Antoine Volodine first came onto my radar in 2008, when several of his books were assigned reading for a graduate course in French literature that I was taking. We read Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) and Le Post-Exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (1998), and I also read a little of Des Anges mineurs. So when I saw that Volodine had another book forthcoming in English translation (Writers, trans. Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014; originally Écrivains, Editions du Seuil, 2010), I jumped at the opportunity to review it for The Quarterly Conversation.
There’s something about the essay I didn’t get quite right, but it’s nevertheless informative and fairly broad about Volodine’s project (although he has written over 40 books in thirty years! who can cope with that!). I discuss paratexts, pseudonyms/heteronyms, and why I think Writers is not Volodine’s best work. As I was finishing the essay, I began to think that the style pioneered by the great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis serves as a rough model for some of what Volodine is trying to do. In particular, Volodine and Kis both seem to approach their protagonists using a tone near to that of the encyclopedist or the biographer in order to describe individuals who struggle against a totalitarian state, often incarcerated, vehemently resisting to the bitter end.
It’s very hard to distinguish though, without doing some heavy comparative readings and research, to what extent Volodine’s style shares in common with Kis’s style a Soviet, totalitarian cultural milieu (you know, the kind of thing you get in Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the Granat Encyclopedia), and to what extent Volodine is really standing on Kis’s shoulders. For my part, I far prefer Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich to Volodine’s Writers. That, at least, is what I struggled to say in the essay.
And do be sure to check out the other articles in issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation.
There’s a new interview with acclaimed American novelist Joseph McElroy in the latest issue of Golden Handcuffs Review: “In the Port of Possibility: Interview with Joseph McElroy,” by Jacob Siefring. There’s other good stuff in there, including a translation from Harry Mathews of Marie Chaix, essays on Walter Abish, work by David Antin, Toby Olson, Rae Armantrout, Steve Katz, Bernard Hoepffner and more. So maybe worth buying that one, or better yet subscribing to Golden Handcuffs Review.
For context, I would also point out the numerous other interviews with McElroy have appeared over the years (see especially that which Tom Leclair did in the late 1970s and that which Trey Strecker did for Rain Taxi in 2003 (unlike the LeClair, it is freely available online)).
It’s also worth pointing out that a previous issue of Golden Handcuffs Review was devoted to McElroy’s work (#14, Winter/Spring 2011), and that pretty much all the articles are available online — or almost all. Well worth the time as an introduction to McElroy’s work, if you’re not familiar with it. Not to mention McElroy’s stories which appeared at Golden Handcuffs in years past and which are available online: “The Last Disarmament But One”; “Character”; and “The Campaign Trail,” collected in Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive, 2011).
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
“The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” – Nadine Gordimer
Bee Thousand - Marc Woodworth (in the 33 ⅓ series)
Lives of the Caesars - Suetonius (skipping around)
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – Vladimir Nabokov
Pincher Martin - William Golding
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)- Robert M. Pirsig
Writers - Antoine Volodine (review forthcoming)
Begun or in progress
The Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen (begun)
Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant - Edmond Caldwell (non-sequentially begun)
Around the Day in 80 Worlds – Julio Cortazar
Beloved – Toni Morrison (in progress)
Could not abide
The Lost Estate (1912) – Alain-Fournier (skimmed)
A Man Asleep - Georges Perec
The Map and the Territory - Michel Houllebecq
Still a sense of reader’s frustration. In bold below, the month’s stand-outs. It may be that I’m long overdue for some serious re-reading of a few (or many) of my personal favorites. Or maybe for a foray into the radical avant-garde works I loved but later renounced. For now, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is all I need. And, by the way, why the hell do people blabber on about James Wood when there are critics like George Steiner still around?
“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” case histories of the “Wolf Man” and the “Rat Man” – Sigmund Freud
A Mammal’s Notebook and Other Writings - Erik Satie
Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays – ed. Jay Martin
Mrs. Bridge - Evan S. Connell (1959; abandoned)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig (1974)
selected criticism – George Steiner (1970-2008)
“Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Crowd” – Elizabeth Hardwick (in Seduction and Betrayal)
Jernigan - David Gates (1992; a fantastic book)
A History of Reading - Gerald Murnane (abandoned)
How We Die: Reflections from Life’s Final Chapter – Nusner
Guided by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll - James Greer (2005)
Regardless of authorial contexts (Murnane & Coetzee), this is a fascinating quote. It’s from the Anthony Uhlmann’s recent review of The Childhood of Jesus, in American Book Review (jan-feb ’14).
In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch (2009) in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a “network of images.” Coetzee concludes:
The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences… In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of… As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist.
And then later on:
In a passage from Inland (1989) that Coetzee cites in his review, Murnane’s narrator reflects on a quote from Paul Eluard, a poet he claims to know nothing about and to have never read: There is another world but it is in this one. He continues:
The other world… is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books.
Uhlmann’s book, Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov (2011), must be tremendous. A giant theme, and giant writers.
As last month, not a particularly satisfying month on the reading front. The stand-out was the Flannery O’Connor “Revelation,” and also parts of Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker, which I greatly admire, despite some profound reservations and a nagging sense of boredom.
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius (re-reading, in progress)
“Melanctha” – Gertrude Stein (in Three Lives, 1909)
A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie (in progress)
“Revelation” – Flannery O’Connor (in Everything that Rises Must Converge)
Miss Doll, Go Home (1965) – David Markson (stalled)
introduction to The John McPhee Reader
Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation - Gérard Genette (passages)
Whore (2001) – Nelly Arcan
Hysteric (2004, trans. 2014) – Nelly Arcan
Fatal Flaws – Jay Ingram (skimmed)
Writers (2010) – Antoine Volodine (trans. 2014)
Room Temperature (1990) – Nicholson Baker (in progress)
Vathek - William Beckford (stalled)
Re-reading in Dubliners (“Grace,” “A Painful Case,” “A Little Cloud”), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Maldoror, Actress in the House, The Letter Left to Me, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett, The Moviegoer, etc.
I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).
The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.
I think if I’m lucky I’m a mentor to people I’ve never met – Michael Silverblatt
Among them, Michael, count me. Your Bookworm Audio Archive is vast, a national treasure-house. It would only be absurd to try to number the hours I’ve spent there, or to attempt a comprehensive list of the writers whose voices it preserves. There’s no usable index to the archive as far as I know, and no easy way to browse… but, it’s staggeringly complete… : Mailer, Didion, Sebald, Morrison, Markson, Kraznahorkai, McElroy, Delillo, Mathews, Vonnegut, Updike, Beattie, Sontag, Vidal… that’s just a start to the endless, endless procession. If this is news to whoever reads this, they’re hereby informed. (See also Silverblatt’s role as host and interviewer of writers at the Lannan Foundation.)
Naturally, I first started going to Bookworm to hear Silverblatt in conversation with particular writers. My thesis supervisor had referred me to the Sebald interview, since I was working on his novels. But it soon became obvious that Silverblatt is himself a most unique and fascinating figure, very experienced, and that he’s gifted with a brilliant mind and a warm, rarely generous temperament.
So thanks, Michael Silverblatt, for that mentorship.
And for other bookworms, anyone curious — here’s some places where it’s Silverblatt who’s being interviewed for a change. Enjoy.
* Colin Marshall’s hour-long podcast with Silverblatt, from which the two quotes that lead this article are transcribed (Notebook of Cities and Culture, April 2012);
* Sarah Fay’s interview with Silverblatt (The Believer, June 2010);
* J. Robert Lennon’s half-hour of audio spent chatting with him (Writers at Cornell, Oct 2010); and, lastly,
* “An evening with Michael Silverblatt” (1:30 audio recording, Cornell, iTunes U).
A month of frustrations, with some high points: Virginia Woolf’s writing fills me with wonder, as does Golding’s The Inheritors. Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years is long overdue for me, because I’ve known about it and its subjects (Apollinaire, Rousseau, Jarry, Satie) for over 5 years and remained deeply curious about them with every new thing I learned; I’ll have a post or two on it soon. The Silence of the Lambs I read on the endorsements of D.F. Wallace & Steve Donoghue, & it’s great fun & quite masterful–a rare excursion into the thriller genre for me.
On the basis of a few strong endorsements I picked up The Deer Park & The Invention of Morel–both I thought were a total waste of time, as is all of Baudrillard’s work (though it was once, circa 2004, so dear to me). The Deer Park is colossally boring, a shameless exploitation of mid-America’s anxieties: marriage, heteropatriarchy, les demi-mondains, society prostitutes, kept women, homosexuality, and other transgressions. Chejfec’s books, two of which I’ve read, are interesting, but not compelling enough to re-read. The Invention of Morel I probably brought too many expectations too.
The best books are the ones that deserve to be re-read. There’s a truism for you.
By the way, yesterday, I had the funny double occurrence of looking up an unknown word in a dictionary (nada), then googling: all the results reference the writer’s use of this rare cryptic word in the passage that served as the starting point for the search:
1) Michel Butor referred to Apollinaire’s ornithological pihis, which we learn might be thought of as a mythological bird from China with only one wing, – they fly in couples! ; – and
(2) Woolf employs the cryptic jacmanna in chapter 5 or so of To the Lighthouse – obviously a plant, shrub, or tree, I thought, but googling provided results to discussions of how what’s going on in the painting of Lily Briscoe has an indeterminate quality (or something like that). I’ll have to look back. Woolf’s prose takes my breath away.
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf (begun, currently reading)
The Invention of Morel (1940; trans. R.L.C. Simms) – Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Deer Park - Norman Mailer (abandoned; what a bore!)
The Banquet Years – Roger Shattuck (so excellent!)
The Inheritors (1955) – William Golding (profound & original)
Blow-Up and Other Stories - Julio Cortazar
The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1966) – Richard Brautigan (skimmed)
“Apollinaire,” “Research on the Technique of the Novel,” “The Novel as Research” – Michel Butor Inventory: Essays (trans. 1968, R. Howard)
The Silence of the Lambs (1988) – Thomas Harris
The Ecstacy of Communication - Jean Baudrillard (skimmed)
The Dark (2000; trans. 2013 H. Cleary) - Sergio Chejfec
Re-reading in Hind’s Kidnap, Murphy, Ms. Dalloway, Slaughterhouse-Five, Recollections of the Golden Triangle, and Siddhartha.
