Heretic/Hanging (Books Acquired, Sometime Last Week)

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I was out of town when these showed up last week.

First, Susan Ronald’s Heretic Queen: Publisher St. Martin’s Griffin’s blurb:

Acclaimed biographer Susan Ronald delivers a stunning account of Elizabeth I that focuses on her role in the Wars on Religion—the battle between Protestantism and Catholicisim that tore apart Europe in the 16th Century

Elizabeth’s 1558 coronation procession was met with an extravagant outpouring of love. Only twenty-five years old, the young queen saw herself as their Protestant savior, aiming to provide the nation with new hope, prosperity, and independence from the foreign influence that had plagued her sister Mary’s reign. Given the scars of the Reformation, Elizabeth would need all of the powers of diplomacy and tact she could summon.

Extravagant, witty, and hot-tempered, Elizabeth was the ultimate tyrant. Yet at the outset, in religious matters, she was unfathomably tolerant for her day. “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith,” Elizabeth once proclaimed. “All else is a dispute over trifles.” Heretic Queen is the highly personal, untold story of how Queen Elizabeth I secured the future of England as a world power. Susan Ronald paints the queen as a complex character whose apparent indecision was really a political tool that she wielded with great aplomb.

And: The Hanging of Samuel Ash by Sheldon Russell, from Minotaur. Publishers Weekly blurb:

A compelling lead compensates only in part for the relatively weak plot of Russell’s fourth mystery featuring one-armed Santa Fe railroad bull Hook Runyon (after 2012’s Dead Man’s Tunnel), set during WWII against a backdrop of labor unrest. When Runyon checks out a nonworking signal on a remote stretch of track, he discovers a man’s corpse hanging from the signal’s cantilever. The only clue to the dead man’s identity is a Bronze Star inscribed with the name Samuel Ash. Not wanting the war hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave, Runyon takes custody of the body and embarks on a quest to find Ash’s relatives and the truth about his death. A dose of humor lightens the gloom—pickpockets steal Runyon’s wallet and badge while he’s hunting pickpockets—but the mystery itself never picks up much steam. Fans will hope for a return to form next time.

 

Summary of Bloom’s Day in Ulysses — Evan Lavender-Smith (From Old Notebooks)

Makes breakfast for his wife. Goes to the butcher. Goes to the post office. Goes to church. Goes to a chemist. Goes to a public bath. Goes to a funeral. Goes to a newspaper press. Goes to a locksmith to canvass an ad. Feeds some seagulls. Goes to a bar. Helps a blind man cross the street. Goes to the museum. Goes to to the library. Visits a bookseller. Window-shops. Goes to a restaurant. Listens to some live music. Writes a love letter. Goes to another bar. Nearly gets in a fight. Masturbates to a beautiful eighteen-year-old exhibitionist giving him a private show. Takes an alfresco nap. Takes up a collection for a widow. Goes to a hospital to visit a pregnant woman. Flits with a nurse. Feeds a stray dog. Goes to a whorehouse. Helps avert a row with the police. Goes to a cabman’s shelter and listens to a sailor tell stories. Breaks into his own house. Urinates under the stars with another man. Watches the sunrise. Kisses his wife on her arse.

It would have been the single busiest, most adventurous day of my life.

From Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.

 

The Chums of Chance vs The Legion of Gnomes (Citation from + Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

At first the “noise” seemed no more than the ensemble of magnetoatmospheric disturbances which the boys had long grown used to, perhaps here intensified by the vastly resonant space into which they were moving ever deeper. But presently the emission began to coalesce into human timbres and rhythms—not speech so much as music, as if the twilit leagues passing below were linked by means of song.

Lindsay, who was Communications Officer, had his ear close to the Tesla device, squinting attentively, but at last withdrew, shaking his head. “Gibberish.”

“They are calling for help,” ~delared Miles, “clear as day and quite desperately, too. They claim to be under attack by a horde of hostile gnomes, and have set out red signal lamps, arranged in concentric circles.”

“There they are!” called Chick Counterfly, pointing over the starboard quarter.

“Then there is nothing to discuss,” declared Randolph St. Cosmo. “We must put down and render aid.”

They descended over a battlefield swarming with diminutive combatants wearing pointed hats and carrying what proved to be electric crossbows, from which they periodically discharged bolts of intense greenish light, intermittently revealing the scene with a morbidity like that of a guttering star.

“We cannot attack these fellows,” protested Lindsay, “for they are shorter than we, and the Rules of Engagement clearly state—”

“In an emergency, that choice lies at the Commander’s discretion,” replied Randolph.

They were soaring now close above the metallic turrets and parapets of a sort of castle, where burned the crimson lights of distress. Figures could be discerned below gazing up at the Inconvenience. Peering at them through a nightglass, Miles stood at the conning station, transfixed by the sight of a woman poised upon a high balcony. “My word, she’s lovely!” he exclaimed at last.

