Monday, August 22d.–
I took a walk through the woods yesterday afternoon, to Mr. Emerson’s, with a book which Margaret Fuller had left, after a call on Saturday eve. I missed the nearest way, and wandered into a very secluded portion of the forest; for forest it might justly be called, so dense and sombre was the shade of oaks and pines. Once I wandered into a tract so overgrown with bushes and underbrush that I could scarcely force a passage through. Nothing is more annoying than a walk of this kind, where one is tormented by an innumerable host of petty impediments. It incenses and depresses me at the same time. Always when I flounder into the midst of bushes, which cross and intertwine themselves about my legs, and brush my face, and seize hold of my clothes, with their multitudinous grip,–always, in such a difficulty, I feel as if it were almost as well to lie down and die in rage and despair as to go one step farther. It is laughable, after I have got out of the moil, to think how miserably it affected me for the moment; but I had better learn patience betimes, for there are many such bushy tracts in this vicinity, on the margins of meadows, and my walks will often lead me into them. Escaping from the bushes, I soon came to an open space among the woods,–a very lovely spot, with the tall old trees standing around as quietly as if no one had intruded there throughout the whole summer. A company of crows were holding their Sabbath on their summits. Apparently they felt themselves injured or insulted by my presence; for, with one consent, they began to Caw! caw! caw! and, launching themselves sullenly on the air, took flight to some securer solitude. Mine, probably, was the first human shape that they had seen all day long,–at least, if they had been stationary in that spot; but perhaps they had winged their way over miles and miles of country, had breakfasted on the summit of Graylock, and dined at the base of Wachusett, and were merely come to sup and sleep among the quiet woods of Concord. But it was my impression at the time, that they had sat still and silent on the tops of the trees all through the Sabbath day, and I felt like one who should unawares disturb an assembly of worshippers. A crow, however, has no real pretensions to religion, in spite of his gravity of mien and black attire. Crows are certainly thieves, and probably infidels. Nevertheless, their voices yesterday were in admirable accordance with the influences of the quiet, sunny, warm, yet autumnal afternoon. They were so far above my head that their loud clamor added to the quiet of the scene, instead of disturbing it. There was no other sound, except the song of the cricket, which is but an audible stillness; for, though it be very loud and heard afar, yet the mind does not take note of it as a sound, so entirely does it mingle and lose its individuality among the other characteristics of coming autumn. Alas for the summer! The grass is still verdant on the hills and in the valleys; the foliage of the trees is as dense as ever, and as green; the flowers are abundant along the margin of the river, and in the hedge-rows, and deep among the woods; the days, too, are as fervid as they were a month ago; and yet in every breath of wind and in every beam of sunshine there is an autumnal influence. I know not how to describe it. Methinks there is a sort of coolness amid all the heat, and a mildness in the brightest of the sunshine. A breeze cannot stir without thrilling me with the breath of autumn, and I behold its pensive glory in the far, golden gleams among the long shadows of the trees. The flowers, even the brightest of them,–the golden-rod and the gorgeous cardinals,–the most glorious flowers of the year,–have this gentle sadness amid their pomp. Pensive autumn is expressed in the glow of every one of them. I have felt this influence earlier in some years than in others. Sometimes autumn may be perceived even in the early days of July. There is no other feeling like that caused by this faint, doubtful, yet real perception, or rather prophecy, of the year’s decay, so deliciously sweet and sad at the same time.
This section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook actually made me laugh aloud. She offers a wonderful parody of “a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance”; the section recalls William Gaddis’s similar send-ups in The Recognitions (and again links the two novels together in my consciousness).
[The right side of the black notebook, under the heading Money, continued.]
Some months ago I got a letter from the Pomegranate Review, New Zealand, asking for a story. Wrote back, saying I did not write stories. They replied asking for ‘portions of your journals, if you keep them’. Replied saying I did not believe in publishing journals written for oneself. Amused myself composing imaginary journal, of the right tone for a literary review in a colony or the Dominions: circles isolated from the centres of culture will tolerate a far more solemn tone than the editors and their customers in let’s say London or Paris. (Though sometimes I wonder.) This journal is kept by a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance. He has had three short stories published and has completed a third of a novel. He drinks rather too much, but not as much as he likes people to think; takes marihuana, but only when friends from the States visit him. He is full of contempt for that crude phenomenon, the United States of America.
April 16th. On the steps of the Louvre. Remembered Dora. That girl was in real trouble. I wonder if she has solved her problems. Must write to my father. The tone of his last letter hurt me. Must we be always isolated from each other? I am an artist – Mon Dieu!
