Posts in category: Featured

Homage to Marguerite Young (1908-1995)

Since Marguerite collects angels, Be an angel and come, You may shed your wings if you wish … 

… from seven o’clock into eternity …

I suppose it’s been a long time since my blog posted any new or useful content here. I’m not certain these remarks will be useful to anyone — I hope that they will — but it’s time I said a few words about Marguerite Young (1908-1995). 

I’m no expert on Young or her work, but I have acquired a number of her (somewhat rare) books and I have read around in them a fair amount. From my very partial reading of just one of her books, I became convinced she was a genius, and I admire to no end her ability to write beautifully in the florid idioms and rhetoric of the English Renaissance and Baroque eras. People say that she is obscure, forgotten, unknown, unread. The Paris Review published a piece not long ago that reinforces this cant. It is sloppy work indeed to borrow (or adapt) your headline from a throwaway phrase appearing in Young’s New York Times obituary: “The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed” (by Meghan O’Gieblyn, Paris Review BlogSep 19 2018). To me this rankles because from the outset Young is framed as a little read author. Now, supposing your publication’s readers are interested in literary excellence, what does the size of an excellent author’s readership matter to begin with? Furthermore, to gauge the size of a readership is no pat task. Who can say who’s picking up her books in old shops and taking them home? I think of that Rilke line: “you whose course is wrongly entered on every chart” (Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 74). Now as for that book everyone is talking about just this moment, whether Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries or that new Houllebecq about to be published… I don’t give one hoot.

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Every writer who is not a household name is obscure until one “discovers” them, as simple as that. Is S.J. Perelman obscure? Nathanael West? Heinrich von Kleist? Nathalie Sarraute? Madame de Lafayette? You tell me. They’re all among my favorite writers… I have known about Marguerite Young for five or six years I think. She was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. If you read her, or even if you don’t, now that you have heard of her, she will no longer be obscure to you. Her books are there waiting, stored on the shelves of libraries and shops, entirely out of print, not always exorbitant. She is not obscure, she is lucid. Moreover, her work is available freely on the Internet in the form of a series of radio adaptations produced by Charles Ruas. There is a truly epic amount of audio available there, including Young in interview — you can hear her speak.

Without being a critic of her work, I have been an advocate of her work on twitter for some time. I have even helped a few readers discover her work. One of them read the entirety of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling! It’s a very strange feeling as a reader to know that you encouraged another reader to embark on a journey of 1,200 pages, and that they made the journey intact.

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But the book which has fascinated me to no end, with many interruptions, is not Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but Young’s 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). Judging from the title, this work might be a rather dull work of local history, a work of social and religious import, an entry in the utopian catalogue. It is all of these things, I have found it dull at times, though stupefying and wondrous in almost the same instant. Young’s greatest achievement here is to have captured something of the anarchic character of the American interior before it was organized by modernity but to have done so using a phraseology that puts one in mind of the (baroque) elegance of the King James Bible and of John Lyly. (Marguerite Young’s MA thesis was written on the latter, in fact.) I fear it is an inexhaustible work and that even by reading it over many times it will continue to surpass me. Gobsmacked I am by it. Here are two exemplary (and representative) passages from Angel:

Frederick walked in a larger maze than any he had planned, the wilderness, both actual and political. He was a traveling salesman, purely mundane. In that capacity, he had run into all kinds and conditions of men—desperadoes, carpenters, anchorites, botanists, Indian chieftains without tribes, counterfeiters, ragged tailors, preachers without congregations, blacksmiths, prostitutes who looked like fallen angels and smelled like skunks, giants, dwarfs, a mannish bearded lady in a Kentucky tavern, men whose canes concealed swords, false millenniasts, robber barons quoting the work of John Wesley, pregnant women, Shakers, a Punch-and-Judy show, coffinmakers, teamsters, human imagination gone hog-wild. (54)

