I have not written a good novel. I have not written a novel. I don’t expect to write any novels and shall not tell anyone else how to do it until I have.
If you want to study the novel, go, READ the best you can find. All I know about it, I have learned from reading:
Tom Jones, by Fielding.
Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey by Sterne (and I don’t recommend anyone ELSE to try to do another Tristram Shandy).
The novels of Jane Austen and Trollope.
[Note: If you compare the realism of Trollope's novels with the realism of Robert McAlmon's stories you will get a fair idea of what a good novelists means by 'construction'. Trollope depicts a scene or a person, and you can clearly see how he 'leads up to an effect'.]
The novels of Henry James, AND especially the prefaces to his collected edition; which are the one extant great treatise on novel writing in English.
In French you can form a fairly good ideogram from:
Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe.
The first half of Stendhal’s Rouge et Noir and the first eighty pages of La Chartreuse de Parme.
Madame Bovary, L’Education Sentimentale, Trois Contes, and the unfinished Brouvard et Pecuchet of FLAUBERT, with Goncourt’s preface to Germinie Lacerteux.
After that you would do well to look at Madox Ford’s A Call.
When you have read Jame’s prefaces and twenty of his other novels, you would do well to read The Sacred Fount.
There for perhaps the first time since about 1300 a writer has been able to deal with a sort of content wherewith Cavalcanti has been ‘concerned’.
You can get a very brilliant cross-light via Donne. I mean the difference and nuances between psychology in Guido, abstract philosophic statement in Guido, the blend in Donne, and again psychology in Henry James, and in all of them the underlying concept of FORM, the structure of the whole work, including its parts.
This is a long way from an A B C. In fact it opens the vistas of post-graduate study.
From Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (New Directions).
“T.S. Eliot” by Ezra Pound (from Instigations)
Il n’y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s’est raconté lui-même en racontant les mœurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.— Remy de Gourmont.
De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of “Madame Bovary,” “L’Éducation Sentimentale” and “Bouvard et Pécuchet” to “Salammbô” and “La Tentation de St. Antoine.” A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.
The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and incomplete; much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year’s study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naïve despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretense.
It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot’s work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.
The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it—he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are “no longer American.” This is the bitterest jibe in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one’s contemporaries. After a time one tires of “promise.”
“Joyce” by Ezra Pound
Despite the War, despite the paper shortage, and despite those old-established publishers whose god is their belly and whose god-father was the late F.T. Palgrave, there is a new edition of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
It is extremely gratifying that this book should have “reached its fourth thousand,” and the fact is significant in just so far as it marks the beginning of a new phase of English publishing, a phase comparable to that started in France some years ago by the Mercure.
The old houses, even those, or even more those, which once had a literary tradition, or at least literary pretensions, having ceased to care a damn about literature, the lovers of good writing have “struck”; have sufficiently banded themselves together to get a few good books into print, and even into circulation. The actual output is small in bulk, a few brochures of translations, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Joyce’s “A Portrait,” and Wyndham Lewis’ “Tarr,” but I have it on good authority that at least one other periodical will start publishing its authors after the War, so there are new rods in pickle for the old fat-stomached contingent and for the cardboard generation.
Joyce’s “A Portrait” is literature; it has become almost the prose bible of a few people, and I think I have encountered at least three hundred admirers of the book, certainly that number of people who, whether they “like” it or not, are wholly convinced of its merits.
“Meditatio,” Ezra Pound
When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs
I am compelled to conclude
That man is the superior animal.
When I consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.
(Thanks to Giovanni for sending this in).
1. Let’s start with the what:
Agapē Agape is the last novel by William Gaddis, that underread titan who gave us The Recognitions and J R. Agapē Agape was published in 2002, four years after Gaddis’s death. Agapē Agape is 96 pages in my Penguin Classics edition (the font is rather large, too)—almost exactly one-tenth the length of The Recognitions in my Penguin Classics edition, which is 956 pages (and in a smaller font).
2. And why?
Let’s say I’ve struggled with this review, perhaps more than I struggled with writing about J R (which I did here and here) or The Recognitions (which I did here and here), which seems nonsensical because those books are so big and this one is so short. But that’s a surface argument.