Their fateful decision to land would immediately embroil them in the byzantine politics of the region, and eventually they would find themselves creeping perilously close to outright violation of the Directives relating to Noninterference and Height Discrepancy, which might easily have brought an official hearing, and perhaps even disfellowshipment from the National Organization. For a detailed account of their subsequent narrow escapes from the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience (Miles, as we have seen, in particular), readers are referred to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth—for some reason one of the less appealing of this series, letters having come in from as far away as Tunbridge Wells, England, expressing displeasure, often quite intense, with my harmless little intraterrestrial scherzo.

After their precipitate escape from the ill-disposed hordes of thickset indigenous, over another night and day, as time is reckoned on the surface, the Chums swept through the interior of the Earth and at last out her Northern portal, which they beheld as a tiny circle of brightness far ahead. As before, all remarked the diminished size of the planetary exit. It was a tricky bit of steering, as they emerged, to locate the exact spot, on the swiftly dilating luminous circumference, where they might with least expenditure of time find themselves in the vicinity of the schooner Etienne-Louis Malus, carrying the Vormance Expedition toward a fate few of its members would willingly have chosen.

1.The above citation comprises the final paragraphs of The Light Over the Ranges, the first book in Thomas Pynchon’s massive, byzantine novel Against the Day, which is perhaps too massive and too byzantine for me to approach in any way other way than the occasional riff and citation as I read it.

2. The Light Over the Ranges both begins and ends by focusing on The Chums of Chance, an intrepid band of adventurers who sail their skyship Inconvenience into every manner of trouble. The passage above—which, hey, don’t worry, there are no real spoilers there—-the passage above showcases a jocular, jaunty voice that Pynchon employs frequently throughout the book, a voice appropriate to pulp fiction, to serialized “boy’s novels,” to speculative fiction narratives, etc. The voice is somehow simultaneously engaged and detached, urging its listener to care about the heroes in peril, but also acknowledging its own formal artificiality, the flatness of its characters, their position as placeholders or checkerboard pieces in Pynchon’s big project.

3. The voice that relates the Chums of Chance episodes is wonderfully didactic, its earnest, moral tone buoying the narrative into adventure (and fun!); at the same time, everything else in the novel—its violence, its class warfare, its analysis of exploitation—-ensures that this voice is to be read and interpreted with dark irony.

4. And yet the spirit of adventure, of fun—of imagination—inheres (and not just in the episodes with the Chums).

5. The Chums of Chance: Miles Blundell, Chick Counterfly, Lindsay Noseworth,  Darby Suckling, and commander Randolph St. Cosmo. The names are Pynchonian, tautologies be damned! (They also remind me of porn aliases). I am remiss: Let me include Pugnax, a dog of discerning literary taste, his ability to read just one of many seemingly-metaphysical powers Pynchon grants his characters in Against the Day.

6. My favorite paragraph in the above citation is the penultimate one, where we find our heroes “creeping perilously close to outright violation of the Directives relating to Noninterference and Height Discrepancy” by diving into a strange underworld adventure and battling The Legion of Gnomes. Pynchon (or Pynchon’s adventure-voice, if’n ya’ll permit me) offers us a too-brief peek at “the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience” and then refers us to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth, a book we cannot read because it doesn’t exist.

7. But what am I saying? Of course The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth exists!—we just have to imagine it.

“The Shrinkage of the Planet” — Jack London

“The Shrinkage of the Planet” by Jack London

What a tremendous affair it was, the world of Homer, with its indeterminate boundaries, vast regions, and immeasurable distances.  The Mediterranean and the Euxine were illimitable stretches of ocean waste over which years could be spent in endless wandering.  On their mysterious shores were the improbable homes of impossible peoples.  The Great Sea, the Broad Sea, the Boundless Sea; the Ethiopians, “dwelling far away, the most distant of men,” and the Cimmerians, “covered with darkness and cloud,” where “baleful night is spread over timid mortals.”  Phœnicia was a sore journey, Egypt simply unattainable, while the Pillars of Hercules marked the extreme edge of the universe.  Ulysses was nine days in sailing from Ismarus the city of the Ciconians, to the country of the Lotus-eaters—a period of time which to-day would breed anxiety in the hearts of the underwriters should it be occupied by the slowest tramp steamer in traversing the Mediterranean and Black Seas from Gibraltar to Sebastopol.

Homer’s world, restricted to less than a drummer’s circuit, was nevertheless immense, surrounded by a thin veneer of universe—the Stream of Ocean.  But how it has shrunk!  To-day, precisely charted, weighed, and measured, a thousand times larger than the world of Homer, it is become a tiny speck, gyrating to immutable law through a universe the bounds of which have been pushed incalculably back.  The light of Algol shines upon it—a light which travels at one hundred and ninety thousand miles per second, yet requires forty-seven years to reach its destination.  And the denizens of this puny ball have come to know that Algol possesses an invisible companion, three and a quarter millions of miles away, and that the twain move in their respective orbits at rates of fifty-five and twenty-six miles per second.  They also know that beyond it are great chasms of space, innumerable worlds, and vast star systems.