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What was the variety of nature—but a construct of the imagination, a public fantasy, a veering, Athena with the face of Mary, Mary with the face of a woman who squatted on the road, as the pod of her body opened? The erection of a conclusive system would probably be forever beyond man’s powers, Frederick thought. There could be nothing simply and absolutely so—but many possibilities, alluring as bypaths, many visions, deformities, grandeurs, scandals, soldier kingdoms, overladen horses, warped glories, holy cities. The external world, on its entrance to the mind at Harmony, had been ferried from reality to the most fearful unreality—as if the kingdom of God cometh not with observation of nature. Suppose the gulf between the finite and infinite to be itself infinite, however? It would be better to accept the tangible reports of the sensations, wherever possible—parasitic tufts on the maple, a bird in the bush, hooked seeds, the zebra stripes of sunlight on dark grasses, orange trumpet flower, a woman’s breasts. Better to have been a nomadic pioneer, wanderer like nature herself, who leaves her footprints in the marshes. Better to have slept all night in an Indian village, among cripples, babies, and old, flea-bitten dogs. Better to have taken a chance with the worst of men, even the gambler, if he gambled for the love of gambling and not for the false love of a false God. For then men would at least be undeceived. (57)

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As I said, her work is out of print. I am lucky to have a lot of it before me, I appreciate it greatly. As a resource for her future and present readers I am taking the liberty of posting some photos of her books and a few very brief excerpts. “Fair use” in copyright being always subject to interpretation, I feel only slightly trepidatious sharing these materials. (If you can prove that you are a copyright holder and you are opposed to the sharing of these brief materials, drop me a line and I would be more than happy to cease and desist.) I think that the Tables of Contents of the two rather ancillary volumes may prove useful to some readers and researchers in locating relevant texts. Lastly, I know that the material aspects of the books may be of interest to some readers. 

Also, to this blog’s loyal readers, the many thousands, the happy few — Happy New Year!

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Young’s first book, a collection of poems, Prismatic Ground (1937), and “Spring” therefrom.

Young’s second (or third book?), Moderate Fable and Other Poems (1944), and two poems therefrom. Angel in the Forest would be published the following year.

The above edition of Angel in the Forest (with its Table of contents after) is not the original 1945 edition, but a beautiful 1966 reprint by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Note that the jacket text added to the title – An Epic of Two Utopias — A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America — is not a true subtitle as it doesn’t appear on the title page or in most bibliographic information. It’s a very nice paratext though, all the more for it being ambiguous in that way. The first edition seems to have had the subtitle A fairy tale of two utopias. I have never seen a first edition of Angel.

Inviting the Muses (1994) was edited by Steven Moore (with input from scholars of Young’s work, including Miriam Fuchs and Martha Sattler) during his time at Dalkey Archive Press, and it contains stories, essays, and book reviews Marguerite Young wrote over the decades. Curiously, Marguerite Young reviewed a lot of books in 1945. The other book reviews are chronologically very few and far between.

A very useful chronology of Young’s life, by Martha J. Sattler: 

Marguerite Young, Our Darling (ed. Miriam Fuchs, Dalkey Archive, 1994), contains a wealth of ancillary materials, including about ten photographs of Young (see below), the invitation card to the release party of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965) up at the top of this post, the above chronology by Martha Sattler, and so on. 

And for good measure I’ll leave you with one of the many thousands of striking passages in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling — from page 265 in the Dalkey reissue. Let’s hope that the French translator Claro manages, as he has been trying I know, to convince a French publisher to take on this book and pay him to translate it.

 

P.S. Many before me have made guideposts to Marguerite Young’s work, and I would be remiss if I didn’t provide at least a few links, so here goes. They are all themselves full of links, so much to explore:

  • Great site here dedicated to all things Marguerite Young.
  •  Link to the Goodreads group for Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, with some interesting discussion, reading guides, etc.
  • If I missed something really good, let me know in the comments…

A Major Refutation

The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.

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The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.

The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…

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It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.

Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.

The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it in the bath. Read it for fun.

Adopting Paul Metcalf

America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf

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Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.

In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.

Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)

Metcalf’s landmark works include :

 

-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).

-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.

-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.

-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).

-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.

 

picture of Paul Metcalf by Jonathan Williams

Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.

From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).

 

Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.

For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.

One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)

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– Audio & images –

A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.

A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.

A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”

– Interviews –

A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.

1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.

– Miscellaneous –

Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.

Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.

Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.

A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.

A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.

A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.

W.G. Sebald’s exoticisms

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.

Volodine, Detue, & Ouellet

Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:

  • Une littérature de l’ailleurs, venue d’aileurs, allant vers l’ailleurs
  • Une littérature internationaliste, cosmopolite, dont la mémoire plonge les racines dans les tragédies du XXe siecle, les guerres, les révolutions, les génocides et les défaites du XXe siecle
  • Une littérature étrangere écrite en francais
  • Une littérature qui mêle indissolublement l’onirique et le politique
  • Une littérature des poubelles, en rupture avec la littérature officielle
  • Une littérature carcérale de la rumination, de la déviance mental et de l’échec
  • Un édifice romanesque qui a surtout a voir avec le chamanisme, avec une variante bolchevique de chamanisme (387)

From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).

