On the one hand, it has been somewhat discouraging to see how little notice The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges has received from the anglophone press. A book this inventive, this daring, this original in its conception comes along but rarely, but rarely. I spent many months translating the book, and it was finally published last December, 2016. (The time of year when online outlets are vaunting their impeccable taste by amassing lists of the year’s most brilliant books – no coincidence there!) Being a naïve fool, I had high expectations for the book, the hope of securing a wide readership for it through some positive reviews. Well, in the ten months that have since elapsed, every outlet claiming to have its pulse on the world of translated literature, or of contemporary literature writ large – from World Literature Today to Words Without Borders to Asymptote to Lithub, or what have you – has failed to notice The Major Refutation. (Ditto for another extraordinary work by the same author, Fragments of Lichtenberg, translated by Gregory Flanders and published by Dalkey Archive a month after The Refutation‘s appearance. A conspiracy of silence? What has effectively happened is that a major contemporary author has made his debut in English while escaping the notice of every official outlet. This situation is more of a commonplace than I used to think.)
BUT…. on the other hand, the critical assessments for The Major Refutation have been astute and discerning. I am grateful to the book’s readers and reviewers, a few of whom I solicited. And so to allay my chagrin, and to incite my readers to seek this extraordinary book out, I would compile some of their praise and descriptions here.
* * * * *
“With a stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world.” – (roughghosts)
“… a glorious book about dupes & dupers.” – (Joseph McElroy, email correspondence)
“… a book of fictional invention masquerading as historical artifact, further masquerading as scholarly treatise. It never flinches, it has not one single tell that it is anything but what it appears to be: a 16th century work…'” – (Ronald Morton)
“… more ingenious and creative than most books being published these days […] It reads like something William H. Gass or Alexander Theroux may have written […] I enjoyed the outlandish erudition on display.” – (Steven Moore, correspondence + etc)
“I assume that everyone wishes literature were just vituperative rants saturated in scholastic detail, but devoid of characters, plot, and description. Voilà: The Major Refutation… The project itself, the skeptical assault on events we know to have been real, is genuinely discomforting. Readers of texts like this tend to pride ourselves on our skepticism and our doubting; here, the skepticism is gloriously productive of insults and scorn, and the insults and scorn are often well-deserved, but ultimately we, the readers, know that the skepticism was misplaced. Is ours, too, misplaced?” – (Justin Evans)
“… brilliant… very learned…” – (The Modern Novel)
“Don’t miss it; it is one of the Major Novels of ’17 […] seriously folks, any list of Novels of ’17 which don’t feature [Fragments of Lichtenberg or The Major Refutation], you can just tell that List to fuck off. Right here, this is what novels look like.” – (Nathan N.R. Gaddis)
* * * * *
Also, here is the publisher page (Contra Mundum Press), with a link to a substantial chunk of the text, readable now online.
A great month in reading, even if fairly scattershot. Here’s the rundown.
McGuffey’s Eclectic Progressive Speller (original edition, 1838; a glorious mock facsimile of the original presentation, published by Mott Media, 1980)
What a find! It was waiting for me at the Value Village on Cyrville Road, also with an edition of the Eclectic Second Reader. I had not an inkling that McGuffey was an Oxford, Ohio resident and professor at Miami University, at the time of his commission by a Cincinnati publisher. How Gertrude Stein would have loved this; she was probably raised on it out there in, what, Idaho?
Is There A Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980) – Stanley Fish
I skimmed this one. I find Fish’s argument (being, as I understand it, 1) that literary texts can have no meaning apart from the assumptions which readers bring to them, 2) texts acquire their literary meanings only through the consensus-making process of a more or less authoritative interpretive community — i.e., scholars, academia, etc.) refreshing and important. To others it will be old hat, this being a so-called classic of literary criticism, much anthologized and much cited. But I had never read this before. It reminds me quite a lot of the work of Walter Benn Michaels, which I have read, if only a little.
