A dedicated storyteller, though – a true lie-minded man – will serve his history best, and guarantee its popularity, not by imitating nature, since nature’s no source of verisimilitude, but by following as closely as he can our simplest, most direct and unaffected forms of daily talk, for we report real things, things which intrigue and worry us, and such resembling gossip in a book allows us to believe in figures and events we cannot see, shall never touch, with an assurance of safety which sets our passions free. He will avoid recording consciousness since consciousness is private – we do not normally “take it down” – and because no one really believes in any other feelings than his own. However, the moment our writer concentrates on sound, the moment he formalizes his sentences, the moment he puts in a figure of speech or turns a phrase, shifts a tense or alters tone, the moment he carries description, or any account, beyond need, he begins to turn his reader’s interest away from the world which lies among his words like a beautiful woman among her slaves, and directs him toward the slaves themselves. This illustrates a basic principle: if I describe my peach too perfectly, it’s the poem which will make my mouth water…while the real peach spoils.
Andrez Bergen’s Depth Charging Ice Planet Goth looks like a strange genre-bender; it’s new from Perfect Edge. Blurb:
She’s a disturbed, quiet girl, but Mina wants to do some good out there. It’s just that the world gets in the way. This is Australia in the 1980s, a haven for goths and loners, where a coming-of-age story can only veer into a murder mystery.
But there is a wide spread curiosity about writers and how they work, and when a writer talks on this subject, there are always misconceptions and mental rubble for him to clear away before he can even begin to see what he wants to talk about. I am not, of course, as innocent as I look. I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They’re interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a “killing.” They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what. And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and about markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable.
From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor. Collected in Mystery and Manners.
“The Grave” by Katherine Anne Porter
The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow. She removed his bones first to Louisiana and then to Texas, as if she had set out to find her own burial place, knowing well she would never return to the places she had left. In Texas she set up a small cemetery in a corner of her first farm, and as the family connection grew, and oddments of relations came over from Kentucky to settle, it contained at last about twenty graves. After the grandmother’s death, part of her land was to be sold for the benefit of certain of her children, and the cemetery happened to lie in the part set aside for sale. It was necessary to take up the bodies and bury them again in the family plot in the big new public cemetery, where Grandmother had been recently buried. At long last her husband was to lie beside her for eternity, as she had planned.
The family cemetery had been a pleasant small neglected garden of tangled rose bushes and ragged cedar trees and cypress, the simple flat stones rising out of uncropped sweet-smelling wild grass. The graves were lying open and empty one burning day when Miranda and her brother Paul, who often went together to hunt rabbits and doves, propped their twenty-two Winchester rifles carefully against the rail fence, climbed over and explored among the graves. She was nine years old and he was twelve.
They peered into the pits all shaped alike with such purposeful accuracy, and looking at each other with pleased adventurous eyes, they said in solemn tones: “These were graves!” trying by words to shape a special, suitable emotion in their minds, but they felt nothing except an agreeable thrill of wonder: they were seeing a new sight, doing something they had not done before. In them both there was also a small disappointment at the entire commonplaceness of the actual spectacle. Even if it had once contained a coffin for years upon years, when the coffin was gone a grave was just a hole in the ground. Miranda leaped into the pit that had held her grandfather’s bones. Scratching around aimlessly and pleasurably, as any young animal, she scooped up a lump of earth and weighed it in her palm. It had a pleasantly sweet, corrupt smell, being mixed with cedar needles and small leaves, and as the crumbs fell apart, she saw a silver dove no larger than a hazel nut, with spread wings and a neat fan-shaped tail. The breast had a deep round hollow in it. Turning it up to the fierce sunlight, she saw that the inside of the hollow was cut in little whorls. She scrambled out, over the pile of loose earth that had fallen back into one end of the grave, calling to Paul that she had found something, he must guess what. . . . His head appeared smiling over the rim of another grave. He waved a closed hand at her: “I’ve got something too!” They ran to compare treasures, making a game of it, so many guesses each, all wrong, and a final show-down with opened palms. Paul had found a thin wide gold ring carved with intricate flowers and leaves. Miranda was smitten at sight of the ring and wished to have it. Paul seemed more impressed by the dove. They made a trade, with some little bickering. After he had got the dove in his hand, Paul said, “Don’t you know what this is? This is a screw head for a coffin! . . . I’ll bet nobody else in the world has one like this!” Read More