While much of the shrinkage to which the planet has been subjected is due to the increased knowledge of mathematics and physics, an equal, if not greater, portion may be ascribed to the perfection of the means of locomotion and communication.  The enlargement of stellar space, demonstrating with stunning force the insignificance of the earth, has been negative in its effect; but the quickening of travel and intercourse, by making the earth’s parts accessible and knitting them together, has been positive.

The advantage of the animal over the vegetable kingdom is obvious.  The cabbage, should its environment tend to become worse, must live it out, or die; the rabbit may move on in quest of a better.  But, after all, the swift-footed creatures are circumscribed in their wanderings.  The first large river almost inevitably bars their way, and certainly the first salt sea becomes an impassable obstacle.  Better locomotion may be classed as one of the prime aims of the old natural selection; for in that primordial day the race was to the swift as surely as the battle to the strong.  But man, already pre-eminent in the common domain because of other faculties, was not content with the one form of locomotion afforded by his lower limbs.  He swam in the sea, and, still better, becoming aware of the buoyant virtues of wood, learned to navigate its surface.  Likewise, from among the land animals he chose the more likely to bear him and his burdens.  The next step was the domestication of these useful aids.  Here, in its organic significance, natural selection ceased to concern itself with locomotion.  Man had displayed his impatience at her tedious methods and his own superiority in the hastening of affairs.  Thenceforth he must depend upon himself, and faster-swimming or faster-running men ceased to be bred.  The one, half-amphibian, breasting the water with muscular arms, could not hope to overtake or escape an enemy who propelled a fire-hollowed tree trunk by means of a wooden paddle; nor could the other, trusting to his own nimbleness, compete with a foe who careered wildly across the plain on the back of a half-broken stallion. Read More

“The Easter Hare” and “The Easter Hare Family” by Margaret Arndt

“The Easter Hare”  by Margaret Arndt

It is curious how little children of one country know about the lives and interests of the children of another. Perhaps if English people would send their children over to Germany, instead of their journalists, singers, etc., the danger of an International war would be lessened. The children would be sure to fall in love with Germany; for it is the land above all others that appeals to children. Women are said to come first in America, children are certainly the first consideration in Germany. Froebel’s motto: “Come let us live with our children,” is nowhere better carried out.

A little English girl, named Patsie, came over to visit her German friends, Gretel and Barbara, shortly before Easter this year; and she was much surprised to find all the shop-windows filled with hares; hares made of chocolate, toy hares, hares with fine red coats on, hares trundling wheelbarrows or carrying baskets full of Easter eggs. Moreover there was no end to the picture post cards representing the hare in various costumes, and in some connection with Easter eggs. One of these post cards represented a hare crawling out of a large broken egg just like a chicken.

Patsie asked her little friends eagerly what this all meant.

“Who is the Hare?” she said. “I do so want to know all about him.”

“Why, of course, it is the Easter Hare,” they replied.

“Is it possible that you have not heard of him? O, you poor English children! Why, he brings us the eggs on Easter Sunday morning!” said Gretel.

“O don’t you know,” said Barbara, “he hides them in the garden, unless it rains or is very wet; then we have to stay in our bedrooms for fear of frightening him, and he lays them downstairs in the dining-room or drawing-room. However, this has only happened once since I was born, and I am nine years old; it mustbe always fine at Easter.”

“We have to let all the blinds down before he will come into our garden, he is so dreadfully nervous,” said Gretel. “Then he hides the eggs in the most unexpected places, we have to hunt and hunt a long time before we have found them all. Last year we discovered an egg some weeks afterwards; luckily it was a glass one filled with sweeties; for if it had been of chocolate, we could not have eaten it, after it had lain on the damp mould, where the snails and worms would have crawled over it. Some of the eggs are made of chocolate or marzipan or sugar, and some are real eggs coloured blue or red or brown, or even sometimes with pictures on them.”

“We had two dear little baskets with dollies in them, and a big Easter Hare made of gingerbread, as well as the eggs this year,” said Barbara. “We hunt and hunt in every corner of the garden, and then we divide our treasures afterwards on two plates, so that is quite fair.”

“You are lucky children, why does not the Hare come to England?” said Patsie. “I am sure little English children would appreciate him too!” Read More

The Penguin Guide to Children and Hallucinogens

Children and hallucinogens

From Scarfolk Council, one of the finest sites I’ve seen in sometime. Their self-description:

Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. “Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.” For more information please reread.

The site’s got this wonderfully weird Wickerman / Ballard / Prisoner vibe to it. Very cool stuff.

