Wednesday, December 31, 2008


In the second edition of his Systema Naturae (published in 1740), Linneaus -- for the first time ever -- classified the human species as a species of mammals. He also ordered the human mammal by geography.

His official name for the American human is: homo americanus rufus cholericus rectus regitur consuetudine.

Reddish choleric man, walking tall, governed by habit.

For those of us occasionally watching Fox, or sporadically awake during the past 8 years: How Nostradamic of Mr. Linneaus!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


The program for the 2009 Jewish Book Week is up.

I am very excited I'll be able to attend. AB Yehoshua's The Continuing Silence of a Poet is a favorite of mine, and he closes the festival.

Too bad for me that I can only be there for the final Saturday and Sunday. I'm on at lunch time on Sunday. I fully expect to break my all-time low-attendance record, although that won't be easy. (I once had such low attendance at a Chicago event that even the organizer forgot to mention me in her blog story of the evening -- that must set the record: attendance was so low the organizer herself considered my presence superfluous.)

There is also rumor that I'll be doing a separate performance at the Flemish House in London on the Monday following -- not sure yet what it'll be and what language it'll be in. As long, I suppose, as my students don't find out that THAT is the reason we'll all be missing class. Literature: so frivolous!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Living in the heart of a big town means that when you go to the grocery store, you can observe a great many inter-national couples fussing over the veggies.

I cannot fail but notice that I always hear one of them speak American English with a Spanish, German, Italian, French, Romanian, Arabic, Swahili, or Chinese accent.

That is: Never do I hear Spanish, German, Italian, French, Romanian, Arabic, Swahili, or Chinese spoken with an American-English accent.

Which as an observation is so trite that it doesn't even bear mentioning.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Given that G*d is immutable, so are the Vatican's 19th-century viewpoints on gays and women. (Unless you're American, in which case those viewpoints are officially sooooo 21st-century.)

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

"(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed," the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration.

"The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less."

The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexuality is not sinful, homosexual acts are. It opposes gay marriage and, in October, a leading Vatican official called homosexuality "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound."

The pope said humanity needed to "listen to the language of creation" to understand the intended roles of man and woman. He compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work."

He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected."

In other words: the Pope sez: "Shut up, bitches!" Followed by a spirited: "Eternal truth dat, dawgs!"

(Did you also catch the: save man from himself? -- oh, ssssnap!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008


2008 will be known forever as the year the American Literary World (7 acres in Manhattan, populated by countless mules and asses) was Unjustly Attacked by Nobel Prize Committee Chairman Horace Engdahl for Being So-Called Insular. No sir, those countless mules and asses balked: We certainly are not!

Yes, 2008 will forever be remembered as the year American Literature Broke Free of its Presumed Insularity.

Case in point: the New York Times published its list of notable books for the year. 50 of those are works of fiction. Of those 50, no less than 3 are titles originally published in a language other than English! THREE! WHICH IS SIX PERCENT! Which, given that about 1.8% of fiction published in the US is Foreign Fiction, is MORE THAN THREE TIMES the amount Foreign Exports should have been allotted on statistical grounds alone! HURRAY FOR OUR OVERWHELMING NON-INSULARITY!

(The lucky authors, in case you wondered, are Ma Jian, Victor Pelevin, and Roberto Bolano.)

If my tally is correct, there are 1 Canadian, 2 Australians, 3 Brits, and 1 Irishperson among the 50. 50 - (1+2+3+1+the3foreignlanguagers) = 40. This then implies that the NYT reckons that NINETY-FOUR PERCENT of the year's notable books were originally written in ENGLISH, yet ONLY EIGHTY PERCENT of the year's notable books were written by AMERICANS!

If that doesn't prove our non-insularity, goodnessforcryingoutloud!

The USA, for your information, has about 5% of the world's population.

And about 80% of the world's cojones, apparently.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


So, yeah, I dig the Mountain Goats (which are/is a one-man band, John Darnielle).

Turns out the Goats halfway dig me. Or 66.67% percent dig me.
I'm reading Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen, which is about two-thirds really good and one-third kinda not so great, which is interesting to me, actually. I tend to go for stuff with fatal flaws.
I love it when I stumble across things like these, unexpectedly. From folks I've never met, but do admire. The book has caused so few and little waves and sold so poorly that I'm even astonished someone has actually read it.

And now I spend a lonely evening wondering what those fatal flaws are. (Of course I do.) This brings to mind Boyd Tonkin who somewhere mentioned that OM was about 80% brilliant. Would love to see Boyd and John sit on the carpet in my living room, empty bottles of Menage a Trois littering the couch, Venn-diagraming my novel, showing me what works and what doesn't. Except I'd be too drunk because way too intimidated to remember what, and never learn. Hey, Scott, join that club, why don't you?

Related note: The JC has their Literary Year up, and reiterates David Herman's complaint about the sex in OM:

The sex is graphic, sometimes pornographic, and the sex scenes involving SS brothels and Nazi officers are of dubious taste.
(BTW, there is of course only one scene in a single SS brothel at one juncture in the book; there is also no Nazi officer schtupping going on that I remember -- unless Flemish members of the Langemarck division count, which in a non-technical matter they might (if you want to be dictionarial, Nazi refers to members of the NSDAP). Or maybe I do indeed misremember -- that book is one long dark slog of the soul, I tell ya. I'd rather forget I ever had anything to do with it.) The real question for Herman, on this lonely evening of mine, is: Should those sex scenes have been done, you know, tastefully? Would that have been, you know, better? Plus, using the word exploit (it's in there! DH uses the word exploit!) feels hardly fitting for a highly literary 250,000 word novel that about 3,000 people or so have actually read. Darn, tasteful sex by/from/with Nazi officers would have, you know, lifted it up or sum'thin'. Would've improved sales! Might have made the NYT! (I am always surprsied, even though I shouldn't, at how especially sex scenes are always reinterpreted in ways that don't fit my own reading/memory of them. In my poor addled mind, those few rather cartoonish scenes of monkey-butt sex mostly reflected deep contempt for the piggishness of the typical prick-endowed individual. But what do I know? Realism in sex scenes only, apparently. And good taste.) Which makes me anxious to hear from Herman on the subject of 2666, where, again, some national socialists do the nasty.

But first, dammit, I'm dying to know what Girl Talk think of my novel.


Sometimes the political side of my blog is written for me.

On Dec 11, the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Carl Levin and a little unknown dovish senator from Arizona, John McCain, published their report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Take some time and read it.

I will cite below from the executive summary.

But first let me ask you this: If all major parties in some faraway country would have come together to conclude that their President and Secretary of Defense, who started a war for no known reason, repeatedly and knowingly and by executive order violated the Geneva Convention, opening the door (in fact, it seems, the floodgates) to detainee abuse-until-death-follows and to random acts of torture -- shouldn't the USA, beacon of democracy and warden of all that is Good condemn the leaders of said nation? With vigor, even?

Oh right, no, oops, wait a minute, that faraway country, that IS the USA, that is... us.

Find shovel.

Apply head to sand.

I have still to see or hear something on the major news media about this story*.

Again, this is OUR president, governing in OUR name, happily abandoning the Geneva Convention.

Because he can.

And because -- face it -- he will get away with it.

Because the media are -- face it -- much more interested in floppy footwear right now.

A hundred thousand (or so) Iraqis dead because of this man's lie, and the assclown still wonders why he deserves the boot.

Deep cleansing breath, y'all.

Here it is, from the summary:

Conclusion 1 of the Committee’s report states:

“On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.”