Translation: post-exoticism is:

  • a literature of elsewhere, arriving from, departing from elsewhere;
  • an internationalist, cosmopolitan literature whose memory is rooted in 20th-century tragedies, wars, revolutions, genocides, defeats;
  • a foreign literature written in French;
  • a literature where  the dream-like and the political are seamlessly joined
  • trashcan literature, opposed to ‘official’ literature(s)
  • an imprisoned, ruminatory literature, of pyschopathology and failure
  • a novelistic structure closely tied to shamanism, especially a Bolshevik variant of shamanism.

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.

Ambros Adelwarth in Sebald's The Emigrants

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).

Some Sources:

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.’

Joseph McElroy’s bookshelf

In my devotion to McElroy’s projects I went far, to obsession some would say. But who can say what’s normal, insane? I read all the interviews and essays I found referenced. In these interviews, I found myself crossing numerous references to texts and authors that were totally unknown to me. I had to know more, had to read more. Tom LeClair’s interview with McElroy and the essay ‘Neural Neighborhoods…’ are both rife with mentions of marginal works, which I chronicle here. The list appears below, the source key follows.

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Avid readers of McElroy will find the following a handy resource for tracking the literary background against which McElroy sees himself. Where I can, I provide a few notes about the work in question.

Source key

NN=“Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts” (1974 essay by McElroy)

JC=Joshua Cohen’s audio conversation with McElroy for a Triple Canopy event

SS=”Socrates on the Shore” (2002 essay by McElroy in Substances, Revue Francaise d’Études Américaines 93: 7-20.)

ACH=Tom LeClair’s interview (in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists; This book includes interviews with Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Don Delillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, etc.)

BM=Bradford Morrow’s interview in Conjunctions (1987)

MC=Marc Chénetier, Flore Chevaililer, and Antoine Cazé’s 2001 interview, “Some Bridge of Meaning,” in Sources, fall 2001

The Bookshelf

Prose fiction

Bill Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka (1977; 133 ps.)

This collection of stories, written using language and viewpoints partly medical and scientific in nature, shows certain similarities to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), at least in its concern with pathological and modified human bodies. Accordingly, Wilson’s prose’s register of bio/medical terminology reflects his concern with pathology: entelechy; neoteny; seriatim; naevus; pelagic; tunicates; enuresis; cortisone; hypospadias; pemmican; adrenergics; sigmoidoscopy; saprozoic. These are not stories for everyone. They are brutal and detached from human intimacy, incisive as a surgeon’s scalpel’s cuts. Think, if you have read it, of J.M. Coetzee’s short fiction The Vietnam Project, comprising the first half of Dusklands (1974).

Charles Newman, New Axis: or the ‘Little Ed’ Stories (1966; 175 ps.) (NN)

Tales from a small MidWestern community that interlock, intertwine, interlace. Each story conveys the experience and POV of a single character who is glimpsed obliquely by others in other stories. This ‘interlocking points-of-view’ technique, while it forms an integral part of many, many novels, stands out particularly in The Sound and the Fury (1929) by Faulkner, Impossible Object by Mosley, and in A Smuggler’s Bible by McElroy. Charles Newman was the founding editor of TriQuarterly where some of William S. Wilson’s and Joseph McElroy’s short work first appeared.

Nicolas Mosley, Impossible Object (1968; 219 ps.) (NN)

‘One of the most fascinating novels of the last generation,’ according to McElroy. No brief summary could do this book, which consists of eight short stories alternating with intensely bewildering three-page intercalary chapters, justice, successfully characterize the paradoxical wager at the heart of the book. ‘Words were a vulgarity. One’s duty was to love those whom one loves’ (175).

If you don’t know Mosley at all but are curious, you might find this website of John Banks, with interviews with Mosley, to be a useful resource.

After Impossible Object I quickly read Catastrophe Practice (1979), itself a triumph of hope and positivity, despite its ‘theatre of the absurd’ qualities which exist alongside Mosley’s incisive critical essays describing his vision and ambitions; and alongside a novella which concludes the book. American literature scholar Tom LeClair: ‘N. Mosley is a throwback, a modernist mastodon whose project for fiction surpasses in grandiosity that of any American writer I know.’ Dalkey has a large selection of Mosley’s books in print; recommended to explore them a little here.

Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas (1811) (NN) (free text here)

Thrilling, fantastic, and awesome. A two-hundred-year-old text that is just as modern and entertaining now as ever. It’s about one upright citizen’s insistence on justice in the face of corrupt officials. I’ve heard that for Ragtime (1974) E.L. Doctorow borrowed  some situational elements from this short novella.

Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853) (JC) (free e-book)

If you’ve read this story, you know how unforgettable, eloquent, and bewildering it is–among the best stories ever written. If you are unfamiliar with this story, read or listen to it this week. Free audio version available from Librivox.

Michel Butor, Degrees (1960) (NN; 351 ps.)

This nouveau roman centers on a Paris school teacher who devises a project to meticulously record the totality of what happens to certain of his colleagues and pupils. Because his project attempts totality, it fails and he loses his psychic stability. Apparently an inspiration for A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), McElroy’s first novel.

Michel Butor, Mobile (1962; 319 ps.)

Not your typical travel book! Highly idiosyncratic and elliptical in its form, Mobile represents Butor’s experience of traveling in the U.S.A. when Eisenhower’s highway project was not yet old. This book makes extreme demands on the attention of the reader and provides singular rewards.

Knut Hamsun, Mysteries (1892; 340 ps.) (ACH)

Early modernist, experimental text that was praised early on by Henry Miller. About a man named Nagel who turns up one day in a small Norwegian village and stirs things up a bit.

Norman Mailer

Mailer is a somewhat neglected author today, but he was a public intellectual and a strong voice in the time of his celebrity. But what of Mailer ought one read?; not all Mailer is good Mailer, there is too much Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?Of a Fire on the Moon, and parts of An American Dream are written with an incandescence that very few writers can equal. ‘The Man Who Studied Yoga?’ is a very good short story (in Advertisements for Myself).

William H. Gass, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ (c. 1960, 1964 ?) (NN)

Gass said once that he self-consciously composed this story on the structure of a musical composition. It attempts to convey the monotony of living in a small MidWestern town through repetitions, the very lack of action, lack of plot. Sound interesting? Gass’s language makes this, and the short story collection of which it is a part, a masterpiece of American literature.

Paul Metcalf, Patagoni (1971)

In ‘Neural Neighborhoods’ McElroy describes Patagoni as ‘a short history of North American Henry Ford and River Rouge… coupled with a rambling trip into South America under a weird metaphor of brain and body.’ The Jargon Press publication is an unusually beautiful, and somewhat rare, book-object. Coffee House’s 3 volume Collected Works of Metcalf has it, of course, in the 1st volume. (Note from 2016: I have since read nearly all of Metcalf’s work, and found it truly awesome. Here are some more posts tagging or discussing Metcalf.)

Harold Brodkey

The story ‘State of Grace,’ Brodkey’s first published story, available in the collection First Love and Other Sorrows, is beautiful, eloquent, and touching; it even involves some plausible time travel, a real kick-in-the-pants. I have not read any of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, but this beautiful appreciation of Brodkey surely makes me want to.

Jerome Charyn, A Child’s History of the Bronx (NN)

An excerpt from this unpublished novel was published in Statements 1, edited by Ronald Suzenick, of the Fiction Collective. From what I can tell it’s a playful, ribald colonial historiography (17th, 18th century) of Manhattan. Not something I recommend going the extra mile to consult.

Italo Calvino, “Priscilla,” from t zero

Imagine a cell thinking through how it feels to divide into or to combine with another cell, as in meiosis and mitosis. Calvino has done just that.

D.H. Lawrence, Selected Stories: (BM)

‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter’; ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’; ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’; ‘The Prussian Officer’

Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down (1966) (NN)

Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper and Suttree

Uwe Johnson, The Third Book about Achim (NN)

Von Dodderer, The Demons (ACH)

Henry James, What Maisie Knew (free here)

Henry Miller, Colossus of Maroussi (1958)(ACH)

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962) (ACH)

Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer (1973)

Mark Smith, The Death of the Detective (1973)

Günter Grass, Dog Years (ACH)

William Golding, The Inheritors (ACH)

J.G. Ballard, Crash (NN)

Hortense Callisher (NN)

Leonard Michaels (NN)

Donald Barthelme (numerous)

Poetry

Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (1971; 75 ps.) (ACH)

Dedicated to the children of the author (‘Maud and Fergus’), this collection of ten poems deploys an inventiveness of language and evokes an intensity of pathos that are rarely attained by even the best poets. The first printing by Houghton Mifflin includes amazing illustrations as frontispieces to each of the poems. This tiny book might be said to constitute some of the finest American poetry from the latter half of the 20th century.