 

New Books from Akashic (Books Acquired, 2.15.2013)

A passel of unsolicited reader copies arrived in the middle of February, including a trio of strange birds from Akashic Books. Preston L. Allen’s Every Boy Should Have a Man seems especially (and wonderfully) weird. First, there’s that title, which is, you know, strange, and then the blurb:

20130224-140946.jpgA riveting, poignant satire of societal ills, with an added dose of fantasy, Every Boy Should Have a Man takes place in a post-human world where creatures called oafs keep humanlike “mans” as beloved pets. One day, a poor boy oaf brings home a man whom he hides under his bed in the hopes his parents won’t find out. When the man is discovered, the boy admits it is not his—but the boy is no delinquent. Despite the accusations being hurled at him, he’s telling the truth when he says he found the man aimlessly wandering in the bramble. Nevertheless, he must return the man to his rightful owner. But when the heartbroken boy comes home from school one afternoon, he finds wrapped up in red ribbon a female man with a note around her neck: Every boy should have a man. You’re a fine son. Love, Dad.

Thus begins Every Boy Should Have a Man, Preston L. Allen’s picaresque journey into uncharted territory in earth, sky, and firmament. With echoes of Margaret Atwood and Jack and the Beanstalk, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, it traces the story of the boy and his three “mans,” Brown Skin who is not his, the tragic Red Sleeves who has no voice, and her quick-witted daughter Red Locks whose epic journey takes her from the backbreaking drudgery of the mines to the perils of the battlefield to the savagery of cannibalism.

Oafs and mans each gain insight and understanding into one another’s worlds, and the worlds that touch theirs—ultimately showing that oafs and mans alike share a common “humanity.” Filled with surprising twists and turns, the novel is in part a morality tale that takes on many of today’s issues including poverty, the environment, sexism, racism, war, and religion, all in lighthearted King James prose.

Seems to have shades of Fantastic Planet — but “in lighthearted King James prose”!

Next up, The Roving Tree, the first novel from Elsi Augustave, which seems like it might be happily at home on a contemporary postcolonial studies syllabus:

20130224-141000.jpgElsie Augustave’s debut novel, The Roving Tree, explores multiple themes: separation and loss, rootlessness, the impact of class privilege and color consciousness, and the search for cultural identity. The central character, Iris Odys, is the offspring of Hagathe, a Haitian maid, and Brahami, a French-educated mulatto father who cares little about his child.

Hagathe, who had always dreamt of a better life for her child, is presented with the perfect opportunity when Iris is five years old. Adopted by a white American couple, an anthropologist and art gallery owner, Iris is transported from her tiny remote Haitian village, Monn Neg, to an American suburb.

The Roving Tree illuminates how imperfectly assimilated adoptees struggle to remember their original voices and recapture their personal histories and cultural legacy. Set between two worlds, suburban America and Haiti under the oppressive regime of Papa Doc’s Tanton Macoutes, the novel offers a unique literary glimpse into the deeply entrenched class discrimination and political repression of Haiti during the Duvalier era, along with the subtle but nonetheless dangerous effects of American racism.

Told from beyond the grave, Iris seamlessly shares her poignant and pivotal life experiences. The Roving Tree, underscored by the spiritual wisdom of Haitian griots, offers insightful revelations of the importance of significant relationships with family and friends. Years later, we see how these elements are transformative to Iris’s intense love affair, and her personal and professional growth. Universal truths resonate beyond the pages of this work.

Also on the colonial-historical tip: Anthony C. Winkler’s The Family Mansion:

20130224-141035.jpgThe Family Mansion is a historical novel that tells the story of Hartley Fudges, whose personal destiny unfolds against the backdrop of 19th-century British culture, a time when English society was based upon the strictest subordination and stratification of the classes. As the second son of a hereditary duke and his father’s favorite, Hartley, under different circumstances, might have inherited the inside track to his father’s estate and titles. But the English law of succession was rigidly dictated by the principle of male primogeniture, with all the property, assets, titles, and debts devolving to the firstborn son and his issue, leaving nothing for the other sons.

Like many second sons, Hartley decides to migrate to Jamaica at the age of twenty-three. This at first seems sensible: in the early 1800s Jamaica was far and away the richest and most opulent of all the crown colonies, and the single greatest producer of sugar in the world. But for all its fabulous wealth, Jamaica was a difficult and inhospitable place for an immigrant. The mortality rate for new immigrants was over 50% for the first year of residence. Some immigrant groups fared even worse. The island’s white population that ran the lucrative sugarcane industry was outnumbered 10-to-1 by the largely enslaved black population. Slave revolts were common with brutal reprisals such as the decapitation of ringleaders and nailing the severed heads to trees.

The complex saga of Hartley’s life is revealed in vivid scenes that depict the vicissitudes of 19th-century English and Jamaican societies. Aside from violent slave revolts, newcomers had to survive the nemesis of the white man in the tropics—namely, yellow fever. With Hartley’s point of view as its primary focus, the narrative transports readers to exotic lands, simultaneously exploring the brutality of England’s slavery-based colonization.

Akashic, a label I was ignorant of up until now, seems to be publishing some pretty cool stuff.

 

The Royal Stuarts (Book Acquired, 1.16.2013)

20130120-173834.jpgThe Royal Stuarts by Allan Massie is new in paperback from Macmillan. Here’s the Kirkus review:

A well-fashioned history of the remarkable Scottish monarchs.