See, Agapē Agape is dense. It seems to compact and condense all of Gaddis’s themes and ideas and motifs into this little book that’s uranium heavy, too dense to allow for line breaks or paragraph breaks or indentations, let alone chapters. It’s one big block of text.
3. And so—
After reading the book twice I’ve marked every page (which is exactly like marking no pages), and at this point the only way that I can find to discuss it (I know there must be others) is to annotate the opening paragraph, its first sentence, really—which of course isn’t really a paragraph or a sentence in the traditional grammatical sense—I mean, there are a set of clauses, some fused sentences, perhaps a comma splice or two—but what marks it as a discrete sentence is that it’s punctuated by a question mark, a tiny caesura before the next onslaught of words. (Some of Agapē Agape’s sentences go on for pages).
4. The style of Agapē Agape recalls Thomas Bernhard, who Gaddis’s narrator accuses of having plagiarized the book that the narrator has yet to write. The accusation (ironic, purposefully, of course) points to Agapē Agape’s concern for synthesis, for transmitting some clear thesis statement out of the muddle of Western culture. Agapē Agape tries to suss out that muddle and as such is larded with discussions of Plato, Nietzsche, Melville, Hawthorne, Byron, Freud (“Sigi”!), Bach, Caesar, Joyce, Pulitzer, Tolstoy, Frankenstein, Huizinga, Pound, Philo T. Farnsworth, player-pianos . . . It overwhelms the narrator; it overwhelms the reader. But enough dithering—
5. —here is the opening sentence:
No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece, houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about, that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?
6. “No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I,”
Ulysses ends with a “Yes”; Agapē Agape begins with a “No.” This is a deeply negative book, cruel almost, bitter, caustic, acidic, but also erudite, funny, and even charming. We see right away the narrator—surely a version of Gaddis himself—concerned with the ancient problem of communication, the problem that occupied Plato and every philosopher since: “I’ve got to explain all this.” We also see here the same stream-of-consciousness technique here that Joyce used so frequently in Ulysses (putting aside Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence)—the suspended referent, the unnamed (the unnameable?): “I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I”—while I what? Still can? Still live? From the outset, Agapē Agape is a contest against time, death, and entropy.
7. “why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized”
Synthesis, synthesis, synthesis. Making books out of other books. Plugging literature into other literature. I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man, said someone once. And then others said it again. And then I cited it here, now.
I’m reminded here of a list that Gibbs (erstwhile Gaddis stand-in in J R) keeps in his pocket, a scrap paper crammed with ideas, fragments, citations:
Is it possible to get it sorted?
Recall now Gaddis’s hero Ezra Pound. From Tom McCarthy’s essay on synthesis, “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”
It is the reader’s job to make Agapē Agape cohere.
8. “when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it”
Agapē Agape may be said to have a few formalizing plots beyond its object of synthesizing Western culture vis-à-vis art and entertainment.
One of these formalizing elements is the idea of an old man divvying up his property to his daughters. Oh, hey, King Lear anyone? What’s most interesting to me about this plot (okay, more of a motif really) is that it’s the only allusive device that the narrator doesn’t remark upon. We have a narrator who’s trying to control all these notes and clippings, all these scraps of culture, a narrator with a sharp (if distracted intelligence) who nevertheless fails to remark upon the fact that his personal circumstances echo the great dismal swan song of English literature. King Lear: madness, unraveling, degeneracy, death, entropy.
9. “while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece,”
Another formalizing element in Agapē Agape are the health issues the narrator faces, presumably a series of surgeries that involve at least one of his legs. The motif of surgeries, of transplants, and implants runs throughout The Recognitions and J R as well. In The Recognitions we get poor Stanley’s mother’s amputated leg, another strange reliquary trace floating through the text. In J R, we get Cates prepped for a heart transplant, yet another organ transferral for this massive man. There’s the idea here of borrowed parts, that humans might not be “natural,” cohesive entities but rather a collection of parts that may be swapped out. Again, synthesis in the face of break down; the surgeon as entropy repairman.
10. “houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about,”
Here, the personal, the concrete, the immediate, and the real tips into what Gaddis took to be the grand subject of his corpus—collapse, chaos, entropy. Spelled out clearly in the next line:
11. “that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight,”
I don’t think commentary from me is necessary here. Instead, let me share a quote from Gibbs in J R, ranting to his young students:
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
12. “entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?”
