Posts in category: Fiction

Anne Garréta’s Liquid Skies

This is the first in a series of posts where I do a write-up of a French book that is not yet translated into English. – JS

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What drew me to read Anne Garréta’s Ciels liquides (Grasset, 1990) was its interesting premise: it is (according to the Oulipo Compendium) “the paradoxical view of a narrator’s loss of language.”

It’s also beautifully unsettling and hallucinatory. The hallucinations start in the barn of the narrator’s ancestral farm.

I was sinking down.

My shadow was still floating up at the surface, breathing, looking around, uttering sounds in reaction to the thousand stimuli around it. Down below, I was slowly sinking, pulled down by the whirlpool, the slow spiral, always lower. The barn had come to rest on the bottom, swallowed up under many miles of intensely churning fluid, the rumor of the word, endlessly stirred. (p. 20, my translation)

After an accident in the barn and a stay in the hospital, the narrator lives for a while in a dark closet, having lost all capability for speech or writing. Later, he takes up residence in a cemetery, living inside a crypt, and goes to work at night in a morgue. In one scene, he dissects a corpse that appears to be his twin or döppelganger. There are countless beautiful descriptions of experiences that are beyond words, dissociative states.

I was without language. There was no language to account for the state I was in. The strangest thing seems now to me not to have been the amnesia that made it impossible for me to recognize and use words, whether spoken or written, but to have lived constantly suspended at the edge of another translation of a meaning which I felt screaming inside me, fugitive, whose force remained incommunicable, beneath the orbit of words. (p. 120, my translation)

It would be great to see this wonderfully weird book translated and published in English. I’m also looking forward to reading Garréta’s Pas Un Jour (2002).

Next spring (2015), Deep Vellum will publish Garréta’s first book, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) in a translation by Emma Ramadan. Over at Deep Vellum’s website, there are some English excerpts of Garréta’s work with some good links.

Himes, Modiano, Thompson

After Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, I was curious to read him, so I took Peter Englund’s advice and started with Missing Person (La Rue des boutiques obscures, 1978). What a let-down! It’s the story of a guy trying to figure out his past — he suffered some more or less total memory loss in the late ’40s. So he follows a trail of clues, using photographs and going around talking to people. He learns some things, but he never finds out who he was. Nor is his role in the Nazi occupation of France in WW II (apparently one of Modiano’s key motifs) ever made clear. All that’s fine (I love disorienting books), but the texture of the prose is insipid, just relaying the movements of the protagonist and the simplest impressions. I haven’t found a book from which I expected good things so disappointing since — I’m sorry to say — Norman Mailer’s Deer Park.

Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1965) and Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) are fantastic, however, and it seems that hardly anyone is talking about them.

Just goes to show: don’t believe the hype.

Update: I’m not giving up on Modiano yet. I’ve since heard very good things about Du plus loin de l’oubli (Out of the Dark, trans. Jordan Stump) and Voyage des noces (Honeymoon, trans. Barbara Wright), and might pick up either of these in the year to come.

David Bellos on becoming a translator

In a brief interview, accomplished translator David Bellos is asked “How did you get started as a translator? Any advice to aspiring translators?” He says:

I read Perec’s “Life A User’s Manual” in French in 1981 and was entranced by it. Even before I’d finished reading I felt it needed to be a book in English so I could share my enthusiasm with others. That’s how I began. I think many other translation careers have begun with something of the same kind—a  passion or strong engagement with a book or a writer or a school of thought that made translation a natural and necessary consequence.

I am kind of going down that road. I’ll let you know how it pans out.

Good news this week, too: my translation of Mallarmé’s typographically radical long poem (Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard, or in English A Roll of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance) — it seems to have finally found the right editors and will appear in a print journal, in winter or spring 2015 I would guess.

Listen up

What if there was a massive not-for-profit archive of free audiobooks of works in the public domain, i.e., the CLASSICS?

Librivox, you mean? If you don’t know it, now is the time. Founded in Montreal by Hugh McGuire, almost a decade ago. A warm encomium by Carlo Rotella here.

Volodine promises to quit post-exoticism

The post-exotic project is, among others, to realize a literary object composed of forty-nine works (forty volumes have already appeared in French) in which the very last sentence is: “I remain silent.” I have heralded this numerous times. I hope to live long enough to lay down that last sentence on the post-exotic edifice, which will then be closed, complete.

