Why do Europeans dress better than Americans?

In “Europeans Dress Better Than Americans: Fact,” bangsandabun writes that “I stated on Twitter the other day that North Americans dress badly and it ruffled a few feathers. I don’t even see this as a debatable point. The evidence speaks for itself.” I think he’s right, despite the danger of assuming American and European differences based on casual observation.

Bob Unwin speculates about why Americans might dress worse and things the difference is historical, except for this: “different signaling aims (more internal cultural diversity and weaker class distinctions; male clothing needing to be less ‘gay’ and more conventional.”

I haven’t spent enough time in Europe to judge fashion. But I do have a certain amount of “fashion blindness” that I used to take pride in (more on that later), and even now I don’t care about the subject enough to notice fashion most of the time. Plus, living in Arizona makes fashion blindness much, much worse: it’s too damn hot to wear anything more than shorts and a t-shirt for five months of the year, which obviates much of the fashion impetus, especially for men. For women, “fashion” tends to mean “clingy and revealing” in the heat, which I like but don’t think is especially fashionable; it’s more of a physical fitness signal. Still, when I lived in Seattle I didn’t see a much stronger fashion impetus than I do here in Arizona, so I don’t think weather is the whole explanation.

My friend Derek Huang just got back from a year in Germany and mentioned wanting to learn how to tailor clothes a couple weeks ago, so I sent him the above links and asked for his thoughts about whether Europeans are more stylish:

Definitely. Especially in Paris, I felt really out of place. Part of it was just going to a bunch of museums, seeing vibrant colors and designs that pop out, and then seeing that in the stuff people wear. (“That scarf is so Monet”). It’s still a pretty big status symbol over there (Europe). Less so in Spain, where they dress more American. I think American fashion is very much centered around casual-individualism. And that can be pulled off well, but it is also a license to just DGAF. The fashion in Europe is much more constrained. There are certain things you just don’t do, so I feel attention to detail is so much important as a way of standing out.

And I’m at the stage right now where I can talk enthusiastically about this stuff, but every day I wear a T-shirt and walk around in flip flops. I want to tailor my own stuff so I can learn what works for me, what doesn’t. Fashion is like applied art + social theory which is potentially interesting.

But then again there are only so many hours in a day, and if I’m in a culture where time otherwise spent worrying about clothing can be spent working on physics, then that’s an advantage.

Also, there was a good point in one comment about greater stylistic diversity in the U.S. If there are lots of social groups, then it’s more important to signal that you’re in a certain group than it is to try to be “better dressed.” It’s analogous to the diversity of contemporary music. Back when music was all just white Europeans, we could talk a lot about who was clearly better, who was a genius composer, etc. but now music is so broad, that we have less collective effort funneled into trying to improve things along a narrow subset of possible styles. I have noticed that you see more creative, wacky stuff around the University of Arizona than around Heidelberg, but there’s also more general mediocrity and some truly hideous fashion choices.

I like the analogy about music: It’s hard to evaluate a rapper, an indie rocker, a DJ, and a classical composer, because, while they’re also doing something that stimulates the ear in an aesthetically pleasing audiological fashion, that’s about all they have in common. Car analogies are apt too: a truck is not automatically better than a sports car, but it may be appropriate in a different situation.

The point about clothes that actually fit is also a good one. I don’t even really know enough to know what good fit means for me, or for most people, although it might be one of these “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” kinds of things, in the same way most people will instinctively recognize good writing over bad writing, without necessarily being able to explain which is better.

In addition, in the U.S. I think there’s a West Coast, technical-elite culture that disdains fashion as fakery and that valorizes the cult of you-are-what-you-do. I can imagine my more technically minded friends saying that the compiler doesn’t care whether your socks and shoes match. Technical accomplishments are transparent in their effectiveness, while fashion is closer to sales or persuasion, in that it’s much more interpretive and less binary. Therefore your clothes shouldn’t matter (in my imagination, Apple employees are better dressed than their counterparts elsewhere, because of the firm’s focus on design; I have no idea if that’s accurate, however), and I don’t know of any technical people who are renowned for their fashion sense; if anything, fashion becomes anti-fashion, since Bill Gates is or was notoriously indifferent to fashion, and Mark Zuckerberg is famous for wearing hoodies and flipflops. Yet both are among the most important people of their generations.