They were “Stewarts,” mythical descendants of Shakespeare’s Banquo, before they were “Stuarts,” writes prolific Scottish novelist and historian Massie (Death in Bordeaux, 2010, etc.). The spelling was changed by Mary Queen of Scots so that it would be easier to pronounce for the French. The clan actually traces its roots in Brittany, with enterprising members crossing the Channel first in the service of the Norman king Henry I. The first Stewart on the Scottish throne, Robert II, weathered the wars of independence against the English, though the Scottish monarchy was much weaker than the English, lacking a similar administrative apparatus. What Cambridge historian F.W. Maitland termed a “mournful procession of the Jameses” followed, with mixed results. Several were murdered early on, though James IV’s marriage to English princess Margaret Tudor in 1503 was significant because it would lead to the Union of the Crowns 100 years later. Queen Mary’s story has been told often elsewhere, and provides the saddest interlude, while her son, James VI, proved the great survivor, an intellectual, solid Protestant and patron of the arts, effectively putting Scotland’s house in order before Elizabeth I’s death invited him to join the thrones of England and Scotland. There is no end to the fascination with the lives of the two truncated Charleses, in turn spurring revolution then restoration, and Massie truly brings these singular characters to life with his felicitous prose. Perhaps the least understood of the clan was Queen Anne, who presided over the Treaty of Union in 1707, possessed principles and stamina yet had no living heir to keep the throne from falling to the Protestant Elector of Hanover, who became George I.

A palatable history lesson that might help untangle the royal lineage web for American readers

 

 

Young Henry (Book Acquired, 10.18.2012)

Robert Hutchinson’s Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII is new in hardback from Thomas Dunne/Macmillan. Their  blurb:

Immortalized as a domineering king, notorious philanderer, and the unlikely benefactor of a new church, Henry VIII became a legend during his own reign. Who, though, was the young royal who would grow up to become England’s most infamous ruler? Robert Hutchinson’s Young Henry examines Henry Tudor’s childhood beginnings and subsequent rise to power in the most intimate retelling of his early life to date.

While Henry’s elder brother Arthur was scrupulously groomed for the crown by their autocratic father, the ten-year-old “spare heir” enjoyed a more carefree childhood, given prestige and power without the looming pressures of the throne. Everything changed for the young prince, though, when his brother died. Henry was nine weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday when he inherited both his brother’s widow and the crown.

As King, Henry preferred magnificence and merriment to his royal responsibilities, sweeping away the musty cobwebs of his father’s court with feasting, dancing, and sport. Frustrated, too, by the seeming inability of his wife, Katherine of Aragon, to produce an heir, Henry turned his attention to a prospective second queen whose name would endure as long as his: Anne Boleyn. With the king still lacking a successor by the age of 35, however, the time for youthful frolic had come to an end.

Divorcing his wife and the Catholic Church, executing his lover and his violent will, Henry charged forward on a scandalous path of terrifying self-indulgence from which there was no turning back. Young Henry is an illuminating portrait of this tyrannical yet groundbreaking king—before he transformed his country, and the face of the monarchy, irrevocably.

 

Three Notes on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Correction (Plot, Prose, and a Riff)

1. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction is nominally the story of an unnamed narrator who leaves England after a severe illness to return to his native Austria to “sift and sort” the writings of his childhood friend Roithamer.

Roithamer, a brilliant but insane scientist, is the self-exiled son of an old, wealthy family. He uses an unexpected inheritance to fund an idealistic project: the building of a perfect Cone in the isolated heart of the Kobernausser forest. Roithamer envisions this Cone as the perfect home for his sister to live in (although he doesn’t bother to actually, y’know, talk to her about it). Roithamer’s sister dies almost immediately after taking up residence in the Cone. Roithamer then commits suicide.

Correction is divided into two sections, each a single, long, dense paragraph with no text break for the reader to rest upon. Bernhard’s sentences wind and unwind and rewind, sometimes snaking out for pages at a time; like Samuel Beckett, to whom he is often compared, Bernhard is a master of the comma splice. The effect is exhausting.

The first section of Correction is “Hoeller’s Garret,” named after the novel’s primary physical setting. Hoeller is a taxidermist who has built his own house in the Aurach gorge as a sort of dare to nature itself. Hoeller’s house inspires Roithamer’s Cone, and Hoeller’s garret becomes Roithamer’s work space—which is to say thinking space—for planning and executing his idealistic project.

Following Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator too moves into Hoeller’s garret, one of many formal repetitions in Correction (these formalizing plot repetitions are echoed in Bernhard’s syntactic repetitions).

In “Hoeller’s Garret” we learn about the childhood friendship between the narrator, Hoeller, and Roithamer. The paragraph (or chapter, if you will) includes details about Roithamer’s troubled family as well as an early horrific encounter with death, themes that will repeat throughout the novel.

The second section, “Sifting and Sorting,” finds the narrator working though Roithamer’s (mostly autobiographical) papers. The narrator appends a simple tag like “thus, Roithamer” or “so Roithamer” as attribution to Roithamer’s first-person statements, but this device pops up less and less as the book progresses, and it becomes clear that Roithamer has ventriloquized the narrative.