Conclusion 13 states:

“Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

And the Committee’s 19th and final conclusion states:

“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely."

*Please tell me I'm wrong.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


In an essay in the forthcoming issue of the Jewish Quarterly, I argue the completely unoriginal position that fiction is magic -- that (some of) it (perchance) (might) transform(s) or even shock(s) the world into truth.

I just finished reading a novel that does just that: Nadeem Aslam's exquisite The Wasted Vigil. It's a book set in Afghanistan and in the present day (martyr bombings, warlords, CIA), but with the lingering Soviet occupation and the thug of Cold War as part of its internal memory. And it's all set in one village, and mainly in one house. Which has books nailed to the ceiling and frescoes covered in mud. Once Mr. Aslam gets his impulse to insert preciously poetic metaphors under control (around page 85 or so) the novel becomes hallucinogenicly good. As in: another one of those rare clear and clever meditations on the imperiousness of Evil, and how we are all perpetrators while we are all thinking we are g*d-(or govt-)sent agents of Good. In the course of the novel Good and Evil lose their capitals and humanity loses, and thereby gains, its humanity. Not a feel-good book, but definitely a feel-true book.

I say wow.

This book will of course be completely ignored States-side, because written by a Pakistani Brit about some funky-smelling business we USA-types are actually engaged in, and because the American literary world (7 acres in Midtown Manhattan) is too busy discussing, amongst itself, some recent allegations of insularity, like the prolonged SNL skit they have finally become.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Yesterday was the day Henry Molaison died.
He was 82, but he thought he was 27.
If you asked him what color his hair was, he would have never guessed it was grey.
Yet he was never surprised seeing himself in the mirror as an old man.
He knew, and yet he didn't know.

In 1953, Henry Molaison underwent brain surgery.
His mediotemporal lobes were removed, on both sides.
Those were the sources of his epileptic attacks.
When Henry woke up, his epilepsy was gone.
So was his memory.

Psychology students all over the world knew him by his initials -- HM.
Now we all know his name.
He was Henry Molaison.
And he was not.
HM was Henry Molaison's frame -- an increasingly older man, forever boyish, polite and courteous, with a gentle gleam in his eye and a keen sense of humor.

Henry lived in a world that was only 7 seconds long -- he saw 5 seconds in the past, foresaw 2 in the future.
The surgeon's knife had severed the connection between his working memory -- the mind's RAM -- and his long-term memory -- the mind's ROM.
Nothing new entered his permanent memory.
And so Henry knew no longer who he was; he only knew who he had been.
So 27 he stayed.

There you have it.
This is why you need ROM memory: to be who you are.

I heard it told that Henry's 7 seconds were not always happy.
Sometimes he had this vague sense of dread, he mentioned to his friends.
As if he had done something wrong.
After all, if you can't remember what you just did, why shouldn't you assume that you perhaps did something wrong?
Like a child waking from a dream, Henry said: not knowing what is real.
What am I doing here? The awakened child asks.
What am I doing here?
Henry Molaison went for the deep questions.
You better be deep if you only have 2 more seconds to live, every moment of your life.
Make those seconds worthwhile, make them last.

I heard it told that there was one joke Henry really liked.
He laughed out loud every time he heard it.
Even if you had just told him that selfsame joke an hour ago.
As if he heard it for the first time.
Which was technically correct: He heard it for the first time.
That joke was so good, it cracked him up every time.

I wish I knew that joke.
I wish I could now tell it to the night.
To poor lonesome Henry, floating somewhere among the stars.
Jokes help, you know, with that vague sense of dread.

It is said that every night Allah destroys the world; he recreates it before dawn.
Every day is new.
Such was HM's life.
Every day he met the world anew.
Unaware that on that very day a fantastically excellent joke was waiting for him.
A fantastically excellent joke -- waiting just for him.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Detroit bail-out, mister Paulson sir? But what about those poor upper middle class folks stuck with the wrong husband, stuck with the worng kids, stuck in the wrong neighborhood where only an S-series Benz and bling from Tiffany's will do? No money for cars, mister Paulson sir, please give it to us: What America needs is an autobio buy-out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The vertical butt crack: genius during sex, bummer when you're wearing diapers.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Short declarative sentences.
Sometimes missing verbs.

(Scrap that. To indicate verbs missing, verbs obviously verboten. Try again.)

Short declarative sentences.
Little verbs.

(Hold it. Ambiguous. We don't mean to imply our verbs are wimpy, impish or otherwise limp.)

Short declarative sentences.
Silent rugged verbs.


Beefy manly prose.

(Beefy? Really? What else, hm? Sturdy? Studly? Stalwart?)

Short declarative sentences.
Silent rugged verbs.
Manly prose.

Like moonshine.
Like rotgut, burning holes in your stomach lining, burning holes in the dawgawn summer, newborn bay-bee moanin' with the heat.

There hangs no tale by Hemingway's six words: for-sale-baby-shoes-never-used -- just a lost afternoon at Babies'r'Us(R) and no receipt to show for it.

Here, sweetie, have a lick of moonshine; it'll put yer suckling infant right to sleep.

Friday, November 14, 2008


So there. I let one troll through on the 'Moderation' entry.

For one reason: to show (as many other bloggers have experienced, some, unlike me, of consequence) that these folks do exist, and post rather nonsensical things (1. Obama is inheriting, indeed, the worse economic situation since 1929; if you think this has nothing to do with deregulation and the fighting of a 10,000,000,000$/month war, go get some sleep and think it over; 2. Government expansion is something the majority of Americans now want, according to at least one poll from the last days that I am too jittery to remember right now. But do you remember Katrina? Do you remember when your retirement account was worth something? If nothing else, we want our government to protect us. I personally think that universal health care, to name one thing, is a good thing;3. Who are you thinking to convince anyway? Me? 3a. Google me, and 3b. I don't vote.)

No, for two reasons: All the trolls here have come either anonimously, or under Blogger IDs that were acquired especially for the purpose of 'commenting' , it seems -- no actual blogs attached.

We must indeed live in a neofascist state, if you don't dare use your name when writing about your fears of the government.

Nothing to fear, my friends, but fear itself.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It's now official: Omega Minor has been nominated for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literature Award. Along with 145 other books.

This award is special for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the tremendous amount of moolah involved -- 100,000 euros. The nominations come from libraries rather than professional judges, which is cool too. Those libraries span the globe. And the award is open to (almost, there is a time restriction) all books available in English in 2008.

So, you ask, who nominated Omega Minor? No doubt the library of Leuven, where you lived for 13 years or so? Nope, not Leuven. Perhaps Brussels, then, or Ghent? Nope, not any of the Flemish libraries. FLEMISH LIBRARIES NOMINATED NOT A SINGLE FLEMISH NOVEL. English-language lit is soooo much more interesting. Soooo open, those Flemish folk, perhaps they might win a literature Nobel after all, one day. Let me repeat that: FLEMISH LIBRARIES NOMINATED NOT A SINGLE FLEMISH NOVEL. And then the Flemish literati cry that nobody takes FlemLit seriously. I bet that if you let the Flemish vote for the world's best beer they'd pick Heineken over Stella, out of sheer modesty.

The libraries that nominated Omega Minor are The Hague and Rotterdam -- Dutch libraries. Dutch libraries also nominated books by Kluun, Kornmehl, Noort, Nooteboom, and van Royen -- Dutch writers. They have some national pride over there. Which makes me even more grateful to the good folks in Den Haag (who, after all, also gave OM its first literary award) and Rotterdam. Next time I visit your town and you recognize me, I'll buy you a beer.