Gary Snyder, “Good Things That Can Be Said for the Iron Age” (1970) (NN)

Retrieved from the vast Internet, here, the poem itself:

A ringing tire iron dropped on the pavement
Whang of a saw brusht on limbs
the taste of rust

A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems (ACH)

Philosophy and other

John Custance, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly (1952)

This book is referenced numerous times in McElroy’s first novel A Smuggler’s Bible. It’s a first-person account of madness and delusional revelations, and of a hospital stay. The book is really quite extraordinary, and also hard to find.

James Henry Breasted, Ancient History (1916)

A titular precedent for McElroy’s novel of the same name. The narrator, Cy, frequently digresses on ancient history (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, etc.) during the course of his book-length monologue. Ancient History is his school textbook, it seems.

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) (ACH)

An awesome book written with strong and pragmatic convictions. As an economist Schumacher worked with Britain’s National Coal Board for twenty years. On the one hand, Schumacher’s book is a vehement critique of econometrics, and on the other it’s a re-definition of what economists and human beings ought to use to evaluate, understand, and (from a policy perspective) guide behavior. Schumacher’s assertion that ‘We must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units’ (80) informed the writing of Women and Men. Perhaps this is the only book I know whose back cover identifies its proper classification as ‘Economics / New Age.’

John Ruskin (ACH)

J.M. Keynes (ACH)

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968)

Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Thinking, Dwelling’ (1950 or ’54; mentioned on KCRW’s Bookworm)

Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape (ACH)

Paul Kammerer, The Law of Seriality (ACH)

(This text is to my knowledge not available in English translation. Read detailed summaries in English of it here and here.)

Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, or the Architect (SS)

Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo

Biology/neuroanatomy

The following books provided a research basis in the development of Plus, as acknowledged on the book’s copyright page

Lehninger, Bioenergetics: The Molecular Basis of Energy Transformations (1973, 2nd ed.)

Noback, The Human Nervous System (1967)

Weiss, Principles of Development (1969)

*

All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.

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Thomas Jefferson, Ergonomist

Adapted from my paper “The Case for Thomas Jefferson as the Father of American Librarianship” and presented at the 6th Doctoral Symposium in Information Studies at the Université de Montréal, March 30, 2012:

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 is this ingenious revolving book-stand:

Shaped like a cube when not in use, the stand could be unfolded to hold five books simultaneously. Hinged at the top, the four vertical sides could be lifted up and angled out. A lip at the bottom of each let a book rest on the angled surface. Furthermore, the top of the cube could be tilted up to hold a fifth book directly above one of the lower books. Even when fully loaded with books, the stand could be easily revolved to let Jefferson quickly peruse multiple texts in succession.

Revolving Bookstand

Also remarkable: a portable writing desk constructed to his specifications. On the angled baize surface of this beauty, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Made of thin strips of mahogany, the desk was reduced to the minimum size and weight and produced the maximum utility of space. In addition to a folding writing board lined with green baize, it had a bookrest and a drawer with a lock for storing a supply of stationery, completed documents, ink, pens, wafers, and sand. Jefferson continued to use this desk until 1825, when he presented it to his grandson-in-law.

Portable writing desk

The Virginian statesman also devised a chair with a fully revolving base to facilitate easy interaction with print material:

Furniture for writing

Federalist William Loughton Smith ridiculed the chair in the anonymous The Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency Examined, writing: “Who has not heard from the Secretary of State of the praises of his wonderful Whirligig Chair, which has the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head without moving his tail?”

It may be added that the debt-ridden patrician of Monticello used several different polygraphs (copying machines) during his last 14 years to make a simultaneous copy of his vast correspondence over that period, polygraphing over 5,700 correspondences.

Jefferson's Polygraph

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Sources: Bedini’s Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines, 1984;

Hayes’ The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2008.

Final note: It just so happens that Jefferson’s ingenious chair, with its revolving base, pops up in a passage from Joseph McElroy’s second novel, Hind’s Kidnap (1969):

Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented. Viewed from an approaching helicopter, Maddy Beecher’s office, a white concrete block, perhaps like a huge clamping not just thick enough to hide its bolt, topped the rambling… (p. 53)

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