A high point of my month’s reading was William Golding’s second novel The Inheritors (1955), which followed after his first and of course most successful novel, Lord of the Flies. I somehow have two copies, both Faber & Faber, with some pretty great cover illustrations by Paul Hogarth (L) & Neil Gower (R).
The novel is structured around the idea of a Neanderthal tribe coming into contact with a more advanced tribe, presumably the first humans, or representative of such. It’s not difficult to read; it’s really quite a masterpiece, and it’s about the birth of the human race even. Therefore, I highly recommend it. I’ll leave off with a citation from the penultimate paragraph of John Carey’s introduction to the centenary edition which I think rightly sums up Golding’s achievement.
The greatness of The Inheritors does not depend on Golding imagining what Neanderthals might have been like. It depends on the language he fashions to express it. He accepts the colossal stylistic challenge of seeing everything from a Neanderthal point of view. By feats of language that are at first bewildering he takes us inside a being whose senses, especially smell and hearing, are acute, but who cannot connect sensations into a train of thought. This is a being whose awareness is a stream of metaphors and for whom everything is alive. Intricate verbal manoeuvres force us to share the adventures – and the pathos and the tragedy – of a consciousness that is fearless, harmless, loving, minutely observant and incapable of understanding anything.
Joseph McElroy and Mike Heppner did a paired reading in late April at Apexart, which was recorded. The text, which is partly about the 2013 Boston marathon event, is called “What We Noticed.” Check out the video (21:31).
Albert Mobilio, who is from what I can tell a very accomplished critic, was there as the host or moderator of the readings. Event info & videos of other author readings (Wendy S. Walters, Siddhartha Deb, Catherine Texier, & Minna Proctor) are here at Apex.
Now if you haven’t, go read Mike Heppner’s The Man Talking Project, because it is profound and jugular.
various poems – Catullus (trans. P. Green)
Jacob’s Room - Virginia Woolf
Manhattan Transfer (1923) – John Dos Passos (abandoned at about p. 80)
Solar Throat Slashed: The Original Unexpurgated 1948 Edition – Aimé Césaire (trans. Arnold & Eshleman, 2011; re-reading)
Blow-Up and Other Stories - Julio Cortazar (some stories)
Little Disturbances of Man – Grace Paley (some stories)
Radio (2002) – Tonu Onnepalu (trans. Adama Cullen, 2014)
Between Two Worlds (2008) – Sergio Chejfec (skimmed)
“Tenth of December” (2012) – George Saunders
* * *
The Woolf, Paley, Onnepalu, and Chejfec were highlights this month. There’s more Woolf and Chejfec ahead for me. Lots of good acquisitions at an Ottawa used book sale, at a local branch library, including lots of Woolf’s books (amazing to think that Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves all came out or were written, I think, correct me if I’m wrong, in the decade 1922-1932.
“[...] my morale as a walker had been in a bad way for some time. / The reasoning that follows may seem a bit abstract, so I’ll expound on it quickly. When I walk, my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me, one governed by overlapping windows. I say this not with pride but with annoyance: nothing worse could happen to me, because it affects my intuitive side and feels like a prison sentence. The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the from of Internet links, and this isn’t only true for the objects themseleves, which are generally urban, part of the life of the street or of the city as a whole, shaped precisely and distinguished from their surroundings, but also the associations they call to mind, the recollection of what is observed, which may be related, kindred, or quite distinct, depending on whichever way these links are formed. On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several, and these in turn summon other memories or connected thoughts, often by chance, etc., all creating a delirious branching effect that overwhelms me and leaves me exhausted. I’m a victim, that is, of the early days of the Internet, when wandering or surfing the Web was governed less by destiny or by the efficiency of search engines that it is today, and one drifted among things that were similar, irrelevant, or only loosely related. Until one reached the point of exhaustion over the needlessly prolonged Internet journey, with an ensuing loss of motivation to delve (or in my case, walk) any further, and then the moment of distortion would arrive, or of parallel nature, I don’t know which, when I would notice that every object had essentially turned into a link, and its own materiality had moved into the background, whose depth was virtual, peripheral and free-floating. / [ . . . ] It’s impossible for me to know how different my old-time, pre-Internet perceptions were; they probably were, in diverse ways. Before the Internet, my sense of a city was organized differently: my first impressions were stamped with their origins and the specific times, as it were, of their formation; they were bounded by the passage of time and by new experiences. And, in the resulting sedimentation, each memory retained its relative autonomy. But after the Internet, it happened that the same system formatted my sensibility, which ever since has tended to link events, in sequences of familiarity, though these sequences may be forced and often ridiculous. Those sequences of familiarity lead to groupings that are more or less volatile, it’s true, that nonetheless tend to leave what’s unique to each impression on a secondary plane, diluting in part the thickness of the experience.”
- Sergio Chejfec, My Two Worlds, p. 18-20 (Mis dos mundos, 2008; trans. Margaret B. Carson, Open Letter, 2011)
Nowadays, as one lounges out on the porch of an evening, in a folding lawn chair of finished redwood, it is scarcely possible to recall the limitations of those days. It seems that our memory typewriters and compact disk players have been around forever, like wise infinitely reliable mentors and administrators of our sport. In front of me the automatic sprinkler crawls steadily along the garden hose which my father has cunningly laid across his lawn; and from the Carsons’ house on Woodbine Court I can hear the metronome-like ticking of the children’s robot playing house with Robbie in the garage. A jet plane shoots happily through the blue sky, bound, perhaps, for another covert bombing mission in Nicaragua, where the colorfully dressed, brown-skinned population still resists our directive to BUCKLE DOWN and WORK because for them every day is a fiesta day in their pink or yellow or green brick houses in the cool mountains when WE are drumming our fingers and impatiently waiting for our Buddy Brand or Dodger’s Choice instant coffee to be harvested so that we can zip down to the office in our station wagons and set new goals and trends in productivity, because without us electrical consumption would sink to its nadir. – But if you will just stop dancing with the dishwasher for a moment I, Big George, will describe to you in loving detail how it all came about, and what life was like for our pioneers in the 1860s and 1870s.
- William T. Vollmann, You Bright and Risen Angels (Picador, 1987; p. 34)
The linings of the brain. (The linings of my brain, they give me such pain.) The linings of my brain are three in number and are called collectively the meninges. They surround it on the outside. The innermost is called the pia mater. It is a delicate, fibrous, and highly vascular membrane (gorged with veins and capillaries, I suppose). I feel pressure against it from inside. Things bubble and shove against it as though they might explode. It reminds me at times of a cheese fondue. The pia mater, reinforced by the two supporting layers, the arachnoid and the dura mater, holds fast against the outward expanding pressure of my brain, pushes back. At times, there is pain. The name pia mater derives from an imperfect translation into Latin of Arabic words that meant (ha, ha) tender mother.
- Joseph Heller, Something Happened (Knopf, 1974, p. 541-42)
How true- this quote, a favorite of mine:
“I see an injustice: a Parisian does not have to bring his city out of nothingness every time he wants to describe it. A wealth of allusions lies at his disposal, for his city exists in works of word, brush, and chisel; even if it were to vanish from the face of the earth, one would still be able to recreate it in the imagination. But I, returning in thought to the streets where the most important part of my life unfolded, am obliged to invent the most utilitarian sort of symbols and am forced to condense my material, as is usual when everything, from geography and architecture to the color of the air, has to be squeezed into a few sentences. A certain number of engravings, photographs, and memoirs do exist, of course, but these are generally little known beyond the narrow confines of the region itself. Moreover, the natives lacked perspective and most of the time paid no attention to what now seems to me worth thinking about.”
- Czeslaw Milosz, beginning paragraph from “City of My Youth” (Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, trans. C.S. Leach, Doubleday, 1968)
There’s a nice article at The Millions by Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin (“You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography”):
Holroyd’s suggestion that the computer represents a turning point in biographical writing carries some weight. After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed. Contemporary literary biographies — of Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron, John Updike, all of whom adopted email quite late in their lives — are petri dishes for a new age of biography.
What’s going to happen to all your digital information when we die, anyways? Do you have a plan for that? There’s a whole host of legal and practical unknowns. Digital data’s great, but precarious. Read all about it at the Digital Beyond.
The book designers weren’t told to make an object resembling a hearse or coffin, but they did anyways, a beautiful black and gold object. I bought my Knopf “Book Club edition” of this dark classic for seven Canadian bucks at Encore Books in Montreal two years ago.
And it is a hell of a book. Its voice belongs to Bob Slocum, a father-of-three, mid-level executive living in Connecticut. His one son is mentally retarded, a fact he can’t fully countenance. Slocum is terrified of inarticulacy, of speechlessness. He is depressed, but he is not. (Unless depression means something like a permanent negative outlook or worldview, an all-encompassing and unremitting pessimism. Fear of everything, of closed doors, of other people, of mortality, strokes, illness, senility, debility, speechlessness, of accidents.
What a fucking book. Its darkness on a level with William Gass’s The Tunnel, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Or Thomas Bernhard.
I’ll shut up. And let Heller’s Bob Slocum speak for himself.