It’s also possible that most people only have a certain amount of energy to devote to taste or aesthetic matters, and Americans allocate their energy elsewhere; in the case of tech people, the “elsewhere” might be the beauty of their code. Personally, I’m most concerned with writing prose that sounds like faint wind chimes being caressed on a cool autumn evening.* Derek wants to spend his limited mental energy and attention thinking about physics. I want to spend mine thinking about literature and writing. Fashion may be a distraction from these pursuits, rather than a complement to them. But I wouldn’t mind having a small number of simple, comfortable things to wear that don’t make me look like I rolled out of bed in the morning. I may have found those things—the perfect, perfect-fitting black T-shirt, and size-30 Lucky Jeans—but they were found mostly through serendipity.

Anyway, I didn’t used to think fashion important at all, but now I’m less sure: signaling is much more powerful than I used to imagine, and my priorities have shifted in important ways since I developed a strong anti-fashion bias as a teenager living outside of Seattle. Now I wonder if that anti-fashion bias is holding me back, because people are very quick to evaluate based on all kinds of things, including clothes.

When I began learning how to salsa dance, I wore rubber-soled shoes (this is not a good idea). Eventually a friend showed me how to pick better shoes, and I bought very nice dress shoes that were three to four times as expensive as any shoe I’d ever worn before. Women started complimenting me on my shoes. I assume that, for any person who vocalizes an opinion about fashion or related matters, at least another ten people probably notice but don’t say anything. But I also had to worry more about shoe maintenance: they need wooden inserts to maintain their shape when I’m not wearing them. They’re less comfortable than running shoes or Vibram Five-Fingers. They need to be polished regularly. Nonetheless, the difference in how people perceived me was and is undeniable. If something as simple as shoes can cause this much change, I wonder what else I’m missing by simply not being observant enough.

Still, I can’t deny the culture in which I live. In “The New Pants Revue,” Bruce Sterling points out that “Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They’re both repurposed American Western gear. I’m an American and it’s common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.” By way of full disclosure, I now wear “Tactical Shorts” regularly, as silly as I feel writing that out, and so far their durability has been excellent. Sterling is obviously pointing in the direction of hidden historical factors, and I think there is an American suspicion of highfalutin apparel that couldn’t be worn on farms or factories, despite the fact that most of us, myself include, spend much more time in Office Space-style offices with climate control, ergonomic chairs, and limited exposure to sharp objects.

Note that I don’t wear tactical shorts with the nice shoes.

I wonder if, over time, Europe is becoming more influenced by U.S. fashion indifference, or if the U.S. is becoming more influenced by European fashion, or if we’re in a fairly steady state of mutual difference. I also wonder if people in the U.S. would be better served by paying more attention to fashion, at least at the margin.

See also “Why Americans dress so casually.”

* Present sentence excluded.

EDIT: I wonder if technology will lower the cost of fashion sufficiently to encourage Americans to become more fashionable (or “dress better” in American parlance). Articles like “Hot Collars: I got three custom shirts online. I’ll never buy off the rack again,” about the online custom-clothing companies Indochino, J. Hilburn, and Blank Label, make me think this is at least possible.

EDIT 2: As commenter Marcus points out, I’m incorrectly conflating “fashion” and “aesthetics,” which are really separate issues. He’s correct, and his comment is worth reading.

Those are European ideas in Anaïs Nin's Little Birds

Anaïs Nin’s story “A Model” begins with this:

My mother had European ideas about young girls. I was sixteen. I had never gone out alone with young men, I had never read anything but literary novels, and by choice I never was like girls of my age. I was what you would call a sheltered woman [. . .]

