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“There comes a delicate moment: the moment of suspicion when one starts to consider encyclopedism, the thirst for knowledge, no longer as the ideal antidote to stupidity, but as the insidious and inevitable vehicle of stupidity. As we know, libraries all around the world paradoxically abound with expressions of this suspicion toward books and reading: St. Augustine’s suspicion, Lucian’s satire pillorying an ignorant bibliomane, Nicholas of Cusa’s reservations about the limits of our knowledge, all that returns anew with each successive generation like the critique of scholasticism reborn from its own ashes, and, of course, Gustave Flaubert’s Sottisier too.

“Formerly knowledge appeared as self-evident, an incontestable antidote, but soon it assumes a different kind of self-evidence, rather like the pomposity described by Pierre Damien, like the malady of the Sorbonnites, like the stupor characteristic of overfull heads—between the two self-evidences, while passing from the first to the next, there comes a moment of instability when uncertainty has an important role to play, when it seems as if it might be able to compete with stupidity—stupidity, standing perfectly on its own two legs, comfortable everywhere, in contact with all that’s a given: the stupidity of illiterate peasants and the stupidity of doctors both. We find this moment of uncertainty in the pages of Bouvard and Pécuchet, and also in Flaubert’s letters when he was writing Bouvard and Pécuchet: the emotion is the same; familiarly, we go on from page to page; and ask ourselves, how can we resist stupidity when projects of universal erudition such as Auguste Comte’s Essay of Positive Philosophy, the exact opposite of ignorance, in fact contain entire Californias of grotesquery?”

Pierre Senges, “Undertaking and Renunciation,” trans. Jacob Siefring, in Prodigal Lit Mag 

“Let us admit, going over the Atlantic was a tragic mistake…”

Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 15.

Problem areas

Oneohtronix Point Never, as always.

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Last night Paris was attacked in an unimaginable act of hate. I hope for peace, in Paris and elsewhere, as unlikely a prospect it may seem. Condolences to those affected by the tragedy. Our thoughts go out to those Parisians whose lives will be affected by increased security measures. We love you, and we share your tears. – J.S.

March reading log

Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) – Anonymous (trans. Mark Alpert, 1969)

Life Is a Dream (1635) – Pedro Calderón de la Barca (trans. Gwynne Edwards, 1991)

‘Letter to Sor Filatea de la Cruz’ (c. 1690) – Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (trans. Edith Grossman, 2014)

Marginalia on Casanova (1939) – Miklós Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson, 2012)

‘The Approach to Al’Mustaim’ (1936) – J.L. Borges (trans. Andrew Hurley)

‘Cows in Half Mourning’ – Arno Schmidt (trans. John E. Woods)

The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles (1966) – Nancy Mitford (in progress)

Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (1986) – Carlo Ginzburg (trans. John & Anne Tedeschi, 1989)

But Is It Art? (2002) – Cynthia Freeland

Sort l’assassin, entre le spectre (2006) – Pierre Senges

Forger down

Lee Israel has died.

“In the early 1990s, with her career at a standstill, she became a literary forger, composing and selling hundreds of letters that she said had been written by Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and others.”

“… her forgeries were born less of avarice than of panic and began after a stretch of poor reviews and writer’s block, mixed with alcohol and improvidence… she possessed a temperament that made conventional employment nearly impossible.”

“Ms. Israel’s criminal career married scholarship, fabrication, forgery and outright theft. Using the research skills she had honed as a writer, she scoured her subjects’ memoirs for salient biographical details; their published letters for epistolary style; and their original, archived letters for typing idiosyncrasies. She bought a flock of period typewriters from secondhand shops and, on furtive library visits, tore blank sheets of vintage paper from the backs of old journals.”

Quotes from her obituary, by Margalit Fox, at the New York Times.

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.

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)

February reading log

“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

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).

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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

Notable books and lists of 2013

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 EdgeThe 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.

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Reviews: J McElroy’s Cannonball

There’s about seven reviews of Cannonball (Dzanc, 2013) out there. Here are the links and short commentary.

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From Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon

‘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.