– Antoine Volodine, in the “Interview with the Author” which serves as a preface to the advance uncorrected galley of Writers (Dalkey Archive, 2014)

I’m not inclined to believe this is anything but a bluff, but two facts:

* the title of his latest book, just out in France, is Terminus radieux ; Nov. 2014 – it has been awarded the Goncourt Prize, perhaps France’s most prestigious prize) ;

* the number of his published works, if you count the eight translations Volodine has done from the Russian, now totals 49 (or 41 without the translations).

This guy is a master of hype, full of interesting bluffs. That’s why I don’t think Volodine would give it up Philip Roth-style. If your curiosity is piqued read that essay of mine, “An Ism of One’s Own,” or one of the other two recent reviews of Writers (“After Revolution” and this one at FullStop).

Afterthoughts on Volodine

Antoine Volodine first came onto my radar in 2008, when several of his books were assigned reading for a graduate course in French literature that I was taking. We read Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) and Le Post-Exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (1998), and I also read a little of Des Anges mineurs. So when I saw that Volodine had another book forthcoming in English translation (Writers, trans. Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014; originally Écrivains, Editions du Seuil, 2010), I jumped at the opportunity to review it for The Quarterly Conversation.

There’s something about the essay I didn’t get quite right, but it’s nevertheless informative and fairly broad about Volodine’s project (although he has written over 40 books in thirty years! who can cope with that!). I discuss paratexts, pseudonyms/heteronyms, and why I think Writers is not Volodine’s best work. As I was finishing the essay, I began to think that the style pioneered by the great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis serves as a rough model for some of what Volodine is trying to do. In particular, Volodine and Kis both seem to approach their protagonists using a tone near to that of the encyclopedist or the biographer in order to describe individuals who struggle against a totalitarian state, often incarcerated, vehemently resisting to the bitter end.

It’s very hard to distinguish though, without doing some heavy comparative readings and research, to what extent Volodine’s style shares in common with Kis’s style a Soviet, totalitarian cultural milieu (you know, the kind of thing you get in Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the Granat Encyclopedia), and to what extent Volodine is really standing on Kis’s shoulders. For my part, I far prefer Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich to Volodine’s Writers. That, at least, is what I struggled to say in the essay.

And do be sure to check out the other articles in issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation

Interview with J McElroy

There’s a new interview with acclaimed American novelist Joseph McElroy in the latest issue of Golden Handcuffs Review: “In the Port of Possibility: Interview with Joseph McElroy,” by Jacob Siefring. There’s other good stuff in there, including a translation from Harry Mathews of Marie Chaix, essays on Walter Abish, work by David Antin, Toby Olson, Rae Armantrout, Steve Katz, Bernard Hoepffner and more. So maybe worth buying that one, or better yet subscribing to Golden Handcuffs Review.

For context, I would also point out the numerous other interviews with McElroy have appeared over the years (see especially that which Tom Leclair did in the late 1970s and that which Trey Strecker did for Rain Taxi in 2003 (unlike the LeClair, it is freely available online)).

It’s also worth pointing out that a previous issue of Golden Handcuffs Review was devoted to McElroy’s work (#14, Winter/Spring 2011), and that pretty much all the articles are available online — or almost all. Well worth the time as an introduction to McElroy’s work, if you’re not familiar with it. Not to mention McElroy’s stories which appeared at Golden Handcuffs in years past and which are available online: “The Last Disarmament But One”; “Character”; and “The Campaign Trail,” collected in Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive, 2011).

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

Review: N. Arcan’s Hysteric

At the Winnipeg Review you can read a review I wrote of Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric — recently published by Anvil Press. The book was originally published in France in 2004 by Editions du Seuil. Its translators are Jacob Homel and David Homel.

Mind-image topographies & interiority in Murnane

Regardless of authorial contexts (Murnane & Coetzee), this is a fascinating quote. It’s from the Anthony Uhlmann’s recent review of The Childhood of Jesus, in American Book Review (jan-feb ’14).

In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch (2009) in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a “network of images.” Coetzee concludes:

The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences… In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of… As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist. 

And then later on:

In a passage from Inland (1989) that Coetzee cites in his review, Murnane’s narrator reflects on a quote from Paul Eluard, a poet he claims to know nothing about and to have never read: There is another world but it is in this one. He continues:

The other world… is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books. 

Uhlmann’s book, Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov (2011), must be tremendous. A giant theme, and giant writers.

Golding’s Inheritors

A high point of my month’s reading was William Golding’s second novel The Inheritors (1955), which followed after his first and of course most successful novel, Lord of the Flies. I somehow have two copies, both Faber & Faber, with some pretty great cover illustrations by Paul Hogarth (L) & Neil Gower (R).

