Remember how the desperate Molloy proceeds:
I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones I distrutibed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pockct of my greatcoat, and putting it in mv mouth , I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat bv a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had fin-ished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets , but not quite the same stones…. But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.
Beckett is a very blue man, and this is a very blue passage.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (and of course, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy).
Sure–okay, sure, you’ve seen this before (or maybe not), I know I have (I’ve even posted it before). But today is D. Barthelme’s birthday (he’s dead of course), and I’ve read or reread (or, more accurately read) most of his stuff (sans The King, which I’ve been saving) over the past year. Anyway, this here list comes via Kevin Moffett who got it off DB’s former student, Padgett Powell, when he (that is Moffett) was finishing up at my alma mater, the University of Gators (where Powell continues to teach today, having replaced Harry Crews, RIP). Anyway (again with that transition!), check out Moffett’s original share-piece at The Believer; he describes Gainesville’s Friends of the Library Sale, which was always fun. I got a copy of John Barth’s Chimera there (on the list, natch), among other books, but I didn’t get any Barthelme. I’ve read 31 of the 81 books on the list (this includes fantastically awarding myself the “Samuel Beckett entire” entry but hell man I think it’s been counted as one work here (at least by Moffett?), which maybe it should be but no I haven’t read all of Beckett but hell I’ve read a lot, if not enough, but anyway (again!)–31).
Ostensibly a collection of fictional short stories, Gordon Lish’s Goings reads more like a memoir-in-fragments. All thirteen stories are told by a first-person narrator named Gordon, who parenthetically appends an exclamatory repetition of his name (“I, Gordon (Gordon!)”) throughout the work, a verbal tic that registers the tension between the author and narrator, memory and truth. All these stories are in some way about memory and truth—and language, always language. Some of the tales are heavier on plot than others, although “heavier” is hardly the right modifier—let’s be honest—the plots here are thin, almost nonexistent: gestures, images, feelings—but that’s not why we read Gordon Lish, is it?
Opener “My Personal Memoir” sets the tone here, its title an honest ironic joke, I suppose. Old Gordon tells the story of young Gordon and his boyhood chums playing paddle-ball. A minor tragedy ensues. That’s pretty much the plot, but with Lish it’s really about the sentences, the memory behind the sentences, or maybe the inability of sentences to communicate the memories, or maybe just the failure of all of it—language, memory, truth—themes that carry through the collection in Lish’s (Lish’s!) often tortuous syntax.
In “Für Whom?”, Lish offers a sketch of his family, his boyhood piano lessons, his teacher, his competitive anxieties, his burgeoning lust:
Siblings, families—what else is there to say? Furthermore (I love that: the chance to flaunt it with echt balance), it was I whose fingers took up his arpeggios while his backside thrummed ever more thrummingly to a kind of low-register attunement to the propinquity of Miss Buggell’s same. Oh, the nearness of her ass (sirs, and madam, it was no rump, now was it?), all yearning angularities not infrequently settling itself within fractions of centimeters afar. I quote, of course. Yes, I, Gordon (Gordon!), aged seven, aged six, aged eight, hankered after that piano teacher as I have never since hankered after the person of a woman since.
In another strong story, “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America,” Lish returns again to his parents, weaving them into a strange half-rant that moves from rutabagas to spelling to Kierkegaard to Grace Paley to lettuce. Like most of these stories, “For My Mother” is obsessed with its own telling (and the conditions that might authorize its telling). Its narrator tells us:
I don’t know. I don’t look anything up in any fucking dictionary. Who’s writing this? I’m writing this. The dictionary is not in any goddamn charge of this act of expression, or of this, if you please, scription. Even me, even I, even the author of this is barely in charge of it. Or of anything else. And you know why? Would you like to know fucking why? Because he does not fucking want to be—is that answership enough for you. Make sure you have mastered the spelling of your father’s name of of your mother’s name. Never refer to your mother as “Mom.” Never use the word “reference” as a verb. The same goes for “experience,” the word. Never start a sentence with the word “however.”
Lish’s narrator Gordon continues offering editorial advice, which I suppose we may take ironically or otherwise. In any case, the book is crammed with moments like these, little fits of our narrator’s (author’s?) doubt coupled with a commanding viewpoint on how language could, should, mean.
At least one (very funny) story, “Knowledge,” hangs entirely around Lish-as-editor—only this time, our Gordon isn’t cutting into Raymond Carver’s prose or tightening up some Barry Hannah. No, he’s tearing down a poorly-worded sign from a lamp post. Gordon (Gordon!), “for the decency of my community, for its bloody battered decency,” tears it down. The sign? — “WE ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURED THIS PAST SUNDAY IN THIS AREA. WE HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.” There’s a story in there too, in that sign, but our narrator’s not interested in any human characters that the sign’s written characters, letters, might try to represent. The brilliance of the story: Lish leaves it to the reader to suss out the gap between the meaning of the sign—the information that it communicates—and the narrator’s critique of how that sign communicates.