All our summers have been bad. And most of our Sundays. And still are. How I dread those three- and four-day weekends. I wish my wife and I played tennis or enjoyed going on boats for sailing or fishing. But I don’t; I don’t even enjoy people who do. I don’t even enjoy anything anymore. (323)
I have a bitter urge now to reproach her, to shout at her, to reach out and hit her, to kick her very sharply under the table in the bones of her leg. I have an impulse often to strike back at the members of my family, even the children, when I feel they are insulting me or taking advantage. Sometimes when I see one of them in the process of doing something improper, or making a mistake for which I know I will be justified in blaming them, I do not intercede to help or correct but hold back in joy to watch and wait, as though observing from a distance a wicked scene unfold in some weird dream, actually relishing the opportunity I spy approaching that will enable me to criticize and reprimand them and demand explanations and apologies. It horrifies me; it is something like watching them back fatallay toward an open window or the edge of a cliff and offering no warning to save them from injury or death. It is perverse and I try to overcome it. There is this crawling animal flourishing somewher inside me that I try to keep hidden and that strives to get get out, and I don’t know what it is or whom it wishes to destroy. I know it is covered with warts. It might be me; it might also be me that it wishes to destroy) and, succeeding in stifling my anger beneath a placid smile, say:
“Pass me the break, will you, dear?” (111)
I molested a child. I was molested as a child. Everyone is molested. (337-8)
I know what hostility is. (It gives me headaches and tortured sleep.) My id suppurates into my ego and makes me aggressive and disagreeable. Seepage is destroying my loved ones. If only one could vent one’s hatreds fully, exhaust them, discharge them the way a lobster deposits his sperm with the female and ambles away into opaque darkness alone and unburdened. I’ve tried. They come back. (390)
I do indeed know what morbid compulsion feels like. Fungus, erosion, disease. The taste of flannel in your mouth. The smell of asbestos in your brain. A rock. A sinking heart, silence, taut limbs, a festering invasion from within, seeping subversion, and a dull pressure on the brow, and in the back regions of the skull. It starts like a fleeting whim, an airy frivolous notion, but it doesn’t go; it stays; it sticks; it enlarges in space and force like a somber, inhuman form from whatever lightless pit inside you it abides in; it fills you up, spreading steadily throughout you like lava or a persistent miasmic cloud, an obscure, untouchable, implacable, domineering, vile presence disguising itself treacherously in your own identity, a double agent–it is debilitating and sickening. It foreshadows no joy–and takes charge, and you might just as well hang your head and drop your eyes and give right in. You might just as well surrender at the start and steal that money, strike that match, (masturbate), eat that whole quart of ice cream, grovel, dial that number, or search that forbidden drawer or closet once again to handle the things you’re not supposed to know are there. You might just as well go right off in whatever direction your madness lies and do that unwise, unpleasant, immoral thing you don’t want to that you know beforehand will leave you dejected and demoralized afterward. Go along glumly like an exhausted prisoner of war and get the melancholy deed overy with. I have spells in spare time when it turns physically impossible for me to remain standing erect one second longer or to sit without slumping. They pass. I used to steal coins from my sister and my mother–I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even want the money. I think I just wanted to take something from them. I was mesmerized. I was haunted. I wanted to scream for help. I had only to consider for an instant the possibility of taking a penny or a nickel again from a satin purse in a pocketbook belonging to my mother or sister and it was all over: I would have to do it. I was possessed by the need to do it. I would plod home through snow a mile if necessary in order to get it then. I had to have it then. I took dimes and quarters too. Ididn’t enjoy it, before or afterward. I felt lousy. I didn’t even enjoy the things I bought or did. I gambled much of it away on pinball machines at the corner candy store (and felt a bit easier in my mind after it was lost). I didn’t feel good about a single part of it, except getting it over with–it was an ordeal–and recovering. After a while the seizures ended and I stopped. (The same thing happened with masturbation, and I gave that up also after fifteen or twenty years.) (489-91)
Following on the theme of my last post on W.G. Sebald, I thought I’d drag out this old find to see if any of this blog’s readers can help my understanding of an unusual change that occurred to a photograph in Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (1992) when it was translated by Michael Hulse and published in English by Harvill as The Emigrants (1996).
Part three of The Emigrants is a kind of family history, or intimate biography, of the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth that ostensibly draws on and incorporates postcards, photographs, and a diary/travelogue directly into the text. In 1913, on the eve of WW I, Adelwarth and another man travel from France to Istanbul and to the Holy Land. “On the 27th of November Ambros notes that he has been to Raad’s Photographic Studio in the Jaffa Road and has had his picture taken, at Cosmo’s wish, in his new striped robe” (p. 140-41).
Oddly enough, the German-language text of the book (at least the one I consulted – Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997) reveals a different image, one which encloses the portrait-sitter within a photostudio border.
Why the change? Supposing that there is a reason and that it wasn’t just due to some pressing difficulty in the layout process, – ? – I can only surmise that the publishers at New Directions acted deliberately in cropping out the frame. If so, they effectively scratched out the adjacent words Jerusalem and Palestine. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, or Sebald ordered the crop. But if the move came from the publisher, I wonder if it wasn’t motivated by the judgment that it would be preferable to omit two words sure to remind readers of a conflict and an annexation that continue today and never fail to inspire strong sentiment. The irony is that the manipulation of historical, photographic evidence to political ends, which Sebald’s books often underline and portray, might have occurred in the process of reaching his English-speaking audience.
I might very well be reading too much into this, or not. In any case if you’ve anything to add, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this unusual find.
The first paragraph has been slightly revised since this article’s first posting.
Poem 61 – Catullus
On the Genealogy of Morality (1887) – Friedrich Nietzsche
“Ward No. 6″ (1892) “In the Ravine,” “A Boring Story” – Anton Chekhov
The Approximate Man and Other Writings – Tristan Tzara (begun; trans. & ed. Mary Ann Caws)
“The Country Doctor” (1910s?) – Franz Kafka (trans. W. & E. Muir; re-read)
“Ten Indians” and “In the Indian Camp” – Ernest Hemingway
Zeno’s Conscience (1923) – Italo Svevo (trans. W. Weaver, 2001; abandoned at p. 120)
Break of Day - Colette (skimmed)
Sanctuary (1931) – William Faulkner
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (partial)
Cronopios and Famas - Julio Cortazar
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) – John Steinbeck (re-read parts of)
Something Happened (1966) – Joseph Heller
‘The Island,’ ‘Firebird,’ ‘Willie’s Throw,’ ‘and nobody objected…’, ‘Mountaineers Are Always Free!’ (1985-1991) – Paul Metcalf (all of these most fantastic)
“Beyle, or Love is a Madness most Discreet” (1990) – W.G. Sebald (in Vertigo, trans. M. Hulse; re-read)
Some poems by Charles Bernstein from Recalculating and All the Whiskey in Heaven
A few unpublished stories of friends
It’s not that easy to review books well, I know. Novelist Joshua Cohen probably does too, as he’s been at it for a while now reviewing for Harper’s and now the New York Times.
In any case, there’s a few things that rankle in his review of W.G. Sebald’s latest posthumous publication, A Place in the Country (2014). I wouldn’t comment on this, except that I’ve read all of Sebald’s novels (and After Nature) twice and wrote a thesis on The Emigrants. Cohen:
W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island.
My lord, “four novels about Jews” just won’t work. Austerlitz and The Emigrants, yes, but the focus in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn is hardly Jewry. My only guess is that he hasn’t read these novels, and so is relaying the commonly touted affiliation of Sebald with Jews and the Holocaust. Then he says
“A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last.
“Sebaldiana”–I cringe, and ask, why? why invent this clumsy-ass word? Don’t other words work? Sebaldian, fine, but… ugh. This, and a few strange stylistic tics/flourishes, make this review rather inelegant. See that weird, smart aside concluding the opening paragraph:
Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.
Anyways, we all err. Anyways.
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented.
- Joseph McElroy, Hind’s Kidnap, Harper & Row, 1969. P. 53.
Jefferson’s revolving Windsor chair which he purchased in 1775-76. The writing arm was added later at Monticello. (Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society)
William H. Gass’s writing is so good, it’s overwhelming, almost too much. Metaphor is like junk food to this man, so he says. If you’re slightly more of a Gass fan than I am, you would find the following of great interest: three previously published essay collections are being re-issued this year: On Being Blue, Tests of Time and The World within the Word all coming back into print, that’s pretty amazing (NYRB, Dalkey). And last year the online exhibit “William H. Gass: The Soul inside the Sentence” went online (and in gallery).
Over at the online gallery you can
explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life.
Update: Also of note is this 2013 interview.
Earlier this week, Dalkey Archive Press published a brief, up-to-date version of their list of titles published (some forthcoming). It’s organized by country and much easier to browse than their website. Very handy, and worth a look — Dalkey’s catalog never ceases to amaze.
Their spring catalog of forthcoming titles is out too.
Jeepers creepers these are great little books! They fell into my hands, given to my family by long-time family friends who are selling a house and still in the middle of a massive purge and sale of furniture, books, etc.
My two-year-old daughter has a lovely way of throwing books at her parents, and before I knew it I was looking at the words Alfred Jarry, at which point I was jolted into alertness. What’s the notoriously reckless, amoral, and blasphemous Jarry doing in book for kids?! No sooner was I taking in this surprise than I saw quotations from Arthur Rimbaud, Madame de Sévigné, Jacques Prévert, Pierre Reverdy, Guillaume Apollinaire, Valéry Larbaud, Jules Renard, Joachim du Bellay, Jacques Roubaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Colette, Henri Michaux, and on and on and on….
“The Marquise of O.”, “The Earthquake in Chile,” “Betrothal in San Domingo” (1810?) – Heinrich von Kleist (trans. David Constantine)
“The Nose” (1840?) – Nikolai Gogol
The Black Spider (1842) - Jeremias Gotthelf (trans. Susan Bernofsky)
A Season in Hell (1873) – Arthur Rimbaud (trans. Bertrand Mathieu; re-read)
Prancing Nigger (1924) – Ronald Firbank
Time Regained (1926) – Marcel Proust
Poets in a Landscape (1957) – Gilbert Highet
The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) – Manuel Puig
A Hall of Uselessness (2011) – Simon Leys
Tendency, counter-tendency: list-mania, list-aversion. They’re both out there, all over my RSS feed.
Listening to audio of Douglas Glover’s interview of Gordon Lish from 1994, I was surprised as all hell to hear Lish saying this kind of thing. Granted, I perhaps ought not to be surprised, given Lish’s reputation for having an inflexible and uncompromising personality… but, my god, a falling out over a few differences in one’s personal canon?!
