Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
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.
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.)
– 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.
Here is a page from Paul Metcalf’s Apalache (1976), to my mind one of the most beautiful books ever written. The work is available in vol 1 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, published by Coffee House Press, or alternately in an exceptionally handsome 1st edition from Turtle Island Foundation. (The page scan is from the latter.)
Why haven’t there been any sequels to Moby-Dick? It’s a question Paul Metcalf asked at the end of his life two decades ago:
In April 2015 it was announced that the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was writing a novel about Melville in the aftermath of his writing Moby Dick.
A few months later in August Pierre Senges‘s latest book came out: a six hundred pager, giving us the sequels to Ahab: Achab (séquelles). Ahab (Sequels). It tracks Ahab as he makes his way back on land in New York, working small jobs and trying to sell his story of the whale to Broadway and then Hollywood.
After all these years…
This year my reading is tending towards several niche areas, to the exclusion of almost all contemporary writing. Soon, though, I hope to pick up a few authors’ books that I’ve been hearing a lot about — Per Petterson’s, for one. Meanwhile, I wanted to write a post on some of this season’s books that have my curiosity and interest.
First, a couple of reprints of note: Coffee House Press, who has previously issued the entirety of Paul Metcalf’s work in a three-volume collected works, has published one of Metcalf’s earliest works, Genoa, in paperback with an introduction by Rick Moody. I first read this after I discovered it through Larry McCaffrey’s megabooklist, called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction.” McCaffrey’s entry reads:
Genoa, Paul Metcalf, 1965 : Metcalf invents a narrative structure–part mosaic, part history, part genealogy, part invention–which appropriates generous selections of materials drawn from the Christopher Columbus myth, Moby Dick, a myriad other sources to develop a narrative that reveals a whole host of connections between the greed and blood-lust of our founding fathers and contemporary Americans.
All of Metcalf is so sublime, I would suggest if your curiosity is piqued that you consider acquiring a volume or 2 or 3 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, because they sell for peanuts after being remaindered by publishers and booksellers, or deaccessioned from the libraries that used to house them (alas, you pay for shipping). You won’t regret it.
I also notice that David Gates’s Jernigan (1990) has been re-issued by Serpent’s Tail. I read this last year after I came across a recommendation somewhere. (Online excerpt.) This is a novel about a self-pitying, sophisticated alcoholic and his decline, told with acid wit and self-pitying humor. The pacing and voice are unforgettable. Gates has a new short story collection out too, by the way.
Pierre Senges’s latest book to be published in French, Achab (séquelles), is out from Éditions Verticales in the middle of this month. It imagines the afterlives of Captain Ahab and the white whale from Melville’s Moby-Dick subsequent to their mutual pursuit. You can listen to him read its beginning pages at France Culture (20 mins.). This book is a whopper, over 600 pages including a robust table of contents — not unlike Fragments de Lichtenberg (2007). That one is forthcoming in English (trans. Gregory Flanders, Dalkey Archive, 2016), and was reviewed recently by M.A. Orthofer of The Complete Review. This book has been pushed back and pushed back, and last I heard it will be available from Dalkey for sale in January 2016. I had the privilege of reading it in the advance reading copy earlier this summer, and it is stunning.
What else? In my reading queue are Dispraise of the Courtier’s Life by Antonio de Guevara, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, and (eventually) Per Petterson.
But maybe what I really ought to be doing is rereading. I recently read A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) by George Saintsbury, and I shall return to it. I’ve long wanted to reread Michael Kohlhaas by Kleist and Hind’s Kidnap by Joseph McElroy, but I don’t know how easy it will be to ignore my appetite for novelty. Soon, perhaps. But first, this translation I am working on, this roofing website, and these books…
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.