Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

The Man Who Would Be Sven

The empty achievements of Sven Birkerts

Maisonneuve is proud to publish Dale Peck's last negative review - ever.


1 It’s like rain on your wedding day . . .

Here’s criticism’s trade secret: you can find meaning in anything if you look hard enough. Contemplate a work of art and patterns inevitably emerge, echoes, resonances, allusions which can be brought out and amplified through exegesis, the interpretive conceit by which a critic simultaneously deconstructs and rebuilds, unveils and augments another writer’s metaphors, another writer’s vision. Part attention to detail, part science, part Vulcan mind meld, exegesis allows a critic to enter and extend the context of a work of art, whether it be through the useful reductions of Sunday book reviews, the half millennium of minutiae that have accumulated to make Shakespeare “The Bard” or revelatory reappraisals in the manner of D. H. Lawrence’s resuscitation of the writing of Herman Melville.

It’s the latter efforts that tend to capture our attention, but it’s important to remember at the outset that exegesis is only incidentally or latterly concerned with aesthetic quality. Its uncritical methodology can no more tell the difference between Hollywood Wives and The Iliad than a microscope’s lens can, on its own, distinguish between a drop of Jackie Collins’ blood and a drop of Homer’s. For that you need the discerning—what Susan Sontag has called the “defending”—human eye. In “Against Interpretation,” Sontag attempts to fine-tune the critic’s attention, arguing for a paraphrasis that reveals “how it is what it is” (the “it” in this case being a work of art), rather than “what it means.” There’s an unstated moral faith in this paradigm that the critic, like the scientist, will use his genius in the service of good—that the reviewer in the Sunday book section doesn’t have a bias for or against the writer under consideration—but right now I want to constrain my focus to the methods rather than the goals or “results” of criticism. For, putting aside questions of taste (on the part of the critic), vitality (on the part of the text) and, most importantly, motive (on both sides), exegesis stands as a recorded fantasizing, a written, orderly elaboration of the same process by which any reader enters a story and claims it for him- or herself. And even as we keep in mind Sontag’s only slightly sarcastic admonition that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art,” we must also remember that it is, in the most basic sense, how people read. Some readers see the history of Western civilization in Ulysses, others find it equally animate in an issue of X-Men, and, though questions of taste and vitality come up in both instances—not to mention motive—you can’t say either party is wrong.

That’s the secret. The trick (what you might call keeping the secret) is performing a bravura act of imaginative interpolation with a straight face. For example: “I’ve dropped my Brain,” writes “Amherst’s Madame de Sade” —aka Emily Dickinson—as Camille Paglia christened her in the unexpected critical bestseller Sexual Personae. Paglia went on to declare, “We hear a muffled thump, like the paperboy hitting the stoop with the evening edition.” For Paglia and critics like her, a poem or story (or piece of art or other artifact) is less object than touchstone in the vast cultural subconscious, and she takes advantage of this to push her readings beyond traditional limits of authorial intentionality or historical chronology. Exegesis at this level is less interpretation than parallel narrative, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if it expands a text’s impact or diffuses it through too many tangential, anachronistic, esoteric associations. Or, to put it another way, whenever I see a critic taking such liberties I’m not sure if I’m in the presence of genius or insanity, but I sure do laugh a lot. Which is, I’m pretty sure, the intention: among other things, the humour of a Camille Paglia or Wayne Koestenbaum or Dave Hickey makes conspicuous the subtle, easily ignored dramatic irony that informs all criticism. The idea that art—an enterprise whose primary function is to reveal the members of a culture to themselves—cannot be understood by that culture without Virgilian assistance seems, on the face of it, absurd, and this particular brand of exegesis, while often way off the mark (if not simply off the wall), nonetheless acknowledges its supplemental relationship to the text in question; its humour is inviting, yet also invites its own dismissal. How sad, by comparison, is the critic who seems unaware of the inner workings of his own profession, who acts as if he is the only one who sees Waldo in the picture and can point him out to you.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sven Birkerts.

Birkerts first appeared on the critical scene with a 1979 examination of the work of Robert Musil. That first essay was particularly important to Birkerts, who on two separate occasions has cast its genesis as a lifelong endeavour: first in the autobiographical second chapter of The Gutenberg Elegies and now in the climactic chapter of his memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. Though he didn’t “straightaway start grinding out essays by the basketful,” he writes in the former book, that first essay did lead to “a change, a recognition”; in fact, he allows, “it reshaped my life to the very core.” Almost shyly, he declares, “I liked my opening especially.”

Indulge me for a moment:

The career of Robert Musil excelled in disappointments and bitter ironies. Since his death—in exile and poverty—these disappointments and ironies have lived on; only now they are visited upon his readers, or more accurately, his prospective readers. For with the exception of a paperback reissue of Young Törless (1955), Musil’s first published book, and the first volume (1953) of his gigantic, albeit unfinished, The Man Without Qualities, his works are difficult to find in this country. Volumes II and III of the latter work were published in the late 1950’s only to be remaindered and, finally, pulped. For a time it was possible to obtain a volume of his stories, published variously as Five Women and Tonka and Other Stories (1966), but even a glowing preface by the likes of Frank Kermode was not sufficient to keep the book afloat in the treacherous waters of public demand. It seems that even now, decades after his death, the curse of obscurity still clings to Robert Musil.