Golding, Inheritors, covers

The novel is structured around the idea of a Neanderthal tribe coming into contact with a more advanced tribe, presumably the first humans, or representative of such. It’s not difficult to read; it’s really quite a masterpiece, and it’s about the birth of the human race even. Therefore, I highly recommend it. I’ll leave off with a citation from the penultimate paragraph of John Carey’s introduction to the centenary edition which I think rightly sums up Golding’s achievement.

The greatness of The Inheritors does not depend on Golding imagining what Neanderthals might have been like. It depends on the language he fashions to express it. He accepts the colossal stylistic challenge of seeing everything from a Neanderthal point of view. By feats of language that are at first bewildering he takes us inside a being whose senses, especially smell and hearing, are acute, but who cannot connect sensations into a train of thought. This is a being whose awareness is a stream of metaphors and for whom everything is alive. Intricate verbal manoeuvres force us to share the adventures – and the pathos and the tragedy – of a consciousness that is fearless, harmless, loving, minutely observant and incapable of understanding anything.

Chejfec on the Internet & cognition

“[M]y morale as a walker had been in a bad way for some time.

The reasoning that follows may seem a bit abstract, so I’ll expound on it quickly. When I walk, my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me, one governed by overlapping windows. I say this not with pride but with annoyance: nothing worse could happen to me, because it affects my intuitive side and feels like a prison sentence. The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the from of Internet links, and this isn’t only true for the objects themseleves, which are generally urban, part of the life of the street or of the city as a whole, shaped precisely and distinguished from their surroundings, but also the associations they call to mind, the recollection of what is observed, which may be related, kindred, or quite distinct, depending on whichever way these links are formed. On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several, and these in turn summon other memories or connected thoughts, often by chance, etc., all creating a delirious branching effect that overwhelms me and leaves me exhausted. I’m a victim, that is, of the early days of the Internet, when wandering or surfing the Web was governed less by destiny or by the efficiency of search engines that it is today, and one drifted among things that were similar, irrelevant, or only loosely related. Until one reached the point of exhaustion over the needlessly prolonged Internet journey, with an ensuing loss of motivation to delve (or in my case, walk) any further, and then the moment of distortion would arrive, or of parallel nature, I don’t know which, when I would notice that every object had essentially turned into a link, and its own materiality had moved into the background, whose depth was virtual, peripheral and free-floating. / [ . . . ] It’s impossible for me to know how different my old-time, pre-Internet perceptions were; they probably were, in diverse ways. Before the Internet, my sense of a city was organized differently: my first impressions were stamped with their origins and the specific times, as it were, of their formation; they were bounded by the passage of time and by new experiences. And, in the resulting sedimentation, each memory retained its relative autonomy. But after the Internet, it happened that the same system formatted my sensibility, which ever since has tended to link events, in sequences of familiarity, though these sequences may be forced and often ridiculous. Those sequences of familiarity lead to groupings that are more or less volatile, it’s true, that nonetheless tend to leave what’s unique to each impression on a secondary plane, diluting in part the thickness of the experience.”

 

– Sergio Chejfec, My Two Worlds, p. 18-20 (Mis dos mundos, 2008; trans. Margaret B. Carson, Open Letter, 2011)

From ‘You Bright and Risen Angels’

Nowadays, as one lounges out on the porch of an evening, in a folding lawn chair of finished redwood, it is scarcely possible to recall the limitations of those days. It seems that our memory typewriters and compact disk players have been around forever, like wise infinitely reliable mentors and administrators of our sport. In front of me the automatic sprinkler crawls steadily along the garden hose which my father has cunningly laid across his lawn; and from the Carsons’ house on Woodbine Court I can hear the metronome-like ticking of the children’s robot playing house with Robbie in the garage. A jet plane shoots happily through the blue sky, bound, perhaps, for another covert bombing mission in Nicaragua, where the colorfully dressed, brown-skinned population still resists our directive to BUCKLE DOWN and WORK because for them every day is a fiesta day in their pink or yellow or green brick houses in the cool mountains when WE are drumming our fingers and impatiently waiting for our Buddy Brand or Dodger’s Choice instant coffee to be harvested so that we can zip down to the office in our station wagons and set new goals and trends in productivity, because without us electrical consumption would sink to its nadir. – But if you will just stop dancing with the dishwasher for a moment I, Big George, will describe to you in loving detail how it all came about, and what life was like for our pioneers in the 1860s and 1870s.