Little Casino (2002) – Gilbert Sorrentino
Most memorable read of the month, and my first Sorrentino. Funny and poignant, though never laugh-out-loud funny — there is a somewhat cruel, cynical intelligence behind every paragraph. Recommended by Joseph Michaels. More Sorrentino books in my future.
Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today’s Musician (2002) – Ron Gorow
Improving my understanding of sound. The electromagnetic spectrum (including X-rays, gamma rays, visible light, radio waves, etc.) spans some eighty-one octaves?! (Same as the number of keys on a standard piano keyboard?–get outta here!)
Cahokia (2009) – Timothy R. Pauketat
Goddammit, why can’t I read any of these books about prehistoric America in a linear fashion, cover to fucking cover.
How to Listen to Jazz (2015) – Ted Goia
The title is embarrassing — so much for my old pretensions. Neveretheless, it serves as an excellent primer on the roots days and much else I didn’t already know.
Epistrophies: Jazz & the Literary Imagination (2017) – Brent Hayes Edwards
I read a review of this, and would not have known of it otherwise. Some of it I am finding very interesting, especially about Louis Armstrong. Elsewhere, I feel I’m wasting my time. I might finish it, though. (On a related note, if you haven’t ever read the historical novel Coming through Slaughter, about the jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, it is highly recommended; it figures prominently in the introductory chapter here. I have been meaning to reread it for quite some time.)
Hopefully September will be just as strong — I’ve got an article on Paul Metcalf to finish & I might have time to sneak a few loose things in.
I have 7,000 words of translation in Hotel #3, just published. If that ain’t good, I don’t know what is. Now, if only I could sell a publisher another project…
Check out the introduction I wrote; I explain in what ways Pierre Senges is ‘Borgesian’ and offer up an elliptical view of his work. It’s pretty good.
And right here is where you can buy the issue, with the 7,000 word translation. (Other contributors include the small-town upstarts Gordon Lish & Nick Cave?!)
Harry Mathews, Leonard Cohen, Bernard Hoepffner, Nicholas Mosley, all gone in the short space of a year. Today I learned of the death of Réjean Ducharme.
Ducharme’s work never has meant as much to me as that of Mathews, Mosley, or Cohen, and I would not normally be inclined to post upon learning of his recent death, except that this short article on Ducharme — which I wrote as the scantiest kind of introduction for the reader who has never heard of or read him — was never published, despite being *more or less* finished. It was solicited from me by an editor of an online publication and I sent it to him, then: silencio. (At the time, this rankled me but, alas, sundry more indignities have since accrued to cover that old rancor over, virtually burying it.) No, it’s not a tombstone, it’s not a eulogy; it’s just some lonely impertinent debris, for curious passersby here to pore over.
* * *
The work of Québecois playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Réjean Ducharme (b. 1941) will continue to elude anglophone readers, even the more adventurous among them. Ducharme’s influence in his native Québec has been strongest of all, but his work has also found admirers in France and other French-speaking countries. From 1966 onwards, the French publisher Gallimard has made his books widely available in stores: eight of his novels and a play were published by Gallimard, with a handful of other texts picked up by other publishers. To date, his books have been translated and published in Spanish (3), Swedish (1), Danish (1), German (1), and English (6).
Ducharme’s career got off to a strong start when Gallimard accepted the manuscript of L’avalée des avalés in the mid-1960s when Ducharme was only twenty-five. The book’s selection as a finalist for the Goncourt aroused the usual journalistic curiosity. When the book didn’t win, Ducharme reportedly told his sister: “People won’t hear about me anymore, I’m going to be happy… If I had known there would be such a brouhaha about me, I never would have published in the first place.” And accordingly, in the years since, Ducharme has developed a reputation for belonging, like Pynchon and Salinger, to that breed of authors who decline the rituals of fame and publicity and value privacy over candor. (From the start, in the face of such non-cooperation, enterprising journalists have specialized in making the most of Ducharme’s family and collaborators to get them to talk about the author. There exist, in the archives of Radio Canada, handfuls of interviews with singer Robert Charlebois, Claude Gallimard, and Ducharme’s family members giving accounts of their interactions with the man.)
