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Friday, March 31, 2006

The great Irish novelist John McGahern has died, of cancer, at age 71. Here is his Guardian obit. Here is his New York Times'.

And here is the first paragraph of Hilary Mantel's review of McGahern's last novel, 2002's By the Lake:

This is a novel about a private and particular world, which the reader enters as an eavesdropper. The writing is so calm that it seems the text is listening to itself. Its accent is a dying fall and its only tricks are tricks of the light. It is set in rural Ireland, in a country of mist, cloud, and water. The daily events of the lakeside are the swans and dark cygnets gliding by, the rippling of perch beneath the surface of the water, the movement of the breeze through the leaves of the alders. The air is scented, wild strawberries glow in the banks, and the heron rises silently from the reeds. The dead are under the feet of the living, and it is their presence—the repressed, repressing generations—that makes the people whisper.

I had read The Barracks long ago, but was reintroduced to McGahern by G.O'B, one of my best teachers, a specialist in Irish lit in general and Joyce in particular, and a fine fiction writer himself. I went back and read everything, missing much I always suspected by my sheer lack of Irishness, an assumption both promoted and disparaged by G.O'B. I enjoyed the technical skills of the novels even if I wasn't able to fully join the circle of insider insularity and communal history that I felt McGahern was speaking to most intimately. But By the Lake is so calm, so precisely observed, so accurate in its portrayal of how huge the smallness of place is that its scope and beauty is truly universal. (Denis Donoghue, in his review of McGahern's memoir All Will be Well, released last year in Britain, this past February in the US, thinks less of the book, calling By the Lake - released as That They May Face the Rising Sun in Britain - "hardly a novel at all." Read the review for much more background on McGahern.)

I'll leave the last word to Mantel, one of the finest novelists working in any language, on her peer:

By the Lake has the sense of grave integrity that is his aim. By virtue of its simplicity the novel accretes power. By its close, the barrier between exile and home, between the living and the dead, seems to become translucent. The generations blur. A person's story may be greater than he is, and last much longer. We are made of memories and we persist as long as our story is worth repeating. "People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead."

Whatcha Gonna Do?

I've always had reading slumps now and then, times when I can have a stack of novels in front of me, each bought in full anticipation of anticipation, amd I'm simply incapable of choosing ONE to read. Those times when I finish a novel with all the joy of finishing, under doctor's orders, a bottle of antibiotics. Usually an application of non-fiction can reinvigorate my fiction-jones, and there's always Premiership soccer on FSC or La Liga or Il Calcio on Gol to entertain me (though if I'm watching Italian league soccer, I'm worse than usual). I used to worry about those times when I wasn't in the middle of a novel, but now? It happens.

It never happened before with music. It's happened now.

I dutifully went out and bought

I was eager for this album as little as two weeks ago. I felt obliged to buy it Tuesday. I felt obliged to listen to it. I feel obliged to say I have plenty of opinions about why I have no opinion on it, none of which has anything to do with the music on the album. If badgered, I'd say if falls somewhere between "the best rock album we'll hear in 2006" (it being late March and all) and an album "with very little danger and too few moments of real urgency." Probably closer to the latter. I'm not sure. This minute, I don't care.

I understand my reading slumps, or at least have a reasoned, if not reasonable, explanation. I'm an English major. I wrote my masters thesis on pomo American fiction in general and Stanley Elkin in particular. Though I love to read - why else be an English major? - the way I sometimes have to read feels like work, and I tend to read the same way even when reading authors that don't necessarily pertain to what I've studied and will study again. And when I'm not reading for academic reasons, I read for stylistic and artistic reasons. It's rare I read like I expect most people read, simply for pleasure. I love John Barth, but really, it isn't called the literature of exhaustion for nothing. It is probably a beneficial necessity that my mind doesn't want to read now and then.

But music? If I make the obvious leap, listening to music has now become, in a transformation that's only happened since I began blogging about music on BDRIB, work. The drop-off in the number and passion of the posts on BDRIB suggests the same. Part of this is my awareness that I am offering the opinions of a non-musician to a collection of dedicated, passionate, professional musicians, and not only musicians but musicians working a particularly sophisticated niche in a sophisticated genre. I can say "I really like this, it's good, it's worth buying because I like it." I can't say (or I shouldn't say) "this is revolutionary, groundbreaking, unlike anything else now being produced, challenging the technical paradigms of musicality." Not to the composers and musicians who are S21's core readers and contributors. And especially not to those composers and musicians who don't think rock music should be discussed on S21 in the first place.

I can talk about rock music and musicians as cultural phenomenom - what Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs signify culturally. I can talk about the Kaiser Chief Franz Ferdinand Interpol Arctic Monkeys and the near universal acclaim each band garners from rock reviewers and magazines of fiercely claimed independence and what that acclaim might mean in terms of fierce independence being nothing more (for both bands and reviewers) than another cleverly marketed brand. I can bring the same academic tools and methods I was taught to use when faced with the cultural artifact of a book and apply them to the cultural artifact of music. Whether or not anyone wants to read that is for each to decide, but suddenly listening to music sometimes feels like I've a chapter in my thesis due to my mentor by the end of the week. And if whether or not anyone wants to read that is for each to decide, I don't know that I want to write it.

If the parallel is true, and a listening slump is like a reading slump, this will break too. And I enjoy posting songs that I like, which I will continue to do. And books, sometimes, when I'm reading well (which I am).

I'll snap out of this slump, with luck by next Tuesday, April 4, when



three albums I've been anticipating anticipating are released. I'm hoping.