If this were not indignity enough, there is still the fact that much of what Musil wrote waits to be translated. Two plays, Die Schwärmer and Vinzenz oder Die Freundlin Bedeutender Männer, and a prose collection, Nachlass zu Lebzeiten, lie undisturbed in their native language. The English title of this last might be: The Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, and is Musil’s comment upon his own obscurity. He was himself bitter and incredulous, and he deeply resented the reputations achieved by writers like Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. Musil could only assume that history would vindicate him and that he would be discovered by readers in the future. His assumption was not entirely in vain. Musil can claim more dedicated readers today than he could in his lifetime. But even so, the numbers are small. To the extent that this is owing to the neglect of the publishing industry, there is just no excuse. Such neglect is hardly excusable where lesser authors are concerned. But Musil is not a lesser author. He is one of the few great moderns, one of the handful who ventured to confront the issues that shape and define our time. To use a modern metaphor: he has a range and a striking capacity every bit as great as that of Mann, Joyce, or Beckett. The time is right for getting the whole of Musil translated and into print and for starting in on the work of clarifying his particular importance.

We must linger a moment longer on the subject of ironies and disappointments . . .

“Every nation,” T. S. Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind; and is even more oblivious of the shortcomings and limitations of its critical habits than of those of its creative genius.” Forgive the excessive quotation, but I want you to have the unelided evidence to judge for yourself when I suggest that Sven Birkerts—winner of the National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, a PEN Spielvogel- Diamonstein Special Citation, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a recipient of a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award—launched into his chosen profession of interpreter and tastemaker to the nation unable, like Alanis Morissette, to distinguish between irony and bad luck.1


2 I wrote my Peck stories . . .

If you were to pick up My Sky Blue Trades with little or no previous knowledge of Birkerts’ work, as I did, you probably wouldn’t realize how overdetermined the book is. Its tone is quiet, its presentation straightforward: Sven—called by what I think is his middle name, Peter, throughout—was born in the early fifties, to two parents, in the normal way, and lived long enough to write these words. No particularly garish or life-threatening or heroic experiences marked his tenure on the planet, or at least until his twenty-seventh year, when the memoir ends. His parents were Latvian immigrants, and he spoke Latvian at home, giving him the conflicted dual identity common to many bilingual American children. His preferred language was English, though, and reading, he tells us, became a “compulsion” by the fourth grade, and soon enough he allowed himself to drift toward the idea of writing as well, trying his hand at poetry, then more studiously at fiction. Only when that didn’t work out did he turn to criticism: enter Robert Musil.

In fact Birkerts has been preparing this story for nearly a decade. The second chapter of his 1994 book, The Gutenberg Elegies, is in fact a forty-page précis of the memoir, starting with Birkerts’ childhood in Michigan with his Latvian parents and ending with the publication, at twenty-seven, of his first piece of criticism, on Robert Musil. If readers were wondering what an autobiographical essay had to do with “the fate of reading in an electronic age,” The Gutenberg Elegies’ ostensible subject, Birkerts answers the question in the first chapter of 1999’s Readings. Here he refers to “a very particular sort of memoir” he’s been working on, “the point of which is not to indulge in my recollections for their own sake, but rather to present them selectively in such a way that the reader will grasp my real point, which is that in the past fifty years or so something in the nature of time—or in our experience of it—has changed radically.” In this transitional conception, My Sky Blue Trades is less memoir than “evidence,” Birkerts’ expert testimonial to the idea that “the human time experience may be undergoing a fundamental mutation.” Birkerts isn’t the first man to see in his own life a mirror of his times—The Education of Henry Adams, a text that reappears periodically in Birkerts’ work, makes much the same claim for its subject—but he might be the first to declare it before writing his memoir, and then, on top of that, to abandon the idea in the actual book, where transhistorical analysis has less to do with the impact of the information revolution on “the human time experience” than with observations such as “living as we do in an era when various amphibians are under real threat of extinction, it’s hard to imagine that there was once a staggering abundance of the creatures.”

No, Birkerts’ only subject here is himself, the inevitable progression from frog-killing child to book-killing critic. When he gets there, he weakly protests, as he did in The Gutenberg Elegies, that the significance he attached to his Musil essay was “misguided,” even as he restates his belief that the essay was “some sort of rebirth.” He does a little dance with modesty (“if rebirth did not exactly follow—transformations are seldom so dramatic—change did”) then finally succumbs to his own conceit. “My whole life changed in a way that felt like part of a larger orchestration,” he declares in the coda to his memoir, “as if somewhere, on high, a subtle but definite nod had been given.” As if in proof, he offers the following anecdote:

A few weeks after that baptism into print, while the ink was, figuratively speaking, still fresh on my fingers from so much endearing, then rapidly tiresome, handling of those pages, I was invited by my old bookstore friend Paul to a May Day party that some of his Marxist study-group comrades were giving. Not wanting to arrive dateless, I called Terri, but Terri was busy. Which turned out to be a providential thing for me . . .

If you’re thinking that Birkerts is about to meet his future wife at this party, you’re correct. Yep, Birkerts finds his muse in the aesthetic sense, and “a few weeks” later finds her in the flesh as well. Causal connection? None. But “narratives unfailingly project lives as fates. Which is why so many of us resort to narratives: we want to feel carried in this way.”

