imagination. Writers in Russia served as social critics, moral authorities, visionaries, and prophets. As Russia underwent a wrenching transformation from a feudal society founded on serf labor to a modern industrializing society, literature undertook to portray new kinds of characters befitting the new reality: “men of action” in both literature and life. The necessary result in a largely untransformed and repressive political system was that this active hero would look remarkably like the modern terrorist.
19th century Russian literature's active hero, stifled by a repressive regime, anticipates the modern terrorist. Click To Tweet
Of Russia’s great realist novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was uniquely positioned to observe and contribute to this phenomenon. Dostoevsky had himself been involved in political conspiracy, sentenced to death, and reprieved at the last moment, only to spend ten years in exile and hard labor in Siberia. These experiences gave him acute insight into tensions between the individual personality and any entity or system that tried to limit the expression of its free will, and thus into individual political violence as an emergent phenomenon.
If Dostoevsky’s novels, and in particular his terrorism trilogy of the 1860s–1880s (Crime and Punishment, Demons, and Brothers Karamazov), remain today so vitally relevant, it is because he recognized that these tensions were not peculiar to Russia and that the modern self was intrinsically terroristic. The modern self, bent on autonomy and self-realization, strains against all limitations—moral, political, religious, and aesthetic—and recognizes only itself as the highest, sovereign authority.
In the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s hero Rodion Raskolnikov has a terrifying nightmare: individuals and entire societies are infected with “trichinae,” causing them to fall prey to an unshakable self-righteousness and inevitably leading to mutual incomprehension, hatred, and a war of all against all. Dostoevsky clearly conceived this as a pathology of Western modernity, the irony being that it could just as easily manifest in the form of anti-modern ideologies (as in Dostoevsky’s case).
The modern self, bent on autonomy and self-realization, strains against all limitations. Click To Tweet
Despite his misgivings about the trajectory of modernity and the extreme individualism that it fostered, Dostoevsky rejected any external systematic constraints on freedom as a slippery slope to despotism and hegemonic state terror. When we lament the ineradicable evil that terrorism seems to be, Dostoevsky would have us recall that it is not a meaningless evil, but a profoundly meaningful one. It derives from the unprecedented freedom of modern societies, which empower individuals for maximum good or maximum harm. But this freedom has not yet given rise to a consciousness of our own individual and collective responsibility for pain and suffering in the world, which Dostoevsky saw as the key to staunching the bleeding wound that is terrorism. Instead of children at a concert, they (“the terrorists”) see “enemies.” Instead of our own culpability for violence and suffering, we see them as evil personified.

Lynn Ellen Patyk is an assistant professor of Russian at Dartmouth College.

New books in June 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in late June.

June 20, 2017
WRITTEN IN BLOOD

Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881
Lynn Ellen Patyk

In March 1881, Russia stunned the world when a small band of revolutionaries calling themselves “terrorists” assassinated Alexander II. Horrified Russians blamed the influence of European ideas, while shocked Europeans perceived something new and distinctly Russian in a strategy of political violence that became known as “the Russian method” or “terrorism”.

“A superb model of interdisciplinary scholarship: highly original, subtle, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. Analyzing both word and deed, Patyk rewrites the history of modern terrorism showing why the Russian case was pivotal. A gripping story.”—Susan Morrissey, author of Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia

 

June 27, 2017
THE POX LOVER
An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris
Anne-christine d’Adesky

Memories of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris told by a pioneering American AIDS journalist, lesbian activist, and daughter of French-Haitian elites.

“In a voice both powerful and cool, The Pox Lover takes on a sprawling personal history, deeply aware throughout that it is the politics of anyone’s day—and how we respond to it—that shapes a life. Never far from the mad joy of writing, loving, and being alive, even as it investigates our horribly mundane capacity for horror, this book is a masterpiece.”—Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave

 

June 27, 2017
YOOPER TALK

Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Kathryn A. Remlinger

Yooper Talk explains linguistic concepts with entertaining examples for general readers and also contributes to interdisciplinary discussions of dialect and identity in sociolinguistics, anthropology, dialectology, and folklore.

“Although humorous songs poke fun at Yoopers’ words and customs, Remlinger takes this place and its people very seriously. She explains how history, ethnicity, environment, economic changes, tourism, and especially language have created a colorful and distinctive regional dialect and identity.”—Larry Lankton, Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest
Series Editor(s) Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary

 

June 27, 2017
THE LIMA INQUISITION

The Plight of Crypto-Jews in Seventeenth-Century Peru
Ana E. Schaposchnik

The Lima Inquisition reveals the details of the Americas’ most alarming Inquisitorial crackdown: the ‘Great Complicity’ and subsequent Auto de Fe of Lima in 1639. Schaposchnik convincingly shows that it was not an aberration or just another Baroque-era spectacle—it was the essence of what the Inquisition was and had been all about, from inception to abolition.”—Kris Lane, Tulane University

“An in-depth look at the trials of the Great Complicity in the 1630s, during which almost 100 people, overwhelmingly men and women of Portuguese origin, were accused of being crypto-Jews and detained and tried by the Inquisition. Recommended.”Choice

 

June 27, 2017
9XM TALKING 
WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea

Randall Davidson

This is the fascinating history of the innovative work of Wisconsin’s educational radio stations, from the first broadcast by experimental station 9XM at the University of Wisconsin to the network of stations known today as Wisconsin Public Radio. Randall Davidson provides the first comprehensive history of the University of Wisconsin radio station.