“Bloom and I had been great, good pals for a number of years; and that friendship came to a very abrupt end, not without relation to a list of writers he proposed special attention be accorded, and given that that list included on it rather robustly non-Bardic poets of the order of Rita Dove, and failed to cite Jack Gilbert for example, I found a breach of judgment of an unforgivable kind. Such a breach was one of not a few of same, and I didn’t feel I could maintain relations with Bloom with honor. [...] I could not let myself keep myself in a friendly relation to him subsequent to the list that he, for whatever reasons that he was persuaded to publish it, did publish.” (Lish’s remarks, around the 8:00 mark in part 1 of the audio)
There’s boldness for you. Whether Lish’s coldness towards Bloom is a kind of literary snobbism, or an honorable attempt to live by his rigorous standards, I don’t know. Snobbism mostly, it strikes me. What do you think?
One of the more remarkable titles I read this month was a novella by English fiction writer Ronald Firbank (1886-1926). The copy I read was a 1962 New Directions paperback which collects two of Firbank’s last completed works, The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923) and Prancing Nigger (1924). The edition includes a Firbank chronology by Miriam K. Benkovitz, from which I glean that Firbank originally intended for the title of the Prancing Nigger to be Sorrow in Sunlight. (Editor Carl Van Vechten, working for Brentano’s in New York, renamed the novella, presumably on the grounds that the shocking title would sell copies.) I was drawn to read the latter of the two pieces that are collected in the volume largely on the basis of its shorter length, which I imagined would be a good short introduction to Firbank’s work, and also by that, indeed, shocking title. I had first come across the author’s name with some puzzlement when I was reading an interview with Harry Mathews, wherein the interviewer praised Tlooth (1966) and pointed out a resemblance between its and Vainglory‘s (a novel by Firbank) beginnings.
While I can see the grounds for a comparison between Mathews’s and Firbank’s work, I found Firbank’s style in Prancing Nigger to be more reminiscent of Djuna Barnes’s work (Nightwood, 1936, being the sole title of hers I know well) and John Hawkes’s work. A touch of Nathanael West’s merciless and cruel humor too. Firbank’s style proudly displays its inheritance from the decadence and sophistication of the French fin-de-siècle style: refined, sophisticated, elegant, effete even.
Set on an unnamed, Cuba-like Caribbean isle, Prancing Nigger records the dissolution of a provincial family as they move to the isle’s small capital city at the relentless prompting of Mrs. Ahmadou Mouth, who is eager to move up in society and to find eligible suitors for her two young daughters, Edna and Miami. Her husband, whom she addresses invariably with the epithet prancing nigger (hence the title Van Vechten chose), is only a minor character ineffectually fending off her wordly ambitions, and the drama unfolds primarily around Edna and Miami. One of these eventually becomes the paramour of a young local aristocrat. Her brother joins a street gang of sorts and drifts away from the family. As far as plot goes, that’s about it. Oh yes — there’s also a going-away party, an earthquake, an opera fundraiser, a parade, and a character eaten by a shark.
But the style! The mix of pidgin English and Creole, with the narrator’s detached, sophisticated commentary is striking. Have a sampling:
“Start de gramophone gwine girls, an’ gib us somet’in’ bright!” Mrs. Mouth exclaimed, depressed by the forlorn note of the Twa–oo-Twa-oo bird, that mingled its lament with a thousand night cries from the grass.
“When de saucy female sing: ‘My Ice Cream Girl,’ fo’ sh’o she scare de elves.”
And as though by force of magic, the nasal soprano of an invisible songstress rattled forth with tinkling gusto a music-hall air with a sparkling refrain.
There’s also a sly self-referential trick whereby Firbank inserts himself into the text, a kind of signature which, in comparison to the meta-fictional tricks of later authors, seems tasteful, quaint, and restrained:
“She seem fond ob flowers,” Mr. Mouth commented, pausing to notice the various plants that lined the way: from the roof swung showery azure flowers that commingled with the theatrically-hued cañas, set out in crude, bold, colour-schemes below, that looked best at night. But in their malignant splendour, the orchids were the thing. Mrs. Abanathy, Ronald Firbank, (a dingy lilac blossom of rarity untold), Prince Palairet, a heavy blue-spotted flower, and rosy Olive Moonlight, were those that claimed the greatest respect from a few discerning conoisseurs.
Flipping through the pages of The Flower under the Foot, I see Firbank couldn’t resist doing the same there too:
Have you Valmouth by Ronald Firbank or Inclinations by the same author?” she asked.
“Neither I’m sorry — both are out!”
I will definitely keep an eye out in used shops for Valmouth and Vainglory, not to mention Inclination and Caprice, Firbank’s other novels. Dalkey Archive Press, if I remember correctly, publishes a collection of his stories. This is an author deserving of a wider readership. (Although I suspect that, among the adventurous, his readership is already wider than anyone can measure or foretell.)
Note 1: As Dan Visel indicates to me on Twitter, Carl Van Vechten was… something else. You can read all about it here in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Vechten (LARB).
I can’t be the first one to see an uncanny resemblance between Christian Bök’s Xenotext project and the bio-art of Orfeo‘s protagonist, can I?
Novelist Richard Powers is on the latest episode of Bookworm, talking with Michael Silverblatt about his latest book Orfeo. (Word to the wise — start listening to Silverblatt’s show, if you don’t already know it.) The book’s protagonist is apparently an avant-garde composer of music at work on a project to embed his musical masterpiece in the genetic code of a germ. As Silverblatt puts it, he’s “on the threshold of creating virtual, terroristic music.” Or, as Powers says, he’s trying to “encode a private musical message, embed it into the nucleus of a living cell, and have that cell propagate in the world carrying his little MP3 cassette with it, filling up a world that’s absolutely incapable of hearing it.”
Bök’s Xenotext is described as a nine year project to engineer “a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem.” (Read about it in Bök’s own words here.)
In both cases, the appeal of the idea of genetically encoding the work of art is to to make something that will be “legible” to life for a period longer than any material artifact.
I agree with the underlying rationale of Bookslut’s Daphne Awards (see Jan 27 post) : indeed, often the best books of their times are overlooked in favour of the much hyped and rather conventional title.
“If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.
Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards, which ugh, decided that John Updike’s The Centaur was totally the best book of that year.”
But have the writer(s) at Bookslut who refer disparagingly to Updike’s The Centaur actually read it? I have, and it’s fantastic! It would be nice to see the book itself acknowledged in more than just a facile, all-too-simple, disparaging manner. I found it to be quite original: a small-town mythology that, in its later phases, branches out to a lyrical, epistolary Manhattan moment. The strange and slow after-school at-the-diner scene, the car that time and time again won’t start to barrel over the rural hills from the cold Pennsylvania farmhouse to the high school, the spider in the narrator’s father’s colon, and the beauty of a snow day — hell, I would read it again. It’s all very beautiful and affecting. But then I’m a white male. Where’s my copy?
I know the point isn’t The Centaur; it’s in fact all the other books published that year; but regardless, that “ugh” strikes me as modish, just as it’s become fashionable to speak of the U.S.’s (former) celebrity novelists (Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, etc.) as if they were hopelessly conventional and reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Translator Adrian West keeps a wonderful blog. If you haven’t ever visited it or if you don’t follow it, it’s well worth the time. West’s articles consistently impress me with their erudition and argument and, perhaps above all, their refined, elegant style.
In a recent post (“The Awfulness of Pablo Neruda”) West points out that Pablo Neruda was, in life, a horrible person, citing some rather damning evidence in support of this. In particular, Neruda’s reputation as a love poet is problematized by the matter of his horrible treatment of his wife, and his rape of a chambermaid. It’s enough to prevent me from looking admiringly at Neruda again. Though he hadn’t been a favourite poet of mine, I did marvel at some of his earlier work, and this surely complicates what feeling of admiration his poems arouse in me.
In other Neruda news, it looks pretty clear that Neruda was almost certainly executed under the Pinochet regime by lethal injection, and did not die from cancer as had previously been reported and believed.
I threw the question out on Twitter, “is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) the greatest single work of literary criticism ever written?” I think it probably is, but I was hoping some other readers might contradict me or suggest some other worthy candidates for the distinction. Then I thought about it some more. So here’s some whoppers of literary criticism; I’ve read only three-and-a-half of these, and I’m sure as hell missing a lot in the few years between 335 B.C. and 1930 A.D. So, as always, comments are welcome and encouraged, below or on Twitter (@jsief).
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) - Erich Auerbach
History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury
Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (@bswbarootes)
The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore
Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – William Empson (@JustinPfefferle)
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (@bswbarootes)
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) – M.H. Abrams
Biographia Literaria (1817) - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth
The Sense of an Ending (1967) - Frank Kermode
The Counterfeiters, The Stoic Comedians, The Mechanic Muse (1968-1987) - Hugh Kenner
The Banquet Years (1955) – Roger Shattuck
At his blog, D.G. Myers has a
pretty damn good long bibliography of American fiction of the sixties (+600 titles). This period in American publishing seems to have been an unprecedented explosion of literary innovation, and it seems equally overlooked by those who are enthusiastic and by those who deplore the state of literary fiction in America today.
An awful lot of forgotten authors in there, although – as Daniel Green pointed out on Twitter – a few are still missing: Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Marguerite Young, William Goyen, Richard Farina… Even I had to remind Myers of Harry Mathew’s place in there, one of the greatest living American writers in my book. No such bibliography, the moral may be, can ever be complete.
I’ve added to the links in the sidebar and organized them by type. In particular check out some of these fantastic, free audio resources:
In almost every case, the archive/repository is vast, almost overwhelmingly so. Particularly so with Michael Silverblatt’s excellent show Bookworm — the archived episodes go all the way back to early 90s, with high-quality recorded conversations with Norman Mailer, Don Delillo, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, W.G. Sebald Laszlo Kraznahorkai, Rick Moody, Will Self, David Foster Wallace, you name it, it’s there, on and on and on to no end.