April 17th. The Gare de Lyon. Thought of Lise. My God, and that was two years ago! What have I done with my life? Paris has stolen it … must re-read Proust.
April 18th. London. The Horseguards’ Parade. A writer is the conscience of the world. Thought of Marie. It is a writer’s duty to betray his wife, his country and his friend if it serves his art. Also his mistress.
April 18th. Outside Buckingham Palace. George Eliot is the rich man’s Gissing. Must write to my father. Only ninety dollars left. Will we ever speak the same language?
“The Grave of Lost Stories” by William T. Vollmann—
. . .for the terrible agony which I have so lately endured — an agony known only to my God and to myself — seems to have passed my soul through fire and purified it from all that is weak. Henceforth I am strong: — this those who love me shall see — as well as those who have so relentlessly endeavored to ruin me.
POE, to Mrs. Helen Whitman (1848)
IN THE GRAVE OF LOST STORIES there is neither day nor night, but a stupendous blackness shot through with corpuscles of fluorescence, like droplets of oil in water — an inalienable fact, of which the vulgar minds around him could not conceive. They were too busy writing anonymous articles about him (he knew that Griswold was behind most of it, but not all; there were so many envious scoundrels!) to ever comprehend that the light and dark of Plato’s cave might, indeed must mingle at the bottom of the universe, as they could see for themselves if they’d but look through a telescope whose power penetrated into the depths of the earth, beyond the graves that honeycombed the clay like the shafts of mines, so far beyond them as to leave them seeming shallow indeed, and the deeper shot the beams of that telescope, the more violently surged the gloom-rays through the eye-piece, staining the world black like bad old memories; but if it were possible to see through these swirling atoms, and the cosmos of Ether under them, then at last the darkness would seem to thicken and narrow into a gorge whose cliffs and stones were darkness coagulated into obsidian. Into this chasm no telescope could pierce. This was the center of the majestic circle of planets and suns — so extreme its gravitational attraction that light was swallowed in it forever. There was a stifling horror about the place, about which hovered the most vile and pestilential fumes; somewhere in this pit was Death itself unfolded. But in what form it revealed itself was unknown, because the gulf was roofed with the foliage of night-trees that leaned toward each other on all sides, gripping each other’s soft and flabby trunks with branches that terminated in claws, so that every tree gashed every tree to the heart, growing deeper and deeper into each other’s wounds until their agony could never end; from their pallid mushroom flesh bled drops of black sap that rained down into the darkness below, and their velvety leaves vibrated in pain, with a sound like a cloud of midges. –A narrow Path of Dead Tales passed through an arch of these leaves and branches, and then spiraled downward into the pit. At first the moistly disagreeable presence of the charnel vegetation polluted every breath, and icy droplets of tree-blood plashed down upon hands and shoulders, but then the descent steepened, so that it was necessary to hug the wall of the pit and feel one’s way sideways, and in the course of many downward revolutions the air became ever cooler and drier, like the stale atmosphere of mummy-caves. Meanwhile, however, the smell of mortality had increased, according to the cube of proximity to that concentrated vortex of corruption, the Grave of Lost Stories. –How pitiably foolish he had been, to imagine that his victims would have been reduced to marble-white skulls, to tibiae as clean as tusk- ivory, to ribs like bleached harps! –No, that would hardly be the Demon’s modus operandi. –So be it. He had looked upon such sights before. –Still, the foulness… which is why he concluded in his final poem that matter was a means, not an end. At that time he was working feverishly by lamplight, intoxicated with the solution of ciphers that unlocked his pages of darkness with great clicks, so that he did not have to think about how everything he had written would disgust him the next morning; and he went out to the dark black garden to walk to and fro, wearing a deep and narrow path in the snow as he worked out precisely how deep the Grave would have to be to hold those millions and millions of Stories whose white souls had risen upward like a snowstorm of dreamy unhappiness; well, of course the volume of the bodies would flatten with decomposition; therefore the required depth must be the quotient, but the full quotient, not the square root of the quotient; as to how tightly they could be packed into that death-house, their structure had to be considered; it was distinctly stated by all the authorities that Stories have skeletons, except for the very early embryos and abortions from those times when you wail in the night knowing that something has just been lost forever but not what, you will never know what because it is gone. Let us conceive these skeletons, then, to be composed of variegated vertebrae the hue and sheen of black crystal. Mrs. Osgood was moved by his white-skinned sadness and said ah, Mr. Poe, this country affords no arena for those who live to dream and he said do you dream? I mean sleeping dream? and she smiled and said oh yes Mr. Poe I am a perfect Joseph at dreaming, except that my dreams are of the Unknown and Spiritual and he said I knew it; I knew it by your eyes and for the first time he embraced her and she held his hand in hers so tenderly but all at once it seemed to him as if something black, steely- cold, cutting, had closed around his wrist and were pinching it to the bone, the frozen ache of it poisoned him, and the veins stood out on his white wrist; as his phalanxes and metacarpi shattered into chessmen he uttered a cry of agony so that she pulled her hand away and said you are ill, are you not, Mr. Poe? at which she became so beautiful to him, and he fell on his knees before her saying is the idea fixed in your head to leave me? as his little wife sat by obediently. Later he was seized with inspiration, and sat down hastily to write, but before he had gotten any farther than that weirdly metallic phrase the Grave of Lost Stories, it had already left him, and he sat groaning. Somewhere the Story was struggling desperately to breathe; she was smothering, and he could do nothing. In his life he had committed so many murders … Maybe he could save her. He wrote very quickly there is no day or night and heard the Story draw in a deep gasp of breath and begin sobbing with hysteria and weariness.