(I think a character in one of Michel Houellebecq’s novels says something about American movies’ influence on European sexuality and implies Europeans are somehow behind in this regard at some point in the past, though I can’t find the quote.)

Today’s stereotypes depict “European ideas” as being sexually hedonistic, especially regarding teenagers who are supposed to be under their parents’ control. One can such ideas manifested in discussions of, say, the Dutch response to emerging sexuality, or in Amy Schalet’s “Sex, love, and autonomy in the teenage sleepover.” If widespread assumptions about European and American sexual ideologies flipped at some point in the 20th Century, I’d be curious to know why and how.

Those are European ideas in Anaïs Nin’s Little Birds

Anaïs Nin’s story “A Model” begins with this:

My mother had European ideas about young girls. I was sixteen. I had never gone out alone with young men, I had never read anything but literary novels, and by choice I never was like girls of my age. I was what you would call a sheltered woman [. . .]

(I think a character in one of Michel Houellebecq’s novels says something about American movies’ influence on European sexuality and implies Europeans are somehow behind in this regard at some point in the past, though I can’t find the quote.)

Today’s stereotypes depict “European ideas” as being sexually hedonistic, especially regarding teenagers who are supposed to be under their parents’ control. One can such ideas manifested in discussions of, say, the Dutch response to emerging sexuality, or in Amy Schalet’s “Sex, love, and autonomy in the teenage sleepover.” If widespread assumptions about European and American sexual ideologies flipped at some point in the 20th Century, I’d be curious to know why and how.

The Sun Also Rises and meaning through action

Almost none of the characters in The Sun Also Rises and have jobs. Jake Barnes works as a journalist, but during most of the novel he’s on the sort of vacation that makes one long for the office. Bill Gorton writes too, but we don’t see much evidence of his writing. Pedro Romero is a bullfighter who apparently loses his magical bullfighting essence (or “aficion” in the language of the novel, but “magical bullfighting essence” makes it sound sillier) due to Brett. The rest—Mike, Brett, Robert—don’t do much of anything beyond drink.

This might be connected to why they all seem unhappy. Not only are they unhappy, but they don’t even appear to be getting much action (with the exception of Brett), which probably compounds their problems. This may be a feature of hanging out with a large group of guys and only one woman.

When I first read the novel, I didn’t notice how dumb most of the characters are. Perhaps I was at an age when I still considered wandering around and mindlessly drinking to be romantic and logical. Perhaps I was just equally dumb. Now I mostly want to suggest to the characters that, since most of them are in their 30s, they ought to find something to do. What that “something” is isn’t very important. Writing sonnets. Working in nuclear physics (which was big at the time). Inventing a new dance. Opening a bar, instead of consuming in a bar. Just have it be something. In short, I want to them to get a job, or, if not a job, then at least a hobby beyond the bottle. Don’t get me wrong. I like the bottle as much as the next guy, especially when it contains gin, and someone has tonic and lime nearby.

Plus, Brett is overrated. By the time I hit 23 or thereabouts, the allure of the manipulative, dissolute beauty had faded—not, mind you, the allure of beauty, or beauty distributed across a number of women, but of the attention-seeking and thoughtlessly cruel kind, who might be worth going to San Sebastian with, but not worth working one’s self up over when she floats to her next lily pad.

That sentence is convoluted, but I’m pretty sure it makes sense and expresses what Brett does to the inner states of the men around her, who really ought to know better. If one doesn’t want to come around, look for another. Note that this strategy or principle also applies to men. If a rival comes along, there’s a decent shot the wishy-washy person will leap to defend her territory. If she doesn’t, you never had a shot in the first place, and you still have someone to keep you warm at night and do other fun things with. (Change the gender pronouns in this paragraph to suit your own sexual temperament.)

When you’re young, long-winded, elusive chases are kind of appealing. But you really ought to learn to know better by the time you’re, say, 22.