This, then, is the fatal narrative ostensibly carrying the reader through the 279 pages of dull sophistry that make up My Sky Blue Trades: not “Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time,” as the consonance-crippled subtitle would have it, but rather “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Or, more accurately, “Portrait of the Critic.” Indeed, My Sky Blue Trades is in many ways a work of criticism itself, the latest step in a twenty-year move away from simple book reviewing toward an ever widening application of Birkerts’ belief (following from Roland Barthes) “that popular culture yields wonders when subjected to academic modes of scrutiny.” Consequently, My Sky Blue Trades reads less like memoir than biography—the Early Years of late-twentieth-century cultural critic Sven Birkerts, whose biographer is less concerned with narrating the events that occurred prior to the progenitive Musil essay than in “projecting” the narrative form, meaning and inevitability to those events that would make the Musil essay their “unfailingly” logical outcome.

The origins of this particular idea occur even earlier than The Gutenberg Elegies. In a 1988 gloss of Pasternak’s memoir Safe Conduct, Birkerts cites “the true nature” of Pasternak’s “enterprise” as “an autobiography that would recover not what happened but what mattered” (italics in original). And then again, in a 1994 essay entitled “Biography and the Dissolving Self,” Birkerts writes, “We attend to the particulars of the life as we read, but in some essential way we read past the defining circumstances and situations to make contact with the common—that is to say ‘universal’—subject.” “Biographical narration,” Birkerts wrote, “is premised on coherence and meaning. The biographer almost occupationally views his subject as living under the aspect of a singular destiny, with everything around him contributing to press his experience into its intended shape. Which of us feel [sic] some comparable sense of destination about our premillennial lives?”

Here we find an echo of My Sky Blue Trades’ notion that “narratives unfailingly project lives as fates,” a quasi-Greek rejection of the idea that will has anything to do with what happens to us, not to mention the absurdly naive assumption that biographers capture the whole of a life in words, rather than just the parts that interest or are available to them. But, more importantly, we begin to see why Birkerts finds the idea so compelling. Our lives lack a “sense of destination.” People today “are living provisionally, ‘as if,’ waiting again for the day to come when they will glimpse again what they may have beheld in younger days.” Biography, in other words, doesn’t tell us about someone else’s life, it tells us about our own. And what it tells us is how boring we are: “How will the lives of our present, which have lost the heft and distinctness of lives, get written? And, if written, who will want to read them?”

There’s a lot that’s problematic about this construction, not least Birkerts’ condescending generalization that people today “have lost the heft and distinctness of lives,” or the fact that his notion of readerly projection is, on the most basic level, a misapplication of the way people read fiction to the way they read nonfiction, but perhaps worst of all, in the case of the biography under consideration, is the fact that it’s a pretty accurate description of the way Birkerts has read (and written) his own life in My Sky Blue Trades. The existence that preceded the Robert Musil essay—i.e., “the defining circumstances and situations” of its author’s life, or “what happened”—is referred to, even described over the course of 279 pages, but any empathic connection to those events is continually undercut by a critical lens that “reads past” the particulars in search of the “universal” or “what mattered.”

Birkerts, in other words, isn’t re-viewing his life in My Sky Blue Trades, he’s reviewing it in much the same way he reviews fiction, telling his readers what they can learn from the text of his life. This sort of pedagogy would be dull from just about anyone, but coming from someone who seems to have done just a little bit less than the average man of his day—a vaguely liberal drug-taking coming of age in the sixties and seventies punctuated by a not exactly Casanovaesque spate of failed relationships and artistic endeavours—it was particularly boring, and at some point during the course of Birkerts’ dithering twenties I found myself reading past all the hazily rendered “defining circumstances” and trying to imagine what “common humanity” linked the two of us. What facet of my own experience might I find illuminated in so much plodding, slightly embarrassing exposure of one man’s early failures? What seemed to me most interesting about Birkerts—his Latvian heritage and his immigrant parents, especially his father, an architect who worked with “Eero” (as in “‘Eero’ this and ‘Eero’ that”) and “Bob” Venturi and “Charlie” Eames—is casually, if not cruelly dismissed. The young Peter was terrified of his father, which suggests that the man might have done something to make his son so afraid of him, but the adult Sven allows the offence to exist by insinuation, offering only the symbolically pat accusation that his father was “not a reader at all” and therefore incapable of understanding his son, to wit: “He is looking at me as if he can take in only my most basic outline, as if the rest of his focus is still en route. ‘Pete—’”

But a more active reading experience acquired sudden, dramatic possibility when I encountered the following passage late in My Sky Blue Trades: “It was the Hemingway of the Nick Adams stories who got me thinking that I could write fiction . . . I had my own Nick Adams stand-in, Peck, and over a period of about two years I gave him a world, a life, more or less coextensive with my own.” Perhaps it was merely the presence of my own name  in the text, but something about these words pricked at me. By that point, I should add, I had already put down the memoir once in order to read An Artificial Wilderness, Birkerts’ first book of essays, and this Peck continued to taunt me as I made my way through the rest of Birkerts’ oeuvre. There he was again in The Gutenberg Elegies: “Peck was a young man living on the fringes, waiting for real life to send him something worthy . . . Nothing ever happened to the fellow—nothing of note. He was trapped by his creator, who was himself trapped in the long loop of college, impatient for his life to really begin.” He is waiting for something “fictionworthy.” Those words came immediately to mind when I encountered Birkerts’ thesis that people today are waiting to “glimpse again what they may have beheld in younger days.” And what was it they beheld? “A map, a track, a defining sense of how they fit into the world.” But this map was not in fact ever present in the young Birkerts’ life, and as such the supposed “glimpse” of it that readers get in his biography is an invented one. The Peck stories taught the aspiring artist Peter that his life was not “fictionworthy,” but, ironically enough, it was “Biography and the Dissolving Self” that taught the established critic Sven that it didn’t matter: he could invent a new life for himself under the guise of “universality,” one in which his true “destination,” his divinely guided “fate,” was not to be a novelist but a critic. Birkerts doesn’t attempt to disguise the fact that these “destinies” and “narratives” aren’t real, are nothing more than the “need” or “want” of someone whose “premillennial life,” by his own admission, lacked the direction of a Caesar, or even a C. S. Lewis. But it was only after I had charted its inception through Birkerts’ earlier work that I was able to see that My Sky Blue Trades is a fake book, by which I don’t mean that it is the sketched chords of a symphony that doesn’t sound on its pages, but rather that the story it does tell is deceitful and self-serving—as are, in the end, the hundreds of essays that preceded and produced it.