What of Ducharme’s work? In it, the reader finds a sense of vast possibility (often coincident with the sense of childhood), a child-like refusal to engage with the “real world” on its terms, inventing an idiosyncratic language of refusal, a love of irreverent humor and absurdity, and farcical and picaresque plotlines (absurd travels, hilarity ensue). All this sounds like so much light entertainment, but when Ducharme is at his best, underlying it all, there is a palpable, melancholic seriousness beneath the coy verbal play and contradictions of logic, a feeling that the books are being earnestly lived. Lived not as plausible lives, but as anomalous possibilities.
Many who sing Ducharme’s praises will tell you about his word-play. He is notorious for it. Of course, word-play is hard if not impossible to translate between languages. Yet the translators try. Even in the titles of several of his books, Le nez qui voque for instance — literally, The Nose that Vokes — we see it. You won’t find voquer in any French dictionary though its basis is the same the root of evoke and convoke. When spoken, the phrase sounds identical to l’inéquivoque — literally, the unequivocal. The English title, as it appeared in 2011, is Miss Take, which certainly seems impoverished by comparison, but I suspect it corresponds to the early passage where the phrase le nez qui voque is first employed. Or see Les enfantômes: enfantômes being a portmanteau that collapses enfant (child) into fantôme (ghost, phantom, haunting memory). Note also the untranslatable titles L’océantume and Dévadé — these titles have not yet appeared in English, but I suspect Will Browning is already slaving away.
Word-play and puerile machinations, maybe with a touch of sincerity: it doesn’t sound like much. From what I have read of Ducharme — which is in fact, to this moment, very little, not more than sixty pages — what I admire most is his ability to quickly switch registers and convey a sense of relativism and philosophical depth. A review of The Daughter of Christopher Columbus refers to “allusions that can range, in a single sentence, from the poetry of St. John Perse to the names of laundry detergents.” It’s that kind of simultaneity and equivalence that leave me reeling when I read Ducharme.
He still lives in Montreal. The journalists stopped hounding him years ago. On August 12, 2016, he will turn 75 years old.
Happy birthday, Réjean Ducharme.
In print, translated by Will Browning
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (Guernica, 2000)
Go Figure (Talonbooks, 2003; original Va Savoir, 1994)
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; original Le nez qui voque, 1967)
Out of print, hard to find:
Strait Winter (Anansi, 1977); Wild to Mild (Heritage, 1980) — both English editions of a translation of Hiver de force by Robert Guy Scully)
The Swallower Swallowed (trans. Barbara Bray, 1968)
Ha! Ha! (trans. David Homel, Exile Editions, 1986)
Criticism on Réjean Ducharme in English
“Swallowed Whole” (on The Swallower Swallowed) at Tablet Mag, by Benjamin Nugent
Marci Denesiuk on Go Figure at Montreal Review of Books
“Sharing the Genius of Ducharme” (on The Daughter of Christopher Columbus) at The Globe and Mail, by Ray Conlogue
And in French, here’s a good one: “Réjean Ducharme: L’analyse d’un paradoxe,” by Caroline Montpetit
– A Few Synopses –
The Swallower Swallowed (almost impossible to find; translation of L’avalée des avalés, Gallimard, 1966):
Ducharme’s first published novel. Bérénice Einberg, a young girl in a Jewish-Quebécois family, finds her place in the world between overbearing parents and a brother she loves. Disgusted by the logic of the world and the strictures of family, she goes to New York with her brother. Later, her father, alarmed by his inability to control her, sends her off to boarding school in Israel.
