Looking forward to a Dan Brown novel is a curious psychological phenomenon, writes reviewer Matthew Dentith: Brown has never gathered accolades with respect to clever prose or complex characters. Indeed, until the publication of his third book, “The Da Vinci Code”, a Dan Brown book was merely something you wouldn’t feel guilty reading in an airport lounge. His new novel, “Inferno”, has all the stock Dan Brown features. Characters with distinguishing but unnatural traits (pustulant sores for one, female baldness for another), a daring damsel (with exceptional talents and, crucially, the ability to fall instantly in love with the protagonist), a conspiratorial cartel with no ethical compass and, finally, a hero in Robert Langdon, an academic who is more obsessed by the suits he wears than the courses he teaches at Harvard. So, how is “Inferno” as a novel? Well, it has all the standard set pieces you would expect: chase scenes, a succession of daring escapes and the obligatory chapter-long pieces of exposition. People swap sides and the sinister organisation, which is made out to be very powerful, also turns out to be comprised of very, very stupid people. And it has a protagonist who seems to have lost interest in the plots of his author.
Self-Shadowing Prey, one of the final texts by the Romanian poet Ghérasim Luca (1913-1994), combines surrealist playfulness with an impetus for rigour that does not shy away from revising, expanding, and rearranging ordinary vocabularies and meanings. Indeed, much of Luca’s life and work suggests a poetics of dislocation on several, intensifying levels: first, as self-dislocation, in the assumption of the pseudonym by the emerging Jewish-Romanian artist; second, by the artist’s migration — and movement into another language — from Bucharest to Paris. Finally, there is the dislocation in poetic practice, occasioned by the confrontation with the very historical forces compelling such migration. The result, in the words of reviewer Michael G. Kelly, are works which ‘bathe in a carefully modulated and sustained sense of menace where language’s porosity, the compossibility of contrasting and overlapping meanings, heightens the lack of ease that is fundamental to the poet’s artistic subjectivity’.
The market, we are told, has moods and desires, is ‘jittery’ and ‘sends a message’. We are told to listen and anticipate its every move, preempting adverse ‘verdicts of the market’ through shrewd political decision-making. In his short (81-page) essay, ‘Can the Market Speak?’, Campbell Jones investigates the conceptual assumptions that underlie the idea that the market has intentions, consciousness, and the ability to speak to us. Yet, argues reviewer Mark Bergfeld, by solely focussing on the personification of the markets, Jones reveals a contradiction in capital’s attempt to paint the markets as behaving rationally: The supposed rational actors inside of the markets are themselves guided by “the invisible hand of the market”. In other words, underlying the very rationality of the market one finds irrationality and superstition.
One of the most innovative and daring Hungarian writers of the 20th century, Miklós Szentkuthy wrote such masterpieces as ‘Prae’, ‘St. Orpheus’ Breviary’ (comprising 10 volumes), ‘Narcissus’ Mirror’ and many others. Thanks to recent efforts by Contra Mundum Press, much of Szentkuthy’s work is now gradually being made available in English. In this essay, writer and scholar András Nagy discusses Szentkuthy’s life and work, painting a rich portrait of a man with many masks and a vast – and lasting – literary legacy.
In ‘The Pale King’ (posthumously published in 2011), David Foster Wallace wrote: ‘This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.’ Today, this silence more often than not is frequently interrupted by hortatory slogans and demands for participation: ‘Do you participate? If not, why not? You should get involved, make a contribution, let them know what you think. Be part of something! It’ll be collaborative and democratic. And fun, too!’ Taking the recent publication of Claire Bishop’s ‘Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship’ (Verso 2012) as his starting point, reviewer Richard Martin discusses the historical shifts in the participatory dimension of modern art. Whereas in the early decades of the 20th century participation was inextricably linked with political commitment — not always for the better — contemporary participatory art often involves little risk and few dangers.
When an award-winning novelist-translator and a renowned psychologist join forces to explore their common areas of interests, one can expect a wealth of interesting insights — and perhaps even answers to such questions as: How does poetry affect our thinking? Is poetical experience different from ‘ordinary’ experience? How does the brain make sense of poetical patterns in language? And, last but not least: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? In their recent book ‘Gehirn und Gedicht’ (The Brain and the Poem, Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011), poeta doctus Raoul Schrott and Berlin psychologist Arthur Jacobs explore these and other questions, aiming to offer an synthesis of contemporary neurolinguistic, evolutionary, and aesthetic research. And yet, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, the result falls short of the professed goal of making sense of poetic experience from a neuroscientific perspective. For, nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. In the end, what fuses the various neuroscientific elements into the kind of poetic unity that gives rise to aesthetic enjoyment is something which the theoretical framework of the two authors cannot explain.
Fairy tales seem quaint, imbued with the patina of a bygone age — literary misfits in a modern world. Why, then, do they continue to be so remarkably popular? One reason is their appeal to timeless experiences, conflicts, and narratives that are intelligible across different traditions. In a new edition of a 1934 collection of ‘modernized’ fairy tales, which was first commissioned by Peter Davies (and has now been updated, with a new introduction, by Maria Tatar), much of the patina is stripped away from the olden stories — and a significant dose of satire and black humour is added — revealing just how much fairy tales can tell us also about the modern world. As reviewer Dieter Petzold observes, many of the modernized versions amplify the originals, by adding details that make their fictional world often seem ‘more real’ than the silhouette world of traditional folktales. And, perhaps more tellingly, virtually all modern writers take an ironic stance — adding a layer of self-conscious awareness to the intrinsic strangeness of the worlds described.
Starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer, and Damian Lewis as U.S. Marine Nicholas Brody, who may or may not be an Al-Qaeda double agent, American TV series ‘Homeland’, which premiered on CBS’s Showtime cable TV channel in 2011, taps into the anxieties and paranoia that have been cultivated by a decade of what has been called ‘the war on terror’. As reviewers Gloria Origgi and Ariel Colonomos see it, what makes ‘Homeland’ significant is that, for the first time, a U.S. television show is staging the duplicity of truth — as if discriminating between good and evil were a long bygone endeavour. Indeed, so pervasive is the superposition of identity of the self and political identity in the series’ characters, and the resulting state of permanent moral ambivalence, that it drives the viewer to the point of mental exhaustion.
In his book ‘The Antidote’, Oliver Burkeman argues that ‘positive thinking’ and relentless optimism aren’t the solution to the happiness dilemma, but part of the problem, and advocates instead ‘the power of negative thinking’. But, writes reviewer Berit Brogaard, while the book offers a spirited and witty account of some of the best ways to get through periods of distress or sorrow (or sheer annoyance), in the end, what Burkeman proposes isn’t all that different from standard cognitive-behavioural therapeutic practices, which include the positive thinking methods he so strongly criticises.
Both a guide to, and a literary ‘amplification’ of, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 ‘Stalker’, Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ is quite literally — as the subtitle puts it — ‘A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’. Just as in the movie a man named Stalker guides a writer and a scientist through ‘the Zone’ — an apocalyptic wilderness supposedly endowed with supernatural qualities — so Dyer leads the reader to questions at the limits of meaning. In doing so, writes reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Dyer is not so much practising philosophy, but is pursuing a line of questioning that might be called ‘literary anthropology’. Dyer’s ruminations on Tarkovsky’s sense of place, his retelling of the film with all its décor, colors, flickering lights, noises and smells, all bring the reader closer to the metaphysical meaning of the film — its distinctly post-secularist intermingling of despair and hope.