My Comprehensive Exam Results

September 14, 2015 § 1 Comment

Pass Pass Pass
Pass Pass Fail
Pass Fail Pass
Fail Pass Pass
Pass Fail Fail
Fail Fail Pass
Fail Pass Fail
Fail Fail Fail

are one of the above combinations.

Or they are what’s in this blog post.


What’s in this blog post is a list of books that I “discovered” this past summer, that shifted things for me in small or big ways, or that I simply enjoyed.

Comprehensive exams, where I go to school, involve picking three topics for which you create a list of at least thirty-five books each. Like most PhD amateurs I went overboard and had around two hundred books overall, then read about half of them.

You get the summer to read and make notes, then you get questions which you answer in five thousand words each and await results.

I don’t care much for waiting, so I’ve declared myself three wins.

Congratulations, me! You’ve done what millions before you have done.


The books I picked were of four main kinds:

books I’d read before that I knew would be core books for my essays
books I hadn’t read before that I knew would be important for me
books I hadn’t read before that were there because they were “supposed to be” there
books I picked by chance/that fell into my lap/that weren’t even on my precious lists but I read them

I don’t want to be a broken record about books I may have gushed about before, so I’m picking just a handful of books from the last three kinds.

Etel Adnan (major figure)

Etel Adnan. Journey to Mount Tamalpais. 1986.

All of Etel Adnan’s books, which I either read or re-read this summer, are wonderful—I pick Journey because it works beautifully as both memoir and manifesto for how Adnan looks at the world. As you may know, Adnan has painted Mount Tamalpais for decades of her life. I expected Journey to tell me how she came to that work and how it has sustained her. I didn’t expect it to let me re-enter her written work—The Arab Apocalypse, Seasons, and Sea and Fog particularly—with a more nuanced sense of what she does. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs from the book (context: Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire repeatedly in a similar manner, so obviously is an influence):

Let us return to Cezanne. He is a petrol lamp. His glance lightens the things it touches. A sense of the tragic in the quality of a painter’s glance, in the moment of choice, in the phenomenon called vision. Cezanne was in love with the mountain (or the gardener, or the apples) but with the moment when his glance settled on them differently than when he was promenading or was involved in a conversation. A painter’s glance is bitter, in the sense Rimbaud gave this word. That’s why this glance seems to erase the very object that creates its intensity, the cause of its intensity. (“To abolish . . .,” Mallarme used to say.) Cezanne turns light into an impersonal and cruel prism. And if we so much like his watercolors, it is because they escape our direct glance, they slide like mercury under our eyes, because there is between them and us an invisible obstacle which is both transparent and irreducible. It can lead you to insanity.

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Tr. Hugh Tomlinson & Graham Burchell. 1991/1994.

I’m struggling to remember exactly why I put this book on my EA list . . . I think it had to do partly with wanting to see what D&G were all about, and partly because EA is trained in and taught philosophy (though not, to my knowledge, D&G). I thought this book would force me into something more or less totally unfamiliar and I was suspicious of its “use” value to the work of comps writing, but here’s the thing. Or three things. One, this book was incredibly difficult for me—I read it very slowly and could follow a gorgeous movement here and there which I would then lose, but does it matter I didn’t get it all? Two, I haven’t thought much about what goes into translating philosophy, but between the four of them (or three—Guattari wasn’t as involved in the writing-writing, apparently), they’ve produced some serious . . . I don’t even know . . . sexiness is maybe an OK word:

Immanence can be said to be the burning issue of all philosophy because it takes on all the dangers that philosophy must confront, all the condemnations, persecutions, and repudiations that it undergoes. This at least persuades us that the problem of immanence is not abstract or merely theoretical. It is not immediately clear why immanence is so dangerous, but it is. It engulfs sages and gods. What singles out the philosopher is the part played by immanence or fire.

I think I remember now that it was their chapter on geophilosophy that I wanted to place next to Adnan. I didn’t eventually, because I found the chapter on literature and the arts more useful. It makes me want to read their stuff on Kafka and Proust and others, I’m sure, because they just seem to . . . say things really well:

We paint, sculpt, compose, and write sensations. We paint, sculpt, compose, and write sensations. . . . If resemblance haunts the work of art, it is because sensation refers only to its material: it is the percept or affect of the material itself, the smile of oil, the gesture of fired clay, the thrust of metal, the crouch of Romanesque stone, and the ascent of Gothic stone. The material is so varied in each case (canvas support, paintbrush or equivalent agent, color in the tube) that it is difficult to say where in fact the material ends and sensation begins . . .