Even if you request a Heineken. But only if the bar runs out of Grolsch.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Harold Polis has a short blog piece on our joint appearance in Gent, for the Award from the Flemish Provinces. W/r/t that baby: Yes, sometimes we do put some socks on that kid.

In case you were wondering: The award was worth 4,999 euros and the money went to Human Rights Watch (who wisely stayed home instead of attending). (I joked later in the week about the timing -- the day of the election -- and how I would have taken i he money home if awarded a day later, but that is untrue: the money was awarded a long, long time ago. Plus, I'd like to see Guantanamo closed, torture stopped, and a time line for troop withdrawal first.) The mysterious 'it' you saw me blog about earlier took the form of two art books so enormous we had to buy an extra suitcase just to get them home.

Trivial detail about that evening: There was also a reading going on in some other part of the building, apparently concerning Proofs of the Existence of G*d. Quite a few of those folks crashed our party and used our open bar to great avail. One 25-something then proceeded to try to pick up Sultry S, in the full presence of her mate and baby. He wasn't prepared to take no for an answer either. It did get embarrassing, but I do not blame him -- that Sultry S even speaks to the likes of me is as close to a Proof of the Existence of G*d as I will ever get.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


On Nov 5, I posted this:

O! What can I say.
That thing with feathers -- it did soar.
Let's soar some more, before we're forced to go down to earth and dirty ourselves playing with some mud, to make bricks, to find uses for.

This post attracted quite a few trolls, whose comments were up for a few hours at a time (the price I pay for being far away from home and not always in my hotel room)-- one claiming Obama is Jewish (confusing our poor readers in Texas even more), one that he is bipolar. I then no longer allowed anonymous comments, which made some people get five-second identities on Blogger to, for instance, claim that Obama is going to be first and foremost America's president.


As a result, I will now moderate all comments. Which means nothing -- everything will pass, except when you troll.

Of course, I'm also getting quite tired of blogging per se. There is no use to it, but not in the same delightful way there is no use to fiction writing.

Friday, October 31, 2008


I just got off the phone with my Belgian publisher. Our whirlwind tour of Flanders is starting soon (radio, TV, newspapers, the stage -- my oh my!), and we needed to coordinate. Omega Minor is going into its 8th printing. There's even some indications of a small invasion into Holland. Good news.

I was informed that there also seem to be a few Spanish publishers interested in Omega Minor, but that they are unwilling to bite because of the cost of translation. (I have only a vague idea of what kind of meager money translators make, but it's clear that having an OM-sized book -- 250,000 words -- translated is much more costly than having a more typical 75,000 word novel done. Additionally, selling a 750-page novel is more risky than selling a 250-page one, and the profit margins are slimmer, so you're less likely to recuperate that cost.)

That's why the Flemish government subsidizes translations, you yell.

Bear in mind, though, that the pool of translators from Dutch to XXXX is by necessity small. It's simply harder to find a Dutch-Spanish translator than an English-Spanish translator.

But there is an English translation, you now point out. It's been approved by the author (heck, he did it himself!), and it even won a big-ass award! Yup, my French translator, Claro, is doing it that way. He has done Pynchon and Powers, and beautifully so. What better translator could I wish for? He has an excellent feel for the book; his translation samples for OM are magnificent and dead on. I couldn't be happier.

Turns out that the Flemish government only subsidizes Dutch to XXXX translations. None of that twisted English to XXXX stuff, no matter who translated it, and no matter who the English to XXXX translator is. (I hate to bring this up, but baserate probabilities make one believe that translators from the English, by the sheer law of large numbers, would contain a larger subset of truly excellent professionals than translators from the Dutch. Claro is perhaps the case in point.)

Which reportedly made those Spaniards balk and perhaps run.

Consequence: for the time being, no Omega Minor in Spanish or Catalonian.

Which then brings me to the following interesting point: The Flemish government, in its eagerness to promote Flemish literature, is now, in fact, by forcefully adhering to its own rules supposedly crafted to promote said Flemish literature, torpedoing perhaps quite a few translations of what is fast becoming the most internationally successful and acclaimed Flemish novel of the past (20? 50?) years.


I must have misheard this, right? My publisher must be misinformed, no? Pray tell he's just sparing me the humiliation of not being Iberially coveted?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Nu te vinden op de website van Mondiaal nieuws ( mijn 1-maand oude stukje over de Amerikaanse verkiezingen.
Kan ik mezelf lekker blockquoten:

Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen: Eindelijk zou ik zo zeggen

29 oktober 2008 (MO) - Op 4 november is het eindelijk zo ver, dan weten we hoe de Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen na een eeuwigdurend voorspel afgesloten worden. Paul Verhaeghen, auteur van Omega Minor en migrant in het land van Obama en McCain, blikt vooruit via zijn achteruitkijkspiegel.

De bankbediende komt breed glimlachend uit het achterafzaaltje.
‘Sorry’, zegt hij, een kruimel taart wegslikkend. ‘We houden een feestje. Wat kan ik voor u doen?’
’t Is een kwartier voor sluitingstijd. Ik kom mijn spaargeld afhalen. In contanten.
‘Meent U dat nu, meneer?’, vraagt hij, terwijl hij geroutineerd op de computerterminal tekeergaat. Hij heeft dit vaker gedaan. ‘U weet dat uw geld verzekerd is door de FDIC?’
‘Ja’, zeg ik. ‘Maar als u over kop gaat, dan zit mijn rekening minstens voor een paar weken geblokkeerd, niet?’
‘Daar hebt u ook weer gelijk in’, zegt de man, geheel en al onbezorgd.
‘That does not inspire confidence’, zeg ik.
‘No it doesn’t’, antwoordt hij.
Mijn spaargeld in briefjes van honderd blijkt een hele hoop papier te zijn; het past amper in de zijzak van mijn cargobroek. Ik loop wat schichtig over de zonovergoten straat.
Thuis gaat de enveloppe netjes in ons brandkoffertje, naast de revolver.
Ze kunnen ze komen halen, als ze willen, onze spaarduiten, maar dan moeten ze wel eerst bij onze kassiers lang, de heren Smith en Wesson.
Welcome to America.

Twee dagen later springt één van de twee overblijvende kandidaten voor het presidentschap op een podium en verklaart: De economie is fundamenteel gezond! En passant noemt zijn economische adviseur ons allemaal een stelletje ondraaglijke zeurpieten.

Twee dagen eerder had de rector van de universiteit waar ik werk ons bij elkaar geroepen. Slecht nieuws. Onze collectieve loonsverhoging die dit jaar sowieso al fors onder de inflatie lag, moest worden uitgesteld. Ik doe een beroep op u allen, zei onze Grote Baas, om de universiteit financieel gezond te houden.

Daar dwarrelt dus mijn koopkracht door de herfstlucht naar beneden; daar ploft zij op de grond.

Drie weken later valt de stad waarin ik woon, Atlanta, plotsklaps zonder benzine. Heeft iets te maken met Orkaan Ike en een politiek bijziende gouverneur. Gevechten in regel wanneer de een of andere chauffeur zijn beurt niet afwacht. Mensen koppig geparkeerd in de lege stations, wachtend op de tankwagen die ooit zal komen. De zeldzame tankwagen die plechtstatig door de straten glijdt, krijgt een eerbiedige bruidssluier van BMW’s en Cadillacs achter zich aan. De krant voorspelt voor de komende week ‘lange rijen, maar geen vuistgevechten; benzine, maar niet de hele dag lang, en niet elke dag’.

