William Gass’s writing is so good, it’s overwhelming, almost too much. If you’re more of a Gass fan than I am, you would find the following of great interest: three William H. Gass 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explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life.
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….
‘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.
“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. I feel pretty divided about whether Lish’s coldness towards Bloom on this basis is an act of (literary) snobbism, or an honourable attempt to live in accordance with his own ideals and standards. I wonder what 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
Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (@bswbarootes)
Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) - William Empson (@JustinPfefferle)
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (@bswbarootes)
The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) - M.H. Abrams
Biographia Literaria (1817) - Samuel Taylor Coleridge (according to William Gass, the best of its kind…)
The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth
The Sense of an Ending (1967) - Frank Kermode
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.
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.
Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1987).
Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard (Farrar, Straus, & Co, 1963).
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.
Continuing the French literature kick I’m on (Huysman, Gide, Flaubert, Simenon…), and in time for the centennial of Proust’s Du Côté de chez Swann (1913), here’s a photo of a couple of street signs in my ‘hood. Gratuitous, almost.
Not quite “Swann’s Way,” but good enough for this francophile.
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:
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 flare. I used to see these two poets, Smith and Nichols, when I used to attend the creative writing pub-crawls they and Dan Gutstein (my then poetry teacher) enacted back in the mid-oughts.
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 a human body in a state of frenzy, pleases me, though the poem seems altogether inadequate now. I have never tried to have it published, and I find the rereading of it a somewhat awkward and embarrassing experience. It’s narcissistic, self-involved, and jagged. Contains some flarf elements, much autobiographical incident, a heaping bucketful of discontinuous imagery, flibbertigibbet, what-have-you, kerflaffle-fla-flam, the following, which I don’t regret:
thrombic lycocoptyopenic purpura
gnitirw erutuf sdrawkcab
meop ni esrever
Problem(s) with flarf:
‘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, flarf 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 they 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.’
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
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.
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”).