If I go blind, I’ll be relying on these.
After doing the year-end round-up recently, I’ve started to keep better track of what I’m finishing, just dipping into or looking back at, or abandoning midway through. Roughly 1,500 paper pages read this month, 9 or so complete books.
La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette (trans. Nancy Mitford (1951), New Directions)
Haunted House (1930) – Pierre Reverdy (trans. John Ashbery (2007), Brooklyn Rail/Black Square)
Return to My Native Land (1939; 1956) – Aimé Césaire (trans. Clayton Eshleman and A. James Arnold, Wesleyan UP, 2013; trans. Anna Babstock & John Berger, Archipelago Books, 2014)
Solar Throat Slashed (1948) - Aimé Césaire (trans. Clayton Eshleman, Wesleyan)
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1959) – Erich Auerbach (Princeton)
The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de dés (2012) - Quentin Meillasoux, (trans. Robin Mackay, Urbanomic/Sequence Press)
L’Autre modernité (2012)- Simon Nadeau (Boréal)
The Examined Life (2012) – Stephen Grosz (Random House)
The Traveler’s Tale (2013) – Byron Ayanoglu (DC Books)
Jacques the Fatalist - Denis Diderot
Père Goriot – Honoré de Balzac
The Quotable Kierkegaard - Søren Kierkegaard (ed. Gordon Mortimer, Princeton UP, 201?)
The Collected Poems of Constantine Cavafy – Constantine Cavafy (trans. Aliki Barnstone, W.W. Norton)
Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (1969) - Joseph McElroy
Mulligan Stew (1979) - Gilbert Sorrentino
The Living End – Stanley Elkin
Every time I go to Ohio, I make a point to stop at Dark Star Books, a great used bookshop in Yellow Springs I’ve blogged about before. My latest trip yielded more good finds: two books by Lynne Tillman, Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience (trans. William Weaver), Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (Harper & Row, 1968). As soon as I glanced at the cover, I recognized the painstakingly detailed and ornate artwork of James Spanfeller.
I recognized the style, and the face, from the incredible dust jacket of Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (Harper & Row, 1969). Click on the image, zoom in, and look closely; you’ll see grasshoppers, pupae, birds, and more there in Hind.
Both these books were produced under the editorship of legendary editor David Segal, who was at Harper & Row before moving to Knopf in about 1970. A little light research shows that James Spanfeller also did these other book illustrations — each quite exceptional, I think. Photos culled from a Google Image search.
I also see, for those who are interested in digging deeper, that Spanfeller did illustrations for Pages from Cold Island by Frederick Exley, Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Quill by Robert Steiner, and various other books by Larry Niven, May Sarton, and Julia Cunningham. Various other great illustrations are online here.
I’m going to hop on the bandwagon for a sec, and tell you what 2014 books you can be excited about. Didn’t used to do this kind of thing, but it’ll take me 15 minutes to rattle this one off, so… lifting descriptions of these books freely from publisher’s websites, here we go…
The list of books read this year, ordered chronologically by date of original publication. In bold are works I consider well worth their time, and even a second read. Also included is a list of what I project I’ll read (or want to read) in the year to come. (Why, by the way, in the flood of “year-end reading lists” that bloggers flood the Internet with as soon as December hits, don’t I see others making lists of what they envision ahead in the year to come? My projections from last year from last year turned out to be risibly inaccurate to what I eventually read, and so I for one wouldn’t place much stock in what I say I’ll read… For now these French classics look like bliss.)
I felt I had to read The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), but I felt it as a duty, an obligation, and I failed to predict the abundance of pleasures and delights it would bring me, how fully I would be absorbed by this lovely, capacious courtly romance that Stendhal (1783-1842) dictated — if you can believe it — in just <em>fifty-two days</em> in the fall of 1838. It is not dense, but it is sprawling and magnificent, an intrepid work with a bit of everything. Love and nobility of the soul are its two great themes, but it is also packed with action, architectural musings, political intrigue, psychological interiority, cruelty, wit and humour, and one fantastic escape. It is Stendhal’s last novel, and it was brought into the world, seemingly, fully-formed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will enlarge your heart and your soul, to say nothing of your attention. Fabrizio del Dongo is the book’s hero, a noble and naive young man, a prisoner and ecclesiastic and fugitive lover of whom his aunt rightly remarks, “If he hadn’t been so lovable, he would be dead”!
Richard Howard’s translation, published by the Modern Library in 1999, reads in a fluid and flawless manner, and also includes an afterword by Howard, Honoré de Balzac’s 1840 review of the book, Stendhal’s letter to Balzac, and Daniel Mendelsohn’s 1999 review of Howard’s translation, which appeared initially in The New York Times Book Review. From these supporting documents I glean the following. Stendhal wrote to Balzac that, “Whilst writing the Chartreuse, in order to acquire the correct tone I read every morning two or three pages of the Civil Code.” – ! Also: Henri Beyle (Stendhal) used over 200 pseudonyms in his lifetime. (Certainly makes me feel like less of a nut for occasionally assuming an alias…)
Put this one on your reading lists.
Was it even a war, or something else?… I’ve stewed too long in my outrage to be eloquent or tactful. Writings on the history and non-fiction of the bloody war are legion, proliferating as we speak. Too much for me. Here’s a list of resources for the Iraq/Afghan wars in fiction.
I finished Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869) last week, and boy is it good. I found it hard going at the start, mostly because the author seemed to treating his protagonist with such derision, but after a few hours with the book there was no turning back. For the oceans of ink that have already been spilled over this book, I need add nothing but another hearty endorsement. What a wicked wit was Gustave Flaubert… I can’t recall ever having such a shock in reading a novel as the marriage proposal that materializes in part III, and Frédéric Moreau’s hilarious response. Were one to judge from this classic, one might well believe Robert Burton’s claim in The Anatomy of Melancholy that, “in France, upon small acquaintance, it is usual to court other men’s wives, to come to their houses, and accompany them arm in arm in the streets, without imputation.” Pair this one with Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (1888).
I don’t read enough books as they come out to pompously draw up a “best books of the year” list, but I do take in a lot of contemporary criticism, so I’m deluged with commentary on the big releases of the year as well as some of the little ones. I don’t think I will ever touch The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, or Bleeding Edge, The Flamethrowers, The Kraus Project, or any of the other books that I’ve read so much about this year, but here are some of the books that I might eventually track down.
“The band had left. They dragged the piano out of the hall into the drawing-room, Vatnaz sat down at it, and to the accompaniment of the Choirboy’s Basque drum, launched into a wild country dance, hitting the keys like a horse stamping its hooves and lurching to and fro in time with the music. The Marshal carried Frédéric off, Hussonet turned a cartwheel, the Stevedore was twisting and jerking like a clown, while the Clown pretended to be an orang-utan and the Native Woman held her arms out sideways and imitated the pitching and tossing of a ship. In the end, everyone stopped, exhausted. Somebody opened a window.
Daylight streamed in and the cool of the morning. There was an exclamation of surprise and then silence.”
- Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education (1869; p. 138), trans. Douglas Parmée
If you’re a returning visitor, you’ll notice a pretty big change in the appearance of this site, as of last night. I worked with graphic designer Sasha Endoh to settle on the current appearance, and I’m very thankful to her for putting in the time. She does great design work, and if you need a site revamp she just might be one of the best people out there who could help you get there. I hope you like the site’s new look!
There’s a new online magazine of Québec literature in translation out there, in fact there’s only one in the whole world, and it’s called ambos (a Spanish word meaning both), and I’m happy to be a contributor to it. If you’re interested, you can hop on over there to read my review and translation from the French of an excerpt from Patrick Nicol’s 2012 novella Terre des cons. It’s a good one!
As a boy I used to regularly read this outstanding periodical and last month, I was delighted to find that my local pharmacy, Shopper’s Drug Mart, stocks it on their shelves. Coverage is as relevant and as acid as ever, as you can see.
From my review:
Whatever the message is, Ancient History and Cy’s manuscript (for they’re one and the same) confront the impossible: Cy seeks in his project to embrace a totality that’s larger and greater than the limits of others’ minds. This high ambition stands parallel to that of Michel Butor’s Degrees (1960; cited by McElroy as a precursor and model for his early work), as well as McElroy’s first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), whose central protagonist, David Brooke, has “perfect recall.” Similarly gifted, Cy has in his brain an unusually developed “Vectoral Muscle” that enables rare feats of attention, perception, and intuition. On the page, this amounts to what Tony Tanner aptly termed a sense of “egalitarian respect for the most apparently modest detail.” A name on an apartment directory-board that’s “mint white grooved in velvety black,” for instance, or, an egg sandwich seen with “the gold-gray damp of the grease coming into the Pepperidge Farm white.” Like these minute touches, McElroy’s prose can, at its best, almost conjure synesthesia.
My review of Mauricio Segura’s novel Eucalyptus is online (and in print!) in the Montreal Review of Books fall 2013 issue. Segura’s short novel is translated by Donald Winkler and available from the excellent Biblioasis.
From the review:
The story’s protagonist, Alberto Ventura, has returned to Temuco in Araucania for the funeral of his father, Roberto. Over several packed days, he tries to understand his father’s life story and mysterious death, gradually piecing together a composite narrative from contradictory accounts offered up by those who knew him. Assembling the pieces isn’t easy, as Alberto’s father’s life is structured around a handful of discontinuities. We see him in elliptical vignettes, alternately as a leftist activist in the early seventies, as a political prisoner under Pinochet, later as a Canadian immigrant and family man, soon as a philandering, abusive husband, and, ultimately, as the owner of a Chilean plantation when he returns to his homeland at the end of the dictatorship in 1990.
“Poor Julius! So many writers and so few readers! It’s a fact. People read less and less nowadays…. to judge by myself, as they say. It’ll end by some catastrophe–some stupendous catastrophe, reeking with horror. Printing will be chucked overboard altogether; and it’ll be a miracle if the best doesn’t sink to the bottom with the worst.”