In de tussentijd is mijn bank inderdaad kopje-onder gegaan.
Ik wil maar zeggen: mijn tolerantiedrempel voor politieke spelletjes ligt vandaag op Dode Zeeniveau. En dat geldt ook, durf ik wedden, voor het brede Amerikaanse publiek.
Eindelijk, zou ik zo zeggen.
Vier jaar te laat, acht jaar te laat –het doet er niet toe. Eindelijk.
En we weten allemaal waar het aan ligt.

* * *

Wie de Amerikaanse politiek volgt, weet dat Amerikanen een ander wereldbeeld hebben dan Europeanen. Religie en nationalisme, die in Europa nagenoeg uitgeroeid zijn als gevolg van hun excessen in de twintigste eeuw, zijn in het Amerikaanse Veldt nog springlevend. Sterker nog, beide karakteristieken vervlechten zich in het ultieme beeld dat Amerikanen van hun land hebben: Amerika’s Uitzonderlijkheid. Amerika is the greatest nation on earth, the shining city on the hill, the beacon of hope, en ’s werelds enige verdediger van vrijheid, vrede en het oh zo prille ideaal der democratie.

Een vraag die wij ons in Europa graag stellen is: Waarom is het dan dat Amerikanen de ondermaatsheid –niet de middelmaat, maar de regelrechte ondermaatsheid (zie de biografie van George W. Bush)– zo weten te smaken en zo driftig belonen? Zijn ze dom? Hebben ze dan geen greintje zelfrespect?
Wel, neen, zelfrespect te over. Verkiezingen, in doodgewone tijden, zijn een zoenoffer aan het altaar van de Amerikaanse Droom: Iedereen kan alles aan, en iedereen die dat echt wil, kan onze Leider zijn. Dus kiezen we de man die het meest op Jan Modaal lijkt, de man met wie je dat spreekwoordelijke biertje kan gaan drinken. Bovendien: Wat kan er in een ambtstermijn fout gaan, niet?

Ooit was intelligentie wel degelijk belangrijk in een president. Lees het werk van pakweg Thomas Jefferson, George Washington of James Madison, en huiver. Maar deze mensen werden ook werkelijk door een electoraal college verkozen, en niet rechtstreeks door het volk. Wie het volk wil bespelen, moet naast sympathiek ook begrijpbaar zijn; een populist mag niet over het hoofd van de massa heen spreken. Geloof het of niet, je kan berekenen welk intelligentieniveau ideaal is om de massa te bereiken zonder door de slimmeriken al te dom te worden bevonden, en dat is (zegt Dean Simonton van UC Davis) een IQ van 119, het niveau van de gemiddelde college student.

En dus verkiezen de Amerikanen, bijvoorbeeld, de minder dan middelmatige George W. Bush boven de veel te slimme Al Gore.
Er zijn uitzonderingen. Wanneer de natie wordt opgeschrikt door een gebeurtenis die de Uitzonderlijkheidstheorie tegenspreekt (een terroristische aanslag, bijvoorbeeld), dan raken we allemaal door het dolle heen en dan hijsen we vlaggen en roepen we om wraak en dan wordt iedereen erg bang en dan doen we gedwee onze schoenen uit in de luchthaven en dan luisteren we met bevend hart naar wat Vadertje Staat van ons verlangt want Vadertje Staat zal ons beschermen en dus stemmen we nog maar eens een keer voor de Hebbers van de Macht. Wat kan er tenslotte in een tweede ambtstermijn fout gaan, niet?

Wel. Dus. Oeps. Deze maand kregen we de kroon op het werk van acht jaar Bushonomics te zien, de desastreuze keten van rampzalige beslissingen van Bagdad via Bourbon Street tot Wall Street.

Waarom zagen we dat niet in 2004? Waarom vallen ons precies nu de schellen van de ogen?
Dit is de beste metafoor die ik kan verzinnen: ‘s mensen ego en de spiegel. Iedereen kijkt graag in de spiegel. Iedereen ziet zichzelf graag, en de spiegel is makkelijk te bedriegen; een vetrol hier of daar kan mentaal weggewerkt, een rimpel links of rechts verdoezeld. Maar er zijn grenzen. Op een dag helpt loensen niet meer. Op een dag kijk je je spiegelbeeld in de ogen en je zegt: My G*d, what have I done?

Zo ook met de natie.
De cataloog van Bush’ zonden is groot. Dat werd Amerikanen nog het duidelijkst toen New Orleans vijf meter onder water stond, het leger vijf dagen wachtte met ingrijpen, de president in geen velden en wegen te bespeuren viel (hij bakte een taart voor John McCains verjaardag), en de media eindelijk beslisten hun werk te doen: gewoon te tonen wat er gaande was. Het zicht van opgeblazen lijken drijvend door de straten van een Amerikaanse stad: was dat Dubbya’s idee van mededogend conservatisme?

Dus, tsja: een eeuwig aanslepende oorlog die duizenden Amerikanen het leven heeft gekost, een staatsschuld die hallucinant tegen het biljoen dollar aan staat te schurken, het opstarten van een afluisterprogramma dat de Stasi had doen blozen, een president die minder populair is dan Nixon –en dat allemaal terwijl de Republikeinen de absolute macht genoten. Niemand begreep beter dan de Republikeinen zelf dat dat hun zuur zou opbreken. De enige partijgenoot die nog een kans maakte op het presidentschap was de man die bekend stond als de maverick, de rebel, de einzelgänger –Ouwe Mopperkont Numero Uno: John McCain! (Never mind die verjaardagstaart.)

Arme McCain.
Eenmaal hij de nominatie binnen had, besloot hij wat politieke spelletjes te gaan spelen.
Schreef ik niet eerder ‘Dit land is op dit moment niet in de stemming voor politieke spelletjes’?

Arme McCain.
Een tijdlang ging het goed.
Zijn eerste gok leek aardig te gaan lukken: op de dag na Obama’s redelijk spectaculaire conventiespeech verschijnt Ouwe Mopperkont naast een mevrouw die jong, kwiek en inhoudsloos genoeg lijkt om zijn derde echtgenote te zijn. Zij is zijn kandidate voor het vice-presidentschap. De mevrouw is gouverneur van Alaska; zij weet precies hoe je een eland omlegt en van zijn ingewanden berooft. Ook jaagt zij op wolven, vanuit een helikopter.
Toen na een week of wat bleek dat je Sarah Palin het makkelijkste belachelijk maakt door een microfoon voor haar mond te schuiven, en dat haar bestuurservaring grotendeels metaforisch was, verschoof de adoratie eerst naar deernis en dan naar onverschillig ongeloof.

Arme McCain.
Dan maar een greep in de grabbelton van wilde leugens. Obama wil de belastingen verhogen; Obama heeft Palin voor varken uitgescholden; Obama wil vijfjarigen “alles” over seks leren; Obama is migrantonvriendelijk. Zelfs Karl Rove vond het allemaal een beetje vergezocht.

Arme McCain.
En dus besloot de man, twee dagen nadat hij de economie fundamenteel gezond had bevonden, dat het vooralsnog toch niet zo goed ging met Wall Street, en dat hij en hij alleen, hoewel zelfverklaard economisch ongeletterd, als reddende engel kon optreden. Door zijn campagne op te schorten. Door het debat uit te stellen. Door bliksemsnel naar Washington te vliegen. Door alle frivole televisieverschijningen af te zeggen. Behalve dan dat de campagne als vanouds liep, dat er nog wel een extra nacht in New York vanaf kon, dat hij bij Katie Couric op de bank ging zitten, en dat hij bij aankomst in Washington zero reddingsplan op zak bleek te hebben. (Geen wonder dat hij tijdens het debat Obama niet eens in de ogen durfde te kijken.)