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; translation of Gallimard, Le nez qui voque, 1967; ):
Ducharme’s second-published novel. Sixteen-year-old Mille Milles (a name that in French would mean literally “one thousand miles”) has run away from his home, a town on the St. Lawrence River. He has brought with him a young girl, Chateaugué, a native Eskimo. They live in a tiny rented room in Old Montreal. Enthralled by the works of Émile Nelligan, Mille begins a journal, determined to free language from the constraints of convention, but finds he cannot write anything without immediately conjuring up its opposite. He struggles with his sexual desire for Chateaugué.
Go Figure (original, Gallimard, Va Savoir, 1994; Talonbooks, 2003):
A tale of a Montreal couple alienated from each other after suffering the miscarriage of twin girls. Mammy, the wife, has left Rémi Vavasseur. Not because she no longer loves him, but because she no longer loves herself. She is criss-crossing Europe and Africa in the company of Rémi’s former mistress, the dangerous and blonde Raïa. Rémi meanwhile is remodeling a ramshackle house in rural Québec, designed for Mammy if she ever comes back. The novel is the journal that he keeps during their parallel journeys.
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (original, Gallimard, 1969; Will Browning translation, Guernica, 2000)
A novel in verse, told in rhyming quatrains (232 pp. in French, 192 in English). Plot description: A beautiful and naive Columbia Columbus wanders through the world in search of friendship upon the death of her famous father. She makes friends with an ever-growing number of animals. Some of the animals serve as bodyguards during her dramatic return to Montreal, in the year 2492, to celebrate the millennium of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
I’m not sure exactly when or how, but my attitude towards Twitter & online culture more generally has gradually been shifting. Whereas I used to be very active on Twitter and read around on the web quite a lot, whether literary stuff or just news stories, I now can’t sift through my Twitter feed or the home page of (hardly any) websites without an overwhelming feeling of dejection. (Or take your pick: disengagement, disaffection, disgust, sadness, alienation, acedia, abulia… sloth.) So much the better, right? — this has been a long time in the making, now it will be so much easier to shuffle off those old habits, which have been destroying my focus & discipline for years now. The number of hours I wasted on the Internet, on Twitter… incalculable.
I don’t know what is happening with me, &, dear reader, I don’t know what kind of blog this is either. In the interest of consistency I’ve tried to refrain from posting much in the way of my personal life — I’m quite guarded about that – but why? is it to protect myself? my loved ones? — and I’ve tried to make this a blog almost exclusively about literature and reading. But this no longer feels tenable to me. It’s not necessarily that I have anything a priori to say, some kind of intimate confession to make, or any kind of deliberate message at all — I don’t. The truth is that I’m disgruntled, & tired of my long silence. And the great thing about blogs is that they make possible the communication, more or less direct, of individuals with other individuals, without the intermediary of publishers, bookstores, book distributors, mail carriers, etc.
I said that I was leaving Twitter. Good. It was a great place to share thoughts with several dozen like-minded aesthetes, scattered around the globe, and I’m a little sad to leave it for that reason. Oh well.
What’s next, I do not know. Only that I have to be a little less guarded — less renitent, less inclined to police my thoughts before I publish them, here or elsewhere. No longer worry so much about the way I might appear refracted through the medium. Here’s to what’s ahead.
first chapter (or introduction?) of Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) – Leslie Fiedler
Steps (1968) – Jerry Koszinski
“Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and the Structure of Paradox” by Rosalie Cole and “Sir Thomas Browne: The Relation of Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus” by Frank L. Huntley in Seventeenth Century Prose (1971)
These were both incredibly illuminating as to the Anatomy and Browne.
From the Steeples to Mountains: Charles Ives (1974) – David Woolridge.
This book touched me more than just about anything I’ve read in a long while. I got it out of curiosity about Ives, somewhat casually, but found it totally engrossing, all but about 30 pp. towards the end that seemed a bit excess. But this was magnificent, written in the vein of Olson & even sometimes Paul Metcalf, what with the play of multiple indents, juxtaposition, & collage. I am exploring Ives’s music now with greater interest than I was able to do before. Ditto for the Perlis oral history, below, which contains many touching descriptions of Ives in his sedentary old age.