“Avant La Lettre” offers another literary space for gaps to evince between reader, narrator, and author. Our narrator Gordon (Gordon!) tells us at the outset: “The title, pay it no mind. It does not apply. It does not appertain,” suggesting that he doesn’t even know what the phrase means, that it just came to him as he “sat down to tell you about a mystery (the vanishing of the man on the corner).” The immediate denial of a link between the meaning of the story’s title and the story’s content isutterly disingenuous, a clue really to the mystery here (more of a non-mystery, an anecdote at best). Lish pokes fun at the denial by repeatedly referencing literary theorists throughout the story: “(tell Barthes, tell Derrida, tell Badiou)” and then “Well name it and (tell Schopenhauer, tell Schelling, tell Spinoza or Freud) it dies.” The punch line to the story is too good to spoil here, but it can’t hurt to share part of the set-up. Lish writes (or Gordon (Gordon!) says):
Where’s in me anymore (in Gordon, in Gordon!) the discipline for the creation of the succession of elaborations, for the concatenation of the falsifications, for the accruing of the exhausting collocations?
I’m sad….Writing’s not the god of me.
Is writing not the god of you, speaker? And what is “Avant La Lettre” but a succession of elaborations, a concatenation of falsifications, an accrual of collocations?
“Avant La Lettre” admittedly requires from its reader a certain comfort with (or at least understanding of) postmodern literary theory; this is a story that casually (and of course not casually) references Alphonso Lingis and Julia Kristeva.
Other material here is less obscure (and more subtle) in its treatment of theory. “In the District, Into the Bargain” uses a chance meeting between widower Gordon and a widowed acquaintance to restage the central paradox of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (you know: “This is not a pipe”). There’s also the oblique feminism of “Women Passing: O Mysterium!” and the semiotic play of “Troth.” This is all great stuff, or maybe not. I mean I loved it, lapped it up, but I’m the audience for this. I’m Lish’s (Gordon’s!) reader, the reader he addresses so directly in closer “Afterword.” Only I’m not—because “Afterword” is so clearly written to, spoken to Lish himself.
This literary solipsism, onanism, pick-your-ism is so not for everyone. Lish is a cult writer, and his performance here is appropriate to any aging (aged!) cult leader, one who’s painfully aware of how easy it is to point out a naked charlatan. The structure of Goings is something like I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-myself-try-to-see-myself-etc. But the book is very funny, often painful, and downright moving at times, like in “Gnat,” where Lish shares a simple memory of trying on a new shirt for his wife, or the terror of “Speakage,” a two-page dialogue between young Gordon and his mother that begins “What is it, die?” The stories here are real—obscure, sure, difficult, yes, but also emotional, rewarding.
Goings In Thirteen Sittings is not the best starting place for anyone interested in Lish’s prose. This new book continues a project that will feel familiar to those who’ve read Self-Imitation of My Self, Epigraph, and My Romance, books that many critics felt were too insular, too inscrutable. New readers might do better to start with Mourner at the Door (although you can’t really lose in picking up Collected Fictions, which collects that book among others). I also highly recommend the Iambik recording of Lish reading selections from Collected Fictions. Hearing his intonation and rhythm totally changed how I read his prose, enriched my understanding of what he was doing and how he was doing it.
But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering on its two epigraphs. The second, ascribed to “Anon.” (another joke on Lish’s part, I think): “Mother! Father! Please!” The first is from a literary critic, but in its phrasing on the page it looks like a poem. In any case, it’s a fitting summary for Goings:
Goings In Thirteen Sittings is available now from OR Books.
“Remembering The Tales of Hoffmann”
by Robert Walser
I was living in the tranquility of rural, provincial isolation, in the flat countryside where fields and forests lie about motionless and mute, the plains and plots of land appear endless, broad wide regions often prove to be only narrow strips, and vast estates slumber peacefully one beside the other.
Brown, yellow, red autumnal foliage, fog that mysteriously wrapped the wintry earth in veils; large, wet, fat snowflakes tumbling down into a morning-dark courtyard, a white park covered in snow, a winter village with village lads and village women and geese in the village street—all this I had seen.
I’d seen a poor, sick, unhappy day laborer forgotten by all the world, lying in her squalid bed of sufferings; I heard her sighs.
Forests, hills, plains silent and wordless in the dull hush of the gleaming winter sun. Here and there a solitary person, an insignificant little word, an isolated sound.
One day I left all this remoteness and all this silence behind and set off for the seductive gleam of the capital, where soon thereafter I saw The Tales of Hoffmann at the Komische Oper.
I felt like an astonished hayseed amid all that gleaming intoxication, the graceful, sense-beguiling tumultuousness and the blindingly elegant society gathered there.