I still admire Hemingway’s use of language and style, but I wonder if one reason high school and college students are drawn to The Sun Also Rises is because school mimics the no-stakes, no-purpose world in which characters live. Once you get into the larger world, where things have real effects, the pleasures of wandering aimlessly, drinking randomly, and chasing mentally unstable girls who mostly want attention becomes much lower. Again: wandering, drinking, and chasing sex can still be quite fun for any and all genders, but they require purpose beyond the mere doing of those activities themselves. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake says, “The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” Everything is “quite unreal” throughout the novel as a whole. It seems “out of place to think of consequences” for any of the characters, ever. They might be Americans in Europe, but their travels do not appear to have enlarged them.

Links: The dubious value of humanities graduate degrees, Hemlock Grove and vampires, Hunter Moore and isanyoneup.com, poetry’s playfulness, and more

* When to leave grad school off your resume. In my limited experience reading resumes, having a PhD is a minus; an M.A. is useless, and being in grad school makes me think less of its value, not more.

* “The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?: How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education.” To me, this is utterly obvious.

* The novel Hemlock Grove sounds like fun: “‘Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess.’ It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story.”

* Is the Future of English Bad Science?

* “Hunter Moore Makes a Living Screwing You;” I had never heard of isanyoneup.com before and won’t link directly, but as I read the story I kept thinking, “This is why it’s hard to write relevant contemporary fiction. . .” This, and Reddit’s user-submitted adult site, which you can find easily enough if you want to.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why poetry should be more playful, which seems completely obvious to me; Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets precisely because he’s so playful, so much the opposite of the poetry read in school. From the post itself: “The growing distance between serious verse and children’s verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

The Old Man and Me — Elaine Dundy

The Old Man and Me is The Dud Avocado retold by a slightly older protagonist pursuing a slightly older target man. It has some of the same moments of impressive language use, as when Honey Flood—not her stage name, but apparently an invented one—says that:

Bollie was a sort of chain-talker, lighting one end of a conversation to another without letting the first go out.

The image fits, and with Bollie puffing on both conversations where most of us only have the capacity or manners for one, and the good sense to keep it that way. With that small detail, I feel like I’ve met Bollie, or if not him precisely, than someone much like him. Still, the same page has dated slang (what’s a “mizbag?”), and the dialog can be hard to follow at times. Perhaps that dialog is representative of Honey, another American in Europe whose interests are men, money, status, and fun (not necessarily in that order), ideally combined in the same man. Said man turns out to be, chiefly, C.D. McKee, a writer in a day when writers still had groupies and hadn’t been replaced by celebrities as objects of fixation.

Honey’s voice will make the novel—or not. More often it’s the former; she’s clever if irritating at times, and the banter between her and McKee usually works, although sometimes it feels obvious. Consider this exchange about a park, in which C.D. speaks first:

“Parks are for the poor. Alas, that they haven’t a chance to enjoy them. Only the very young and the time-wasters like us can.”
“That’s because you hide them so well. This beauty, for instance. How d’you expect them to find it. I wouldn’t if you hadn’t led me to it.”

It’s not hard to take the park as a metaphor for Honey’s growth as a person in dealing with C.D. The undercurrent of class, if not warfare, then consciousness, continues (“I had been a rich man’s darling, all right. A very rich man’s very darling”), but not to the point of annoyance. But it gets close enough to that state to warrant a mention; Honey isn’t as developed intellectually or socially as someone like Renee Feuer in The Mind-Body Problem, who’d catch the solipsism in comments like this:

Radiating joy, confidence, and anticipation [C.D.] shone like a beacon in contrast to the milling crowd: the careful ones checking and rechecking their tickets, luggage, and timetables; the frantic ones overburdened and rushing in all directions […]

My internal editor drew a line through “the milling crowd,” figuring that we’d understand the milling crowd through the image that follows it. And someone like Renee would catch herself and realize that others are probably having the same thoughts she is, as shown in this XKCD:

It’s the same comic I linked to in my post on Pages For You: narrators and characters who aren’t able to see themselves in the larger sense, or see themselves as other people might see them, become decreasingly satisfying over time, as one reads more novels. Being (or at least feeling) significantly smarter than the character about whom one is reading, without some significantly unusual formal feature to make up for it, makes for tedious reading. The Old Man and Me isn’t tedious, most of the time, and it’s refreshing to find female narrators who are willing to sleep around without shame and connive to get what they want: I’m not sure this is a feminist testament, but at least it makes for an amusing story with writing that keeps Honey from devolving into stereotype and the story from devolving into senescence.