After the young man of the upstairs flat had first disclosed his plans for the Black Mass in the building of several storeys, it became the custom on every Friday and Saturday evening for all of the young persons gathered in the upstairs flat, including the young woman who lived there, to spend some or another part of each evening in discussing how they might spend one or another Friday or Saturday evening in the building of several storeys after the young man of the upstairs flat had bought the building and had fitted it out to his liking. The discussions at first were simple. The young man of the upstairs flat owned a copy each of several issues of the American magazine Playboy, which had recently been allowed into Australia after having been previously a prohibited import. All of the persons gathered in the upstairs flat would look at one after another illustration of a bare-breasted young woman from the magazines and would cast votes in order to decide whether or not the young woman should spend some time as a guest in the building of several storeys. The young woman of the upstairs flat was interested in dance and music and would describe some of the items that she would later choreograph, as she put it, for performance by herself and other naked young women during banquets. The chief character tried to amuse the others by reading to them parodies he had composed of prayers from the Mass. In each parody words such as God, angels, and sacrifice were replaced by words such as Lucifer, devils, and farce. However, few of the persons in the flat knew anything about Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the parodies aroused little interest. The only means that the chief character found for amusing the others in the upstairs flat was his performing a brief mime in which he took the role of a priest first turning from the altar towards his congregation with his head bowed and his eyes closed, then seeming to notice something was amiss, and finally looking aghast. (The chief character never held back from discussing with the other persons in the upstairs flat the details of the banquets and the orgies in the building of several storeys, but he was never able to imagine himself as taking part in an orgy. Whenever the chapel of the building of several storeys appeared as an image in his mind, it was always fitted with a so-called side-chapel, a sort of alcove with a few pews to one side of the altar. If an orgy seemed about to begin, he would slip unnoticed into the front pew of the side-chapel and would there masturbate quietly while he watched the goings-on in the sanctuary.)
From Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers and Critics, ed. Pradeep Trikha. 2007: Sarup & Sons, New Delhi.
I have preserved Australian spelling and style.
“The Breathing Author” — Gerald Murnane
This essay is the edited version of a talk given at the final session of the Gerald Murnane Research Seminar, held at the University of Newcastle on 20-21 September 2001.
I cannot conceive of myself reading a text and being unmindful that the object before my eyes is a product of human effort.
Much of my engagement with a text consists of my speculating about the methods used by the writer in the putting together of the text, or about the feelings and beliefs that drove the writer to write the text, or even about the life story of the writer.
What I am about to tell you today is the sort of detail that I would have been eager to know if it had been my fate to be a person who was drawn to read these books (points to the stack of his books near by) rather than the person who was drawn to write them.
I have for long believed that a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done as when he reports what he has done or wants to do.
I have never been in an aeroplane.
I have been as far north from my birthplace as Murwillumbah in New South Wales and as far south as Kettering in Tasmania; as far east as Bemm River in Victoria and as far west as Streaky Bay in South Australia. The distance between Murwillumbah in the north and Kettering in the south is about 1500 km. It so happens that the distance between Streaky Bay in the west and Orbost in the east is about the same. Until I calculated these distances a few days ago, I was quite unaware that my travels had been confined to an area comprising almost a square, but my learning this was no surprise to me.
I became confused, or even distressed, whenever I find myself among streets or roads that are not arranged in a rectangular grid or are so arranged but not so that the streets or roads run approximately north-south and east-west. Whenever I find myself in such a place, I feel compelled to withdraw from social intercourse and all activities other than what I call finding my bearings. These I try to find by reference to the sun or to roads or streets the alignments of which are known to me. I know I have found my bearings when I can visualise myself and my surroundings as details of a map that includes the northern suburbs of Melbourne and such prominent east-west or north-south thoroughfares of those suburbs as Bell Street or Sydney Road.