3 If you find it, it’s probably there . . .

Let me state the obvious and get it out of the way: Sven Birkerts really loves books. To move beyond that, Birkerts doesn’t love individual books so much as he loves the edifice of literature and his own conception of himself as a small but integral part of that edifice—the keyhole, say, maybe even the doorknob. His writing is full of geriatric enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that, spread out over an oeuvre, is touching, almost charming. Reading Birkerts, especially when he writes about contemporary novelists or the Internet, I feel like I’m watching an old man tapping his foot to a phat beat. And when he writes about his beloved early-twentieth-century moderns, it’s as if the channel has switched to a polka station and the old man gets up and parties.

Am I being dismissive? Yes, of course. But it’s hard not to be. Birkerts cut his teeth in the Reagan era with reviews of Musil, Osip Mandelstam, Michel Tournier, Robert Walser, Blaise Cendrars, Joseph Roth, Max Frisch, Gregor von Rezzori, Heinrich Böll, Jorge Luis Borges, Malcolm Lowry—writers, in other words, whose best work had come two, three, four, decades earlier. Though many of the essays take the revivalist stance of the Musil piece, it’s hard not to conclude, in the wake of so many re-examinations, that Birkerts seems not to have realized when he wrote these pieces that times and tastes had changed. That, in fact, the modern canon was no longer adequate to dissecting “the issues that shape and define our time,” which is why we’d had postmodernism, and whatever it is that’s taking shape in the wake of postmodernism. The writers Birkerts focused on—with the possible exception of Borges—weren’t the animating forces that Woolf or Joyce or Melville or the Brontës were, or Cervantes, or Dante, or Ovid, or Homer; they were by and large good writers whose work had receded into historical context.

Those reviews were gathered in 1987’s An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature. Four more books have followed: The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry; American Energies: Essays on Fiction; The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age; and Readings, which includes pieces culled from the former books as well as new material which revisits various subjects. He has also edited an anthology, Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse.

Taken as a career, the books’ trajectory has a visible—one wants to say telling—arc. In his first two collections, Birkerts set himself up as a kind of literary historian, reviewing writers whose place in the canon, even if marginal or commercially unsuccessful, was nevertheless not in question. Throughout those early essays, Birkerts was wont to compare contemporary fiction pejoratively with the classics he was reviewing, even as contemporary writing gradually, if haphazardly, became an increasing part of his focus. In American Energies, his third book, it was easy to see Birkerts scrambling for assignments, taking whatever came his way until, by the early nineties, he had reversed his fogeyism and established himself as a cheerleader for the most celebrated novelists of the day. For example, Birkerts dismissed William Gaddis and Don DeLillo as part of the postmodern plague that had “infected” all the arts in his 1986 essay “An Open Invitation to Extraterrestrials,” but had completely reversed his position by the time of his 1998 review of Underworld, in which he said that DeLillo had given us nothing less than “a new way to think” (and Gaddis, of course, has been revived as a figure whose underappreciation, presumably by critics like the old Birkerts, is “deeply and regrettably ironic”). This transformation seems to have springboarded off Tom Wolfe’s 1989 manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” an essay (and, for that matter, a writer) Birkerts can’t resist citing even as he can’t resist mocking it (“Still, his misconceptions, so starkly posed, help to clarify the terms of the discussion”); the primary source of his fascination seems to be that Wolfe’s program, however flawed, was significantly more popular than Birkerts’ own (“True, Wolfe was as much proselytizing his own vision as passing judgment on others, but the splash was considerable”).

By 2001 Birkerts’ anti-postmodern sentiments had been jettisoned as the byproduct of a “great populist prejudice” he’d now, thankfully, outgrown. He had discovered in contemporary fiction—that is, “William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Brodkey, Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Paul West, and Maureen Howard, as well as short-story acrobats Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones,” and also including everyone from “David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) to Richard Powers (Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark) to Donald Antrim (The Verificationist) to Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai) to Rick Moody (Purple America) to Colson Whitehead (John Henry Days) to Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), and on and on,” by which he seems to mean “DeLillo, Proulx, Ozick, Howard, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Brad Leithauser, Steven Millhauser, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje” and also “Chang-rae Lee in A Gesture Life or Jhumpa Lahiri in The Interpreter of Maladies” and, lest we forget, “Updike, Roth, and Bellow” and of course “Thomas Pynchon” and “William Gaddis”—“the first reflection” of a “larger transformation in consciousness,” namely, “a common expansive will: to embrace, to mime, to unfold [by which I think he means “enfold”] in the cadence of a sentence the complexities of life as lived.”