Charles Ives: An Oral History (1974) – Vivian Perlis
3 stories by Breece D’J Pancake
Four New Messages (2012) – Joshua Cohen
I chanced upon Ives’s name first in a Joseph McElroy interview — a reference to the “haunted montage” of the 4th symphony in “Mid-course Corrections” — and then I found further allusions in some of the writings/interviews of Paul Metcalf. More recently I read a review of a biography of the musician and composer in Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays. Now I have acquired that biography, David Woolridge’s From the Steeples to Mountains (Knopf, 1974).
It is very good, written somewhat in the style of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, or even at times with the typographically-inflected quotation-and-collage techniques of Metcalf. I am basically devouring it, which is rarer and rarer for me; it usually takes me weeks to even finish a book of 200 pages. What a fascinating figure Ives was.
One anecdote is too sweet not to share. When Ives was living in NYC as a young bachelor, when he was at the piano writing new compositions and practicing, he would from time to time get a word of strong approval from a neighbor across the way, shouting distantly or unseen, a neighbor by the name of Dick Schweppe. Apparently Ives never learned Schweppe’s profession, and trusted his opinion all the more for that. In his notebooks from the time, Ives occasionally makes a note of Dick Schweppe’s approval.
Apart from the book on Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of Roanoke, this month was pretty poor for my reading. I think I advanced about ten pages further into Marguerite Young’s marvelous Angel in the Forest, a book that shocks me with its brilliance and leaves me reeling with every page, every sentence even. And I am not exaggerating.
I tell myself one day I will read one of the many novels on my shelves. It’s a different type of experience, surely, than reading criticism, history, or poetry, as has been my wont of late. But it seems I read fewer and fewer novels: Looking back at my reading logs, I count five novels I read so far this year: two early novels by Harry Mathews, one by Ishmael Reed, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, and Fatale by Manchette. (I’m not counting Angel in the Forest, which retards me so, I fear I’ll never finish it.) Of these, the only one that really strikes me as outstanding is The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Mathews.
I am kicking myself to get back on track and only read things that give me pleasure. I don’t know why it has to be this way. What a convoluted path my reading has taken.
Style, Rhetoric, & Rhythm: Essays (1966) – Morris Croll (begun; reading this in part for its angle on Euphuism and the so-called Baroque style of the 17th century)
Apalache (1976) – Paul Metcalf (re-reading; this is outstanding, and a favorite book of mine, as I’ve said before)
Printing Poetry: A Workbook in Typographic Reification (1980) – Clifford Burke
A Kingdom Strange: The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island (2010) – James Horn
Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History (2011) – Nick Bunker (begun; probably will not finish)
some books on Ohio history
Canada is supposedly marking its 150th year this summer. Just 150 years, that’s all? What a drab view of such a storied history. Better to recall:
When Jacques Cartier and his crew visited Hochelaga in 1535, the Indians were eager to trade: “These people came towards our boats in as friendly and familiar a manner as if we had been natives of the country, bringing us great store of fish and of whatever else they possessed, in order to obtain our wares, stretching forth their hands towards heaven and making many gestures and signs of joy.”
– New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, 2nd ed., by Colin G. Calloway, Johns Hokins U, 2013. P. 44.
The natives’ good faith was betrayed, in due time. But there’s something to be said for this incident. Canada is already there — the indigenes going to meet the new arrivals.
Angel in the Forest: An Epic of Two Utopias – A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America (1945) – Marguerite Young
The Middle Passage: A Triptych of Commodities (1976), U.S. Dept. of the Interior (1980) – Paul Metcalf (reread)
Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 (1982) – John R. Stilgoe
Achab (séquelles) (2015) – Pierre Senges
Winslow Homer at the Addison (1990) – Paul Metcalf
“There comes a delicate moment: the moment of suspicion when one starts to consider encyclopedism, the thirst for knowledge, no longer as the ideal antidote to stupidity, but as the insidious and inevitable vehicle of stupidity. As we know, libraries all around the world paradoxically abound with expressions of this suspicion toward books and reading: St. Augustine’s suspicion, Lucian’s satire pillorying an ignorant bibliomane, Nicholas of Cusa’s reservations about the limits of our knowledge, all that returns anew with each successive generation like the critique of scholasticism reborn from its own ashes, and, of course, Gustave Flaubert’s Sottisier too.