The bottom line: Read The Dud Avocado. Then read The Mind-Body Problem. Still want more? Then find this quasi sequel, but your urge will probably have been satiated unless you’re an American going to Europe, in which case you might empathize with and want to understand those whose footsteps you follow in. Then you can view The Old Man and Me as a learning experience.

The Second Pass also recently wrote on the The Old Man and Me. It’s a blog that I find moving steadily higher in my “must reads.”

The Glass Room — Simon Mawer

The Glass Room is filled with portents, which, given its setting in 1920s Europe relative to its composition in more recent times, might seem unsurprising. But those portents become portentous, as defined by the Oxford American Dictionary built into OS X: “done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.” The novel is ceaselessly concerned with tension between old and new, ancient and modern, the way of progress and the way of regression, but it tends to be delivered with the subtlety of a brick through a window:

* “Beneath the calm surface of the new country Viktor felt the tremors of uncertainty.”

* “It’ll be a revolution […] a casting off of the past. A new way of living.” Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it: there is no such thing as a genuine casting off of the past.

* “I have laboured day and night, to the disadvantage of my current work. But the demands of true love are more powerful than mere artistic patronage.”

* “I’m certainly not going to tell you what I am letting him do. Some things are sacred.”
“My darling, these days nothing is sacred” (emphasis in original).

* “This is the artistic future of our country […] Vitulka and people like her. A young country with so much energy and so much talent.” Until the Nazis and then Soviets roll through, anyway.

And these are only a few obvious moments from the first 80 pages. I counted zero jokes in the same territory.

Have I not mentioned characters yet? There may be a reason for that. Viktor and Liesel Landauer are religiously mismatched (Jew, Gentile—or is it the other way around? Confusion would be easy) and eventually become erotically mismatched, with somewhat predictable affairs sprouting between a couple who cannot yet have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Rainer von Abt is the German architect who designs their “upside down” house/metaphor, where the bottom is made of glass, and is fond of pompous pronouncements like the one above regarding true love versus artistic patronage. There is also a pianist, who allows allusions to Dr. Faustus, and other minor characters of artistic bent who positively breathe meaning until they become suffocating.

The Glass Room isn’t a bad novel, but it’s one that I couldn’t get into. Why is it that some short books feel long (Ethan Frome), some long books feel short (Cryptonomicon, The Name of the Rose) and some mid-length to longish books feel longer than they are, like The Glass Room? I doubt I can find a consistent, unified theory regarding objective length and metaphysical length, but books that don’t have enough grab to feel short despite their length often get dropped before they’re finished. The Glass Room might fall into this category because it’s a novel that has aspirations towards being a novel of ideas, but it’s told chiefly through characters whose endless banal observations and cares don’t seem leavened with the promised ideas, and the narrator doesn’t provide them either. So I start skipping pages, waiting, waiting, hoping, hoping, and never finding until, eventually, I wander back toward the congenial fields of Alain de Botton and Francine Prose.

Europe, the United States, living standards, GDP, and the University of East Anglia (UEA)

I’ve only lived in Europe—and even then it was England, where I found that many people considered the country not part of Europe—briefly, but like Megan McArdle and Matt Welch, I “found it noticeably poorer than the United States.”

The debate is mostly symbolic and a proxy for U.S. healthcare issues, about which I know sufficiently little to not comment in public. Nonetheless, the living standards issue comes up because McArdle writes about “The Difference Between the US and Europe” in response to Paul Krugman’s comments on the same, where he says:

Actually, Europe’s economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe — official economic statistics or your own lying eyes — the eyes have it.