In his effort to word his thesis broadly enough to include as many popular authors as possible (and to avoid using the term “postmodern”), Birkerts seemed to be casting himself in a kind of Harold Bloom role as definer and guardian of the Western canon. And the one writer he was most interested in excluding from that canon? None other than the man who inspired him to his first, failed efforts at writing fiction: Ernest Hemingway. His earlier adoration was now recast as a “prejudice,” one he “imbibed” at his schools and which, he hastened to add, spreading the blame, he “was far from alone in believing” (in fact, Birkerts couldn’t resist a final stab at fiction in his review of Hemingway’s posthumous True at First Light, which he casts in the form of an interview with Papa’s ghost, “an old guy in a Hawaiian shirt and blind-man glasses” who shows up for the interview drunk). But since “minimalism,” as Birkerts categorizes the style of Hemingway’s “followers,” hardly constitutes a substantial nemesis, Birkerts instead established himself as the de facto enemy of the electronic age, devoting the entirety of his fourth book, The Gutenberg Elegies, to a series of screeds detailing how electronic media “threaten” the “frail set of balances” of what Birkerts calls the “ecology of reading.” In its paper good–screen bad dichotomy, The Gutenberg Elegies courted exactly the same kind of popular controversy that Wolfe caught in his “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” a controversy that, ironically, seemed only to interest the most die-hard advocates of the new media technologies.

In all of this I imagine that Birkerts is, in his way, an editor’s dream. Need somebody to slog through a second-rate translation of Mandelstam’s journals or The Radetzky March and produce two thousand words to fill that big slot in the middle of the book—for not very much money to boot? Birkerts is your man. Want someone who will mulch his way through all of Gaddis? Hey, let’s call Sven. For, if Birkerts’ theses don’t remain consistent, his awe of his own words, of the power he ascribes to them and the profundities which he thinks they contain (“something in the nature of time—or in our experience of it—has changed radically”) is unshakeable. He can take the tiniest premise and stretch it out like a child smearing that last teaspoon of peanut butter over a piece of bread, unaware it’s spread so thin that it no longer has any taste. But at the end of the day, despite the hyperbole that characterizes most of his essays (“one of the few great moderns”; “the issues that shape and define our time”; “a striking capacity every bit as great as that of Mann, Joyce, or Beckett”), there exists between Birkerts’ criticism and the writing it describes a measured rally of fictional trope and critical affirmation that’s about as interesting to watch as a game of Pong in which neither player moves his paddle and the ball shuttles back and forth between them in a horizontal line: bip . . . bip . . . bip . . . bip

Not that the man is without his skills. One of the things Birkerts does do well is render straightforward information in prose, turning lists into sentences. Look again at the catalogue of Musil’s work on page 58, the way the titles are given variously in English, German or both, the occasional descriptive tag thrown in as punctuation (“gigantic, albeit unfinished”; “only to be remaindered and, finally, pulped”). That’s lively stuff, or as lively as these sorts of things can get. They reflect the sensibility of a man who loves facts, no matter how trivial or misplaced they might be (what matters is that Musil’s books were unread, not that they were “remaindered and, finally, pulped,” but the aside adds colour and weight to the event, giving readers a physical object whose loss is easier to visualize than a book they likely haven’t read).

Birkerts also does a good plot summary:

The Trotta family was awarded its honorary “von” after the Battle of Solferino, in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Young Lieutenant Trotta, acting on courageous impulse, saved the emperor Francis Joseph from a bullet. The Trotta name was promptly inscribed on the emperor’s list; so long as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy endured, protection and patronage would never be denied.

The lieutenant, uncomfortable with new rank and title, retires into provincial obscurity, ceding the stage to his son. Franz von Trotta, all rectitude and righteousness, is the first to break with the family’s military tradition . . .

Here are dozens of pages of fiction compressed into a few lines. Even without knowing what book they describe (Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March), the events are clear and don’t require context, and there’s even a bit of (dare I say it?) dramatic irony in that “so long as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy endured.” As it happens, I think that these are two of the most important weapons in any critic’s arsenal, and, if I can work Birkerts’ “modern metaphor” a little further, if he had stuck to them he wouldn’t have lost half as many battles as he has.

But Birkerts wants to do more than merely bring books to readers. He wants to tell readers how they should be reading them. He doesn’t want to represent the canon, he wants to explain it. But explanations, alas, are not Birkerts’ strong suit:

The sources of Roth’s particular power are hard to pin down. Neither plot nor character will account for it. True, the district commissioner emerges as a compelling figure—his fidelity takes on a tragic dimension as the novel progresses; but Carl Joseph is the very reverse. He is a husk, a frightened, self-occupied failure. His decline is inevitable, and we can even take a certain pleasure in watching it. But this is not when the novel achieves its greatness. No, the pity and terror are felt when we realize that Carl Joseph is a transparency, that we are looking right through him at the impersonal rush of history. His emptiness turns out to be a precise emblem of the moral vacuum of the times.

First, Birkerts tells us that Roth’s power is “hard to pin down,” so that when he tries to pin it down readers understand that he is attempting a difficult task on our behalf. He rejects plot and character, and then investigates character and plot (“He is a husk . . . His decline is inevitable”) just to make sure. But “this is not when the novel achieves its greatness.” We are confused. What could it be then? And then suddenly: symbolism! The character isn’t real, but is rather “a precise emblem” (not just any emblem, mind you, but a precise emblem) of “the impersonal rush of history” (again, not just any history, but the impersonal rushing kind). What we are witnessing here is a critic either pretending to dramatize his discovery of the use of a pretty standard literary device, or, even worse, actually discovering symbolism for the first time. There’s nothing “hard to pin down” about symbolism—which doesn’t at all lessen its impact on readers—but Birkerts seems not to realize that the difficulty lies not in the reader’s spotting it in the text but in the writer’s creation of a concrete and compelling stand-in for something large and amorphous—which is, in fact, the real source of Roth’s particular power (not just any power . . . ).