In die wervelende dagen sputterde McCain overigens niet één, doch maar liefst twee spectaculaire uitbarstingen van ejaculatio praecox bij elkaar: Een banner ad op de website van de Washington Post die twaalf uur voor het debat triomfantelijk meldde dat McCain het debat gewonnen had, en een McCain die met opgeblazen borstkas de wereld kond deed van zijn cruciale rol in het voor elkaar krijgen van het reddingsplan voor Wall Street, zes uur voor de Kamer het plan pardoes van de tafel veegde. Misschien was McCains probleem wel dat geen van die captains of industry dacht: ‘Laat ik nu eens die Palin bellen, zij weet precies hoe je een eland vilt!’

Karl Marx had het bij het rechte eind toen hij stelde dat geschiedenis zich eerst herhaalt als tragedie en dan als farce.

* * *

Een maand is een eeuwigheid in de politiek, zeker in de Verenigde Staten van Amnesie.

Misschien zijn we het op 4 november allemaal vergeten. Dat onze spaarpot een stuk leger rinkelt. Dat Bush ons weer eens voor het blok heeft gezet. Dat we nu de facto leven in twee Amerika’s: de vrije markeconomie voor suckers zoals u en ik, en de Unie der Solidaristische Sovjet-Republikeinen voor de hoeders van het grootkapitaal. Misschien rennen de racisten massaal naar de stembus. Misschien.

Maar op dit moment, even, nu, ben ik hoopvol over mijn adoptieve vaderland. Misschien krijgen we volgend jaar wat we allemaal willen: de huid van Bin Laden, het herstel van de democratie, respect voor de mensenrechten, de burgerrechten weer in voege en een overeind getrokken, goedgereguleerde economie.

Als het verleden, zoals Shakespeare en Joe Biden het al stelden, de proloog is, dan is de toekomst wat we er zelf van schrijven.
Zouden ze het durven, die Amerikanen, denkt u? Durven ze dat?

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Ford Maddox Ford (as found in Julian Barnes' latest):
It's an easy job to say that an elephant, however good, is not a good warthog; for most criticism comes to that.
Double that: ha! ha!

Which reminds me of another favorite chestnut of literary criticism:
This book is not for everyone.
Because the only book that is for everyone is the Yellow Pages, and that has just been made obsolete by Google.

Friday, October 24, 2008


En zie, toch laat ik mij dan weer verleiden tot interviews over dingen waar ik de ballen van af weet -- politiek, bijvoorbeeld.

Als alles goed gaat staat er een kort interview met uw hoovaardige dienaar in de Amerika-bijlage van De Standaard van het weekend van 1 november.

Tipje van de sluier: de volgende woorden komen allemaal in het interview voor: 'geklungel', 'het', 'de', 'Katrina', 'aardbeientaart', 'compassionate conservative', en 'protofascisme'.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


So, in Belgium, we've got this 'Stichting Lezen' -- the Reading Foundation. You know, the things you do with books? (Apart from using them as garden stools which mine, by the way, serves excellently as.) Stichting Lezen: The things you do with books, they like them. They promote them even. Go read! they screech from the mountain, directing their yell in the general direction of the general populace.

In the general purpose of said promotional activities, they asked me for a short 'story' on the relationship between reader and writer, 2000 characters including spaces, to be included in a brochure, 68,000 copies of which are to be distributed in train stations and libraries. All on the occasion of a television show where they make writers speak.

They also wanted it, like, now. (Writers are bums, always just lazing around until a perfectly good opportunity -- just like this one! -- comes along.)

I offered them The Tiny Bones, in a Dutch translation.

Still one of the best pieces of flash fiction I've ever done, I feel.

They said no. Too much about writing, The Tiny Bones. Not about the relationship between writer and reader. Maybe, they suggested, I could write something about, you know, actually meeting a reader? Ooh! (Purell!) Maybe... an extremely enthusiastic or... critical or... weird or... disagreeable reader? Ooh again!

Dance, dear writer, dance! We like what you write, except that we don't!

I am too old for writing workshops. So I said no.

And they said maybe next time? Well, dear reader, I just dropped my pants and smiled.*

In the meantime, I'm working on a short essay for the Jewish Quarterly, on the necessity of historical fiction.

*With a McCainian accent.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Screen shot from the Jewish Book Week website. (Needed to do a screen shot. This won't be up for long, I'm sure.)
Misspelling of my last name aside (my own tired joke of this is that, like everything else that went wrong in my life, my name's spelling is entirely my dad's fault), I am thrilled (and in awe of the writer's blurbing skills), and also, somehow, moved. Can't wait to get to London in March!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Reis naar Vlaanderen in het verschiet, waarbij de volgende openbare vertoningen zijn gepland:

- Lezing uit Omega Minor en zo nog wat, en Q&A, ergens in Koksijde (bib of cultureel centrum), op 3 november, 20.00;
- Prijsuitreiking van de 2006 (!) Prijs voor Letterkunde der Vlaamse Provincies, in gebouw van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie Taal- en Letterkunde, Gent, op 4 november, 20.00;
- Verschijning op Knack-dag van de Boekenbeurs, Anwerpen, op 7 november. Ik ben de plak hoofdkaas in het broodje ongeregeld waarvan Jos Geysels en Julian Barnes** de deeglappen uitmaken. (Geen idee wat ik daarmee bedoel, maar 't bekt. Lekker.) Ergens in de namiddag. Ach, kom, breng toch gewoon de hele dag op de Beurs door, waarom niet?

Ik blijk ook samen met XXXXXX XXXXXXX*** (nog zo'n XXXXXXX***) in dat nieuwe VRT/VPRO boekenprogramma te zitten. We tapen op 6 november.

In het kader van schrijvend hoereren omwille van de poen (en waar zou je 't anders voor doen?): Het novembernummer van MO* zou een behoorlijk slapeloze Verhaeghen-tekst over de Amerikaanse verkiezingen moeten bevatten.

Als u in het bezit bent van een perskaart en u wil mij dringend spreken: Meulenhoff|Manteau is uw team!

* Nope. Geen voetnoot. Ze heten echt MO*, met sterretje.
** Barnes schreef ooit een van de meer intrigerende zinnen uit de Britse literatuur: Lying in bed we tell the truth. Gaat de man zien!
*** Naam en informatie weggecensureerd op vraag van de organiserende organisatie.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008