“Sifting and Sorting” focuses on Roithamer’s unhappy childhood, his endless fights with his mother, and his wish to perfect an idealization (namely, his Cone). The narrator channels Roithamer who channels the voices of his mother and father (and occasionally his detested brothers)—and of course, the reader channels all. The narrator slowly gives over to Roithamer’s voice as the novel’s final pages rush out in a series of diary entries, and Bernhard’s taxing syntax performs a mesmerist act on the reader, who, stunned, must return to the text in yet another repetition.

2. I’ve thus far failed to illustrate any of the above claims with an example of Bernhard’s prose.

It’s possible to plunder Correction for tight phrases, sharp, dark aphorisms, and other little bits of strange wisdom, but that doesn’t really convey the effect of what it’s like to read Bernhard’s sentences.

Better then to offer an example. Here’s the novel’s second sentence:

The atmosphere in Hoeller’s house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer’s suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer’s papers there, specifically in Hoeller’s garret, sifting and sorting Roithamer’s papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller s garret without any reservations on Hoeller’s part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to Hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer’s purposes, where Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no longer slept at home in Altensam but always and only in Hoeller’s garret, it was simply in every respect the ideal place for him during those last years when he, Roithamer, never went straight home to Altensam from England, but instead went every time to Hoeller’s garret, to fortify himself in its simplicity (Hoeller house) for the complexity ahead (Cone), it would not do to go straight to Altensam from England, where each of us, working separately in his own scientific field, had been living in Cambridge all those years, he had to go straight to Hoeller’s garret, if he did not follow this rule which had become a cherished habit, the visit to Altensam was a disaster from the start, so he simply could not let himself go directly from England to Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, whenever he had not made the detour via Hoeller’s house, to save time, as he himself admitted, it had been a mistake, so he no longer made the experiment of going to Altensam without first stopping at Hoeller’s house, in those last years, he never again went home without first visiting Hoeller and Hoeller’s family and Hoeller’s house, without first moving into Hoeller’s garret, to devote himself for two or three days to such reading as he could do only in Hoeller s garret, of subject matter that was not harmful but helpful to him, books and articles he could read neither in Altensam or in England, and to thinking and writing what he found possible to think and write neither in England nor in Altensam, here I discovered Hegel, he always said, over and over again, it was here that I really delved into Schopenhauer for the first time, here that I could read, for the first time, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and The Sentimental Journey, without distraction and with a clear head, it was here, in Hoeller’s garret, that I suddenly gained access to ideas to which my mind had been sealed for decades before I came to this garret, access, he wrote, to the most essential ideas, the most important for me, the most necessary to my life, here in Hoeller’s garret, he wrote, everything became possible for me, everything that had always been impossible for me outside Hoeller’s garret, such as letting myself be guided by my intellectual inclinations and to develop my natural aptitudes accordingly, and to get on with my work, everywhere else I had always been hindered in developing my aptitudes but in Hoeller’s garret I could always develop them most consistently, here everything was congenial to my way of thinking, here I could always indulge myself in exploring all my intellectual possibilities, here my intellectual possibilities, here in Hoeller’s garret my head, my mind, my whole constitution were suddenly relieved from all the outside world’s oppression, the most incredible things were suddenly no longer incredible, the most impossible (thinking!) no longer impossible.

If you’re interested, that’s 722 words (I wrote about 500 words before Bernhard’s sentence, if you need a point of contrast).

The repetition is easy to note even by absently gazing over the passage. The repeated phrase “Hoeller’s garret” stands out in particular, introducing the reader to the novel’s primary setting and establishing this “ideal place” in context against Altensam (the hated aristocratic home), England (self-imposed exile of a sort), and the Cone (the ideal ideal place).

We can also track a subtle shift in the final third of the sentence, as Roithamer’s voice ventriloquizes the narrator’s. Note how in the first third of the sentence, the narrator employs the first-person pronoun “I” which soon disappears in the middle third to be replaced by “he” (referring to Roithamer), until finally transforming into an “I” again in the final third—only this “I” is Roithamer’s “I.” This sentence demonstrates not only the demanding sentence structure that characterizes Correction as a whole, but also its narrative program of ventriloquism.

3. Okay. So I’ve offered plot summary, a lump of text, and a few comments on Bernhard’s prose—but I’ve hardly made a go of untangling the knotty density of Correction. (Although is that really what I came here to do? I don’t know. I hope not). Here are some stray, loose thoughts on Correction, offered here with little support (and the vague promise that I’ll write more about Correction in the future—shorter, more focused posts that hopefully expand on these ideas):

Correction shows how idealism, and specifically the will to create and perfect the ideal, leads to breakdown, death, insanity, suicide.

The Cone is a massive idealized phallus that reduces the agency of Roithamer’s sister, isolates her, and becomes her tomb.

Roithamer is part of a long tradition in literature of strange sister-lovers, dudes who dote on—and idealize—their sisters too much.

