Reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s riff/story/essay “Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs,” I couldn’t help but think of his correspondent, David Markson, whose 1996 novel Reader’s Block is anticipated in the structure of Sorrentino’s piece. Obviously Markson’s project and Sorrentino’s riff have literary roots that go way way back—maxims and riffs are hardly novel. Still, there’s something about the tone, rhythm, and content of the piece that reminds me of Markson’s tetralogy. A few samples below; read the whole thing in the Fall ’93 issue of Conjunctions.
I have never read a review of a play by Samuel Beckett in which the reviewer’s ignorance of Beckett’s fiction was not made clear.
All popular culture is essentially the same, i.e., it cannot transcend its audience-attentive whatness, nor can it escape the universe of camp toward which it is pointed at the moment of its birth. Lawrence Welk really is the same as Mick Jagger and “Saturday Night Live” the “Ed Sullivan Show”‘s other face.
No fatal disease is privileged, and all disease is as natural as health. To believe otherwise is to believe that we are “supposed to” die in a certain, “reasonable” way, sans pain and sadness. This attitude toward mortality makes for a lot of misery.
That Charles Olson made indisputably great poetry does not obviate the fact that he was also the Wizard of Oz.
There are few things more disgusting than a superior, mocking, self-important review of a trashy book by a hack writer.
Abstract love and generalized compassion increase in direct proportion to organized social viciousness.
Frank O’Hara is the saddest of all postwar American poets.
My father didn’t speak English until he was eleven, at which time he left school and went to work on the Brooklyn waterfront. His letters, despite an occasional spelling error or grammatical gaffe, are written in a better prose than can be managed by most of the university undergraduates I’ve taught. He was far from unique.
If, as Goethe’s Mephistopheles says, all theory is gray, theory concerning theory is Joycean brown.
Artists who pretend that they are no more than workers in the arts are neither artists nor workers.
To say that most book reviewers are lazy, illread and addicted to the banal is like saying “war is hell” or “greed is the root of evil.” These remarks hide their truths behind the deadening familiarity of their verbal representations; but they are truths nevertheless.
Popular art reflects and flatters popular culture, or, if you prefer, the Zeitgeist. In retrospect, it sometimes seems as if it leads and influences the true culture, or the innate wisdom of a people, but this isn’t so.
And, by the bye—
In his last novel The Last Novel, David Markson lamented a lack of—
America’s Emily Dickinson dime?
—this preceded by:
Before the Euro, the portrait of Yeats on Ireland’s twenty-pound note.
America’s Whitman twenty-dollar bill, when?
The Melville ten?
1. “In my more extravagant moments,” writes David Rieff in his introduction to Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, “I sometimes think that my mother’s journals, of which this is the second of three volumes, are not just the autobiography she never got around to writing…but the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write.”
2. In my review of Reborn, the first of the trilogy Rieff alludes to, I wrote, “Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things.”
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is far closer to the ‘notebook’ side of things too, which I think most readers (or maybe I just mean me here) will appreciate.
3. I mean, this isn’t the autobiographical novel that Rieff suggests it might be (except of course it is).
Consciousness/Flesh offers something better: access to Sontag’s consciousness in its prime, not quite ripe, but full, heavy, bursting with intellectual energy, her mind attuned to (and attuning) the tumult of the time the journals cover, 1964 through 1980.
It’s an autobiography stripped of the pretense of presentation; it’s a novel stripped of the pretense of storytelling.
4. Sontag’s intellect and spirit course through the book’s 500 pages, eliding any distinction between lives personal and professional. “What sex is the ‘I’?” she writes, “Who has the right to say ‘I’?” The journals see her working through (if not resolving, thankfully) such issues.
5. An entry from late 1964, clearly background for Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp” (itself a series of notes), moves through a some thoughts on artists and poets, from Warhol to Breton to Duchamp (“DUCHAMP”) to simply “Style,” which, Rieff’s editorial note tells us, has a box drawn around it. The entry then moves to define
Work of Art
An experiment, a research (solving a “problem”) vs. form of a play
—before turning to a series of notes on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
6. A page or two later (1965) delivers the kind of gold vein we wish to discover in author’s notebooks:
PLOTS & SITUATIONS
Redemptive friendship (two women)
Novel in letters: the recluse-artist and his dealer a clairvoyant
A voyage to the underworld (Homer, Vergil [sic], Steppenwolf)
A collective hallucination (Story)
A work of art which is really a machine for dominating human beings
The discovery of a lost mss.
Two incestuous sisters
A space ship has landed
An ageing movie actress
A novel about the future. Machines. Each man has his own machine (memory bank, codified decision maker, etc.) You “play the machine. Instant everything.