My trying to find my bearings takes much mental effort, and I fail more often than I succeed. I often believe I have succeeded but later refer to maps and find that my visualised map was wrong. When I discover this, I feel compelled to attempt a complicated exercise that I have probably never succeeded at. I am compelled first to recall the scene where I tried to find my bearings, then to recall the visualised map that proved to be wrong, and last to try to correct my remembered self, as it were: to relive the earlier experience but with the difference that I get my correct bearings. I sometimes feel this compulsion many years after the original event. While writing these notes, for example, I was compelled to recall the evening in November 1956 when I visited for the first time the suburb or Brighton, on Port Phillip Bay. It was my last day of secondary school, and my class had to meet at the home of the school captain and later to take a train into Melbourne to see a film. I arrived in Brighton by bus, in the company of boys who knew their way around that quarter of Melbourne. Later, when our class arrived on foot at Brighton Beach railway station, I stood with them on the platform where they had gathered, but I was convinced that we were waiting for the train from Melbourne. After the train had arrive and we had boarded, I remained convinced for some time that we were travelling away from Melbourne, and my peace of mind was continually disturbed during the rest of the evening by my wondering how I had so utterly lost my bearings at the railway station. Just now, as I said, I was compelled to relive that experience of more than forty years ago, but I failed yet again to understand how the map of Melbourne in my mind had been stood on its head.
I cannot understand the workings of the International Date Line.
Every story in Jessica Hollander’s début collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place feels thoroughly real, deeply authentic, and if we already know the contours of these plots—perhaps having lived some of them ourselves—Hollander makes us experience them anew with her bristling, strange sentences. Hollander writes here of families on the brink and families broken, families fragmenting and families forgetting. She conjures domestic spaces limned with ghosts and memories, children and parents who aren’t quite sure how to be a family, but who nevertheless try—even if trying is really just imagining.
In the strong opener “You Are a Good Girl I Love You,” our narrator Gertrude, about to graduate high school, imagines her future as a kind of do-over, one without interference from her overprotective father, inert mother, and wild child sister:
Of course Pete and I would attend the same school, live in the same dorm, plan classes to start and end together so we would be only briefly apart. We had a dependable timeline mapped out behind the child’s armoire in his room involving dates: graduations, wedding, first jobs, first house, babies raised by smiling parents. Some evenings we practiced smiling thinking the more one does it the more natural it feels.
Many of the stories that follow respond to—and complicate—Gertrude’s dream of an ideal happy family. There’s “girlfriend,” the otherwise-unnamed hero of “This Kind of Happiness,” who imagines alternate titles she might assume: “Single Mother. Pregnant Bride. Gun-toting Madwoman.” In “The Good Luck Doll,” Claudia feigns a pregnancy to keep her boyfriend deluded but happy (if only for a time). She’s happy to imagine the pregnancy along with him. “March On,” like several of the stories here, follows the aftermath of a failed marriage. What happens when a family ceases to take the same form? Are the old appendages, the in-laws now essentially dead to their ex-family members? Waiting outside her father’s mother’s door after having knocked and yelled for Grandma to open, narrator Raimy reflects on these changes:
Then, briefly, I decided she was dead. I imagined her pale on the floor and me making all this noise, and I felt even more disruptive. I stared at the quiet street, thinking about us all dead in some ways: the distance between people and the everyday separation, and maybe we constantly grieved each other and our old lives. The only comfort we had was thinking maybe it was like this for everyone, maybe there was a connection in that.
The connection that Raimy imagines and takes solace in runs through In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place. We find it in one of the strongest stories in the collection, “What Became of What She Had Made,” as mother Lynette grieves her estrangement from her adult daughter Christine. She enlists her other daughter Olivia, “a lush,” to come along on the mission. They head from Michigan to Ohio by taxi, fortifying themselves with morning doses of schnapps. By the time we finally meet Christine, we see why she might want her family to simply pretend she’s dead. Hollander’s restraint pays off, her precise sentences revealing just enough detail for us to fill in the dark gaps.