 

– William T. Vollmann, You Bright and Risen Angels (Picador, 1987; p. 34)

From ‘Something Happened’

The linings of the brain. (The linings of my brain, they give me such pain.) The linings of my brain are three in number and are called collectively the meninges. They surround it on the outside. The innermost is called the pia mater. It is a delicate, fibrous, and highly vascular membrane (gorged with veins and capillaries, I suppose). I feel pressure against it from inside. Things bubble and shove against it as though they might explode. It reminds me at times of a cheese fondue. The pia mater, reinforced by the two supporting layers, the arachnoid and the dura mater, holds fast against the outward expanding pressure of my brain, pushes back. At times, there is pain. The name pia mater derives from an imperfect translation into Latin of Arabic words that meant (ha, ha) tender mother.

– Joseph Heller, Something Happened (Knopf, 1974, p. 541-42)

Something Happened

Something Happened
The book designers weren’t told to make an object resembling a hearse or coffin, but they did anyways, a beautiful black and gold object. I bought my Knopf “Book Club edition” of this dark classic for seven Canadian bucks at Encore Books in Montreal two years ago.

And it is a hell of a book. Its voice belongs to Bob Slocum,  a father-of-three, mid-level executive living in Connecticut. His one son is mentally retarded, a fact he can’t fully countenance. Slocum is terrified of inarticulacy, of speechlessness. He is depressed, but he is not. (Unless depression means something like a permanent negative outlook or worldview, an all-encompassing and unremitting pessimism. Fear of everything, of closed doors, of other people, of mortality, strokes, illness, senility, debility, speechlessness, of accidents.

What a fucking book. Its darkness on a level with William Gass’s The Tunnel, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Or Thomas Bernhard.

I’ll shut up. And let Heller’s Bob Slocum speak for himself.

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All our summers have been bad. And most of our Sundays. And still are. How I dread those three- and four-day weekends. I wish my wife and I played tennis or enjoyed going on boats for sailing or fishing. But I don’t; I don’t even enjoy people who do. I don’t even enjoy anything anymore. (323)

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I have a bitter urge now to reproach her, to shout at her, to reach out and hit her, to kick her very sharply under the table in the bones of her leg. I have an impulse often to strike back at the members of my family, even the children, when I feel they are insulting me or taking advantage. Sometimes when I see one of them in the process of doing something improper, or making a mistake for which I know I will be justified in blaming them, I do not intercede to help or correct but hold back in joy to watch and wait, as though observing from a distance a wicked scene unfold in some weird dream, actually relishing the opportunity I spy approaching that will enable me to criticize and reprimand them and demand explanations and apologies. It horrifies me; it is something like watching them back fatallay toward an open window or the edge of a cliff and offering no warning to save them from injury or death. It is perverse and I try to overcome it. There is this crawling animal flourishing somewher inside me that I try to keep hidden and that strives to get get out, and I don’t know what it is or whom it wishes to destroy. I know it is covered with warts. It might be me; it might also be me that it wishes to destroy) and, succeeding in stifling my anger beneath a placid smile, say:

“Pass me the break, will you, dear?” (111)

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I molested a child. I was molested as a child. Everyone is molested.  (337-8)

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I know what hostility is. (It gives me headaches and tortured sleep.) My id suppurates into my ego and makes me aggressive and disagreeable. Seepage is destroying my loved ones. If only one could vent one’s hatreds fully, exhaust them, discharge them the way a lobster deposits his sperm with the female and ambles away into opaque darkness alone and unburdened. I’ve tried. They come back. (390)