Salon has a new and harrowing piece about David Foster Wallace, and the final stages of his depression, and how he ultimately succumbed to it.
We know little about the link between writing and mood disorder, except that there is one: Famous novelists have a 50% probability to go through a major depression in their lifetime; for poets it's even higher (numbers come from Ludwig's book on the topic). Sometimes, folks seem to assume the link is direct: Depression is the driving force behind your writing (see this unfortunate interview with Pistanek). The DFW piece suggests otherwise. As most writers and clinical psychologists know, depression is debilitating, not liberating. It is a coffin, not a fount.
I (with Jutta Joormann and Rodney Kahn) am one of the few who've done actual empirical work on the causes of the link. In our paper, Why We Sing the Blues (see also the short digest in the APA monitor), we looked at the relationship between depressed mood, creativity, and rumination. Rumination is the kind of circling self-attention that is hard to stop, and is well-known to be associated with depression. (Folks who think hard about themselves and the world and their place in it, are bound to, well, not be so chipper.) It is also, or so we thought, something creative folks do, or maybe even need. What we found was that this is indeed the case: rumination begets depression, and it also begets creativity, but once you take this propensity to ponder into account, there is no direct link between depression and creativity anymore. In other words: Rumination might get you to sing, and it might get you the blues. Therefore, a number of folks who sing do sing the blues, because that is what they literally sadly experience.
The good news from our own work is then that therapy for depression, if successfull in lifting the depression, should also help with writing (contrary, again, to what Pistanek is asserting in his, come to think of it now, dangerous interview). But therapy does not always work -- as DFW's case demonstrates. We should be glad he gave us what he could while he could, but that does not take away the awful chill left by his departure.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Ayelet Waldman (and Michael Chabon) have noticed that writers and perhaps also lovers of literature in general carry their heart and their brains (and sometimes their cojones) on the left side.
So, she started
Books for Barack.
The idea is simple: If you are a US resident or a citizen and you donate $250 to the Obama campaign through her MyObama page (click the link above for more info), she'll send you ten randomly selected signed books, donated by their authors. The tally is at around 1,500, so you have a 1/150 chance it'll be a copy of
Omega Minor.
That is, as soon as I locate a big padded envelope in this big mess I call my house.

Let this thing with feathers soar!

UPDATE: They ran out of books. Already. Now it's just Money for Barack. In return, we might just get our country back. Also nothing to be snubbed at.

Monday, September 22, 2008


A most awesome and political (NSFW if you work for the govt, no doubt), and quite smart online art exhibit: America, the Gift Shop.

Includes an Oldenburg-like inflatable nylon Guantanamo cell, plenty-o-t-shirts, and a Cheney-shredding-documents sno-globe. Among other things.

Not timely enough to include the greatest gift of all: 700,000,000,000 dollars in debt racked up by the military-industrial complex taken over by us, the taxpayers, in one fell swoop, that is, at about 2,000 dollars per resident. (The elections just have become a moot point. We'll all be mowing lawns for the govt until further notice, every single Saturday of our lives.)

Friday, September 19, 2008


One of you came here looking for the following:
maximum safe time to tie up testicles
and left after 0:00 seconds.

I am so sorry to disappoint.

Therefore, for lack of usefulness or entertainment value, this blog will be suspended until further notice.

(But if you want my opinion: That time depends on what tasks you want those testicles to perform after unbinding. Bleed? Tie'm up longer. Provide baby-conception-quality sperm: Uhn-uhn! Also: Only tie up testicles if owner of said globules agrees with the procedure. Just sayin.)


Donald Rumsfeld, great warlord not so much, but poet extraordinaire, as we all know, today dethroned by Sarah Palin, who found this haiku rolling our of the mouth, just like that:

They don't flag, you know,
the molecules, where it's
goin' and where it's not.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


A few posts down, dglen asked if I have any thoughts to share on 2666.

Now, I am simply a reader and a singer of songs; I am not a critic, nor am I schooled in the proper ways of reading. I read partially by gut. Let the big guys like Fausto and Scott and Chad go after this one with their usual flair and the sharp instruments of their analysis -- they do it so well.

I'll tell you simply this: Read it. It's one of those books that comes along rarely, perhaps every decade or so, like Infinite Jest or One Hundred Years of Solitude or Gravity's Rainbow -- books that stretch the form because they must, because the existing form cannot capture what the writer needs to say. 2666 is dark and long and winding, repetitive in the way a Beethoven symphony is repetitive (although RB's tone is much more Shostakovich), and the way the writer circles (circles! no convergence!) around the main theme -- the black Void of Evil that is humanity -- is nothing short of breathtaking. Here we are taken aloft on the wings of some heavy dank creature to glide in ever shrinking spirals on the warm thermals of a deathly desert, safely aloof yet shaking with terror for right beneath us Hell's own maw gapes and burps. And yes, Bolano's Evil is ultimately banal, but -nosiree- it ain't trivial. Never before have I seen this done with this such sharp clarity and yet such clever circumspection: The writer stares at the Platonic shadows on the wall (that is, if darkness could cast shadows) and then does what he has to do. He sits and sets on paper the ever churning circles of his mind. Knowing, as Bolano did, that this novel would end with the writer's own death, is fully part of the novel's hidden narrative and its significance.

This is no hype concocted by the slimy assclowns of the publishing industry. For once, this is the real deal -- the raw deal.

Bonus question: Why are all the great writers dead? Why did we have to wait until DFW died to hear all this great praise heaped upon him? Why is writing such ungrateful work (see Flann O'Brien, see Willem Elsschot)? Shouldn't we start celebrating and hugging our living writers (and by extension all creative artists), maybe not to the extent we obsessively revere Matthew McConaughey's perfect abs and pecs or Jessica Simpson's wondrous hairdo, but still? Or do we await the artsy equivalent of a Wall Street collapse before we all rush in?

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I read Infinite Jest in the late 1990s. It blew my mind. It was all a novel needed to be. Novel, for instance, and containing, well, all. I took up permanent residence in the year of the Depend adult undergarment.

And in the literature of excess.

The novel I wrote after reading Infinite Jest contained 967 footnotes. My publisher made me scrap all of those.

And now David Foster Wallace has decided to scrap himself.

If any frigging writer in this frigging country was not in excess, if any one was needed, it was him.


Here are some of the things that make a man, or so says Krishna:
Suffering and the end of suffering; fear and fearlessness; birth and death.

Mr. Wallace: May you rest in peace, may you be read, and may you be, to the extent we can, understood.

Friday, September 12, 2008


In my culture, the dimple in his chin -- said her friend from far-East India -- signifies wisdom. (The vertical furrow in his brow does not harm matters, either.)

The mother bowed in silence. We will see, she then replied, realizing full well that for now her baby boy's considerable wisdom was attuned to the exact foreknowledge when during a diaper change his dad was within shooting range, and unaware.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


A while ago, Virginie Kippelen (multilingual herself, to the point where I'm afraid to practice my by now meager French on her) interviewed me for The Linguist, a British journal/magazine interested in, among other things, language and translation. I assume that piece will be coming out soon; Virginie has a small taste on her blog. In French.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Some book-related news from TIME magazine:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.
Or as they say in some of those books with inappropriate language: Oh fuck!

Saturday, August 30, 2008


So, I decided to follow my reading of 2666 with an oldie from the pile, The Third Policeman*.

I respectfully suggest that readers interested in both flip the order.

*When did this thing called postmodernism actually start? Sterne? Cervantes? Potocki? De Selby?


The reason I moved to the States in 1997 was a job in academia. At that time, there was a reason to make such a move, even if it meant leaving your family and friends and language and culture behind for-perhaps-ever. Notably, there was monetary support for research unlike anything you could get anywhere in Europe, at least in my field. I have no numbers for ye ole' continent, but below are a couple of graphs with the evolution (or rather, the "intelligent design") of US scientific funding in the past few decades, which I stole from a fellow blogger. I am not going to lament or editorialize for a change. Except to ask you to look at the trend. And to ask yourself, if you are American, whether all this science and technology business isn't perhaps something that might be integral to maintaining (the illusion of) being the greatest nation on earth.
(Forget funding for the arts of course. We crossed that bridge a long time ago.) (And I am way past caring. I merely observe.)
Feel free to upload a pic with the evolution of military spending in the comments.


Many writers can tell tales of woe concerning the odds of getting published. Rawi Hage's fascinating novel De Niro's Game was picked off the slush pile after being rejected countless times (or so the exaggeration goes) by countless (ditto) publishers, and then went on to win the IMPAC Award -- which comes with the biggest pile of money available for any single book. A similar fate awaited A Confederacy of Dunces. And I vaguely remember getting 9 rejections for Lichtenberg, my (quite horrible) first novel, which then still won the Debuutprijs.