Sometimes Hollander achieves a near archetypal mode, but one tempered in specificity. Consider how much she packs in to just one paragraph form “I Now Pronounce You”:
In the husband and wife’s third year of marriage, a woman—not the wife—pushed the no-longer-new husband from a third-story window after she’d slightly burnt some chicken and he’d refused to eat it. And also he had refused to leave hi no-longer-new wife for the other woman because he’d realized the other woman was crazy. Besides, it was nice with the wife, who didn’t complain when he watched sports in the morning and who stayed home and became a better cook and took care of their small son, whom he didn’t much like but planned to increasingly as the son came to resemble more a small man than a wild animal.
Hollander’s rhetorical force is perhaps most evident in the title story, which undertakes to describe a divorce from several perspectives. Written as three lists, each one perhaps a year removed from the next, “In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place” merges form and content, its broken, discontinuous structure mirroring the broken, discontinuous family at its non-center. That breaking up also figures in the daughter’s favorite pastime:
The girl spent a Saturday morning cutting snowflakes from a pile of paper she’d found on her mother’s desk. The snowflakes were peppered with sliced negotiations, diamond-pierced words like child and property and alimony, and when the girl finished she strung the flakes together and hung them from her window so they trailed to the berry bush and flapped in the stirred summer wind.
Attempting to mediate (if not ameliorate) the daughter’s trauma is the babysitter:
“A sad situation,” the babysitter told friends lounging at night on her parents’ screened-in porch. She planned years from now to marry the boy holding her hand, though he’d quit his job and all summer hung around his mother’s pool smoking cigarettes with his mother. Dark ahead; behind them bright inside with television and bills, an electric piano and screwed-together projects. The babysitter said, “Stay together for the child,” and one friend said, “Yes,” and another said, “No,” and another said, “Life is life,” and the boyfriend said nothing.
The babysitter might have stepped out of one of the other stories in this collection. Maybe she’s older in one of those stories. Maybe she’s Gertrude or Olivia or Raimy or girlfriend or wife. She dreams, she imagines, and we know enough—Hollander shows us enough—to see that her imagining the future is not enough.
Tolstoy gave us that famous opener: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappy families of Hollander’s collection are unhappy in their own, personal, distinct and distinctly unhappy ways—but our author, by focusing on the capacities of her characters to imagine ways of being happy, also shows us that in many ways unhappy families are all alike. Recommended.
“Coward” by Guy De Maupassant
In society he was called “Handsome Signoles.” His name was Vicomte Gontran-Joseph de Signoles.
An orphan, and possessed of an ample fortune, he cut quite a dash, as it is called. He had an attractive appearance and manner, could talk well, had a certain inborn elegance, an air of pride and nobility, a good mustache, and a tender eye, that always finds favor with women.
He was in great request at receptions, waltzed to perfection, and was regarded by his own sex with that smiling hostility accorded to the popular society man. He had been suspected of more than one love affair, calculated to enhance the reputation of a bachelor. He lived a happy, peaceful life—a life of physical and mental well-being. He had won considerable fame as a swordsman, and still more as a marksman.
“When the time comes for me to fight a duel,” he said, “I shall choose pistols. With such a weapon I am sure to kill my man.”
One evening, having accompanied two women friends of his with their husbands to the theatre, he invited them to take some ice cream at Tortoni’s after the performance. They had been seated a few minutes in the restaurant when Signoles noticed that a man was staring persistently at one of the ladies. She seemed annoyed, and lowered her eyes. At last she said to her husband:
“There’s a man over there looking at me. I don’t know him; do you?”
The husband, who had noticed nothing, glanced across at the offender, and said:
“No; not in the least.”
His wife continued, half smiling, half angry:
“It’s very tiresome! He quite spoils my ice cream.”
The husband shrugged his shoulders.
“Nonsense! Don’t take any notice of him. If we were to bother our heads about all the ill-mannered people we should have no time for anything else.”
But the vicomte abruptly left his seat. He could not allow this insolent fellow to spoil an ice for a guest of his. It was for him to take cognizance of the offence, since it was through him that his friends had come to the restaurant. He went across to the man and said:
“Sir, you are staring at those ladies in a manner I cannot permit. I must ask you to desist from your rudeness.”
The other replied:
“Let me alone, will you!”