Smuggling a huge art-work (painting? Sculpture?) out of the country in pieces—called “The Invention of Liberty”
A project: sanctity (based on SW [Simone Weil]—with honesty of Sylvia Plath—only way to solve sex “I” is talk about it
7. The list above—and there’s so much material like it in Consciousness/Flesh—is why I love author’s notebooks, We get to see the raw material here and imagine along with the writer (if we choose), free of the clutter and weight of execution, of prose, of damnable detail.
There’s something joyfully cryptic about Sontag’s notes, like the solitary entry “…Habits of despair” in late July of 1970—or a few months later: “A convention of mutants (Marvel comics).”
If we wish we can puzzle the notes out, treat them as clues or keys that fit to the work she was publishing at the time or to the personal circumstances of her private life. Or (and to be clear, I choose this or) we can let these notes stand as strange figures in an unconventional autobiographical novel.
8. Those looking for more direct material about Sontag’s life (and really, why do you want more and what more do you want?) will likely be disappointed—everything here is oblique (lovely, lovely oblique).
Still, there are moments of intense personal detail, like this 1964 entry where Sontag describes her body:
- Low blood pressure
- Needs lots of sleep
- Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts—not a high enough concentration)
- Intolerance for liquor
- Heavy smoking
- Tendency to anemia
- Heavy protein craving
- Very good stomach—no heartburn, constipation, etc.
- Negligible menstrual cramps
- Easily tired by standing
- Like heights
- Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
- Teeth grinding
- Nearsighted, astigmatism
- Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
- Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)
There’s more autobiographical detail in that list than anyone craving a lurid expose could (should) hope for.
9. For many readers (or maybe I just mean me here) Consciousness/Flesh will be most fascinating as a curatorial project.
Sontag offers her list of best films (not in order),her ideal short story collection, and more. The collection often breaks into lists—like the ones we see above—but also into names—films, authors, books, essays, ideas, etc.
10. At times, Consciousness/Flesh resembles something close to David Markson’s so-called “notecard” novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel):
Napoleon’s wet, chubby back (Tolstoy).
Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness.’
Nabokov talks of minor readers. ‘There must be minor readers because there are minor writers.’
Camus (Notebooks, Vol. II): ‘Is there a tragic dilettante-ism?'”
‘To think is to exaggerate.’ — Valéry.
and so on…
11. Sometimes, the lists Sontag offers—
(offers is not the right verb at all here—these are Sontag’s personal journals and notebooks, her private ideas, material never intended for public consumption, but yes we are greedy, yes; and some of us (or maybe I just mean me here) are greedier than others, far more interested in her private ideas and notes and lists than the essays and stories and novels she generated from them—and so no, she didn’t offer this, my verb is all wrong)
—sometimes Sontag [creates/notes/generates] very personal lists, like “Movies I saw as a child, when they came out” (composed 11/25/65). There’s something tender here, imagining the child Sontag watching Fantasia or Rebecca or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz in the theater; and then later, the adult Sontag, crafting her own lists, making those connections between past and present.
12. While Reborn showcased the intimate thoughts of a nascent (and at times naïve) intellect, Consciousness/Flesh shows us an assured writer at perhaps her zenith. In September of 1975, Sontag defines herself as a writer:
I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an emotionally uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my minority taste (ideas) becomes majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary relation to my own work.
13. Readers looking for a memoir or biography might be disappointed in Consciousness/Flesh; readers who seek to scrape its contours for “wisdom” (or worse, writing advice) should be castigated.
But As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh will reward those readers who take it on its own terms as an oblique, discursive (and incomplete) record of Sontag’s brilliant mind.
I’ll close this riff with one last note from the book, a fitting encapsulation of the relationship between reader and author—and, most importantly, author-as-reader-and-rereader:
Recycling one’s own life with books.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is new in trade paperback from Picador; you can read excerpts from the book at their site.
So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.
So, what have I been reading?
Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.
Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.
I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.
S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.
I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:
That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.
Here’s his poem about The Purple One:
From David Markson’s 2007 interview in Conjunctions:
Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?
Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven’t had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it’s almost as if it’s been written for you, or you’re the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, “Be my daddy. Be my father.” It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he’d written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken’s poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.
Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.
Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don’t think I’d ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can’t imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, “How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you.” One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who’s long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he’d go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we’d go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he’d ring our bell. For about two years—I’m guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he’d be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he’d stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we’re sitting in the living room, and I’m recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, “You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?” And he said, “Well, I had a shower.” Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.
Harlin: There’s also William Gaddis.
Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, “How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?” I wrote this casual letter, saying, “Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.” When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, “Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.” And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: “Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—”May 16, 1955.” It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.
Harlin: Anyone else?
Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I’d known for about forty years. We weren’t that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren’t buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you’re writing, who do you know? If you’re a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you’re a dentist, you know dentists. If you’re a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, “Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it’s great.” This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she’s admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she’d slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, “the novelist David Markson,” was “stud lover boy.” And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.