. . . Characters can only exist, and the author can only create them, because they do not perceive but have passed into the landscape and are themselves part of the compound of sensations. Ahab really does have perceptions about the sea, but only because he has entered into a relationship with Moby Dick that makes him a becoming-whale and forms a compound of sensation that no longer needs anyone: ocean.

Etel Adnan In All Her Dimensions. 2014.

This extraordinary (and expensive) book was produced for Adnan’s exhibition at the Mathaf Museum in Doha last year. It is massive and includes beautiful images of all the various kinds of visual arts she has done: oil and watercolor paintings, leporellos, tapestries, drawings, calligraphy . . . There are also some great essays but, most usefully for me, seventy-pages worth of conversation between Adnan and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. This and Nighboat Books’ two-volume reader (which publishes a lot of early work, translated from French and unavailable elsewhere), edited by Thom Donovan and Brandon Shimoda, are essential to studying Adnan’s amazingly varied oeuvre.

The Sentence (genre)

Urs Allemann. babyfucker. Tr. Peter Smith. 1992/2010.

Please don’t ask me how the sentence is a genre. I wrote all about it and now it’s gone away.

This book was a present from my friend Teresa who co-directs Les Figues Press and I has happy to have it on my list (though it was scary when I googled the title to find an image of the cover)—I ended up writing two solid paragraphs on it because of how compellingly it plays with the idea of the judicial sentence. Yes, the sentence is “I fuck babies.” If your brain makes images very easily from reading words, you may want to give this a miss.

Robert Bresson. Notes sur le cinématographe. 1975.

This was totally not on my list, but was recommended by another friend and, you know, lightbulb. Notes is filled with Bresson’s notes to himself about le cinématographe, as distinct from le cinéma, and you can think of them as aphorisms. But really, I read this because Bresson is a genius and I love his films and didn’t know this book existed. There is a pdf of Jonathan Griffin’s translation floating around—the book is ridiculously expensive from being out of print, or you can just buy the cheap French paperback as I did.

Ian Robinson. The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. 1998.

Yeah, everyone’s going to leap on this one.

So, Ron Silliman does this really useful recap in his essay “The New Sentence” on the failures of linguists, philosophers, and literary critics to theorize the sentence; these failures may be why there is almost nothing useful on the sentence save for frilly craft essays about how you should end your sentences with a stressed syllable—tell that to your MFA fiction workshop, yeah? Everyone wants to talk about how syntax is so lovely but no one can tell you what it is or where it came from.

That’s where Robinson has been invaluable: he offers a history of how the Modern English sentence came to be, through a discussion of its precursors and of historical changes to how language ought to be organized (guess what, translation was an important part of the process). Maybe there are alternate histories, but I didn’t find them.

I don’t have the know-how to fully embrace or refute Robinson’s history, but the book was well-received as far as I can tell. The really important thing is: of all the scholarly writing I read, Robinson’s was the most stylish. I don’t know how to describe it exactly: a very English crispness combined with a don’t-give-a-fuck-ness. You have to admire someone who after quoting from Thomas More’s version of a speech by Edward IV (fifteenth-century dead dude) says, “I think this is very good.”

So, I liked Robinson—Silliman too and William H. Gass.

Translation Studies (special topic)


David Bellos. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. 2011.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t the sort of “academic” book you’re supposed to claim as a secondary source, but even though this book speaks to a nonspecialist audience, Bellos has a really complicated and generous view of what translation and translators do. Plus his mind goes all over the world with examples, things to pick up and play with in stuffy or nonstuffy fashion, as you please. Plus he translated Georges Perec. Plus Fish is a book I can recommend to people who ask me what in the world one can say about translation other than “is it faithful.”

Lawrence Venuti. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. Second ed. 1995/2008.

I’ve read Lawrence Venuti’s writing before, in shorter form, and heard him lecture. What an amazing advocate for translation. So I’m glad I finally got down to reading this book, which has aspects that can be argued against, for sure, and which is amazingly rich with history, considered opinion, and close analysis of translation examples from many languages and cultures. It is, indeed, an essential book for the field. I especially liked the discussion of “foreign” detective fiction because I recently scoffed my way through the televised version of Henning Mankell’s Wallander (Krister Henriksson, not Kenneth Branagh). How come every time someone wants to make a “complex” middle-aged male character, they listen to classical music and have serious issues with women?


I said I wouldn’t do this—harp on—but of the books I re-read I have to mention Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse (translated by herself) and Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles. Those two women, they are IT for me. Goddesses.




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§ One Response to My Comprehensive Exam Results

  • […] Truly, the most important reading I did last year was Beowulf. I got to read it in the original Old English with a group of amazingly brilliant people and to live in that super soundrich world for about two months. We also looked at a couple other translations; the Thom Meyer is really special. The next most important reading was for my comprehensive exams, which I wrote about here. […]

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