“Take care, sir,” said the vicomte between his teeth, “or you will force me to extreme measures.” Read More
Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.
After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.
During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.
Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—
The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.
The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.
Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.
In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.
Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!” The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?
For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.
In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]
Bach, when his wife died, had to arrange for the funeral. The poor man, however, was in the habit of leaving all practical matters to his wife, with the result that when when an old servant appeared, asking him for money to buy mourning crepe, Bach, weeping quietly, his head resting on the table, said, “Ask my wife.”
–Heinrich von Kleist
IN THIS RIFF:
Stories published in 1960:
“Zone of Terror”
“The Voices of Time”
“The Last World of Mr. Goddard”
1. “The Sound-Sweep” (1960)
Ballard’s strong suit isn’t characterization. In his later writing, he transcends this apparent weakness, employing a style and rhetoric that dispenses with—or nakedly accepts, in some cases—the flatness of his characters. Ballard works in types: the scientist, the madman, the artist, the detective, the ingenue, the explorer, the has-been. Most of his characters are driven by very basic desires—curiosity, madness, revenge. There’s a thin line though between archetypal placeholders and hackneyed stereotypes, and Ballard occasionally stumbles over it in some of these early stories. “The Sound-Sweep” is one such story, plodding along over too many pages, asking its readers to care about characters that lack emotional or psychological depth. And while I don’t think we read Ballard for emotional depth, necessarily, we do read Ballard’s best work because it plumbs the contours of human psychology colliding into nascent technological changes that affect the most basic human senses.
As its title suggests, “The Sound-Sweep” is another early Ballard tale that takes on the sense of sound. The short version: This is a story about noise pollution, and also about how we might sacrifice an artistic way of listening in favor of apparent convenience. As is often the case in these early stories, Ballard constructs the tale to explore the fallout of one particular idea. In this case, that’s “ultrasonic music”:
Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re–scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg – all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re–scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose.
To tease out this idea, Ballard employs a washed-up opera singer, Madame Giaconda (a heavy base of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a heavy dash of Miss Havisham and cocaine), and Mangon, a mute orphan, the titular sound-sweep (should I wax on the Blakean undertones here? No? Okay).
“The Sound-Sweep” plods along over far too many pages, even divvying up the plot into chapters, asking us to care about the relationship between Giaconda and Mangon. The story would probably have made an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, where performers might give life to some of the flat dialogue here and the constraints of television might compress the plot. The most interesting thing about “The Sound-Sweep”: The tale in some ways anticipates the mp3 and the ways in which music will be consumed:
But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development – the short–playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30–second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.
2. “Zone of Terror” (1960)
Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” is a much better doppelganger story. “Zone of Terror” reads like a very rough sketch for some of the stuff Ballard will do in his 1962 novel The Drowned World. (Both “Chronopolis” and “The Voices of Time” also clearly anticipate The Drowned World, each with much stronger results).
3. “Chronopolis” (1960)
“Chronopolis” offers an interesting central shtick: Clocks and other means of measuring and standardizing time have been banned. But this isn’t what makes the story stick. No, Ballard apparently tips his hand early, revealing why measuring time has been banned—it allows management to control labor:
‘Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Then you can make him do it faster.’