McArdle and Welch think otherwise. My limited experience occurred at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which is in Norwich. The school was noticeably more run down than any university I’ve seen in the U.S. The dorm cots—they weren’t really beds—were tiny and hard; the desks made the ones at Clark University, where I was an undergrad, wonderful by comparison; and the campus had a general feeling of dilapidation that was enhanced by graffiti on walls.

That was just the physical plant. Classes were only taught for six hours a week. I have no idea what most students did the rest of the time. There were in effect no meal plans, so students were supposed to do their own cooking in dirty communal kitchens. To use the gym, one had to pay £6 to take a useless orientation class and then pay £1 or £2 to get in every time thereafter. It was so bad that a friend and I wrote a document called “About UEA” and e-mailed it to others at our home schools. Bathrooms were—charitably—vile.

But wait! Aren’t dorms terribly everywhere? Maybe so, but in the limited number of places I’ve spent some time in or on dorm beds, none have been nearly as bad as UEA’s, and that includes Clark, the University of Washington, Seattle University, Harvard, USC, and the University of Arizona. This isn’t a full sample, but the difference was obvious. So was the price of books, which did help explain why so many excellent used bookshops popped up but didn’t help the £10 trade paperback price or hardcover prices that verged on £20.

Perhaps because of exchange rate issues, the UK also felt very expensive. “Expensive” and “worse” is a bad and unusual combination.

The debate reminds me of the New York Times piece, “We’re Rich, You’re Not. End of Story,” which studies how rich Scandinavian countries feel relative to the U.S., Spain, and others:

After I moved here six years ago, I quickly noticed that Norwegians live more frugally than Americans do. They hang on to old appliances and furniture that we would throw out. And they drive around in wrecks. In 2003, when my partner and I took his teenage brother to New York – his first trip outside of Europe – he stared boggle-eyed at the cars in the Newark Airport parking lot, as mesmerized as Robin Williams in a New York grocery store in “Moscow on the Hudson.”

The plural of anecdote is not data, and I like what I’ve seen of European cities, especially because they feel more like cities and less like giant suburbs than places like Tucson, Arizona do. Europe is a lovely place in many respects and has decided, as a continent, on a different set of trade-offs than the United States. But the difference in living standards is noticeable, at least to me, and evidently to others, at a given income level; if you have enough money, almost anywhere can be nice.

EDIT: I uploaded “About UEA,” a document a friend and I wrote to warn our other friends about life at UEA. Commenters say the university has gotten better since, but I can’t tell if they’re astroturfers or the real thing.

EDIT 2: It appears that Britain has a well-known and measurable productivity gap, which is elaborated on and explained at the link. The post is interesting throughout and you should really read it, including this:

I’ll never forget the first time I visited the Netherlands in 1985. I was in Dordrecht and reading through the comments of a guest book for a modest hotel. The writer was British, and apparently was visiting the Continent for the first time. He/she expressed shock at seeing that virtually everywhere in the Netherlands was a nice place, compared to the home country, much of which was not so clean and not so nice. He/she lamented and apologized for this feature of Great Britain, and that is yet another way of expressing the productivity gap.

Kundera, Horace Engdahl, and the Nobel Prize

Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl ought to read Milan Kundera, who is as European cosmopolitan as anyone, anywhere. This recommendation comes in response to Engdahl’s recent and much discussed statement:

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

The line of reasoning has been adequately debunked elsewhere—see Slate for a representative sample—I’m still fascinated by the ignorance of or, much more probably, hostility toward what is, for good or ill, still the world’s largest unified cultural force. What’s most amusing, however, is its relationship to what Milan Kundera called “The Provincialism of Small Nations” and “The Provincialism of Large Nations” in The Curtain. He diagnoses:

How to define “provincialism?” As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context. The large nations resist the Goethean idea of “world literature” because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere […]

Small nations are reticent toward the large context for the exact opposite reasons: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature.