“Formerly knowledge appeared as self-evident, an incontestable antidote, but soon it assumes a different kind of self-evidence, rather like the pomposity described by Pierre Damien, like the malady of the Sorbonnites, like the stupor characteristic of overfull heads—between the two self-evidences, while passing from the first to the next, there comes a moment of instability when uncertainty has an important role to play, when it seems as if it might be able to compete with stupidity—stupidity, standing perfectly on its own two legs, comfortable everywhere, in contact with all that’s a given: the stupidity of illiterate peasants and the stupidity of doctors both. We find this moment of uncertainty in the pages of Bouvard and Pécuchet, and also in Flaubert’s letters when he was writing Bouvard and Pécuchet: the emotion is the same; familiarly, we go on from page to page; and ask ourselves, how can we resist stupidity when projects of universal erudition such as Auguste Comte’s Essay of Positive Philosophy, the exact opposite of ignorance, in fact contain entire Californias of grotesquery?”
Pierre Senges, “Undertaking and Renunciation,” trans. Jacob Siefring, in Prodigal Lit Mag
The Dust of Suns (c.1930/1990s) – Raymond Roussel (trans. Harry Mathews)
The Philosophers’ Madonna (1931/2008) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. Antony Melville)
Exercises in Style (1947/2012) – Raymond Queneau (trans. Barbara Wright & Chris Clarke)
Trial Impressions (1977), The New Tourism (2008?) – Harry Mathews
The Attraction of Things (?) – Roger LeWinter (trans. Rachel Carreau)
The Nonconformist’s Memorial (1993) – Susan Howe
The Case of the Persevering Maltese (various) – Harry Mathews
The Emerald Light in the Air (2014) – Donald Antrim
I read only three of these stories, and was sufficiently terrified to leave off there. “Another Manhattan” in particular left me feeling I couldn’t go on. I read Antrim’s first novel about seven years ago and found it nothing to write home about, but this is hardly the same author. I think I would enjoy, and will seek out, Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers.
What Is Landscape? (2015) – John R. Stilgoe
plans sauvages (2016) – Hélène Fréderick
Debths (2017) – Susan Howe
The Transport… (2017) – John Trefry
My Back Pages (2017) – Steven Moore (Skipping around in this. Is Moore America’s best (living) critic? I would hazard to say so.)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1600) – William Shakespeare
The Conversions (1960) – Harry Mathews
The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971) – Harry Mathews
It occurs to me that Mathews’s default sense of the phrase and of diction (when he’s not up to disturbing linguistic conventions) is essentially Victorian in nature. This of course aligns with his love of Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and The Aspern Papers. I found this to be a masterpiece, every bit as good as Cigarettes and The Journalist.
The Players (1985) – Paul Metcalf
An odd play for the stage that Metcalf wrote sometime in the 1980s; not entirely sure what to make of its whimsical construction. Apparently the play was performed in Pittsfield, MA in the summer of 1986.
17 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987/2016) – Eliot Weinberger
A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English (1992) – Anthony Burgess (some chapters, not the whole compendium! a lot to work through here)
Working the Stone: The Natural, Social, and Industrial History of the Village of Farnams, Town of Cheshire, County of Berkshire, Commonwealth of Massachusetts (2003) – Paul Metcalf and Lucia Saradoff
The Quarry (2015) – Susan Howe
I’ve had little patience for Howe’s work & style lately; partly it’s discovering certain repetitions, the same material reworked when I was seeking something new. She has a new title forthcoming from New Directions this year, Debths, which I shall attempt to review.