But our intrepid young protagonist (Conrad, his loaded name is), hardly satisfied with this answer, sneaks off to the city of the past, the titular chronopolis, where he works to restore the timepieces of the past. “Chronopolis” depicts a technologically-regressive world that Ballard will explore in greater depth with his novel The Drowned World, but the details here are precise and fascinating (if perhaps ultimately unconvincing if we try to apply them as any kind of diagnosis for our own metered age). Ending on a perfect paranoid note, Ballard borrows just a dab of Poe here, synthesizing his influence into something far more original, far more Ballardian. Let’s include it in something I’m calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
4. “The Voices of Time” (1960)
“The Voices of Time” is easily the best of the early stories in the collection. Ballard allows himself to dispense almost entirely with plot, or at least the kind of plot he’s been thus-far constrained by. Instead of the neat concision of his nineteenth century forebears (Chekhov and Poe), Ballard moves to something far more Ballardian (excuse the repetition), opening his text to a range of images and phrases that will repeat throughout his career—the word terminal, drained vessels, cryptic designs and sequences, a kind of psychic detritus the reader is left to account for and monitor. The loose threads in “The Voices of Time” are too many to enumerate. There’s a mutant armadillo and a girl named Coma. Mass narcolepsy and cacti that absorb gold from the earth as a shield against radiation. And sleep. And de-evolution:
…thirty years ago people did indeed sleep eight hours, and a century before that they slept six or seven. In Vasari’s Lives one reads of Michelangelo sleeping for only four or five hours, painting all day at the age of eighty and then working through the night over his anatomy table with a candle strapped to his forehead. Now he’s regarded as a prodigy, but it was unremarkable then. How do you think the ancients, from Plato to Shakespeare, Aristotle to Aquinas, were able to cram so much work into their lives? Simply because they had an extra six or seven hours every day. Of course, a second disadvantage under which we labour is a lowered basal metabolic rate – another factor no one will explain. …
… It’s time to re–tool. Just as an individual organism’s life span is finite, or the life of a yeast colony or a given species, so the life of an entire biological kingdom is of fixed duration. It’s always been assumed that the evolutionary slope reaches forever upwards, but in fact the peak has already been reached, and the pathway now leads downward to the common biological grave. It’s a despairing and at present unacceptable vision of the future, but it’s the only one. Five thousand centuries from now our descendants, instead of being multi–brained star–men, will probably be naked prognathous idiots with hair on their foreheads, grunting their way through the remains of this Clinic like Neolithic men caught in a macabre inversion of time. Believe me, I pity them, as I pity myself. My total failure, my absolute lack of any moral or biological right to existence, is implicit in every cell of my body…
I harped on Ballard’s lack of characterization earlier, and “The Voices of Time” makes no strong case for its author’s ability to create deep, full characters. What Ballard does very very well though is harness, express, and communicate the intellect of his smart, smart characters—something many if not most other writers (contemporary or otherwise) can’t do, despite any technical prowess they may possess. “The Voices of Time” doesn’t just tell you that its heroes and antiheroes are brilliant (and/or mad)—it shows you.
Marvelous stuff. Include it in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
5. “The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1960)
More Twilight Zone stuff. God-dard. Lilliput, sort of. Doll’s house. Etc. A one-note exercise that I doubt is worth your time. Skip it.
6. On the horizon:
Ballard anticipates how hollow and stale contemporary writing will become in “Studio Five, The Stars.”
THERE WAS A FALCONER AND HUNTER, named Sonjô, who lived in the district called Tamura-no-Gô, of the province of Mutsu. One day he went out hunting, and could not find any game. But on his way home, at a place called Akanuma, he perceived a pair of oshidori (mandarin-ducks), swimming together in a river that he was about to cross. To kill oshidori is not good; but Sonjô happened to be very hungry, and he shot at the pair. His arrow pierced the male: the female escaped into the rushes of the farther shore, and disappeared. Sonjô took the dead bird home, and cooked it.
That night he dreamed a dreary dream. It seemed to him that a beautiful woman came into his room, and stood by his pillow, and began to weep. So bitterly did she weep that Sonjô felt as if his heart were being torn out while he listened. And the woman cried to him: “Why–oh! why did you kill him?–of what wrong was he guilty?. . . At Akanuma we were so happy together–and you killed him! What harm did he ever do you? Do you even know what you have done?–oh! do you know what a cruel, what a wicked thing you have done?. . . Me too you have killed–for I will not live without my husband! . . . Only to tell you this I came”. . . . Then again she wept aloud–so bitterly that the voice of her crying pierced into the marrow of the listener’s bones;–and she sobbed out the words of this poem:
Sasoëshi mono wo–
Makomo no kuré no
Hitori-né zo uki!
At the coming of twilight I invited him to return with me–! Now to sleep alone in the shadow of the rushes of Akanuma– ah! what misery unspeakable!
And after having uttered these verses she exclaimed: “Ah, you do not know–you cannot know what you have done! But to-morrow, when you go to Akanuma, you will see–you will see. . . .” So saying, and weeping very piteously, she went away.