- Lafcadio’s Adventures (Les Caves du Vatican, 1914), André Gide, trans. Dorothy Bussy, p. 178-179
“My father had, let us call it, a tendency toward schizophrenia. [...] By the age of four, although I could not read, I knew what a headline was, what a lead story was, which columnists were respectable and which were not (I learned to loathe Westbrook Pegler before I was in kindergarten), and so on. I learned what the Times represented, and what the Daily News represented, and the difference between the News and the Mirror, and who Old Man Hearst was, and what was wrong with Roy Howard (Head of the Scripps-Howard chain), and on and on.”
- George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998 (p. 11)
To live in the world of creation — to get into it and stay in it — to frequent it and haunt it — to think intently and fruitfully — to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation — this is the only thing — and I neglect it, far and away too much; from indolence, from vagueness, from inattention, and from a strange nervous fear of letting myself go. If I vanquish that nervousness, the world is mine. X X X X X
- The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1947. P. 112.
The discoveries made by various literary scholars, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Gérard Genette, Mieke Bal, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, have had a profound influence on the way I write, and I truly believe that they provide wonderfully efficient shortcuts for writers to discover expressive possibilities that might otherwise take decades of trial and error to figure out.
Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar wants all mentions of the Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye removed from state guidelines for schools teaching to the new Common Core academic standards. She thinks the book is “pornographic.”
With weird sinisterness, a passage from John Hawkes’s first novel (1949) defamiliarizes a house so that it’s a shark:
The house where the two sisters lived was like an old trunk covered with cracked sharkskin, heavier on top than on the bottom, sealed with iron cornices and covered with shining fins. It was like the curving dolphin’s back: fat, wrinkled, hung dry above small swells and waxed bottles, hanging from a thick spike, all foam and wind gone, over many brass catches and rusty studs out in the sunshine. As a figure that breathed immense quantities of air, that shook itself in the wind flinging water down into the streets, as a figure that cracked open and drank in all a day’s sunshine in one breath, it was more selfish than an old General, more secret than a nun, more monstrous than the fattest shark. (page 60)
Fitzgerald’s problematic relationship with alcohol is amply evident in this memorably brilliant, incisive passage:
Often people display a curious respect for a man drunk, rather like the respect of simple races for the insane. Respect rather than fear. There is something awe-inspiring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything. Of course we make him pay afterward for his moment of superiority.
Just one of those incredible sentences, masterful in its god-like yet very human perspective:
To the squeal of brakes, the car burst out into the world trailing a festoon of privet, swerved at the immediate prospect of open acres flowered in funereal abundance to regain the pavement and lose it again in a brief threat to the candy wrappers and beer cans nestled along the hedge line up the highway, that quickly out of sight to the windows’ half-shaded stare from the roof pitches frowning over the hedge to where it ended, and a yellow barn took up, and was gone in a swerving miss for the pepperidge tree towering ahead, past shadeless windows in a naked farmhouse sprawl at the corner where the road trimmed neatly into the suburban labyrinth and things came scaled down to wieldy size, dogwood, then barberry, becomingly streaked blood-red for fall. (page 17)
(This is an update to the post Dayton in books: a collage.)
Joe Brainard’s I remember (1975) is an incredible book, touching, intimate, and beautiful. It consists of more than 1,000 brief entries that begin with the words “I remember.”
Brainard was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, went to New York City where he remained friends with Ron Padgett, and met Kensward Elmslie, John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, and others of the New York poets of the 60s and 70s. He’s remembered as both an artist (painter, sketch artist?) and as a writer of about ten other books.
Just a few excerpts on Brainard’s brief stint in Dayton, Ohio, where he had a scholarship through the Dayton Art Institute:
I remember when I won a scholarship to the Dayton, Ohio, Art Institute and I didn’t like it but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings by just quitting so I told them that my father was dying of cancer. (53)
I remember in Dayton, Ohio, the art fair in the park where they made me take down all my naked self-portraits. (53)
I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (153)
UPDATE: The amazing PennSound archive has a 1/2 hr. recording of Joe Brainard reading from this work.
I wrote a review of Moth; or, how I came to be with you again, and the review is posted online at the Montreal Review of Books. Check it out. Moth is good, worth purchasing. Sarabande Books is in Louisville, Kentucky, a city to which I owe an eventual visit, being a native of nearby Dayton, Ohio. They do an excellent job, judging from what I’ve seen of their publishing work.
I acquired and began it but gave up on it (around page 85 out of 160) in the middle of last week. This is a rare abandonment, and there remains the possibility I’ll resume it. The writing was compelling, but seriously dry, repetitious, and boring in another. I felt as if the book’s author and narrator were so repetitious and given over to formalities — the conceit of the book’s formally rigid method — that my time was being wasted. And we have so little time, it cannot afford to be wasted.
The only book I have read that is like it is the short work of J.M. Coetzee The Vietnam Project, which makes up the first half of Dusklands (1974), Coetzee’s first published work.
Slowly I am making my way through André Gide’s amazing novel The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-monnayeurs, 1926). When I was in high school I read and enjoyed Gide’s The Immoralist on the strong recommendation of a sharp and very literary fellow barista named Crystal. But The Immoralist is a much more simple tale than the complex assembly of parts that is The Counterfeiters. You should read The Counterfeiters. Although it should be, it is not widely read today. This masterpiece of a fiction shows Gide in virtuosic control of his craft. Emotional depth, mystery, intrigue, scandal, plot complexity, economy of language, suspense, universality–all are there in abundance. And I am only a third of the way through the book’s 350 pages.
Brief notes on our favourite kids’ books of late, including the Toot and Puddle series by Holly Hobbie, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williamsby Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn by Donald Barthelme.
Since I migrated Bibliomanic away from Wordpress.com, I have the pleasure of relentless spam comments, none of which I approve. Nevertheless, many are a laugh riot. This blog would be a funnier publication if I let a few of the good ones slip through. Thus, see here:
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In the posthumous work Penser/Classer (which title one might translate as To Think/To Classify), Georges Perec outlined what he saw as the only possible criteria for arranging one’s books:
‘Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching; then came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivably louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet standing on the wood of the bleachers, an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death in the roar of a drowning hour, a nightmare of sound, and he heard himself saying, “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God!” but not his voice, almost like the Italian girl saying “fenomenal,” and the sound of the rocket beat with the true blood of fear in his ears, hot in all the intimacy of a forming of heat, as if one’s ear were in the caldron of a vast burning of air, heavens of oxygen being born and consumed in this ascension of the rocket, and a poor moment of vertigo at the thought that man now had something with which to speak to God — the fire was white as a torch and long as the rocket itself, a tail of fire, a face, yes now the rocket looked like a thin and pointed witch’s hat, and the flames from its base were the blazing eyes of the witch. Forked like saw teeth was the base of the flame which quivered through the lens of the binoculars. Upwards. As the rocket keened over and went up and out to sea, one could no longer watch its stage, only the flame from its base. Now it seemed to rise like a ball of fire, like a new sun mounting the sky, a flame elevating itself.’
- from Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), p. 93. Signet Classics paperback.
In mid-January of this year, I paid a visit to Stéfan Sinclair, who is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities in McGill’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Since he received his Ph.D. in French literature, Professor Sinclair has worked on numerous projects designing digital humanities text visualization tools, often in collaboration with other scholars. He was most generous and open in responding to my questions as we sat in his windowed office overlooking the intersection of rue Sherbrooke and rue University.
‘Responses to the Threat of Technological Distraction,’ the paper I wrote for the philosophy of technology seminar in which I was enrolled this semester, is now complete. I’ve assigned a Creative Commons license to the work and am self-publishing it here. If you read it, I would appreciate any impressions or feedback.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, in 2007 I was writing flarf poetry. Flarf exemplifies the random, heterogeneous, often absurd character of spam e-mails and of other information available on the web, appropriated and blended into a discontinuous (non-sequiturs rule) mesh of colorful language. It’s striking for its aforementioned absurdity, sudden shifts of subject, its non-hanging-togetherness. If there is meaning in flarf, generally speaking, that meaning consists in the flarf poet’s attempt to mirror (or simply record, curate, edit) special instances of digitally-mediated language, almost always removed from — what? everything? — context, human relationships, an immediate setting which would give the totally of the poem its traditional meaning.
An unpublished work of mine; not however, flarf.
Seeing months ago via Rod Smith’s Facebook feed that two Mel Nichols videos were featured on the Huffington Post set off a train of thought that led me here, to bibliomanic, to speak of flarf. In the mid-aughts, I used to see these two poets, Rod Smith and Mel Nichols, when I attended the regime of regular Thursday night pub-crawls that they and Dan Gutstein (my then poetry teacher, at George Washington U) followed.
Most of my flarf was a long poem without any line breaks I wrote on a typewriter in drafts and in numerous revisions on a computer: ‘Starving revelation tooth factory’. The title (a riddle, the answer of which is something like the human body in frenzy, pleases me, but the poem is unsatisfactory to me today, with the rest of my so-called “juvenilia” (in fact, this was the name of a collection I put together when I was about fifteen), it’s a little embarrassing. “Starving revelation tooth factory” is a narcissistically jagged long poem. Contains some flarf elements, much autobiographical incident, a heaping bucketful of discontinuous imagery, flibbertigibbet and other what-have-you, “kerflaffle-fla-flam,” and even the following (which I can still admire the beauty of):
thrombic lycocoptyopenic purpura
gnitirw erutuf sdrawkcab
meop ni esrever
That’s not flarf. And neither is Charles Bernstein. My attitude towards flarf poetry is ambivalent, but I don’t like it. On Wikipedia on the ‘Flarf’ page I read:
‘I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ – Joyelle McSweeney
Ugh. Flarf surrenders to the sometimes-vacuity of the digital infoscape. And for me, it seems rooted in the first eight years of the new millenium, standing opposite George W. Bush’s empty rhetoric, littered with mistakes and itself hollow, void of meaning, like the image flarf attempts to project of language as existing in a weird vacuum of truth and human intimacy or even intelligence.