Note also how Birkerts’ already rather stiff prose tends to break down as he gives in to these exegetical flights of fancy. The sentences grow simultaneously more turgid and cliché-ridden, all of which serves to obscure the fact that he is for all intents and purposes talking out of his ass. My particular favourite (in reference to Keats’ “Ode to Autumn”):

Observe, first, what the mouth must do to vocalize the line: “Season of mists and mel-low fruit-ful-ness.” The lips widen and stretch to make the initial ee sound in “Season,” contract the same position to pronounce “mists,” and contract it yet again, just slightly to form the syllable “mel-.” If we think of these contractions as representing diminishing circumferences—as, say, cross sections of a funnel—then with the small o of “-low” and the oo of “fruit-“ (which cannot be made without a pouting protrusion of the lips and an even smaller aperture) we have come to the narrowed apex. This would not necessarily be significant in itself, but when we consider the unstated physical process—the moisture being siphoned out of the soil and into the fruit through the myriad fine roots, the push against gravity—then these lip movements become instrumental.

But this is not all. There is also a simultaneous lingual event. For in order to enunciate cleanly the words “mel-low fruit-ful-ness” the tip of the tongue must sketch out the shape of a fruit . . .

The word Birkerts can’t bring himself to type here is “blow job,” and it puts a whole new spin on the idea of the tongue sketching out a fruit. Oh, and the o of “low” is long, not short.

But it doesn’t stop there. When you sift through the inanity of Birkerts’ exegeses, what you find is a slew of grammatical, citational and cultural errors, starting with his misplaced “irony” in the first paragraph of his first review and continuing through My Sky Blue Trades, where there is, among other things, the almost poignantly beautiful ignorance of “nowadays”—by which Birkerts seems to mean Happy Days—“the word for Howard would be ‘nerd.’” Writing on Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, he remarks, “In art, as in horseshoes, close doesn’t count,” when the expression is in fact “almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” (in horseshoes, a ringer is worth three points, a horseshoe that touches the pole is worth two, and any horseshoe that lands within six inches of the pole is worth one). 

The problem lies less with the mistakes—nobody except perhaps Birkerts himself actually expects him to know as much as Harold Bloom—than with the obviousness with which Birkerts trots out his supposed displays of erudition in order to invest himself with authority. He is, for example, fond of allusions—so fond that he often repeats himself. On at least two separate occasions he references Erasmus’ anecdote of finding a printed page of prose on the road to, I think, Wittenberg. Twice also he tells us how surprised St. Augustine was to see someone reading without moving his lips, and twice that the word “history” is a cognate with “story”; on at least three occasions he alludes to Pascal’s “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

The wording of these allusions is itself clumsy, as if they’ve been shoehorned into his reviews like the stepsisters’ feet into Cinderella’s slipper:

“It has, like Nietzsche’s God, been finished off.”

“The play’s the thing—but will it be?”

“Reading in the early age of print was, for a host of reasons, different from reading in the age of mechanical reproduction.”

“I see Old Nick winking and I find myself wondering if we might not indeed be ready to push onto something new, to put behind us once and for all this melancholy business of isolated selves trudging through a vale of tears.”

Some of these allusions are questionable. For example, is Birkerts consciously invoking James Montgomery’s vale of tears, or just using it because it sounded familiar, maybe even Biblical? And then there is the “What is to be done?” that comes in the course of one of many essays about how to resist the information revolution. Though the stilted, slightly old-fashioned phrasing seems to suggest that he intended the Lenin allusion (which is itself an allusion to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s nineteenth-century novel of the same name), Birkerts’ prose is in general stilted and slightly old-fashioned, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he had neither Lenin nor Chernyshevksy in mind when he wrote these words. Another of Birkerts’ allusions that interests me might also be unintentional: “The novel was to be a kind of petri dish,” he writes in an essay called “Second Thoughts,” “in which the novelist would explore the ever-changing terms of ‘how it is.’” Is this a deliberate reference to the penultimate sentence of “Against Interpretation”? I can only guess that it is—Birkerts makes frequent reference to Sontag, especially in his early essays—and if that’s the case then it’s illuminating, given that Birkerts’ entire program upholds the exegetical tropes of ignoring what’s on the page in favour of what the critic supposedly unmasks behind it, a proposition that stands directly at odds with Sontag’s thesis.

And sometimes Birkerts gets even the allusion wrong. “Antonio Gramsci’s often-cited sentence comes inevitably to mind,” he writes in The Gutenberg Elegies (note how “often-cited” and “inevitably” insinuate Birkerts’ membership in an elite network of Gramsci readers and aphorists, one that compels you to ask if you belong): “‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.’” I can only speculate here, but I’m willing to bet that lines from Gramsci are rarely remembered (especially verbatim) by anyone outside of Marxist reading groups (to which Birkerts might or might not have belonged, as evidenced by how he met his wife); but at any rate the writer who is in fact “often-cited” here is not Gramsci but Matthew Arnold, who wrote in 1855, thirty-six years before Gramsci was born: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born, / With nowhere yet to rest my head.” It was Gramsci who was making the allusion, not Birkerts, and Gramsci who trusted enough in his reader’s abilities that he didn’t have to name-drop Matthew Arnold’s “often-cited” “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse.” But, for Birkerts’ sake if not yours, I will mention that all of my information here is culled from three sources: the Columbia Encyclopedia, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and