Roithamer seems to suffer from a sort-of reverse Oedipus complex, where he identifies with the strength of his father and hates his mother, who he sees as a cultural philistine, lower class, anti-intellectual. This complex leads to chauvinism against women in general, and possibly prevents him from better understanding his sister, who he essentially imprisons.

Correction reminded me often of Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Correction reminded me often of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, although Correction obviously came first, and Sebald clearly cited Bernhard as an influence.

At some of its rantier points, Correction reminded me of Notes from Underground.

Correction took me forever to read, mostly because every time I picked it back up I had to twist my way into its circular, repetitive rhythms anew. Lots of rereading.

My auditory imagination: In time, it was Werner Herzog’s voice that read Correction to me.

Correction performs its own deconstruction.

Correction is often so scathing and harsh in its treatment of humanity as to be difficult to swallow. One has to step back repeatedly and remind oneself that Roithamer is not sane.

Correction is also very, very funny at times—astonishingly so, even. Its humor is truly absurd, the absurdity of a parent’s funeral, or the absurdity of simply having to go on. I can’t help but cite a favorite line here—“waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.”

The other side of “waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence” is of course death in general, or suicide in particular. Correction posits suicide as the ultimate correction, the final clearing gesture. The ideal.

And, not a thought on Correction, but a question for readers: What next? — ConcreteThe Loser, or Yes?

The First Sentences of Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Correction

After a mild pulmonary infection, tended too little and too late, had suddenly turned into a severe pneumonia that took its toll of my entire body and laid me up for at least three months at nearby Wels, which has a hospital renowned in the field of so-called internal medicine, I accepted an invitation from Hoeller, a so-called taxidermist in the Aurach valley, not for the end of October, as the doctors urged, but for early in October, as I insisted, and then went on my own so-called responsibility straight to the Aurach valley and to Hoeller’s house, without even a detour to visit my parents in Stocket, straight into the so-called Hoeller garret, to begin sifting and perhaps even arranging the literary remains of my friend, who was also a friend of the taxidermist Hoeller, Roithamer, after Roithamer’s suicide, I went to work sifting and sorting the papers he had willed to me, consisting of thousands of slips covered with Roithamer’s handwriting plus a bulky manuscript entitled “About Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone.” The atmosphere in Hoeller’s house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer’s suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer’s papers there, specifically in Hoeller’s garret, sifting and sorting Roithamer’s papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller s garret without any reservations on Hoeller’s part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to Hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer’s purposes, where Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no longer slept at home in Altensam but always and only in Hoeller’s garret, it was simply in every respect the ideal place for him during those last years when he, Roithamer, never went straight home to Altensam from England, but instead went every time to Hoeller’s garret, to fortify himself in its simplicity (Hoeller house) for the complexity ahead (Cone), it would not do to go straight to Altensam from England, where each of us, working separately in his own scientific field, had been living in Cambridge all those years, he had to go straight to Hoeller’s garret, if he did not follow this rule which had become a cherished habit, the visit to Altensam was a disaster from the start, so he simply could not let himself go directly from England to Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, whenever he had not made the detour via Hoeller’s house, to save time, as he himself admitted, it had been a mistake, so he no longer made the experiment of going to Altensam without first stopping at Hoeller’s house, in those last years, he never again went home without first visiting Hoeller and Hoeller’s family and Hoeller’s house, without first moving into Hoeller’s garret, to devote himself for two or three days to such reading as he could do only in Hoeller s garret, of subject matter that was not harmful but helpful o him, books and articles he could read neither in Altensam or in England, and to thinking and writing what he found possible to think and write neither in England nor in Altensam, here I discovered Hegel, he always said, over and over again, it was here that I really delved into Schopenhauer for the first time, here that I could read, for the first time, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and The Sentimental Journey, without distraction and with a clear head, it was here, in Hoeller’s garret, that I suddenly gained access to ideas to which my mind had been sealed for decades before I came to this garret, access, he wrote, to the most essential ideas, the most important for me, the most necessary to my life, here in Hoeller’s garret, he wrote, everything became possible for me, everything that had always been impossible for me outside Hoeller’s garret, such as letting myself be guided by my intellectual inclinations and to develop my natural aptitudes accordingly, and to get on with my work, everywhere else I had always been hindered in developing my aptitudes but in Hoeller’s garret I could always develop them most consistently, here everything was congenial to my way of thinking, here I could always indulge myself in exploring all my intellectual possibilities, here my intellectual possibilities, here in Hoeller’s garret my head, my mind, my whole constitution were suddenly relieved from all the outside world’s oppression, the most incredible things were suddenly no longer incredible, the most impossible (thinking!) no longer impossible. It was in Hoeller’s garret that he found the conditions necessary and most favorable to thought, for getting the mechanism of his thought going in the most natural, most undistracted way, all he had to do was to come to Hoeller’s garret from wherever he might be, and the mechanism worked.

—The first sentences of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction.