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I do indeed know what morbid compulsion feels like. Fungus, erosion, disease. The taste of flannel in your mouth. The smell of asbestos in your brain. A rock. A sinking heart, silence, taut limbs, a festering invasion from within, seeping subversion, and a dull pressure on the brow, and in the back regions of the skull. It starts like a fleeting whim, an airy frivolous notion, but it doesn’t go; it stays; it sticks; it enlarges in space and force like a somber, inhuman form from whatever lightless pit inside you it abides in; it fills you up, spreading steadily throughout you like lava or a persistent miasmic cloud, an obscure, untouchable, implacable, domineering, vile presence disguising itself treacherously in your own identity, a double agent–it is debilitating and sickening. It foreshadows no joy–and takes charge, and you might just as well hang your head and drop your eyes and give right in. You might just as well surrender at the start and steal that money, strike that match, (masturbate), eat that whole quart of ice cream, grovel, dial that number, or search that forbidden drawer or closet once again to handle the things you’re not supposed to know are there. You might just as well go right off in whatever direction your madness lies and do that unwise, unpleasant, immoral thing you don’t want to that you know beforehand will leave you dejected and demoralized afterward. Go along glumly like an exhausted prisoner of war and get the melancholy deed overy with. I have spells in spare time when it turns physically impossible for me to remain standing erect one second longer or to sit without slumping. They pass. I used to steal coins from my sister and my mother–I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even want the money. I think I just wanted to take something from them. I was mesmerized. I was haunted. I wanted to scream for help. I had only to consider for an instant the possibility of taking a penny or a nickel again from a satin purse in a pocketbook belonging to my mother or sister and it was all over: I would have to do it. I was possessed by the need to do it. I would plod home through snow a mile if necessary in order to get it then. I had to have it then. I took dimes and quarters too. Ididn’t enjoy it, before or afterward. I felt lousy. I didn’t even enjoy the things I bought or did. I gambled much of it away on pinball machines at the corner candy store (and felt a bit easier in my mind after it was lost). I didn’t feel good about a single part of it, except getting it over with–it was an ordeal–and recovering. After a while the seizures ended and I stopped. (The same thing happened with masturbation, and I gave that up also after fifteen or twenty years.) (489-91)

Jerusalem, Palestine, Sebald, New Directions

Following on the theme of my last post on W.G. Sebald, I thought I’d drag out this old find to see if any of this blog’s readers can help my understanding of an unusual change that occurred to a photograph in Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (1992) when it was translated by Michael Hulse and published in English by Harvill as The Emigrants (1996).

Part three of The Emigrants is a kind of family history, or intimate biography, of the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth that ostensibly draws on and incorporates postcards, photographs, and a diary/travelogue  directly into the text. In 1913, on the eve of WW I, Adelwarth and another man travel from France to Istanbul and to the Holy Land. “On the 27th of November Ambros notes that he has been to Raad’s Photographic Studio in the Jaffa Road and has had his picture taken, at Cosmo’s wish, in his new striped robe” (p. 140-41).

Adelwarth - New Directions

Oddly enough, the German-language text of the book (at least the one I consulted – Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997) reveals a different image, one which encloses the portrait-sitter within a photostudio border.

Ambros Adelwarth in Sebald's The Emigrants

Why the change? Supposing that there is a reason and that it wasn’t just due to some pressing difficulty in the layout process, – ? – I can only surmise that the publishers at New Directions acted deliberately in cropping out the frame. If so, they effectively scratched out the adjacent words Jerusalem and Palestine. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, or Sebald ordered the crop. But if the move came from the publisher, I wonder if it wasn’t motivated by the judgment that it would be preferable to omit two words sure to remind readers of a conflict and an annexation that continue today and never fail to inspire strong sentiment. The irony is that the manipulation of historical, photographic evidence to political ends, which Sebald’s books often underline and portray, might have occurred in the process of reaching his English-speaking audience.

I might very well be reading too much into this, or not. In any case if you’ve anything to add, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this unusual find.

The first paragraph has been slightly revised since this article’s first posting.

March reading log

Poem 61 – Catullus

On the Genealogy of Morality (1887) – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Ward No. 6” (1892) “In the Ravine,” “A Boring Story” – Anton Chekhov

The Approximate Man and Other Writings – Tristan Tzara (begun; trans. & ed. Mary Ann Caws)

“The Country Doctor” (1910s?) – Franz Kafka (trans. W. & E. Muir; re-read)

“Ten Indians” and “In the Indian Camp” – Ernest Hemingway

Zeno’s Conscience (1923) – Italo Svevo (trans. W. Weaver, 2001; abandoned at p. 120)

Break of Day – Colette (skimmed)

Sanctuary (1931) – William Faulkner

The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (partial)

Cronopios and Famas – Julio Cortazar

The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) – John Steinbeck (re-read parts of)

Something Happened (1966) – Joseph Heller

‘The Island,’ ‘Firebird,’ ‘Willie’s Throw,’ ‘and nobody objected…’, ‘Mountaineers Are Always Free!’ (1985-1991) – Paul Metcalf (all of these most fantastic)

“Beyle, or Love is a Madness most Discreet” (1990) – W.G. Sebald (in Vertigo, trans. M. Hulse; re-read)

Some poems by Charles Bernstein from Recalculating and All the Whiskey in Heaven

A few unpublished stories of friends

J Cohen on Sebald

It’s not that easy to review books well, I know. Novelist Joshua Cohen probably does too, as he’s been at it for a while now reviewing for Harper’s and now the New York Times. 