What’s so bizarre is that Engdahl essentially accomplishes both at once: he resists the idea of the United States’ literature because he thinks European literature is enough, while at the same time he feels the United States literature is somehow alien, despite its self-evident place that would seem obvious to anyone with even passing familiarity with it. Engdahl is essentially implying that a) American literature is somehow guilty by association with worldwide pop culture, b) isn’t real literature in the first place, c) he’s unhappy about American hegemony culturally or otherwise, or, d) he’s unhappy at Europe relative decline in cultural and economic importance, which is likely to accelerate as India, in particular, rises (see Farheed Zakaria’s The Post-American World for more).

If the Nobel committee really wanted to regain some of its aesthetic and literary credentials, it would award the prize to Umberto Eco—a European—and Philip Roth, probably in that order. But, alas, the prizes over the last ten years have tended to go more for anti-Americanism or for writers being esoteric for the sake of being esoteric than for any other virtue. It would seem the Swedish Academy is isolated and mistakes its isolation for connection, like a remote abbey whose residents imagine themselves intimately familiar with the wider culture they ignore.

Engdahl also gives assertions as implausible as Sarah Palin’s claims to foreign policy expertise in quotes like this one:

But Horace Engdahl, the academy’s permanent secretary, rejected the notion that politics has anything to do with Nobel decisions.

“One doesn’t read literature with the same part of the brain as one votes for a political party,” he told The Associated Press.

The second doesn’t have anything to do with the first and might not be true anyway. But politics cannot be wholly separated from literature, though it can be minimized, and the pattern of recent winners indicates that, although correlation is not causation, there is a suspiciously strong correlation between winners and anti-Americanism that bears further investigation. That Engdahl would deny that too only furthers the impression of not occupying the same literary, intellectual, or social sphere the rest of us do. If he doesn’t want to, that’s fine; what’s galling is the pretense.

The Art of the Novel and The Curtain — Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel and The Curtain cover ideas big and small, moving from erudite generalizations to tiny examples drawn from generalizations of other authors’ work and back. But do they work as a whole? Yes and no: to agree with Kundera is easy, for his imperiousness makes one want to submit for the power of his assertions in comparison to the uncertainty and hedging that characterizes most criticism, and yet interrogating his ideas makes one begin to wonder: is “The desire to reconcile erotic adventures and idyll […] the very essence of hedonism—and the reason why man cannot attain the hedonist ideal[?]” Maybe, and maybe not. Is his opposition to outright philosophy or history in novel form correct? Again, at this level one could argue either way, and perhaps it is Kundera’s gift to raise the issues for others to argue. Uncertainty begins to appeal more.

If there is an art of the novel, is there also an art of writing about the art of the novel? Francine Prose did, as did James Wood, and Stephen King. The practice began long ago: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel has become virtually a standard reference in essays like this one, while Edith Wharton’s speculations have become less read over time. Kundera has trod this ground thrice, the middle and weakest effort being Testaments Betrayed. The two end books are quite separate, but with wide enough overlap that this essay treats them, unfairly, as similar enough to shoehorn into one place. If you were to only read one, I would say read The Curtain, which supersedes The Art of the Novel with its own art and density and shows Kundera’s growth.

There are various tracks writers about the art of writing can follow can follow: some write about novels in the sense of how the author intends them, society understands them, or their sheer constructedness. Some write about writing them as largely a craft born of reading them; some say that reading and experience must mix; some say experience predominates. All express a theory of the novel bound up in their discussion of the practice of it, and as a corrective to academic theory, they’re much appreciated, especially the recent pair by Wood and Smiley. Kundera is less “how-to,” closer to academic theory, and more expressive in his demands of the novel as autonomous from other arts, cultures, personalities; he says in The Curtain:

The novelist is not a valet to historians; History may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when History stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

Maybe: but the novelist is also part of history and historical development merely by writing a “novel,” and sets his work in some manner of time and place that is a sub-product or sub-creation of his own time and place. So what again is the relation of the novelist to history? I’m still not sure. This is why, I suspect, critics like the word “provocative” in relation to Kundera’s essays on the novel. They are not so much provocative, however, as the product of a strong aversion to all ideologies exception the ideology of aversion to ideology, an incredibly recursive view of the novel, and views that come together in startling ways that attempt to subvert other theories. The best thing I can say of Kundera’s works is that their tendency to acknowledge and even revel in paradox is a more definitive statement of the novel and its place than virtually anything he explicitly says.