I could no longer hold out on reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Return. I’ve been saving the book for two years now, but reading Chris Andrews’s new study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe prompted me to dive in the other night. (I also maybe abandoned Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which nags at me like a duty, a chore, and not a joy).
I had, of course, read a few of the stories collected in The Return over the years (and shared them on this site); they were published by The New Yorker, including one of my favorites, “William Burns,” (translated, like all the stories in The Return, by Andrews.
“William Burns” is one of Bolaño’s rare stories set in the U.S. It’s about a “laid-back guy who never lost his cool,” a private investigator hired to protect two women who believe they are being stalked by a killer. The story is suffused with sinister malice that burns into fated violence, made all the more ominous by the Bolaño’s typically atypical moments of banality. (The story reads almost as Bolaño’s riff on Raymond Carver).
Anyway, a favorite passage; read the whole thing here:
If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration. Later, after I realized that none of us were feeling sleepy, they started talking about children, and their voices made my heart recoil. I have seen terrible, evil things, sights to make a hard man flinch, but, listening to the women that night, my heart recoiled so violently it almost disappeared. I tried to butt in, I tried to find out if they were recalling scenes from childhood or talking about real children in the present, but I couldn’t. My throat felt as if it were packed with bandages and cotton swabs.
So, you’re probably aware that The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the summer.
I posted a reading list last month of some of my favorite short stories from the magazine (okay, favorite open stories), as well as a few I hadn’t read before, like pieces from Janet Frame and Annie Proulx.
Here’s another list, a baker’s dozen, including some stuff I hadn’t read before the archive opened, as well as suggestions offered by some folks on twitter:
In Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, Marion Portmain, a housewife neglected by her husband, resolves that she will begin to live her life with the aim of helping other people. Marion believes that this change is a major breakthrough in her life, a moment to claim agency for herself and to find her own authentic voice in a world where she has been silenced and ignored.
She asks her friend, the book’s protagonist Anna Wulf for the address of an imprisoned South African political activist:
‘Do you remember that black leader, the African man you used to know? Mathews, or something like that?’
This was not at all what Anna had expected. ‘You don’t mean Tom Mathlong?’Marion had actually taken out a notebook and was sitting with a poised pencil.
Marion has taken up her own notebook, a parallel to the colored notebooks that Anna keeps to impose some semblance of order—or at least to contain—the chaos of modernity.
Anna protests Marion’s request; she implicitly condescends Marion’s naïvety and myopic worldview:
‘But Marion…’ Anna looked at Marion, trying to make contact with the woman she had been talking to only a few minutes before. She was met by a gaze from brown eyes glazed with a guilty but happy hysteria. Anna went on, firmly: ‘It’s not a nice organized prison like Brixton or somewhere like that. It’s probably a shack in the bush, hundreds of miles from anywhere, about fifty political prisoners, and very likely they don’t even get letters. What did you think?—that they had visiting days and rights and things like that?’
And here is where the scene becomes particularly intriguing for me, as Anna begins to break down the various sources that ventriloquize Marion’s “new” consciousness:
Marion pouted and said: ‘I think that’s an awfully negative attitude to take about the poor things.’
Anna thought: negative attitude is Tommy’s—echoes from the Communist Party; but poor things is all Marion’s—probably her mother and sisters give old clothes to charities.