In his catch-as-catch-can imitation of New Critical methods, Birkerts ignores or is ignorant of the full history of literature on the part of both author and audience, and also, indeed, of the “common” character of the artist—particularly the American artist he once aspired to be and now aspires to understand. D. H. Lawrence, writing on Herman Melville seventy-five years ago, got that character out in a pair of sentences. “It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things.” Birkerts has the stodginess, if not simply the snobbiness, of the frock-coat tone down pat. But he is unable to make it sparkle as critics such as Daniel Mendelsohn and Darryl Pinckney and James Wood do, as Sontag and Bloom and Elizabeth Hardwick have done, as Edmund Wilson did, or Lawrence, or T. S. Eliot. “There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse,” Eliot wrote in his most famous essay on literature, “and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence.” Eliot was a stick in the mud, and that sentence is about as grammatically pedantic as they come; but he was also one of the most galvanic forces in the history of English literature, and his insistence upon the agreement of subject and verb regardless of the discordance wrought by a prepositional object is his top-hat-and-tails way of saying “fuck you” to readers, writers and critics who can’t see beyond such pedantry. Which of us feels, I would ask Mr. Birkerts, some comparable sense of destination when we encounter the finite but real energy released when syntax unites with content to yield more than mere meaning?


4 They taught what, as a rule, needed no teaching . . .

It is a large oeuvre. Six books, hundreds of essays. The temptation is to refute each one individually, but to engage with the arguments is, at the end of the day, to give them more credence than they deserve. As far as I can tell (and I’m willing to bet that, with the exception of the author himself, I’ve read more of Birkerts’ work than anyone else on the planet), Birkerts’ entire program is on evidence in this rhetorical exchange in his review of Wolfe’s A Man in Full:

There has been a misunderstanding. Somewhere, I sense, the mass of American readers has gotten the idea not only that Wolfe is fashionable but also that his work is legitimate literature. Updike notwithstanding, people have begun to believe that they can enjoy themselves and be doing some serious cultural lifting at the same time. After all, Updike did write about [A Man in Full], as did Harold Bloom in the pages of the New York Observer, so it must have something to do with art, right?

Sorry, no. The bad news is that it doesn’t happen that way. Serious art is only enjoyable up to a point, and then it becomes work: perceiving, judging, and knowing. Yes, these things can give pleasure, but of a different sort; they are pleasures that push us against the grain of our ease. If it’s too much fun, it can’t be art. Nor will it quite do to say that a novel like Wolfe’s comes close. In art, as in horseshoes, close doesn’t count.

I almost feel sorry for the poor man as I read him describing literature as though it were a bran muffin pushing “against the grain of our ease” (even as I want to point out that you don’t push against the grain, you rub against it), but the truth is I feel more sympathy for “the mass of American readers” who have “imbibed” exactly the same message, and as a result feel excluded from literature as well as other forms of “serious” art. These readers, who might or might not be part of what Birkerts once referred to as “the more desirable demographic” (aka the upper middle class), are, in his estimation, incapable of participating in “reading in its purest form,” which he characterizes as an impassioned, intellectual engagement with “the literary novel.” While I’m willing to give him that some novels are better than others, I don’t think that the quality of a novel has anything to do with the quality of the reading experience; if anything, the average reader of genre fiction is significantly more committed to his or her books than is the benumbed consumer of couture literature. To paraphrase Mark Van Doren, “Harry Potter is a world; Virginia Woolf a style.”

I would argue, in fact, that contemporary readers—not to mention contemporary writers—responding to the tutelage of critics such as Birkerts (who has written “if you find it, it’s probably there,” with, as far as I can tell, no irony at all), have lost the crucial distinction between projection and identification. This marks a fundamental shift in the way fiction is read and written, and strikes me as having a far more devastating impact on the future of the novel than television or the Internet. Birkerts had it half right in “Biography and the Dissolving Self”: reading (fiction, at any rate) is a process of discovering something in a story and measuring your own life against that yardstick. But the majority of today’s novelists—from recidivist realists to recherché postmodernists—have long since ceased providing readers with anything to measure themselves against. Like Birkerts, they write as though the invocation of universal tropes or universal themes is all it takes to tell a universal story, and as a result, instead of identifying with what he or she encounters on the page, today’s reader is forced to project the content into fiction. The novel has become a screen not for the novelist’s subconscious, but for readers’, and they are spurred on in this process by blinkered critics such as Birkerts. His work, lacking even the take-it-or-leave-it premise of the significantly wackier readings of avant-garde theorists like Paglia or Koestenbaum, calls to mind the Talmudic and Biblical connotations of exegesis, in which rabbinical scholars and priests attempted to channel their congregants’ faith by means of interpretation of the scriptures, much of which interpretation claimed to be as divinely guided as the words it supposedly explained. This is exegesis of the give-a-man-a-fish kind. Its purveyors do not want to teach anything, lest they find themselves out of a job.

Or, to invoke Sontag’s paradigm, it shows “what it means” to the exclusion of “how it is what it is.” There’s an opposition in Sontag’s paradigm that I don’t think is really necessary, but at least it’s there for a reason. In her heartfelt appeal for the discrete individuality of Blanche DuBois, Sontag was reacting to critics who, like Birkerts, project their notion of “what it means” on a work of art, even if it stood at odds with “how it is what it is.” But much of Sontag’s work—her fiction as well as her criticism—stands as a testament to the “erotics” of meaning, in which “how it is what it is” and “what it means” are conflated—combined and commuted—into something we might simply call “what it is.”