Kundera’s nonfiction is written like his novels, but without characters anchoring them, in that they’re high on assertion and low on specific detail, assuming the reader will perceive what “To base a novel on a sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all” or “A theme is an existential inquiry,” both from The Art of the Novel, mean. The former doesn’t mean anything: the twentieth century isn’t one of any less or lesser quality thinking than any other century, and by virtually any objective measure that could be imagined for thinking it no doubt contains more. To defend his statement, Kundera would have to retreat to subjective or imaginary measures; but it is his method, like Foucault, to assert and leave the base scrambling of truth or falsehood to defenders and detractors. Perhaps he would argue, as he does in The Art of the Novel, that living in the United States has made me immune to the bureaucratic idiocies of the Soviet Union, as he does at one point regarding those who regard his novels as thought experiments versus those who understand him to be describing life in books like The Joke.

In spite of his apparent lofty abstraction, Kundera discusses and discards numerical maybe-coincidences in his novels: the tendency to divide them in seven parts, for example, and the meaning or lack thereof in that tendency. For him, they’re analogous to classical music, as he thought himself a musician or composer until he was 25. He uses precise language regarding classical music, which is dense with allusion to composers, just as his work is dense with allusions to authors. These books are not for average readers: they are ethereal, demanding, filled with koan-like statements that can only be evaluated if one is familiar with a wide range of work, thus enabling one to consider the veracity of Kundera’s beliefs. He tends to draw historical comparisons of uncertain provenance, as when he says Don Quixote’s violations of verisimilitude are acceptable because of its historical moment, implying they should still be acceptable now because they were then. Maybe—a word I’ve used frequently— or maybe a more technologic view of the novel, not necessarily as a form representing progress, per se, but as a form whose motion from space to space is, if not a progression, then at least worthy of more consideration for works that have absorbed all that came before and then created something new, is more appropriate. Kundera might not disagree with that assertion, and one could bring quotes about the novel’s progress to support it, or one could bring quotes about the power of some older novels to attack it. Like the Bible, much of his commentary could be used to attack or support many divergent readings.

For this reason, as well as for his own considerable and unusual works in the form, The Art of the Novel and The Curtain are unusual in their self-select audience. Nonetheless, the language itself is accessible, one major virtue is their brevity: both works, in part because of their tendency to assume rather than pedantically explain, can be read in an afternoon and savored for long after. In “In Search of Present Time” from The Curtain, Kundera writes: “By definition, what a narrator recounts is a thing that has happened. But each little event, as it becomes the past, loses its concrete nature and turns into an outline.” So too with each little observation Kundera makes, each grand point, until we have lost the thread of the novel’s art and must grope in the darkness for it again. He is at his best when he pronounces: “the novel remains to use the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.”

Yes: but there is a more metaphorical statement that toward the end of The Art of the Novel that summarizes both his point in his essays and his thoughts regarding the place of the novel in knowledge that is worth using to end this piece:

In the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge, the first great novelistic character that Europe beheld, is tormented by the question: Should he marry or not? He consults doctors, seers, professors, poets, philosophers, who each in turn quotes Hippocrates, Aristotle, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato. But after all this enormous, erudite research, which takes up the whole book, Panurge still does not know whether he should marry or not. And we, the readers, do not know either—but on the other hand, we have explored from every possible angle the situation, as comical as it is elemental, of the person who does not know whether he should marry or not.

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