For Anna, Marion’s (attempt at) a new outlook is merely the weak synthesis of the language of Marion’s stepson’s communism with the stock-phrases of her aristocratic family’s noblesse oblige. Anna does not accept Marion’s “transformation” as authentic, but rather the product of tuning in new voices.
As Marion continues, Anna analyzes her speech, her unvoiced comments interposed in parentheses that name the news sources from which Marion has “clipped” her thoughts:
‘I mean,’ said Marion happily, ‘it’s a continent in chains, well, isn’t it?’ (Tribune, thought Anna; or possibly the Daily Worker.) ‘And measures ought to be taken immediately to restore the Africans’ faith in justice if it is not already too late.’ (The New Statesman, thought Anna.) ‘Well at least the situation ought to be thoroughly gone into in the interests of everybody.’ (The Manchester Guardian, at a time of acute crisis.) ‘But Anna, I don’t understand your attitude. Surely you’ll admit there’s evidence that something’s gone wrong?’ (The Times, editorializing a week after the news that the white administration has shot twenty Africans and imprisoned fifty more without trial.)
‘Marion, what’s got into you?
This scene responds to an earlier section of The Golden Notebook (I wrote before about it here) in which Anna’s note-book becomes pure collage: She no longer writes in her own “original” language, but rather cuts fragments from newspapers and pastes them directly into her diary. The section highlights (and rhetorically demonstrates) the novel’s theme of the disintegration of language, meaning, and order—one of the central problems of postmodernist literature.
Anna’s question to Marion at the end of the passage I’ve cited — “What’s got into you?” — is a banal commonplace, yet utterly sincere, authentic—-and all the more authentic for its underlying irony: Anna has already decided what’s “got into” Marion (The Tribune, The Daily Worker, etc.).
Lessing’s passage here underscores just how susceptible we are to not-knowing, just at the moment when we feel most confident in our belief. Marion feels wholly authentic here, feels her way-of-seeing as rich, full, clear, alive—but it’s this very feeling of clarity that blinds her from seeing herself (seeing herself) parroting back the stock language of the sources that have infiltrated her consciousness.
Anna is far more attuned to her own self-blindness; indeed, her color-coded notebooks are a means to account for the discursive narratives that might try to give shape to the messiness of consciousness. In one extended episode, Anna attempts to write a complete narrative of a particular day, but as she repeatedly notes, her awareness of her project leads to such a heightened self-consciousness that every observation she makes about the day is placed under radical suspicion—she sees that she sees herself seeing (herself), but, intuiting her consciousness’ structure, also understands that there are ways in which she cannot see herself seeing (herself).
Can Anna’s realization of the limitations of first-person-perspective help to free her? I have not yet finished the novel, but so far, Lessing depicts the question as a deep, painful struggle. Anna grapples with a disintegrating sense of self, a self that can identify (and cut out and paste and record and document) the voices that have “got into” her, even as those voices destabilize her identity.
The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word “writing” is the exact opposite of the word “waiting.” Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.
I was sitting radar. Actually doing nothing.
We had been up to seventy-five thousand to give the afternoon some jazz. I guess we were still in Mexico, coming into Mirimar eventually in the F-14. It doesn’t much matter after you’ve seen the curvature of the earth. For a while, nothing much matters at all. We’d had three sunsets already. I guess it’s what you’d call really living the day.
But then, “John,” said I, “this plane’s on fire.”
“I know it,” he said.
John was sort of short and angry about it.
“You thought of last-minute things any?” said I.
“Yeah. I ran out of a couple of things already. But they were cold, like. They didn’t catch the moment. Bad writing,” said John.
“You had the advantage. You’ve been knowing,” said I.
“Yeah. I was going to get a leap on you. I was going to smoke you. Everything you said, it wasn’t going to be good enough,” said he.
“But it’s not like that,” said I. “Is it?”
The wings were turning red. I guess you’d call it red. It was a shade against dark blue that was mystical flamingo, very spaceylike, like living blood. Was the plane bleeding?
“You have a good time in Peru?” said I.
“Not really,” said John. “I got something to tell you. I haven’t had a ‘good time’ in a long time. There’s something between me and a good time since, I don’t know, since I was was twenty-eight or like that. I’ve seen a lot, but you know I haven’t quite seen it. Like somebody’s seen it already. It wasn’t fresh. There were eyes that used it up some.”
“Even high in Mérida?” said I.
“Even,” said John.
“Even Greenland?” said I.
“Titles for Unwritten Articles, Essays, and Stories”
from Samuel Butler’s Note-Books
- The Art of Quarrelling.
- Christian Death-beds.
- The Book of Babes and Sucklings.
- Literary Struldbrugs.