But when the interior of the grand edifice became as silent as a tiny chamber filled with reveries and fancies of the soul, as the might and art of sound opened their divine mouths and began to sing, ring out, and resound, beginning with the overture that wheedled its way into all our souls with its bright and dark, gay and earnest melodies, only to entwine them—now constricting, now liberating from constriction—with heavenly bliss, and then soft warm song burst from the lips of the singers and songstresses, images brimming with delicate, noble, magical colors and magical figures lightly and gaily emerged to delight the eye and taste, music and painting most beautifully took possession of every heart, eye, and ear, and everything became suddenly quiet as a mouse, only to resound once more as if it wished never to stop so beautifully resounding and conquering its listeners with its desired, delightful force: pain and sounds of joy mirroring the adventure of existence, exemplifying the meaning of life, and soaring up and down the scales like angelic figures ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder!
Oh, everything was so regally beautiful and luxurious all about our tear-filled, feverish eyes and in our hearts. All of life could now cease outright or else begin utterly anew.
What a presence to partake of! Thousands of hours flowed together to form this one single hour. Yes, what a beautiful, good, meaningful evening this was.
I am a woman who appeared in public on Late Night with David Letterman on March 22, 1989.
In the words of my husband, Rudy, I am a woman whose face and attitudes are known to something over half of the measurable population of the United States, whose name is on lips and covers and screens. Whose heart’s heart is invisible to the world and unapproachably hidden. Which is what Rudy thought could save me from all this appearance implied.
The week of March 19, 1989, was the week David Letterman’s variety-and-talk show featured a series of taped skits on the private activities and pastimes of executives at NBC. My husband and I sacrificed sleep and stayed up late, watching. My husband, whose name in the entertainment industry is better known than his face, had claimed at first to be neutrally excited about the call I’d gotten from Late Night, though by the time he’d been driven home, he was beginning to worry that this particular public appearance could present problems. He knew and feared Letterman; he claimed to know that Letterman loved to savage female guests. It was on a Sunday that Rudy told me we would need to formulate strategies for my appearance on Late Night. March 22nd was to be a Wednesday.
“The Scripture of the Golden Eternity”byJack Kerouac
Did I create that sky? Yes, for, if it was anything other than a conception in my mind I wouldnt have said “Sky”-That is why I am the golden eternity. There
are not two of us here, reader and writer, but one, one golden eternity, One-Which-It-Is, That-Which- Everything-Is.
The awakened Buddha to show the way, the chosen Messiah to die in the degradation of sentience, is the golden eternity. One that is what is, the golden eternity, or, God, or, Tathagata-the name. The Named One. The human God. Sentient Godhood. Animate Divine. The Deified One. The Verified One. The Free One. The Liberator. The Still One. The settled One. The Established One. Golden Eternity. All is Well. The Empty One. The Ready One. The Quitter. The Sitter. The Justified One. The Happy One.
That sky, if it was anything other than an illusion of my mortal mind I wouldnt have said “that sky.” Thus I made that sky, I am the golden eternity. I am Mortal Golden Eternity.
I was awakened to show the way, chosen to die in the degradation of life, because I am Mortal Golden Eternity.
I am the golden eternity in mortal animate form.
Strictly speaking, there is no me, because all is emptiness. I am empty, I am non-existent. All is bliss.
This truth law has no more reality than the world.
The appeal of all Art is simply to the artistic temperament. Art does not address herself to the specialist. Her claim is that she is universal, and that in all her manifestations she is one. Indeed, so far from its being true that the artist is the best judge of art, a really great artist can never judge of other people’s work at all, and can hardly, in fact, judge of his own. That very concentration of vision that makes a man an artist, limits by its sheer intensity his faculty of fine appreciation. The energy of creation hurries him blindly on to his own goal. The wheels of his chariot raise the dust as a cloud around him. The gods are hidden from each other. They can recognise their worshippers. That is all . . . Wordsworth saw in Endymion merely a pretty piece of Paganism, and Shelley, with his dislike of actuality, was deaf to Wordsworth’s message, being repelled by its form, and Byron, that great passionate human incomplete creature, could appreciate neither the poet of the cloud nor the poet of the lake, and the wonder of Keats was hidden from him. The realism of Euripides was hateful to Sophokles. Those droppings of warm tears had no music for him. Milton, with his sense of the grand style, could not understand the method of Shakespeare, any more than could Sir Joshua the method of Gainsborough. Bad artists always admire each other’s work. They call it being large-minded and free from prejudice. But a truly great artist cannot conceive of life being shown, or beauty fashioned, under any conditions other than those that he has selected. Creation employs all its critical faculty within its own sphere. It may not use it in the sphere that belongs to others. It is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it.
From Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist.
1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.
2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.
3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).
4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.
6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.
7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).
8. These books are:
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Middle C by William H. Gass
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish
Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark
The majority of Donald Barthelme.
9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).
10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.