Book Acquired, 9.28.2012

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Foundation, a history of England from Peter Ackroyd. From a recent Guardian profile:

Ackroyd’s trademark insight and wit, and the glorious interconnectedness of all things, permeate each page. One thing that struck me was the realisation that history isn’t nearly as linear as we thought. Something is invented, or discovered, or philosophised, and we tend to think that that’s knowledge known from then on, but even in this single volume there are endless forgettings.

“Absolutely,” comes his fast answer, spoken, as ever, gently and with a strange mix of confidence and self-effacement. “One thing which most interested me was the fact that neglect, or our genius for forgetfulness, occurs at every level of social and political activity. The same mistakes, the same confusions, occur time and time again. It sometimes seems to me that the whole course of English history was one of accident, confusion, chance and unintended consequences – there’s no real pattern.”

What he discovered, or rediscovered, is that “what underlines that random happenstance are the deep continuities of national life that survive, uninfluenced by the surface events. In this book, I have little chapters on, say, medieval medicine, or punishment, or medieval humour, simply to convey the broad continuities that underlie this bewildering range of events. Continuities of the soil, the land, the earth.” And these help create human – English – sensibilities? “Yes. As I said in my London book, it’s a sort of territorial imperative, the landscape; the shape of the geology, almost, has a definite though not comprehended effect on human behaviour, human need. So that’s one of the things I was trying to explore I suppose.”

Heretic Queen (Book Acquired, 7.23.2012)

 

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Susan Ronald’s Heretic Queen is new in hardback from Macmillan. Their blurb:

Elizabeth’s 1558 coronation procession was met with an extravagant outpouring of love. Only twenty-five years old, the young queen saw herself as their Protestant savior, aiming to provide the nation with new hope, prosperity, and independence from the foreign influence that had plagued her sister Mary’s reign. Given the scars of the Reformation, Elizabeth would need all of the powers of diplomacy and tact she could summon.

 

Extravagant, witty, and hot-tempered, Elizabeth was the ultimate tyrant. Yet at the outset, in religious matters, she was unfathomably tolerant for her day. “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith,” Elizabeth once proclaimed. “All else is a dispute over trifles.” Heretic Queen is the highly personal, untold story of how Queen Elizabeth I secured the future of England as a world power. Susan Ronald paints the queen as a complex character whose apparent indecision was really a political tool that she wielded with great aplomb.

 

May Day? Labour Day? Loyalty Day?

The following is excerpted from one of our favorite freely-found books, Alice van Straalen’s The Book of Holidays Around the World:

May Day: Worldwide —  In a festival that lasted from April 28 to May 3, the Romans offered flowers to Flora, their goddess of spring. They brought the custom to all the European lands they conquered; and by the Middle Ages it became especially popular in England. People rose early in the morning to “bring in the May.” They gathered flowers and tree branches to decorate their homes and later went to the town square where the maypole–often over 100 feet tall–was raised, and a woman representing the May Queen presided over the celebrations. Dancers held the streamers that fell from the top of the pole and, as they circled around it, wove them into tight patterns. When they changed directions the streamers untangled again and blew free, a tradition that some towns in England and America have continued. In 1889 the Second Internationale, an association of French socialists, dedicated May Day to working people, and today in many countries it is celebrated as a labor day. The Soviet Union marks the day with a military parade in Moscow.

Soviet Union…yeah, the bookover 25 years old…

Workers of the World Unite -- Rockwell Kent

Workers of the World Unite -- Rockwell Kent

But don’t worry, God-fearing Americans! It turns out that, in order to reclaim May Day from pinkos and anarchists, the U.S. government declared May 1st “Loyalty Day.” From 36 US Code §115:

(a) Designation.— May 1 is Loyalty Day.

(b) Purpose.— Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.

(c) Proclamation.— The President is requested to issue a proclamation—

(1) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Loyalty Day; and
(2) inviting the people of the United States to observe Loyalty Day with appropriate ceremonies in schools and other suitable places.

Loyalty Day? Okay, sure, why not? But are the two perspectives on this ancient festival–the concept of workers standing up for the right to control the means of production, etc., and the idea of being loyal to America–are they so different?

Flag -- Jasper Johns

Flag -- Jasper Johns

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Another literary recipe to celebrate Thanksgiving—

At the beginning of Thomas Pynchon’s massive tome Gravitys Rainbow, Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice cooks up a bodacious banana breakfast for a bunch of hung over army officers—

Routine: plug in American blending machine won from some Yank last summer, some poker game, table stakes, B.O.Q. somewhere in the north, never remember now….Chop several bananas into pieces. Make coffee in urn. Get can of milk from cooler. Puree ‘nanas in milk. Lovely. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of England. . . . Bit of marge, still smells all right, melt in the skillet. Peel more bananas, slice lengthwise. Marge sizzling, in go long slices. Light oven whoomp blow us all up someday oh, ha, ha, yes. Peeled whole bananas to go on broiler grill soon as it heats. Find marshmallows. . . .

Here’s how it all turns out–

With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, a southern island well across a tropic or two from chill Corydon Throsp’s mediaeval fantasies, crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter. . . .