- The Life of the World to Come.
- The Limits of Good Faith.
- Art, Money and Religion.
- The Third Class Excursion Train, or Steam-boat, as the Church of the Future.
- The Utter Speculation involved in much of the good advice that is commonly given—as never to sell a reversion, etc.
- Tracts for Children, warning them against the virtues of their elders.
- Making Ready for Death as a Means of Prolonging Life. An Essay concerning Human Misunderstanding. So McCulloch [a fellow art-student at Heatherley’s, a very fine draughtsman] used to say that he drew a great many lines and saved the best of them. Illusion, mistake, action taken in the dark—these are among the main sources of our progress.
- The Elements of Immorality for the Use of Earnest Schoolmasters.
- Family Prayers: A series of perfectly plain and sensible ones asking for what people really do want without any kind of humbug.
- A Penitential Psalm as David would have written it if he had been reading Herbert Spencer.
- A Few Little Crows which I have to pick with various people.
- The Scylla of Atheism and the Charybdis of Christianity.
- The Battle of the Prigs and Blackguards.
- That Good may Come.
- The Marriage of Inconvenience.
- The Judicious Separation.
- Fooling Around.
- The Diseases and Ordinary Causes of Mortality among Friendships.
- The finding a lot of old photographs at Herculaneum or Thebes; and they should turn out to be of no interest.
- On the points of resemblance and difference between the dropping off of leaves from a tree and the dropping off of guests from a dinner or a concert.
- The Sense of Touch: An essay showing that all the senses resolve themselves ultimately into a sense of touch, and that eating is touch carried to the bitter end. So there is but one sense—touch—and the amœba has it. When I look upon the foraminifera I look upon myself.
- The China Shepherdess with Lamb on public-house chimney-pieces in England as against the Virgin with Child in Italy.
- For a Medical pamphlet: Cant as a means of Prolonging Life.
- For an Art book: The Complete Pot-boiler; or what to paint and how to paint it, with illustrations reproduced from contemporary exhibitions and explanatory notes.
- For a Picture: St. Francis preaching to Silenus. Fra Angelico and Rubens might collaborate to produce this picture.
- The Happy Mistress. Fifteen mistresses apply for three cooks and the mistress who thought herself nobody is chosen by the beautiful and accomplished cook.
- The Complete Drunkard. He would not give money to sober people, he said they would only eat it and send their children to school with it.
- The Contented Porpoise. It knew it was to be stuffed and set up in a glass case after death, and looked forward to this as to a life of endless happiness.
- The Flying Balance. The ghost of an old cashier haunts a ledger, so that the books always refuse to balance by the sum of, say, £1.15.11. No matter how many accountants are called in, year after year the same error always turns up; sometimes they think they have it right and it turns out there was a mistake, so the old error reappears. At last a son and heir is born, and at some festivities the old cashier’s name is mentioned with honour. This lays his ghost. Next morning the books are found correct and remain so.
- A Dialogue between Isaac and Ishmael on the night that Isaac came down from the mountain with his father. The rebellious Ishmael tries to stir up Isaac, and that good young man explains the righteousness of the transaction—without much effect.
- Bad Habits: on the dropping them gradually, as one leaves off requiring them, on the evolution principle.
- A Story about a Freethinking Father who has an illegitimate son which he considers the proper thing; he finds this son taking to immoral ways, e.g. he turns Christian, becomes a clergyman and insists on marrying.
- For a Ballad: Two sets of rooms in some alms-houses at Cobham near Gravesend have an inscription stating that they belong to “the Hundred of Hoo in the Isle of Grain.” These words would make a lovely refrain for a ballad.
- A story about a man who suffered from atrophy of the purse, or atrophy of the opinions; but whatever the disease some plausible Latin, or imitation-Latin name must be found for it and also some cure.
- A Fairy Story modelled on the Ugly Duckling of Hans Andersen about a bumptious boy whom all the nice boys hated. He finds out that he was really at last caressed by the Huxleys and Tyndalls as one of themselves.
- A Collection of the letters of people who have committed suicide; and also of people who only threaten to do so. The first may be got abundantly from reports of coroners’ inquests, the second would be harder to come by.
- The Structure and Comparative Anatomy of Fads, Fancies and Theories; showing, moreover, that men and women exist only as the organs and tools of the ideas that dominate them; it is the fad that is alone living.
- An Astronomical Speculation: Each fixed star has a separate god whose body is his own particular solar system, and these gods know each other, move about among each other as we do, laugh at each other and criticise one another’s work. Write some of their discourses with and about one another.