I don’t think that art or literature or poetry needs to be engagé to be meaningful, but poetic language should not be complicit with the prevailing inane discourses that they have the power to counteract.
I’ve held on to this post so long, held on for so long to these ideas, I am letting this post go, rough as it is. It will never be finished. It is the story of a kind of failure, itself evidence of failure, a quest for understanding that remains forever incomplete. As more fragments will follow, I finally let go of these. Sebald’s work is, I have found, very difficult to talk about.
We have a habit of writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or how you had the wrong idea at first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to do the work. – Richard Feynman
Reluctant to enclose Gide in a system I knew would never content me, I was vainly trying to find some connection among these notes. Finally I decided it would be better to offer them as such–notes–and not try to disguise their lack of continuity. Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order. – Roland Barthes, ‘On Gide and His Journal’
I knew the research paper would be about W.G. Sebald’s novels, but that was all I knew. I had fallen under Sebald’s spell, not on first reading The Emigrants in a ‘Continental Modernism’ course taught by the ribald WW II vet Robert Ganz, but in 2009 on reading The Rings of Saturn after seeing a poster for a lecture by Ross Posnock on Austerlitz, a poster prominently displaying Sebald’s provocative juxtaposition of Wittgenstein’s gaze with that of perhaps a rhesus monkey.
It was only a short time before I had read After Nature, the long poem Sebald published in the late eighties before his arrival as a published novelist; Vertigo, his first novel; and, of course, Austerlitz, his last. I was hypnotized and hooked on Sebald’s writing, fallen under the intense spell cast by Sebald’s long sentences and his visual materials.
Through work in a graduate seminar in contemporary French literature–La Fabrication de l’irréelle dans la littérature française contemporaine–I became familiar with a strange new term which would prove to be for me a challenge and a source of anxiety, later, to explain. Le post-exotisme en dix lecons by Antoine Volodine is not a difficult book, but it is, like Volodine’s other works, strange, however much it is consistent with Volodine’s conception of a mythological future-past of ruins, internment camps, political resistance. He expresses his vision through hybrid literary forms.
Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:
From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).
Translation: post-exoticism is:
Elsewhere: a cabal of prisoners secretly circulating texts, working to overcome the isolation imposed on them.
The proposal I wrote in anticipation of my research paper was lucid, engaged, clear, direct, promising. But as I researched and wrote my paper, and continued to over-research it, my focus was exploded and irreversibly lost. In the end I tried to stay close to Sebald’s text. But at times, for whole months, I felt I needed to write lengthy theoretical contextualizations and justifications for why I was talking about post-exoticism, a term that I was never comfortable with, because its sense was split.
On the one hand, Volodine and his elucidation of post-exoticism; on the other hand, a non-literary but totally contemporary post-exoticism, related to the breaking up of empires, the acceleration of travel, and the end of an era during which romantics like Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and a whole host of other European artists, were able to see in other cultures a difference which they found attractive, sometimes repelling, and that they patronized and acted condescendingly towards. (Edward Said’s historical work on Orientalism is what I’m talking about here; in a post-exotic era, Orientalism and exoticism are not done away with, but their historical contours are entirely changed.) I’d also read exoticists like Loti and was aware of Victor Segalen (his law regarding the attractions of human diversity, expounded in his posthumously published Essai sur l’exotisme (1978)) from having reading Baudrillard’s books, where he refers repeatedly to Segalen and exoticism.
The first problem, which I could not circumvent must have been establishing a stable relation between exoticism and post-exoticism.
An antique photo-studio portrait included in the German edition of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), depicting the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth.
I couldn’t even define the type of exoticism that I was seeing in Sebald, it was too variegated and broad and heterogeneous.
Even now I can read in my notebook the organisational sketches I was making in 2009, but I can’t create true order out of them:
KINDS OF SEBALDIAN EXOTICISM
a) the collection (museum)
b) monumental architecture (inadvertent; neglect, disuse, decay…) (cf. The Eyes of the Skin; The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler)
c) tourist narrators
d) Jews, gypsies, circus performers
e) resort culture
f) ‘overheated, deterritorialized animals’ (cf. On Creaturely Life, Eric Santner)
g) formal syntax (syntactical)
h) Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
The problem was, I couldn’t describe the exoticist tropology at work in Sebald’s prose, because I wanted to read all five of his books–his entire ‘creative’ output– as if it were a single thing. This would have left no time for ‘close reading’ and it would have been abstracted from the individual context of any single book. But I felt a coherent exoticist strategy, complete with post-exoticist gesturing, was there; a coherent preoccupation with and nostalgic yearning for the historical ‘exotic,’ itself complicated by the knowledge that this was at best an impossible fantasy. Perhaps I ought to have chosen just one (or two) types of exoticism and pursued it as far as I could. But I could not relinquish my commitment to some larger, more elusive totality that always remained just beyond my conceptual, organisational grasp.
It was almost ironic that I discovered such excellent books on exoticism just as the time I had left to trim up my drafts was drawing to a close.
‘the phenomenon of the human zoo illuminates an interdependence, similar to that discussed and popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), between science, spectacle and colonial power’ (Forsdick 378).
‘Populations put on display were depicted in a variety of forms, ranging from posters t illustrated programmes, from postcards (reproduced and translated into several languages to early films, from amateur photographs to the front pages of newspapers. Visitors, readers and spectators would be fascinated by these human subjects, while at the same time being convinced by them of the ‘racial hierarchies’ central to the contemporary context of colonial expansion.’ (‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West,’ illustration pages)
Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang.
Baudrillard, Jean. ‘Radical Exoticism.’ Transparency of Evil. Verso.
Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas, Boëtsch, Gilles, Deroo, Éric, and Lemaire, Sandrine . ‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West.’ By 1-49.
Camus, Audrey. Her winter 2008 graduate seminar on the work of Volodine, Eric Chevillard and Pierre Senges.
Feynman, Richard. 1966. ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.’ Science 153 (3737): 699-708.
Loti, Pierre. Aziyadé. 1880s?
Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
Segalen, Victor. ‘Essay on Diversity.’
Last week the following text appeared at HTML Giant, a collective blog. 20 Lines a Day by Harry Mathews (1988, Dalkey Archive) was the subject of my post. It is excellent. I’ve mentioned Harry Mathews a few times before and this won’t be the last.
The post is discontinuously atomised into 25 discrete paragraphs, consisting of quotations from, comments on, Mathews’s text and related stuff. Bloggers are summarizing books in this way for HTML Giant’s 25 points series. In fact, you can submit a 25 points post to HTML Giant yourself, by emailing brooks AT htmlgiant.com.
Harry Mathews by Arthur Gerbault, 1988.
In the fifth floor of the library, I picked Mathews’s book up, read what the premise was, and thought resentfully, What a bunch of bullshit, this looks boring, look how anything gets published. I didn’t know who Harry Mathews was yet. Years ago.
‘You never have earned the right to sit at the table and let someone else clear away the dishes. No accumulation of knowledge can guarantee that you aren’t a fool. The roast is over-cooked. You slice bread for the seven-hundredth time and cut off the tip of your left forefinger. You touch her as coarsely as any boor, being now the boor. You meet an old friend, you have forgotten his name, you cannot look him in the face: not looking him in the face, you wound him and you start lying to him and to yourself. Go off and sulk and complain and explain why it happened. It won’t help. Instead, be an actor, or an athlete, on stage, on the field, giving–as you once eagerly proposed to yourself–everything to the perishable act.’ (p. 100)
‘I have nothing to write in particular, I’m writing these lines because of my rule that I must write them.’ (p. 75)
Some writers set quotas, others set routines, some set both, and some (the scriptomanic ones for whom procrastination is not a threat) set neither. A page a day (Paul Theroux); 50,000 words in a month (NaNoWriMo); two hours every morning (W.S. Maugham); 20 minute blocks (Cory Doctorow); at least a sentence a day (W.G. Sebald); pre-dawn (Paul Valéry, Jacques Roubaud); etc.
‘Whatever I write tells my story without my knowing it.’ (p. 66)
‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street,’ Reflections)
“Sometimes the ultimate message is in fact received. It reads, more or less: ‘Your ligament issues from a spa that is given various narcissisms at various time-tables: lozenge, credulity, goggles. And not only your ligament (and that of others): the prodigy that generates mayday has the same orthography. You and the upkeep are one. Give up sugarbowls.’ At such moments you realize, and you remember, that such messages have neve9r been lacking, and that they are all the same, and that the problem (if that is the word) doesn’t involve receiving but deciphering what is received again and again, day after day, minute after minute.” (p. 88)
There’s an implicit link between 20 Lines a Day and the next novel Mathews would publish, The Journalist (1994). One sees how the method Mathews followed for 20 Lines is adopted as a fictional premise and device for The Journalist.
‘Anxiety about writing feels like: I am poor in words, ideas, and feelings, and when I sit down to write, this poverty will be revealed.’ (p. 45)
‘The table is a beautiful thing. The writing board is supported on a base consisting of two tubular legs shaped like narrow inverted U’s, with a tubular foot running across the mouth of each U, projecting about thirty centimeters beyond it on either side. The legs are connected to the board by an adjustable parallelogram made of bone-shaped pieces of flat metal. The knobs of the bones are pierced with pivotal studs that hold the sides of the parallelogram together. Two strong springs, to hold the angles in place, maintain pressure against two other springs fixed just below the board. A single lever controls this disposition and locks the board in place. Changing the angles of the parallelogram permits one to alter both the height and angle of the board in one movement. Board, parallelogram, legs and feet are white; springs, studs, and lever handle are black.’ (p. 106)
For Mathews his ’20 lines’ can be virtually anything: an Oulipian (N+7) exercise; health concerns, particularly facial neuralgia; descriptions of weather and the immediate environment (tropical St. Bart’s, NYC, Lans in France, Italy); progress reports for the writing of the first draft of Cigarettes (1987); bits of Surrealist ‘automatic writing'; family matters; admissions of mourning for his deceased friend, Oulipian Georges Perec; musings on Werner Erhard’s e s t training; throughout, his relentless self-analysis. The book is very much an edited journal intime, but it has the crystalline quality of Mathews’s other work, that relentlessly exacting attention to syntax, poignancy of inner, private experience that figures in the later novels (The Journalist, Cigarettes). Absent are the Baroque quasi-Gothic elements, the abstruseness, the cerebral impenetrability of Tlooth, The Sinking of the The Odradek Stadium, and The Conversions.