When Sonjô awoke in the morning, this dream remained so vivid in his mind that he was greatly troubled. He remembered the words: “But to-morrow, when you go to Akanuma, you will see–you will see.” And he resolved to go there at once, that he might learn whether his dream was anything more than dream.
So he went to Akanuma; and there, when he came to the river bank, he saw the female oshidori swimming alone. In the same moment the bird perceived Sonjô; but, instead of trying to escape, she swam straight toward him, looking at him the while in a strange fixed way. Then, with her beak, she suddenly tore open her own body, and died before the hunter’s eyes. . . .
Sonjô shaved his head, and became a priest.
Out of the four or five Bernhard works I’ve read, Old Masters is so far the least enjoyable, at least in terms of “heart.” Concrete and The Loser were both concerned with acceptance of one’s limits, his/her incapacity to be great in the face of their insistence on trying to get there. Here, it is mainly the folly of aesthetic representation, and how achievement and authority in an “old master” is false and arbitrary and patronizing. It seems like it is the most obvious excuse for Bernhard to rage against the art world, and of art making in general. On a formal level, though, it might be the clearest example of what Bernhard repeatedly performs: it is a “staged fiction,” insofar that techniques of theater are implemented through the mode of the “novel.” Bernhard, as always, beautifully writes paradox, ambivalence, and futility in this seamless meshing of form and content. This is the structural dipole–its largest–that is mirrored within the text on levels of theme, syntax, and joke.
Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said. But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we should despair. Even though we know that all art ends in gaucherie and in ludicrousness and in the refuse of history, like everything else, we must, with downright self-assurance, believe in high and in the highest art, he said. We realize what it is, a bungled, failed art, but we need not always hold this realization before us, because in that case we should inevitably perish, he said.
Irrsigler has that irritating stare which museum attendants employ in order to intimidate the visitors who, as is well known, are endowed with all kinds of bad behaviour; his manner of abruptly and utterly soundlessly appearing round the corner of whatever room in order to inspect it is indeed repulsive to anyone who does not know him; in his grey uniform, badly cut and yet intended for eternity, held together by large black buttons and hanging on his meagre body as if from a coat rack, and with his peaked cap tailored from the same grey cloth, he is more reminiscent of a warder in one of our penal institutions than of a state-employed guardian of works of art. Ever since I have known him Irrsigler has always been as pale as he now is, even though he is not sick, and Reger has for decades described him as a state corpse on duty at the Kunsthistorisches Museum for over thirty-six years.
–Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, trans. Ewald Osers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
This came in the mail a few weeks ago; I read a few of the poems and flash fictions, but haven’t had made time for the stories or the novella. From the The Conium Review’s website:
This issue of The Conium Review contains seventeen poems, five pieces of flash fiction, four short stories, and one novella. The contributing poets and writers are Elena Botts, Valentina Cano, Paola Capó-García, Patrick Cole, Darren C. Demaree, Thomas Dodson, Edward A. Dougherty, Ginger Graziano, Alamgir Hashmi, Kyle Hemmings, Nicholas Kriefall, Connie A. Lopez-Hood, Carlo Matos, Gretchen McGill, Robert McGuill, Thomas Mundt, Catherine Owen, Natalie Peeterse, Richard King Perkins II, Octavio Quintanilla, Charles Rafferty, Scott Ragland, Jonathan H. Roberts, M. A. Schaffner, Jacob Schepers, Claude Clayton Smith, and Emily Strauss. The cover art is courtesy of Loren Kantor.
RIP Elmore Leonard, 1925 – 2013
If you follow Teju Cole on Twitter, you’ve likely already read many of his small fates, tweets he composed over two years drawn from Nigerian newspapers. The project follows the spirit of Félix Fénéon’s faits divers, three-line tragedies collected from the news.
Cole has written about the project in detail at his site, as have a number of other sites, but I can’t recall seeing the small fates put together in one place before The New Inquiry published 45 today under the title I don’t normally do this sort of thing. Cole’s small fates operate on a wonderfully strange axis of comedy and horror; they are brief but rich, ironic but intensely real.