Five Essays on Literature by Novelist Adam Thirlwell
July 8, 2013 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Adam Thirlwell has written five essays in as many years for The New Republic. They all concern themselves with literature, especially French, though the first one was about Charles Dickens and how he was the most avant-garde writer of the 19th Century. The second was about Roland Barthes' plans to write a novel which came to nothing when he died. In Visionary Materialism, Thirlwell explores Rimbaud's Illuminations from several angles. Genocide and the Fine Arts is about Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, and his complicated relationship with his famous work. The latest one, Baudelaire's Humiliation as a Way of Life, is about Baudelaire's place at the crux of the 19th Century revolution in letters.
posted by Kattullus (8 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Thirlwell falls prey to the Dostoevsky-Dickens hoax in the first essay, though he is in quite good company there, and the anecdote is ancillary to his main point.
posted by Kattullus at 4:43 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm about a third of the way through the essay on Dickens and really, really enjoying it. Thank you for this post.
posted by spacewaitress at 7:16 PM on July 8, 2013

That explanation of "Winter Festival" in the Rimbaud essay is really good. Just the kind of finicky attention to detail that I love.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:47 PM on July 8, 2013

One aspect of Thirlwell's essays I really like is how in the beginning they seem to be building to a fairly straightforward point, but then get lost in a thicket of detail seemingly until Thirlwell realizes he's almost at the end and must hurriedly get that point onto the page before his alloted space runs out. Of course, in the middle of the thicket of detail he usually makes observations or offers theories that are good enough to hang entire essays on. Here's a random example from the middle of the Baudelaire essay:
For humiliation, after all, was one effect of literature’s new commercial liberation. Baudelaire was one of the first writers to try to exist free from family inheritance, or aristocratic patronage, or government grants. But he discovered that this only leaves you alone with the market. And as soon as the market enters the picture, writing becomes a bleak strategy for reconciling sincerity to oneself with an appeal to other people. It leads to the writer performing pirouettes of self-definition and self-hatred. You never, in the words of Groucho Marx, want to belong to the club that will have you as a member. And its final effect can be seen in this proud, battered, manic sentence from a letter Baudelaire wrote toward the end of 1865: “no one has ever paid me, in esteem no more than in money, what I am DUE.”
In other hands that little quote would have been used as either a way to poke fun at Baudelaire or evoke sentiment, but in the midst of the essay it manages to serve as an indictment of capitalist way of rewarding writers. Baudelaire is now worth the same as a small industry, but he never got more than a few lousy shekels tossed his way. It's hard to take someone as madly particular and specific as Baudelaire and make him somehow universal, but Thirlwell manages, through the skillful weaving together of details, to fashion Baudelaire into the archetypal modern writer. Which is kind of an insane idea, but worth thinking about precisely because of its strangeness.
posted by Kattullus at 8:23 PM on July 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

What i love about Thirwell is how he drops this super tight aphorism in the middle of those where he says in that Barthes essay: "the deep preception of camera lucida was that photograph which transformed a subject into an object was a form of death"
posted by PinkMoose at 8:52 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Didn't necessarily get as much out of the Lanzmann thing as the others, but
And montage, I began to think, as I went back to work, a junior European and Jewish novelist, is maybe one possibility for future investigations: for the future novel, or the future film. You want to say everything? Then you need to learn how to edit and invent the murdered parts.
DAMN that is some writing.
posted by hap_hazard at 10:21 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Baudelaire said "that the city is like the soul, always changeling"
I have to mention an incident about Paul Verlaine where he drank the alcohol
a human fetus was preserved in. This must be apocryphal but I read it in a biography about him.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 1:08 AM on July 10, 2013

Incidentally, if you're interested in the Dickens-Dostoevsky hoax, here's an article about and an interview with the hoaxer.
posted by Kattullus at 3:04 PM on July 12, 2013

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