As it happens, I’ve been looking for a contemporary critic’s work to discuss for some time (for far longer, if you’re wondering, than I’ve known about Birkerts’ memoir). I’ve been lambasting today’s fiction for a while now, but, as overrated or misguided as most of our celebrated novelists are, it seems to me that the fault isn’t entirely theirs, but must also be vested to some degree in those who praise them for their efforts. Birkerts’ name immediately rose to the top of the list as the critic who most represents the offensive banalities of the worst mainstream reviewing combined with the defensive pieties of the “best” haute criticism. He is by no means the only culprit, but he does seem to be the most prolific and sanctimonious of the American critical establishment. Indeed, when Birkerts writes that “ephemeral work ultimately holds the idea of art in contempt,” it seems to me that a critic whose own hands are stained with so much carelessly spilled ink ought to be more careful about the mud he flings.

Literature does have its enemies, and chief among them are pseudointellectual artists and critics who think their love of books translates into some kind of knowledge. A quarter-century ago, as his memoir confirms, Birkerts turned to criticism because he couldn’t write fiction; and all those years of reviews have demonstrated that at least one of the reasons why he failed as a novelist is because he just doesn’t understand the form. That he has hitched his yoke to a group of equally bombastic and befuddled writers is fitting and also tragic. Together they are carting the “experimental” novel on its tumbrel to the guillotine. If that’s all they kill, more power to them. But chances are they will alienate more and more readers from all fiction—and I don’t mean Birkerts’ mythological proletarians who are just waiting for someone to show them why The Waves is more rewarding than The Chamber of Secrets, but the members of the educated bourgeoisie, who are sick and tired of feeling like they’ve somehow failed the modern novel.

For far longer than books have had covers—for far longer than there have been books—their essence has not been contained in their pages. I am talking, unironically, about something ineffable, alchemical, mystical: the potent cocktail of writer and reader and language, of intention and interpretation, conscious and unconscious, text, subtext and context, narrative, character, metaphor. Not one of these constructs is any more stable than the atoms that make up a glass tumbler, and yet, somehow, they manage to contain a story, a meaning that transcends the reading experience, that permeates, indeed guides, all of culture. In crass capitalist terms, books are entertainment’s cheapest feeder industry; in the grandest metaphysical sense, they are the reference library of our souls, and they share that power with all art forms—music, theatre, painting, sculpture, and those which combine them: dance, film, installation and performance art—and the ever-evolving electronic and “interactive” (as if all art isn’t already) media. One of Birkerts’ biggest problems is that he never addresses other art forms, other modes of “inwardness,” of discovering the self and the world. Like a true child of the Enlightenment, he believes in a rational, mappable psyche, and omits from his purview all evidence of the irrational, or what is inexplicable by rational, linguistic terms. In this he not only sells short all art, but writing itself. He ignores the basic revelation of his own meditations on reading—that literature isn’t just about words—and instead tries, with his pseudocritical rationality, to “explain” everything. 

“The whole art—fiction, poetry, and drama—is fundamentally pledged to coherence,” writes the same critic who later asked of himself, “Why am I such a bad Latvian?” It’s notable that a critic who began his career with a plea for the translation of works by Robert Musil and other great writers has to the best of my knowledge never translated or, for that matter, written about the work of a single Latvian writer. Birkerts’ essays are full of rhetorical questions, but for some reason this one stayed with me, probably because he never tries to answer it, at least not “coherently.” But the silence surrounding that unanswered question resonates throughout his memoir, as in this exchange with Joseph Brodsky, whom Birkerts befriended after the poet came into a bookstore where the young Peter worked:

But then, later, I did ask Brodsky if he knew any Latvian poets.

“There are no Latvian poets.”


Rainis . . . ” He laughed cruelly and I cringed. “Ya, Rainis.” That was all.

At that moment I surprised in myself a spark of ancient chauvinism. I felt the ancestral culture being mocked, and I—who had so resolutely refused all things Latvian—felt hurt. I wanted to rush forth in defense. I should have, though I can’t imagine what I might have said. But instead I let it go. So eager was I to claim the poet as a friend that I let his cynical posturing silence me. I carefully steered the conversation back to safer ground.

And there it has stayed ever since. Birkerts’ “ancestral culture,” as indeed “all things Latvian,” has disappeared from his work in every respect save one:

His name.

“I was, at least on the first day of school every year, before I instructed my teacher to call me ‘Pete,’ Sven.” The child Pete felt that being Latvian—being Sven—“barred me from being an American,” just as the young man Pete felt that an admiration for Janis Rainis barred him from the world of literature Brodsky represented, just as, I assume, the fully grown Sven eschews translating Latvian literature because it’s not the kind of thing that will gain him entry into the world of American letters he wants so desperately to be a citizen of. Birkerts tells us that his rebirth began with the publication of his first essay, “slow, steady, rejuvenating change, and all of it was somehow connected to the extraordinary lift I felt when I at last rounded the corner of Out-of-Town News and saw the small pile of freshly minted copies of the New Boston Review, the headline robert musil’s atlantis prominent above the fold.” It was only after I’d read and reread that paragraph a dozen times that I realized the writer never tells us what name—beyond Musil’s—was attached to it. By which I mean that at memoir’s end we’ve learned how Birkerts became a critic—he was, indeed, born to be one—but we never find out how he became Sven.