‘Stendhal meant something different from this.’
‘When you go to piss in the bathroom with people within possible earshot (and sometimes with no people around at all), you direct your jet at the edge of the pool of water in the toilet bowl so as to reduce the noise you make.’ (p. 124)
During and after having read Harry Mathews’s 20 Lines a Day (1988; Dalkey Archive Press) I set myself the 20 lines quota, using a long quadrillé pad and a fountain pen to trace my thoughts. My readings of Mathews inevitably influenced my own compositions–I used the daily entries as a means of recapping, and recuperating from, the events of daily life. No one can tell what I would have written without Mathews’s influence on me, prefiguring and directing the subjects, style, and approach of my writing. My discipline flagged, I was inconstant. Mathews too. But I am slowly making advances, inroads. There’s progress. I still write in my notebook.
‘Lines of verse count extra.’ (p. 67)
Technologies of the self include notebooks in which one writes diaristic, journalistic, and textual commonplaces from daily life (Foucault). The keeping of such a journal, commonplace notebook, or diary constitutes a practice of mental hygiene. Coincidentally, Foucault died the day before Mathews’s conclusion of his project.
To write 20 lines a day is not daunting (anyone can do it), especially if one imposes no continuity, consistency of form, or subject matter.
Despite the lack of constraint,–the openness of the subject matter addressed in a diary,–a strong internal consistency of writing arises. This is the continuity of the self day in and day out, the author thinking.
‘… Matthison, Mattei, Matteotti, Mathias, Mateus, Matthieu, Mahieu, Madeu, Mathet, Mathie, Mathiez, Matisse, Matthis, Matteo, Mathelin, Mathiret, Mathiot, Mathon, Matou, Méhu, Mattuaeus …’ (p. 40)
‘Are you going to wait until you are on the point of death to give up this model: your old, old self, tiny, terrified, aware of his power only through the intensity of the anxieties that shrivelled him? A lifetime of refusal ending in a revelation that melts the past in one moment or movement of surrender to the truth makes a fit drama for literature’ (p. 128)
Early in life Stendhal (Henri Beyle) set himself the injunction: vingt lignes par jour, génie ou pas (twenty lines a day, genius or not).
‘You have a fantasy of discovering that you suffer from cancer, or a brain tumor, or some other affliction of a most grave, probably mortal kind. You keep the knowledge of it entirely to yourself. Not only do you not burden those who love you with the news, you become for them a companion of perfect humor, gaiety, and warmth.’ (p. 108)
This slim book compiles a selection of entries from Mathews’ notebook from March 16, 1983 to June 26, 1984. During the interval I and many people I know were born. That’s unrelated.
‘Yesterday evening, having after months of to-do listing bought a new handle for my big pickaxe, I fitted it to the pick head and set it to soak in the bathtub.’
‘Having nothing to write about (nothing particular to write about) suggests a question: what this morning do you particularly not want to think about?’
NaNoWriMo is a website (and more) dedicated to the goal of helping individuals achieve the realisable goal of writing a novel, defined loosely as a narrative of 50,000+ words. It’s run by the Office of Letters and Light, a self-described ‘tiny but mighty nonprofit.’
Just how many are we? Standers in awe of the best-kept secret in American literature? Avid readers, McElroy maniacs. His books now penetrate my life, as my life extends into them. If we note McElroy’s seeming obscurity, let’s not however miss the essential: the growth, the accretion, the writing: of the eight novels, the book of short stories, the uncollected essays and journalism work. Nevermind the tag-lines and reductionist claims that he’s the ‘lost postmodernist’ (LA Times book review); the ‘most important of all “unknown” postmodernist American authors’ (Larry McCaffrey), whose work is the ‘great unmined motherlode of American fiction’ (Michael Silverblatt). These generalizing claims carry little weight relative to what really counts, for me the unflagging spirit of inquiry and reflection — spiritual, intellectual, epistemological, scientific, idiomatic, and otherwise — that characterizes, perhaps in a fractal manner, the man’s loveable, mind-boggling prose.
The office of William Gaddis. Image from Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, eds. Joseph Tabbi & Rone Shaver. U of Alabama P, 2007. P. 146.
we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized — William Gaddis, Agape Agapē, (1)
Turns out my friend’s right: the subject of the mural isn’t Pasolini, it’s the author of Brave New World, Ape and Essence, Heaven and Hell, Chrome Yellow, and The Doors of Perception. The graffiti is surely based on a photograph of Huxley that’s freely available on the web.
“The Trouville Gazette reported that a veritable wave of the exotic had broken upon Deauville that year: des musulmans moldo-valaques, des brahmanes hindous et toutes les variétés de Cafres, de Papous, de Niam-Niams et de Bachibouzouks importés en Europe avec leurs danses simiesques et leurs instruments sauvages.” – W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Seek it out Joseph J. Ellis’s book Founding Brothers if you’ve any interest in American history whatsoever, or an inkling of sentimentality about the Founders, the Revolution, or the Constitution.
I’m no fan of Charles Bukowski, the notoriously, riotously inebriated California beat poet, let there be no mistake, but perhaps in a former life I once was. That’s why the apparition of this graffiti during my family’s drive through a back alley, along with the joy of kite-flying, made my Sunday.
The simplest way to describe Toute la mémoire du monde is to say that it’s a short documentary film of the setting and institutional practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as they were in the late 1950s. The film begins in the basement of the library, where gross heaps of documents are consigned to a process of slow degradation. Parce que leur mémoire est courte, les hommes accumulent d’innombrables prosthèses, Dumesnil announces. [Because its memory is short, mankind accumulates limitless prostheses.]
There’s a lot of dystopic-sounding studies of computers and networks out there, and it’s hardly a new trend: Trapped in the Net; Life on the Screen; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace; Silicon Shock; The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet; Technobabble; Digital Diaspora; Cyburbia; Slaves of the Machine; Moths to the Flame; High Noon on the Electronic Frontier; Monster or Messiah?; Digerati; War of the Worlds.
Polymath of Albemarle county, Thomas Jefferson invented for his own use several ergonomic devices to reduce cumulative physical stress resultant from reading and writing. Of especial note are an ingenious revolving book-stand, a portable writing desk, and a swivel chair.
In honor of June 24 and of my five years in Montréal, here’s a calligram I made while I was living in Westmoreland County in, Virgina and planning my escape to la belle province:
au Québec je vais bientôt vivre
tabernacle de merde l’an dix-sept-cent-soixante-three
faut que je m’équippe des mocassins
pour toi, chère nation non-choisie
comment ça va mes bons copains
de vous connaître je suis ravi
Kateri, Daphné, Ghislain
Nicholas Carr believes — and shows, using lots of evidence drawn from research in neuroscience and cognitive science (the book is shelved in McGill’s Osler medical library) — that our interlinked computing technologies pose a serious challenge to deep thought, hampering our capacity to reflect and contemplate in meaningful ways. This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking claim; at least, not for anyone who has had the experience of, while piloting a web browser, being unable to focus for any length of time on the task at hand, or who has found their attention increasingly diverted and distributed through a web of hyperlinks. Figures of speech to describe our computerized, information-saturated mental state abound: popcorn brain, mental obesity are among the most apt. Forget information overload.
Also pictured: Information Anxiety (Richard Saul Wurman); Within the Context of No Context (George W.S. Trow); and Future Shock (Alvin Toffler).
From the vaults of the Twilight Zone:
Mild-mannered and myopic, bank-teller Henry Bemis loves to read, but neither his shrewish wife nor efficiency-minded boss give him much chance. Sneaking into the vault on his lunch hour to read, he is knocked unconscious by a mammoth shock wave. When he comes to, he discovers that the world has been devastated by a nuclear war and that he, having been protected by the vault, is the last man on Earth. He decides to commit suicide, but at the final moment his eyes fall in the ruins of a library. For him, it is paradise. Gleefully he piles the books high, organizing his reading for the years to come. But as he settles down to read the first book, his glasses slip off his nose and smash, trapping him forever in a hopelessly blurry world.
Randall referred at length to Ernest van den Haag’s book The Fabric of Society […] and quoted Santayana’s words, ‘It is worth living in the twentieth century to get to read Proust.’ Then he asked, ‘Is it worth it to get to read Peyton Place? We ought to say what we know. It’s better to read Proust or Frost or Faulkner… better in every way: and we ought to do all we can to make it possible for everybody to know this from personal experience. When we make people satisfied to have read Peyton Place and satisfied not to have read Swann’s Way we are enemies of our culture… and Jefferson and Franklin and Adams would look at us not with puzzled respect but with disgust and despair.’ – on Randall Jarrell’s address at the National Book Award ceremony
Sir Thomas, known familiarly as Sir Tippy, vowed to own ‘ONE COPY OF EVERY BOOK IN THE WORLD.’ His vast and largely uncatalogued book collection infiltrated every room in his large country house. As a visitor from the Bodleian Library reported is 1854, ‘Every room is filled with heaps of papers, MSS, books, charters, packages & other things, lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders, &c.&c. and in every room, piles of huge boxes, up to the ceiling, containing the more valuable volumes!’
Let me say at the outset that this is not a book I intend to read soon in its entirety. The Anatomy of Bibliomania is extraordinary for above all the jocular, ribald hilarity of its table of contents. There are subsections on such topics as: “anti-bibliokleptic measures”; “books bound in human skin”; “bibliopegic dandyism”; and on the “belligerent usefulness” of books. Whole chapters are dedicated to: “book-drinkers”; “bibliophagi or book-eaters”; grangeritis; “the cure of bibliomania” (subsection 1: “whether it is curable or not”; 3: “Bibliophilia is the only remedy”).