In any case, there’s a few things that rankle in his review of W.G. Sebald’s latest posthumous publication, A Place in the Country (2014). I wouldn’t comment on this, except that I’ve read all of Sebald’s novels (and After Nature) twice and wrote a thesis on The Emigrants. Cohen:

W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wer­tach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island.

My lord, “four novels about Jews” just won’t work. Austerlitz and The Emigrants, yes, but the focus in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn is hardly Jewry. My only guess is that he hasn’t read these novels, and so is relaying the commonly touted affiliation of Sebald with Jews and the Holocaust. Then he says

“A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last.

“Sebaldiana”–I cringe, and ask, why? why invent this clumsy-ass word? Don’t other words work? Sebaldian, fine, but… ugh. This, and a few strange stylistic tics/flourishes, make this review rather inelegant. See that weird, smart aside concluding the opening paragraph:

Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.

Anyways, we all err. Anyways.

Jefferson’s spinny chair

Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented.

– Joseph McElroy, Hind’s Kidnap, Harper & Row, 1969. P. 53.

thomas jefferson's swivel chair 1

Jefferson’s revolving Windsor chair which he purchased in 1775-76. The writing arm was added later at Monticello. (Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society)

Montreal Review of Books, Spring ’14

The spring issue of the Montreal Review of Books is freshly out, in print and online. Nestled in there you’ll find my review of Byron Ayanoglu’s latest book, a novel in two parts called A Traveler’s Tale (DC Books).

William Gass online exhibition

William H. Gass’s writing is so good, it’s overwhelming, almost too much. Metaphor is like junk food to this man, so he says. If you’re slightly more of a Gass fan than I am, you would find the following of great interest: three previously published essay collections are being re-issued this year: On Being Blue, Tests of Time and The World within the Word all coming back into print, that’s pretty amazing (NYRB, Dalkey). And last year the online exhibit “William H. Gass: The Soul inside the Sentence” went online (and in gallery).

Over at the online gallery you can

explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life.

Update: Also of note is this 2013 interview.

The complete Dalkey Archive catalog

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.

R Firbank’s Sorrow in Sunlight

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).

Note 2: For the interested, an e-text of Firbank’s last completed work Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli is available at Project Gutenberg Canada.

The Bio-Work of Art

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.

Powers mentions two bio-artists during the podcasts: Brazilian Eduardo Kac, and American Steve Kurtz. Incredibly interesting stuff, even to skim.

Updike’s The Centaur

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.

Round-up: Classics of Literary Criticism

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 a handful of these, and I’m sure as hell missing a lot in the few years between 335 B.C. and 1930 A.D. So, as always, comments are welcome and encouraged, below or on Twitter (@jsief).

* * *

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953)  Erich Auerbach

History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury

Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong

Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (suggested by @bswbarootes)

The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1989) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks)

Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – William Empson (suggested by @JustinPfefferle)

The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (suggested by @bswbarootes)

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) – M.H. Abrams

Biographia Literaria (1817) – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth

The Sense of an Ending (1967) – Frank Kermode

The Counterfeiters, The Stoic Comedians, The Mechanic Muse (1968-1987) – Hugh Kenner

The Banquet Years (1955) – Roger Shattuck

Classical English Rhetoric (2010) – Ward Farnsworth

Fiction of the sixties

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.

Audio resources

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:

Center for Art of Translation
KCRW’s Bookworm
Lannan Foundation
Librivox Free Audiobooks
Miette’s Bedtime Podcast
New Yorker Fiction Podcast
Penn Sound
Ubu Web

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.

Medal for ingratitude

 

In William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, published by Knopf in 1995.

It’s not very pretty, but that’s exactly the point.

James Spanfeller’s illustrations

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.

 

 A Fan's Notes - F Exley - Spanfeller's cover art

 

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.

 

Hinds-Kidnap-J-McElroy-Spanfellers-cover-art-839x1024

 

Both these books were produced under the editorship of legendary editor David Segal, who was at Harper & Row before moving to Knopf in about 1970. A little light research shows that James Spanfeller also did these other book illustrations — each quite exceptional, I think. Photos culled from a Google Image search.

I also see, for those who are interested in digging deeper, that Spanfeller did illustrations for Pages from Cold Island by Frederick Exley, Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Quill by Robert Steiner, and various other books by Larry Niven, May Sarton, and Julia Cunningham. Various other great illustrations are online here.

2014 books dropping

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…

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