Not so with the following folks: Four books that merrily got published, though not - one assumes - solely on the strength of their title:

My personal favorite is still the immortal Cooking with Pooh (did this go out of print?), but I do agree its cover does not live up to the full potential contained within the title.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Oh blimey. I got carried away again. Promised myself not to do that anymore. I’ll shut up after this. (Like: There's much more interesting stuff that kvetching about - literally - words.) Just this: I’d rather READ and share the frigging JOY of reading than sit in a corner and eye Bolano’s translator with suspicion. Whatever the asshole academics (and I do know them, I am one) tell you: The power of writing doesn’t stop at mere linguistics.

Quoting myself from Chad's blog:

Ah, but Green’s argument is much more incisive than that — he pushes it firmly into the realm of qualia. The good man writes about his fear that the translator “in some other way failed to adequately render the original in a way that would dupicate [sic] the Russian reader’s experience of Grossman’s text”. Granted, no translator can adequately render the original that way. But neither can anyone currently alive (even a German-writing Jew living in Prague) have the exact duplicate of the experience of any contemporary reader of Kafka – that time is past, that culture is gone. The same goes for paintings (how to duplicate the experience of the Parisian bourgeoisie when first confronted with Monet?) or music (how to duplicate the experience of being the first to hear Le Sacre du Printemps? Or, for that matter, the Stones in 1965?). Or lit: Me going to the Globe to see/hear/smell Much Ado About Nothing (just a random title I picked, for no particular reason) isn’t the same, by a long shot, as going to its very first performance. Or any other Shakespeare performance in the next few centuries. Which is why we have all these different directors and actors reinventing these plays, and still they call it Shakespeare. Dude, that’s how rich the text is!

Taken seriously, Green’s argument makes ANY form of criticism impossible. Because nobody’s experience can ever be duplicated, not any reader’s, not any writer’s. (For a more high-brow and metaphorical treatment of this point, see, of course, Borges’ wonderful tale of Ménard duplicating Cervantes. Oops. This is assuming that Green reads Spanish, because, well, wow, can’t read/judge Borges in translation, can we?) So, neither me nor anyone else can ever win this argument with Green, because Green did set himself up at some unassailable position. (Good thing so many philosophers of mind did write in English.)

All art is translation, all the time. It all shifts, it shimmers, it cannot be captured. Which is why writers have such utter disdain for critics, who run around with nets and, if the writer doesn’t agree to sit still long enough, with baseball bats or sniper guns. Ever wonder why Perec looks at the camera the way he does, in that famous haunting picture? (Perec. French.)

All I’m saying is this: Have a little faith, bro, in the professionalism of translators and the power of the text!
As a nasty footnote: To me, it seems that monolinguals (and monolingual cultures) have a much harder time accepting translations for what they are: approximations of what an author was doing, in her own historical time and place, which is anyway an approximation of what said author /wanted/ to do in said historical/spatial circumstances, than multilinguals (and multilingual cultures) do. This, methinks, is not unlike the type of paranoia often exhibited by the deaf – there’s a joke being played on them, continuously, behind their back, they feel, and life would be so much better if only they could put their finger on it! (“There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Green?”)

Okay. Now it’s time to take my meds.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Those of you who have read Omega Minor know why this link is here: Crows recognize human faces . (And pigeons don't.) (With many thanks to the incomparable Joel Myerson for pointing me in the direction of the article.)

The researchers donned masks to do their study and found that the birds remembered how they were treated by these masked strangers.

Can I suggest that a few students on select UT campuses start pestering crows wearing George W. Bush masks so that when the man actually arrives on campus during his inevitable post-presidency "lecture" tour he will be a target to be shat upon?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Holy crap! Someone alerted me that the Belgian prime minister has a blog, on which he just reviewed (Dutch/French) Omega Minor. (Favorably. Otherwise, I wouldn't mention it.)

I kid you not. I hail from a country where the Big Guy (a) reads novels ('a lot', he says), and (b) reviews them on his blog. In two languages.

OK, I dabble in politics, which I review on my blog, so we're even.


Here in the US, we're still waiting on G. W. Bush's review of L'Etranger. He started it in 2006. Should be done by now.

By the way, does Belgium's King Albert have a blog, and does he read novels?


Oh no. I was mean to someone in the blogosphere yesterday. What came over me?

Here's the context: Chad Post meta-posted Daniel Green who, in essence, argues that you can't judge a text that's been translated because you can't judge whether the translation
adequately render[s] the original in a way that would dupicate [sic] the Russian reader's experience of Grossman's text.
(For the philosophers of mind among us: That's quite a hearty helping of the qualia problem right there.) (And is that the sound of Nabokov fainting? Is that Conrad spinning in his grave? Did someone drop twenty King James Bibles there, with a mighty thump?)

Chad smells BS here, and so did a few commenters. I posted my comment on Green, mean-spirited and red-eyed, in Chad's blog, because although I did try to post it in Green's, it never actually appeared on the blog. (Must be moderated. Heaven forbid critics get criticized.)

Here's what I wrote:

Allow me to quote another brilliant passage from Green’s blog:

“Which is why I concentrate, both on this blog and in my other critical writing, mostly on fiction written in English, even more specifically on American fiction since I feel most able to engage with texts composed in American English (and also with the cultural realities often underlying American language conventions).”

Let’s play around a bit with this, shall we?

“Which is why I concentrate, both on this blog and in my other critical writing, mostly on paintings done in North America, even more specifically in the United States of America since I feel most able to engage with depictions of cultural realities often underlying American cultural conventions.”


“Which is why I concentrate, both on this blog and in my other critical writing, mostly on music composed in the United States of America since I feel most able to engage with sounds produced by my fellow Americans (and also with the cultural realities often underlying American muscial conventions).”

How about:

“Which is why I concentrate, both on this blog and in my other critical writing, mostly on fiction written in American English, even more specifically on fiction written by white males since I feel most able to engage with texts composed in Standard American English (and also with the cultural realities often underlying contemporary white male language conventions).”

Time, in other words, for Mr. Green to pull his lazy head out of his spastic colon and listen to some Bach and look at some Picasso and read some Bolano. Or some Shakespeare. Or perhaps some Toni Morrison.

All culture is translation, even if only from mind to mind. All of it.

Yup, I know. Mean-spirited, ad hominem, O'Reilly-worthy shouts. Oh my! -- all those things you do when you suddenly see red! All those thing I promised myself never to engage in! What happened to equanimity? To self-restraint?

So last night then I asked myself: Why do you care, hm? Really? And do you?

And, yes, I do.

I live in America. Which is sometimes said to be a melting pot. But it ain't. There's a fire under the pot alright, but ain't nothing cooking.

Which is where literature comes in. In my mind writing, and reading, is this fantastic laboratory. (This likely goes for all the arts.) In your writing and in your reading ideas percolate and whirl and evaporate, and from them you can distill the new. Literature is the true melting pot, the foundry out of which we forge... Oh well, I get too high-faluting here, and too cliched.* Knock it down a notch.

It's just that the literature I care about sings in many tongues: It can be Brits with deep new roots in Japanese society, recovering Muslims investigating the human core at the heart of religion, women examining the true awfulness of masculinity, white Americans having a long hard look at our racism past and present, Jews writing about "passing", Americans writing in French, Russians writing in English, or dying men turning back to stare unblinkingly into the void of life's true evil.

