In a 1934 radio interview, Gertrude Stein talks American football:
INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?
STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.
INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.
STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.
INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.
STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?
Is the reader an adversary for you?
No. I don’t think much about the reader. Ways of reading are adversaries—those theoretical ways. As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers,” and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.
Brian Wilson Goes on The Rock & Roll Chef; Discusses Surfer Chicken, His Deafness, and His Love of Thai Food; Raps a Little (1990 Interview)
Who are some living novelists you respect?
Well, the question leaves out so many dead ones who are more alive. I think Barth is one of the great writers. I have admired his work since I first encountered it. I think he is incredible. Several of his books, in particular The Sot-Weed Factor, are the works which stand to my generation as Ulysses did to its. His habits of work are wholly unlike mine, and the kind of thing which engages him is quite different too. He is a great narrator, one of the best who ever plied the pen, as they used to say. He has been accused of being cold, purely mental, but I find him full of passion and excitement. And what I like about his work in great part is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and energy and total control. I really admire a master. He’s one.
A lot of the work of Hawkes is extraordinary, breathtaking. Everybody likes Beckett. Now. It’s silly to mention Bellow, Borges, Nabokov—so obvious. And of course Stanley Elkin’s work I like enormously. Some of Coover’s, too, I find extraordinarily interesting. Control again. Gaddis. Control. Also Barthelme—a poet. A great many South American writers write rings around us. Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers is a great book. I taught Hopscotch once. I’ll never get over it. Márquez, Fuentes, Lima, Llosa . . . it is always an exciting time to be a reader. Lots of European writers are overblown, especially some of the French experimentalists, but Italo Calvino is wonderful. Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works is impressive. In general, I would think that at present prose writers are much in advance of the poets. In the old days, I read more poetry than prose, but now it is in prose where you find things being put together well, where there is great ambition, and equal talent. Poets have gotten so careless, it is a disgrace. You can’t pick up a page. All the words slide off.
Steve Kemper Talks to Biblioklept About A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, His New Book About Explorer Heinrich Barth
Steve Kemper’s latest book A Labyrinth of Kingdoms tells the story of Heinrich Barth, a German scientist who led a British-backed expedition into the central Sudan. While Barth’s name is not nearly as well-known as Livingstone or Stanley, Kemper makes a solid argument for a reappraisal of Barth’s neglected work. Barth explored Bornu and Sokoto, learned the ways of the nomadic Tuareg people, traveled to Timbuktu, and filled in many of the missing gaps that had been previously left to the guesswork of European geographers. Perhaps most importantly, Barth made numerous cultural connections in his time in Africa.
Barth’s story comes alive in Kemper’s capable hands; A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is erudite but never stuffy—at its core, the book is an excellent adventure story. Kemper’s first book, Code Name Ginger, traced the arc of invention and commerce by telling the story of the creation of the Segway transport. His work has also appeared journals like Smithsonian and National Geographic. To find out more about A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, check out Kemper’s blog .
Kemper was kind enough to talk to me about his book and Barth’s life in a series of emails.
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is new in hardback from W.W. Norton on June 25th, 2012.
Biblioklept: What drew you to the story of Heinrich Barth? What made you want to write A Labyrinth of Kingdoms?
Steve Kemper: I got interested in Barth when I read a couple of paragraphs about him in Ryszard Kapuścińksi’s The Shadow of the Sun, a book of dispatches about Africa. In Timbuktu, Kapuścińksi notices a plaque on a house where Barth spent many months in 1853-1854, and he calls the explorer “one of the greatest travelers in the world” for his five years exploring the Sahara. He says that Barth survived death many times, including once by drinking his own blood. Kapuścińksi added that despite Barth’s accomplishments, he died young, unappreciated and almost forgotten. All of that sounded like the bones of a great story.
Biblioklept: Obviously, Barth’s tale is a great adventure story—but what are his greatest accomplishments?
SK: One of the reasons Barth isn’t better known is that he didn’t return with a headline accomplishment—the source of the Nile, a traverse of the continent, the location of a lost explorer. He did “discover” the Benue River and showed that it flowed into the Niger (that river’s major tributary) rather than into Lake Chad, and he settled the exact location of Timbuktu. But the reason that his work remains important to scholars is that he came back with reams of invaluable information and data about geography, anthropology, ethnography, and languages. He traveled across an immense territory and spent time with the major peoples of north-central Africa—Hausas, Kanuris, Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhais, Fulanis. The material he collected is still relevant. That can’t be said of most of Barth’s more famous peers. But then as now, headlines are more likely than scholarship to capture the public’s attention.
Biblioklept: North Africa, and the Islamic world in-general have captured more of the Western public’s attention in recent years though—what can we learn from Barth’s travels and experiences?
SK: Many things. First, that the region and the religion are not monolithic. Barth’s work (and my book) are full of a tremendous variety of peoples and cultures. Most Westerners—and I include myself in this, prior to writing this book—have a vague, fuzzy, and simplified image of the region that distorts everything about it—its many cultures, its complicated history, its complexity. Barth returned convinced that Islam was a great religion—not a popular view, then as now—but added that in some places it had been hijacked by thugs who used it as an excuse to pillage non-Muslims, or by fanatics, who used it as an excuse to kill or enslave non-Muslims. This still sounds familiar. But he also added that Islam wasn’t much different in this way from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. Barth met Muslim scholars and Muslim thieves, and tried to be clear about both. I could keep typing on this subject for a while but I don’t want the answer to get too long. I plan to write a couple of op-eds on the subject in time for the book’s pub date.
Biblioklept: In A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, you point out that Barth’s open-minded ideas were not well-received by his contemporaries, in part because these ideas conflicted with the emerging age of imperialist Europe. Is this also one of the reasons he hasn’t been canonized like other explorers?