Attrib. and other stories (2017) – Eley Williams (hopskotchin around in this)
Gorse Journal #7 (2017)
Glad to have a Pierre Senges translation of mine published in this – buy it!
J’ai fait de plus loin que moi un voyage abracadabrant
il y a longtemps que je ne m’étais pas revu
me voici en moi comme un homme dans une maison
qui s’est faite en son absence
je te salue, silence
je ne suis pas revenu pour revenir
je suis arrivé à ce qui commence
“L’homme Rapaillé: Liminaire,” Gaston Miron
“After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realised that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save in so far as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.”
First paragraph of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect by Spinoza.
“Let us admit, going over the Atlantic was a tragic mistake…”
Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 15.
“Proposal: a series of regional research and cultural projects—attack each region—using students, locals, natives, whatever—and from every angle, every scholarly discipline, every mode of expression. In the end, for each region, produce a book, and an arts festival.”
U.S. Dept. of Interior, Paul Metcalf 1980
The Revenger’s Tragedy (c. 1580s) (not for nothing is it considered one of the grandest of Elizabethan revenge tragedies)
English Prose Style (1950?) – Herbert Read (ridiculously pedantic in places but useful in others; many of the example excerpts are so long they kill my appetite to read them; is my attention, my patience winnowing?)
Chromos (1940s/1990) – Felix Alpau (begun on a lark; ain’t gonna persevere, not till the time’s right. As I read I keep thinking who translated this? It’s that kind of a book. Reminds me of Zeno’s Conscience, which I could never truly penetrate.)
Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (1971) – Walter J. Ong (Ong was one of English lit. & lang.’s foremost scholars in the late 20th century, doggedly forging his own niche. Confounding to think of the implications of such a phrase as “Jesuit scholarship.” I read about the first half of it, got what I needed, & cut out. Interesting argument that the ideology of Romanticism, with its emphasis on individual expression & feelings, could only arise once everything was sufficiently written down in dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias, etc.)
Flight to Canada (1976) – Ishmael Reed (I read it because Paul Metcalf takes an epigraph from this book for his Both. Previously I’ve read Mumbo Jumbo. I found this one entertaining, verging on laughter in a few places, but not quite what I was looking for. I plan to read Reckless Eyeballing sometime soon. As Biblioklept knows, Reed is a neglected treasure.)
Atlas () – Glen Baxter
Patagoni – Both – Firebird – I-57 (1988) – Paul Metcalf (By the end of this I will be the world’s foremost expert on Paul Metcalf.)
Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate (1990) – Paul Metcalf, et al. (not strictly speaking a “Metcalf book,” but a commissioned collaboration. I regret not going to Oakland last fall & seeing the area when I had the chance.)
Garbage (1993) – A.R. Ammons (Finally — a work suited to my despair of the present. I’ll be (re?)reading Glare very soon I think & 1 or 2 of the major works included in Ammons’s Collected Poems 1951-1971 or whatever the dates are.)
The Night of the Gun (2008) – David Carr
Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 40:
One day, Ephraim Bedlam, the water-drinker and raw carrot and celery philosopher, who always smelled like musk or gymnasium sweat, tweaked me on the cheek, asking, “Have you seen any human beings lately?”
The Flea of Sodom (1950) – Edward Dahlberg (can’t recall the last time I was so disoriented; a mix of tiresome & exhilarating)
Will West (1956) – Paul Metcalf (reread)
“Sardonicus” (1961) – Ray Russell (I wasn’t scared much)
Genoa (1965) – Paul Metcalf (rereading in progress)
Edward Dahlberg: a Tribute; Essays, Reminiscences, Correspondence, Tributes (1970) – ed. Jonathan Williams (this was great)
The Alteration (1976) – Kingsley Amis (+++)
Fatale (1977) – Jean-Patrick Manchette (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2011) (not quite memorable enough)
The Leafless American and Other Writings (1986) – Edward Dahlberg (I liked several essays inordinately)
An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin (2007) – Rohan Kriwaczek (abandoned with spite)
The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, 2nd ed. (2008) – Lawrence Venuti (great section on Paul Blackburn)
Time Travel (2016) – James Gleick (stuck!)
From Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (1951):
“Are Americans really stupid?” I was asked in Warsaw. In the voice of the man who posed the question, there was despair, as well as the hope that I would contradict him. This question reveals the attitude of the average person in the people’s democracies toward the West: it is despair mixed with a residue of hope.
During the last few years, the West has given these people a number of reasons to despair politically. In the case of the inteIlectual, other, more complicated reasons come into play. Before the countries of Central and Eastern Europe entered the sphere of the Imperium, they lived through the Second World War. That war was much more devastating there than in the countries of Western Europe. It destroyed not only their economies, also but a great many vaIues which had seemed till then unshakeable.
Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world. The clothes he wears are exactIy what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor. He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money as the main guarantee of peace and security. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariousIy on the edge of a cliff.
His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the “naturalness” of his world. The wind scatters papers from hastily evacuated offices, papers labeled “Confidential” or “Top Secret” that evoke visions of safes, keys, conferences, couriers, and secretaries. Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread. Strangely enough, the world goes on even though the offices and secret files have lost all meaning. Farther down the street, he stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes — the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds — cut open to public view. The house itself, no longer a rock, but a scaffolding of plaster, concrete, and brick; and on the third floor, a solitary white bathtub, rain-rinsed of all recollection of those who once bathed in it. Its formerly influential and respected owners, now destitute, walk the fields in search of stray potatoes. Thus overnight money loses its value and becomes a meaningless mass of printed paper. His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies. The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.
He finds he acquires new habits quickly. Once, had he stumbled upon a corpse in the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions. The man who fired the gun must have had his reasons; he might well have been executing an Underground sentence.”
Translated from Polish by Jane Zielonko. (Pp. 24-26 in the Vintage, 1990, edition)
E. Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (1950):
“Then I bought a chair, trundling it in a wheelbarrow along 7th Avenue. I recalled how Crates insulted whores to discipline himself, and to reprove froward flesh, I passed out cards on which was written, ‘For the frog drinking-water, for the snail cabbage and thyme, but for a rebuke nobody’. A newsvendor considered me so droll I had diarrhoea three days.”
Harry Mathews, author & translator extraordinaire, died yesterday. I never met him nor did I ever speak to him, yet his works spoke to me, and so I feel his loss as a very personal one. I wasn’t always able to appreciate his work, much of it struck me as purposefully trying and removed from the things I care about, and yet so much of it I found very moving, or funny, thought-provoking. In several slim works, such as the Autobiography and 20 Lines a Day, he seems to have courageously revealed his innermost self. It’s these works and the voice I found therein that resonate with me today as I think of his absence from our darkening scene. I find solace in letting my thoughts abide with Harry.
I picked up from my desk The Order of Things by Michel Foucault to consult a favorite passage, the edition in question being the Vintage Books, 1994 edition. (Original French title: Les mots et les choses, 1966. Literally, Words and Things.) This is a book I have never been very interested in finishing, since I initially abandoned it way back in… college? It was hard going then and it’s not so tough anymore but now I don’t care to read it through.
Quickly locating the marked page, I read it while saying to myself yes yes very true indeed and considered posting an excerpt here. (Another day, perhaps.) I went to see who did the English translation and was quite bewildered to learn that the party responsible for the translation is neither named on the book’s title page, nor on the copyright page, nor the front nor the back cover, nor in the library record for the original 1970 edition, published by Pantheon. Nowhere that I can see.
This is almost unheard of in the contemporary era. I’m sure that with some targeted keyword searching I could ferret out the desired information, but now I’m more interested in this anomaly than learning who did the deed. There are surely some other instances where the translator resides in anonymity, especially in past centuries, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Let me know if you’re aware of any such anomalies, I would be most interested…
Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)