We're still technically on vacation so, really, nothing to see here. But this caught our eye and was too entertaining not to share. Since it isn't available online, we painstakingly retype TLS' marvelous NB column from the most recent issue:
Norman Mailer was honoured at the National Book Awards in New York last week, for his "distinguished contribution to American letters." The award was presented by Toni Morrison. Was Mailer pleased? Yes, and no. "In the literary world today, passion has withered," he said. The author of Armies of the Night, A Fire on the Moon, The Fight, The Executioner's Song and other works of fiction and journalism thinks literature is in danger of becoming "a footnote to our technological and commercial culture."
Mailer is in his eighties, and Morrison in getting on. Just as we were wondering who would carry the flame, the Observer turned up with "New York's new literary lion." The Review section of last Sunday's paper promised the "first interview" with Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision, published in the UK this month. He is "the new sensation of literary New York." In another first interview with Kunkel (Salon, September 20), he was "the darling of the New York literary scene."
Surely this is the man to roar that the novelist is still the king of the jungle, and prove Mailer wrong. "We're angrier than Dave Eggers and his crowd," he told the Observer. Well, that's promising, kind of. Angry about what? The war? Religious fundamentalism at home and abroad? Race and its discontents? - the big, Mailerite subejcts. No. Kunkel is angry about dating. "The idea is that dating should lead toward mating, and spread out before us is this array of choices that should lead toward a choice you can feel secure in. But I think the opposite happens. You become familiar with disposable relationships." No wonder the guy is furious. "To be constantly exposed to people whom you are unworthy of to begin with, yet who want you more than you want them, is confusing." Don't get him started. The Observer carried some quips from Indecision: "In my experience when a person doesn't know what to do with himself, he will check his emails." Could you keep the roaring down, please?
Of course, when the angry n+1 boys wade into presumably weightier territory - like Marco Roth on Derrida - the results aren't any more encouraging. If we have to choose between trivial anger or soggy pretentiousness ... well ... it's best to just go somewhere else altogether. So we're going. See you after the 9th.
UPDATE: In the "More Where That Came From" Department, Roth unloads a new load of pretentious ballast in the form of his review of Kafka: The Decisive Years in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review (not yet available online), in which he is hellbent to make sure we know just how much he knows about Kafka (and everything else). But if you're going to show off, make it count. To wit:
It's one thing to learn that Kafka and Brod went to visit Goethe's house in Weimar, where Kafka developed a crush on Margarethe, the hopelessly ignorant daughter of the caretaker. These things could happen to anybody. But Stach never tells us that Margarethe - usually shortened to Grete of Gretchen - is also the name of the naive girl seduced by Faust after he makes his pact with Mephistopheles in Goethe's play. For Kafka, who once declared "my way of life is geared solely to writing" and dreamed of a fusion between literature and life, for whom all kinds of literary experience were matters of life and death, the coincidence might have been one reason for his crush. Successful seduction would have made him a Faust. Pursuing her in a way that was doomed to leave him alienated and humiliated would put him in the company of Goethe. All this is speculative interpretation, of course, but biographers have earned the right to play and to indulge in their readers' yearning to have other lives made sense of, as well as their own.
All of which suggests that Roth knows as much about crushes as Kunkel does about dating. We can only hope Roth restricts himself to reviewing and never turns his attention to biography. Maybe Stach didn't make the observation about Margarethe's name because it was so shockingly obvious as to not require underscoring. And maybe Stach doesn't speculate a la Roth because, frankly, Roth's speculations are, well, just damned silly. Overwrought, melodramatic, and just this side of moronic. (And that's setting aside the fact that Margarethe was a reasonably common German name of the day and unlikely to have been the first of Kafka's experience. But it's more important for Roth to get his bit of showing off wedged in there.)