SK: The short answer is yes, I believe so, though there are not straight lines connecting the two. But it seems clear that Barth’s ideas at least contributed to the reception of his work, along with Britain’s changing commercial and political goals, the interests of the public, and Barth’s own difficult personality.
Biblioklept: In what ways was Barth a difficult personality?
SK: During his journey and afterwards in England, Barth occasionally felt that he was being slighted by the British government or that his honor was being questioned (especially by one tormentor at the Royal Geographical Society). He was often right, but he reacted to these things with the touchiness of an anemone. An anemone’s touchiness is pretty to see; Barth’s was blunt and haughty and could even verge into petulance. His own strict sense of honor and proper conduct left him appalled at some of the machinations against him in England (and also in Germany). Barth’s brother-in-law and close friend wrote about him, “Heinrich is always too gruff and unyielding, and yet too modest and too imprudent. His pride doesn’t permit him to give in at the right moments. In the river of life he is a bold and persevering swimmer, but not a very agile one.”
Some of Barth’s difficulties stemmed from the fact that he was German, and the British liked their heroes home-grown. Some people in England couldn’t gracefully accept that the success of a British expedition had depended almost solely on a foreigner. (The British government funded the expedition, which began with an English leader. Barth was contracted as an independent scientist.)
Another part of Barth’s difficult personality stemmed from his sense of high calling. He truly did devote his life to science and the pursuit of truth, and he could be harsh when lesser mortals fell short of his standards.
It interests me that when he was in Africa, Barth showed far more patience and diplomacy than he did when back in Europe. In Africa, patience and diplomacy were often necessary to accomplish what he wanted and even to survive, but in Europe I think he expected better conduct and sometimes reacted poorly when he was disappointed.
Biblioklept: Barth’s story is one of culture and discovery, but it’s also an adventure story—can you share a favorite anecdote about Barth the adventurer?
SK: Tough question, since there are so many good ones, including death threats and narrow escapes. But I prefer the ones that reveal something about Barth. So: early in the journey, when he still considered himself nearly indestructible, he foolishly set off on foot one morning, with little water and no food, to climb a distant mountain. He soon ran out of water, got lost, and began to die of dehydration. Eventually he cut his arm and drank his own blood, which didn’t help. The following morning, at the caravan, the Tuareg guides told the expedition’s leader that no man could have survived the long Saharan day and night without water, but they agreed to search for him. Late that afternoon they found him, nearly comatose. The Tuaregs were amazed at his survival. They were also amazed the next day when, even though he couldn’t eat or speak, he rode seven hours with the caravan. This close call was a tough lesson, but Barth took it to heart and learned from it.
Another favorite, because it epitomizes how understated Barth always is about his adventures, occurred when he entered Kabara, a village on the Niger River not far from Timbuktu. Barth took up lodgings and was eating supper when a Tuareg warrior entered, glaring, and attempted to intimidate Barth into giving him a fine gift. Barth said he was eating and to go away. The Tuareg replied that he was a very dangerous man who was about to do something terrible. Barth writes, “After a very spirited altercation, I got rid of him.” I love the dry modesty of that. Imagine how Burton or Stanley would have handled it. After Barth expelled the warrior, 200 other men came in and silently eyed the stranger. Barth responded by staring back while lying across his smaller bags and protecting the bigger ones behind him. Very cool. Very Barth.
Biblioklept: I ran a blurb of your book the other day and a reader asked if the theologian Karl Barth might be a descendant of Heinrich’s. Any clue?
SK: I wondered the same thing, but haven’t come across anything that suggests they were related.
Biblioklept: You provide a fairly extensive set of end notes as well as a large bibliography for Labyrinth–clearly a lot of reading and research went into the book. Can you describe how you synthesized the information? What were some of your most important sources?
The principal source, of course, was Barth’s colossal book, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, which was originally published in five volumes and covered nearly 3500 pages. Other crucial primary sources were the extensive Foreign Office files in the British National Archives, which include dispatches from consuls, receipts, letters, and all the thorough bureaucratic documentation of the Victorian age. Barth’s brother-in-law and close friend, Gustav von Schubert, wrote a biography that I had translated; it provided many private glimpses of Barth.
The scholarship, of course, was invaluable, and I immersed myself in it to understand the era. Remember, I’ve spent the last 30 years as a journalist, writing about living people. I knew how to write narrative, but I had to learn how to do that with history. My goal with the book was to write an exciting, informative narrative that put readers inside the expedition with Barth, so all the scholarship is all folded into the action. I don’t quote many scholars in the text proper, because I didn’t want to intrude on the readers’ experience of the expedition. That’s all writer’s talk about technique and is probably more than your readers want to know.
Biblioklept: Actually, our readers seem to enjoy insights about writing technique, so I’m sure they’ll be interested in this stuff. (I’m interested, anyway). How long did it take to research and write the book?
SK: It’s hard to say, because I was also working on smaller jobs while researching and writing the book. The research just for the proposal was time-consuming, starting with Barth’s 3500 pages. Because I’m not a scholar of 19th century Africa or Europe, the background research took many months. The writing, including interruptions from other jobs, took about 9 months—probably 7 months net.
Biblioklept: What’s your next big project?
SK: I’m working on another book for W. W. Norton about another undeservedly obscure adventurer whom I stumbled across in my reading. An American this time, who lived the sort of epic life that’s no longer possible, on frontiers in several countries. I think I’ll keep his name to myself for the time being.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SK: Yes, once, while in college—a paperback of several Sean O’Casey plays. It was also a library book, which I later realized compounded the crime, since I deprived others who could have gotten pleasure from it. I’ve since donated hundreds of dollars’ worth of books to libraries. Maybe I’ve subconsciously been seeking atonement.
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.