Good art has wings. Climb on its back. Art should change the world -- one person at a time. What's the use of any journey, if it makes you stay who you were all along?

Which is why I get mad when someone stares at the pyramids like a sullen adolescent, and says: They look just like the ones in Vegas. Or the other way around.

* Yes, I know. I am too stupid to get an accent aigu out of this damn blogging machine.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


For some inexplicable but delightful reason, the Belgian French-language newspaper Le Soir just published a short piece on Omega Minor, calling it un roman majeur de l'année.
Unexpected, but nice for two reasons: (a) The book isn't out in French yet (the incomparable and no doubt insomniac Claro is soon starting on his translation - I can't wait), but I have now seen advance echoes in three French-language newspapers, and that is promising; and, more importantly: (b) It is, believe me, very touching to be written up with some modicum of national pride by my compatriots across the language border. For some reason, Walloons and Flemings are supposed to hate each other's guts, and our politicians are indeed at each other's throat, but culturally? Oh my, give me Magritte, Amelie Nothomb, and Jacques Brel anytime, baby. (And Django - can we claim Django, you think?)

Saturday, August 23, 2008


I am not making this up.
From the website of the FDA, generally not known to be a barrel of monkeys or a bunch of merry clowns (well, hm):

*** The revision of this Alert dated 8/20/08 is to revise the Guidance. Also,
the attachment list of specific firms was removed from this alert since
the alert applies to all manufacturers of all such devices. ***

TYPE OF ALERT: *** Detention Without Physical Examination, (DWPE) ***

PRODUCT: Penis Enlargers
Erection Maintaining Devices





I.D. #: N/A

CHARGE: "The article is subject to refusal of admission pursuant to
Section 801(a)(3) in that it appears to be a device, the label
of which fails to bear adequate directions for use
[Misbranding, Section 502(f)(1)]."

Charge Code: DIRECTIONS ***

OFFICE: Division of Import Operations & Policy, HFC-170 and CDRH, HFZ-

ALERT: The use of penis enlargers and erection maintaining rings may
have harmful effects. They may aggravate existing medical
conditions such a Pegronies disease, priapism, and urethral
stricture. They may contuse or cause rupture of the
subcutaneous blood vessels, which may produce hemorrhage and
hematoma formation. Additionally, frequent use of erection
maintaining rings may result in ecchymosis of the proximal
portion of the penis and scrotum, and the lymphatic stasis of
the penis. Prolonged use of the rings may cause gangrene of
the penis.

Basically, the labeling of these devices falsely states or
implies they will treat impotence, prolong erection, and
increase the dimensions of the penis.

These devices generally fall into the following categories:

1. Mechanical stretching devices.

Those employing weights, or lines tied to other parts of
the body (such as the knee), to affect tension on the

2. Vacuum operated devices.

Those employing a sealing principle in the area of the
base of the penis and an evacuation mechanism to drop
the atmospheric pressure around the penis thereby
effecting increased blood flow.

3. Constrictive Rings.

Those devices which constrict the base of the penis
after erection has been achieved and cause the erection
to be maintained by blocking the normal circulation of
blood from the penis.

4. Supportive devices.

Those devices which function as a splint or cradle in
order to maintain a resemblance of turgidity

*** GUIDANCE: Districts may detain without physical examination, unless
exempted by 21 CFR, Section 801.109, all devices in the above
described categories. Districts may also be able to detain
such devices under IA 89-08, "DWPE of devices w/o approved
PMA's or IDE's and other devices not equivalent or no 510K."
If there is any question whether or not any device encountered
falls into the above described categories, contact CDRH,
Division of Compliance Operations, HFZ-332, at 240-276-0339.
I think they probably envisioned the following (scaringly realistic) scenario:
MAN IN PLANE, STANDING UP SUDDENLY, HOLDING UP SMALL PLASTIC RING FOR ALL TO SEE: Listen up, you people! I've got a cock ring right here...
MAN: ... And I'm not afraid to use it!
PASSENGERS: Noooooo! [A few faint.]
MAN: Unless my demands are met, I will club you all to death with the erection it will provoke!
PASSENGERS: [Close-ups of faces reflecting shock, despair, and naked fear.]

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I obviously haven't read the novel The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones. It was slated for publication right about now, but Random House withdrew it. Why? Well, you know, it's a novel, so they read it before signing the contract. Rumor is they shelled out a 100k advance, suggesting that they liked it and they thought it would sell. And somebody in their mighty offices edited it. And it (presumably) went to proof.

So here's why. Random House asked a UT professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Denise Spellberg, to write a blurb for their nice new novel. Instead (quoting the Wikipedia entry for Spellberg who now, congratulations!, has her own Wikipedia entry):
Spellberg became part of a burgeoning controversy when an email she sent to Random House regarding The Jewel of Medina, a to-be-published historical novel about Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was leaked to the press. Spellberg reportedly informed Random House that publication would expose Random House employees to Islamic terrorism and that Muslims would react with the kind of violence seen in past controversies over the The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. No actual threats were received by Random House.
Rushdie wrote an email to Random House calling them, basically, pussies. (Did you, by the way, read the last sentence in the block quote?) Then Spellberg tried to weasel out of her responsibility in an op-ed for the Washington Post, basically (brilliant argument!) reiterating what she already said in her email to RH and passing the buck to them.

On the one hand, it's nice to see that at least some folks still think that novels do matter. Wew!

On the other: yeah, right.

I've said it before, and countless others have said this as well, but here it goes again: If your religion, your world view, the moral and epistemological very basis of your mortal existence can be shaken by a mere work of art, that is, by mere words, ideas, gestures, sounds or shapes produced by a fellow human being, you should immediately revisit said religion, world view, and very basis.

And if anyone in a fancy suit, a stern cloak or a dashing bonnet proclaims you should not consume said work of art for the risk of losing your eternal soul and corrupting the moral and epistemological very basis of your mortal existence, you should tell them the same, that is: If your religion, your world view, the moral and epistemological very basis of your mortal existence can be shaken by a mere work of art, that is, by mere words, ideas, gestures, sounds or shapes produced by a fellow human being, you should immediately revisit said religion, world view, and very basis.

Additionally, you might ask them what exactly they are hiding in the pockets of that suit, whether a true heart beats inside that cloak, and if, indeed, a working brain lives underneath that bonnet.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


On my walk into work:
- A guy with a t-shirt saying: I hope you're an ANIMAL cause I'm a BEAST.
- A young woman letting out a yelp of joy spying a young man coming towards her on the sidewalk. He broke his stride to hug her, but while he did, he looked carefully around: Do-you-see-me? Did-you-see-her? She's-hot! Rawza!
- A 40-year old man with ponytail, goatee, mirrored sunglasses and too cool to wait for the traffic light to turn green, sporting a skulls-and-crossbones t-shirt.

Then I overheard a frat-boy type saying: "But what does it all mean, right? Why lead a hollow life?"
I did a double-take.
Of course: He was talking to what they call here "a hot chick".


Yesterday, one of our graduate students walked into my office wearing a tie. The tie, by the way, was a horrible knit affair, and paired with khaki cargo shorts and flipflops*.

I remarked on the tie. He said it was Tuesday, and therefore tie day, and suggested I join the movement. I gracefully declined, in so many words.

What I had wanted to say instead was that I have worked all my life to be taken seriously for my mind. An arrow pointing at my dickhead methinks would distract.

*How to dress like a European, part the first: If some article of clothing or accessory is suitable for a 13-year old girl to wear poolside, it should only be worn poolside.