*11 A SHORT NOVEL
Two people together, in any kind of relationship—mother, son; father, daughter; lovers; it doesn’t matter. One of them acutely neurotic. The neurotic hands on his or her state to the other, who takes it over, leaving the sick one well, the well one sick.
From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook.
It is in literature as in life: wherever you turn, you stumble at once upon the incorrigible mob of humanity, swarming in all directions, crowding and soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. The time, money and attention of the public, which rightfully belong to good books and their noble aims, they take for themselves: they are written for the mere purpose of making money or procuring places. So they are not only useless; they do positive mischief. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.
Let me mention a crafty and wicked trick, albeit a profitable and successful one, practised by littérateurs, hack writers, and voluminous authors. In complete disregard of good taste and the true culture of the period, they have succeeded in getting the whole of the world of fashion into leading strings, so that they are all trained to read in time, and all the same thing, viz., the newest books; and that for the purpose of getting food for conversation in the circles in which they move. This is the aim served by bad novels, produced by writers who were once celebrated, as Spindler, Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Sue. What can be more miserable than the lot of a reading public like this, always bound to peruse the latest works of extremely commonplace persons who write for money only, and who are therefore never few in number? and for this advantage they are content to know by name only the works of the few superior minds of all ages and all countries. Literary newspapers, too, are a singularly cunning device for robbing the reading public of the time which, if culture is to be attained, should be devoted to the genuine productions of literature, instead of being occupied by the daily bungling commonplace persons.
Hence, in regard to reading, it is a very important thing to be able to refrain. Skill in doing so consists in not taking into one’s hands any book merely because at the time it happens to be extensively read; such as political or religious pamphlets, novels, poetry, and the like, which make a noise, and may even attain to several editions in the first and last year of their existence. Consider, rather, that the man who writes for fools is always sure of a large audience; be careful to limit your time for reading, and devote it exclusively to the works of those great minds of all times and countries, who o’ertop the rest of humanity, those whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct. You can never read bad literature too little, nor good literature too much. Bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind. Because people always read what is new instead of the best of all ages, writers remain in the narrow circle of the ideas which happen to prevail in their time; and so the period sinks deeper and deeper into its own mire
Jorge Luis Borges
I was told about the case in Texas, but it had happened in another state. It has a single protagonist (though in every story there are thousands of protagonists, visible and invisible, alive and dead). The man’s name, I believe, was Fred Murdock. He was tall, as Americans are; his hair was neither blond nor dark, his features were sharp, and he spoke very little. There was nothing singular about him, not even that feigned singularity that young men affect. He was naturally respectful, and he distrusted neither books nor the men and women who write them. He was at that age when a man doesn’t yet know who he is, and so is ready to throw himself into whatever chance puts in his way — Persian mysticism or the unknown origins of Hungarian, the hazards of war or algebra, Puritanism or orgy. At the university, an adviser had interested him in Amerindian languages. Certain esoteric rites still survived in certain tribes out West; one of his professors, an older man, suggested that he go live on a reservation, observe the rites, and discover the secret revealed by the medicine men to the initiates. When he came back, he would have his dissertation, and the university authorities would see that it was published. Murdock leaped at the suggestion. One of his ancestors had died in the frontier wars; that bygone conflict of his race was now a link. He must have foreseen the difficulties that lay ahead for him; he would have to convince the red men to accept him as one of their own. He set out upon the long adventure. He lived for more than two years on the prairie, sometimes sheltered by adobe walls and sometimes in the open. He rose before dawn, went to bed at sundown, and came to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers. He conditioned his palate to harsh flavors, he covered himself with strange clothing, he forgot his friends and the city, he came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected. During the first few months of his new education he secretly took notes; later, he tore the notes up — perhaps to avoid drawing suspicion upon himself, perhaps because he no longer needed them. After a period of time (determined upon in advance by certain practices, both spiritual and physical), the priest instructed Murdock to start remembering his dreams, and to recount them to him at daybreak each morning. The young man found that on nights of the full moon he dreamed of buffalo. He reported these recurrent dreams to his teacher; the teacher at last revealed to him the tribe’s secret doctrine. One morning, without saying a word to anyone, Murdock left.
In the city, he was homesick for those first evenings on the prairie when, long ago, he had been homesick for the city. He made his way to his professor’s office and told him that he knew the secret, but had resolved not to reveal it.
“Are you bound by your oath?” the professor asked.
“That’s not the reason,” Murdock replied. “I learned something out there that I can’t express.”
“The English language may not be able to communicate it,” the professor suggested.
“That’s not it, sir. Now that I possess the secret, I could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.”
After a pause he added: “And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.”
The professor spoke coldly: “I will inform the committee of your decision. Are you planning to live among the Indians?”
“No,” Murdock answered. “I may not even go back to the prairie. What the men of the prairie taught me is good anywhere and for any circumstances.”
That was the essence of their conversation.
Fred married, divorced, and is now one of the librarians at Yale.
(Translation by Andrew Hurley).
I didn’t really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time. When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything ay once, so much so that I didn’t have time I suppose to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady, of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much as Doestoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad and have read almost all his fiction. I have totally skipped such people as Dreiser, Anderson (except for a few stories) and Thomas Wolfe. I have learned something from Hawthorne, Flaubert, Balzac and something from Kafka, though I have never been able to finish one of his novels. I’ve read almost all of Henry James – from a sense of High Duty and because when I read James I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless. I admire Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. But always the largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too.
From a letter by Flannery O’Connor.
The letter, dated 28 August, 1955, was addressed to a young woman who began writing O’Connor after reading her work. Their correspondence lasted until O’Connor’s early death in 1964, and, as editor Sally Fitzgerald notes in The Habit of Being (where the letter is published), the letters to this woman (identified only as “A,” as she wished to remain anonymous) are particularly rich, in that all O’Connor “had to say to this almost uniquely important friend did not go up in talk but had to be written down.”
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.