“An engaging, even engrossing, narrative about the station’s pioneering work in broadcasting. … A reader witnesses … the struggles that small and educational broadcasters faced in the early years in what was nearly a constant battle to maintain a foothold in the frequency spectrum.” Journalism History

 

 

June 27
FROM WAR TO GENOCIDE
Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994
André Guichaoua, Translated by Don E. Webster, Foreword by Scott Straus

“A landmark in the historiography of the Rwandan genocide. No serious scholar writing about the genocide can afford to ignore this trailblazing contribution.”—René Lemarchand, author of The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa

Critical Human Rights   Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

New books in May 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in May.

May 9, 2017
WHISPERS OF CRUEL WRONGS
The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911
Edited by Mary Maillard

Louisa Jacobs was the daughter of Harriet Jacobs, author of the famous autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That work included a heartbreaking account of Harriet parting with six-year-old Louisa, taken away to the North by her white father. Now, rediscovered letters reveal the lives of Louisa and her circle and shed light on Harriet’s old age.

“A rich and fascinating portrait of Philadelphia’s and Washington D.C.’s black elite after the Civil War. Even as the letters depict the increasingly troubled political status and economic fortunes of the correspondents, they offer rare glimpses into private homes and inner emotions.”—Carla L. Peterson,author of Black Gotham

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

May 16, 2017
TO OFFER COMPASSION
A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion
Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf

“Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with opposition to abortion, but before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized it in the U.S., clergy organized to protect pregnant women and direct them to safe abortions. Dirks and Relf explore this extraordinary and little-known history through detailed first-person interviews and extensive research with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who, between 1967 and 1973, created a pregnancy counseling service and national underground network to provide women with options for adoption, parenting assistance, and pregnancy termination. . . . Critically important social history that too many in today’s abortion wars have never known or chosen to forget.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

 

May 23, 2017
SPIRIT CHILDREN
Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana
Aaron R. Denham

“A brilliant, sensitive, and moving book about the heartbreaking phenomenon of infanticide. This is a book to be taken seriously by hospital personnel, public health policymakers, NGO workers, and anyone interested in the fate of the world’s most vulnerable young children.”—Alma Gottlieb, coauthor of A World of Babies

“A skillful ethnography of the spirit child phenomenon in northern Ghana—children who fail to thrive, are feared to harm their families, and therefore should be ‘sent back.’ This insightful, theoretically rich analysis offers a nuanced ecological, economic, and cultural explanation of maternal attachment.”—John M. Janzen, author of The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Thomas Spear, Neil Kodesh, Tejumola Olaniyan, Michael G. Schatzberg, and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
THE LAND REMEMBERS

The Story of a Farm and Its People  9th Edition
Ben Logan
With an introduction by Curt Meine

“Ben Logan is strikingly successful in recalling his own boyhood world, a lonely ridge farm in southwestern Wisconsin. . . . He reviews his growing-up years in the 1920s and ’30s less with nostalgia than with a naturalist’s eye for detail, wary of the distortions of memory and sentiment.”—Christian Science Monitor

“A book to be cherished and remembered.”—Publishers Weekly

 

 

May 30, 2017
PINERY BOYS
Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
Edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary

As the heyday of the lumber camps faded, a young scholar named Franz Rickaby set out to find songs from shanty boys, river drivers, and sawmill hands in the Upper Midwest. Pinery Boys now incorporates, commemorates, contextualizes, and complements Rickaby’s 1926 book. It includes annotations throughout by folklore scholar James P. Leary and an engaging biography by Rickaby’s granddaughter Gretchen Dykstra. Central to this edition are the fifty-one songs that Rickaby originally published, plus fourteen additional songs selected to represent the

Franz Rickaby

varied collecting Rickaby did beyond the lumber camps.

“[Rickaby] was the first to put the singing lumberjack into an adequate record and was of pioneering stuff. … His book renders the big woods, not with bizarre hokum and studied claptrap … but with the fidelity of an unimpeachable witness.”—Carl Sandburg

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest Series
Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
The second book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series
DEATH AT GILLS ROCK
Patricia Skalka

“In her atmospheric, tightly written sequel, Skalka vividly captures the beauty of a remote Wisconsin peninsula that will attract readers of regional mysteries. Also recommended for fans of William Kent Krueger, Nevada Barr, and Mary Logue.”
Library Journal, starred review

“Three World War II heroes about to be honored by the Coast Guard are all found dead, apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning while playing cards at a cabin. . . . The second installment of this first-rate series (Death Stalks Door County, 2014) provides plenty of challenges for both the detective and the reader.”Kirkus Reviews

“Skalka captures the . . . small-town atmosphere vividly, and her intricate plot and well-developed characters will appeal to fans of William Kent Krueger.”Booklist