Of the nouveau roman authors, I think of Michel Butor as being one of the most fascinating. Without really going into why (perhaps for another post, or who knows, maybe an eventual essay), I’d like to share some pics of the books of his I have in my library.
Not all of Butor’s books are entirely successful, they can be frustrating and strange to read, but I think they are all bold in their trying to do something that has probably never been done before. In other words, Butor is a very original writer. He never used the same method twice.
Here we see:
L’emploi du temps (1956) (translated into English as Passing Time)
La modification (1957)
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967) (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape)
Let me say first of all that I have not read La modification or L’emploi du temps, though I have begun them and skimmed around a little.
Along with the steeple chase to insanity that is Degrees, Mobile is perhaps the book of Butor’s for which I have the most affection. The typographic splay and wild heterogeneity of the material incorporated into the text makes for a truly exhilarating, discombulating ride. If I’m not mistaken, the book was the product of Butor’s stay in America, during which time he toured the country extensively.
The tendency to collate disparate material, suggesting an impression of simultaneity or of parallel or tandem reading, is also present in Portrait of the Author as a Young Ape. (Before I looked at a dated bibliography, I mistakenly thought that this book predated some of the others in this collection. Not so.)
For now I also have Inventory, a collection of essays variously taken from the first 3 vols. of Répertoire, the 5-volume set of essays published by Editions de Minuit.
More on Michel Butor in another post, perhaps. Life calls.
Slowly I am making my way through André Gide’s amazing novel The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-monnayeurs, 1926). When I was in high school I read and enjoyed Gide’s The Immoralist on the strong recommendation of a sharp and very literary fellow barista named Crystal. But The Immoralist is a much more simple tale than the complex assembly of parts that is The Counterfeiters. You should read The Counterfeiters. Although it should be, it is not widely read today. This masterpiece of a fiction shows Gide in virtuosic control of his craft. Emotional depth, mystery, intrigue, scandal, plot complexity, economy of language, suspense, universality–all are there in abundance. And I am only a third of the way through the book’s 350 pages.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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)
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)
Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, or the Architect (SS)
Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo
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.