The age of the amateur. Paint-by-numbers. Everyone wants to write a novel but no one wants to read one. Etc. When the narrator grumbles “where technology came from in the first place,” he means entertainment. That’s one thesis in Agapē Agape: that the technological progress we so value, that so underwrites the march of our grand civilization has its roots in toymaking and child’s play.
13. The novel that follows this addled, rattled opening line is remarkable for its brilliance, its cruelty, but most of all its sheer verbal force. Gaddis showed a mastery of voice in J R, a heteroglossic novel of speech, speech, speech, a grand dare to any reader, I suppose. Agapē Agape is even more stripped down, the monologue of a dying voice, a voice that’s been too-long ignored and under-appreciated. I don’t know if something so sad, so personally sad can be called perfect, but I can’t think of a more appropriate or fitting final statement from Gaddis.
Charles Olson’s interview with The Paris Review is one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Here’s a nice big chunk from the beginning:
Get a free chair and sit down. Don’t worry about anything. Especially this. We’re living beings and forming a society; we’re creating a total, social future. Don’t worry about it. The kitchen’s reasonably orderly. I crawled out of bed as sick as I was and threw a rug out the window.
Now the first question I wanted to ask you. What fills your day?
Nothing. But nothing, literally, except my friends.
These are very straight questions.
Ah, that’s what interviews are made of.
Why have you chosen poetry as a medium of artistic creation?
I think I made a hell of a mistake. That’s the first confidence I have. The other is that—I didn’t really have anything else to do. I mean I didn’t even have enough imagination to think of something else. I was supposed to go to Holy Cross because I wanted to play baseball. I did, too. That’s the only reason I wanted to go to Holy Cross. It had nothing to do with being a priest.
Are you able to write poetry while remaining in the usual conditions of life—without renouncing or giving up anything?
That’s the trouble. That’s what I’ve done. What I’ve caused and lost. That describes it perfectly. I’ve absolutely.
Are the conditions of life at the beginning of a work . . .
I’m afraid as well at the end. It’s like being sunk in a cockpit. I read the most beautiful story about how Will Rogers and Wiley Post were lost; they stomped onto a lake about ten miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to ask an Indian if Anchorage was in that direction and when they took off, they plunged back into the lake. The poor boy was not near enough to rescue them, so he ran ten miles to Anchorage to get the people to come out. He said one of the men had a sort of a cloth on his eye and the guy then knew Post and Rogers were lost. Wiley Post put down on pontoons; so he must have come up off this freshwater lake and went poomp. Isn’t that one of those great national treasures. I’ll deal you cards, man. I’ll make you a tarot.
Does poetry constitute the aim of your existence?
Of course I don’t live for poetry; I live far more than anybody else does. And forever and why not. Because it is the only thing. But what do you do meanwhile? So what do you do with the rest of the time? That’s all. I said I promised to witness. But I mean I can’t always.
Would you say that the more you understand what you are doing in your writing, the greater the results?
Well, it’s just one of those things that you’re absolutely so bitterly uninterested in that you can’t even live. Somehow it is so interesting that you can’t imagine. It is nothing, but it breaks your heart. That’s all. It doesn’t mean a thing. Do you remember the eagle? Farmer Jones gets higher and higher and he is held in one of the eagle’s claws and he says you wouldn’t shit me would you? That’s one of the greatest moments in American poetry. In fact, it is the great moment in American poetry. What a blessing we got.
Does Ezra Pound’s teaching bear any relevance to how your poems are formed on the page?
My masters are pretty pertinent. Don’t cheat your own balloon. I mean—literally—like a trip around the moon—the Jules Verne—I read that trip . . . it is so completely applicable today. They don’t have any improvements yet.
Do you write by hand or directly on the typewriter? Does either method indicate a specific way in which the poem falls on the page?
Yeah. Robert Duncan is the first man to ask me the query. He discovered when he first came to see me that I wrote on the machine and never bothered to correct. There’s the stuff. Give me half a bottle. Justice reigns.
Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.“ Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.
Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.
Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:
The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.
I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:
As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.
Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,
The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.
Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.
Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.