Like most Real Americans, I like to go to the bookstore on my birthday. At my favorite spot, I picked up Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack, which intrigued me with its weird shape, odd typeset, strange conceit, and wonderful opening line: “Now this be a Tale of as fine a Wench as ever wet Bed.” Oh, and illustrated by Barnes too:
Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery Bird: This one looks fascinating. NYRB’s blurb:
Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee is a scathingly humorous and utterly original novel out of Andrew Jackson’s America, the story of an incorrigible loafer who inadvertently discovers the power to project his soul into dying men’s bodies and to take over their lives. So gifted, Sheppard Lee sets off in pursuit of happiness, only to find himself thwarted at every turn. In growing desperation he shifts from body to body, now a rich man and now poor man, now a madman and now a slave, a bewildered spirit trapped in the dark maze of American identity.
Also: Evaristo Carriego, a study of the poet by Jorge Luis Borges.
And The Bark Tree, also translated as Witch Grass. I don’t know if this is the right starting place for Queneau, but it was a nice used New Directions edition, so, hey.
“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain
“The Pathfinder” and “The Deerslayer” stand at the head of Cooper’s novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. … One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo… The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.
Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.
In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.
Got a sweet bundle from Roman Muradov a few weeks ago: Yellow Zine #3 plus some other comix, including a take on Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night. Love the Joyce bookmark.
The comix themselves are funny, weird, and strangely heartfelt (why “strangely” — I suppose because there’s this weird cerebral/linguistic bent to them + literary allusion — these aren’t sad boy emo comics — but emotion and feeling comes through in Roman’s clean, expressive style).
Check out Roman’s site for more. I’m hoping for a graphic novel one day…
“The Shot” by Alexander Pushkin
We were stationed in the little town of N—-. The life of an officer in the army is well known. In the morning, drill and the riding-school; dinner with the Colonel or at a Jewish restaurant; in the evening, punch and cards. In N—- there was not one open house, not a single marriageable girl. We used to meet in each other’s rooms, where, except our uniforms, we never saw anything.
One civilian only was admitted into our society. He was about thirty-five years of age, and therefore we looked upon him as an old fellow. His experience gave him great advantage over us, and his habitual taciturnity, stern disposition and caustic tongue produced a deep impression upon our young minds. Some mystery surrounded his existence; he had the appearance of a Russian, although his name was a foreign one. He had formerly served in the Hussars, and with distinction. Nobody knew the cause that had induced him to retire from the service and settle in a wretched little village, where he lived poorly and, at the same time, extravagantly. He always went on foot, and constantly wore a shabby black overcoat, but the officers of our regiment were ever welcome at his table. His dinners, it is true, never consisted of more than two or three dishes, prepared by a retired soldier, but the champagne flowed like water. Nobody knew what his circumstances were, or what his income was, and nobody dared to question him about them. He had a collection of books, consisting chiefly of works on military matters and a few novels. He willingly lent them to us to read, and never asked for them back; on the other hand, he never returned to the owner the books that were lent to him. His principal amusement was shooting with a pistol. The walls of his room were riddled with bullets, and were as full of holes as a honey-comb. A rich collection of pistols was the only luxury in the humble cottage where he lived. The skill which he had acquired with his favourite weapon was simply incredible; and if he had offered to shoot a pear off somebody’s forage-cap, not a man in our regiment would have hesitated to place the object upon his head.
Our conversation often turned upon duels. Silvio — so I will call him — never joined in it. When asked if he had ever fought, he drily replied he had; but he entered into no particulars, and it was evident that such questions were not to his liking. We came to the conclusion that he had upon his conscience the memory of some unhappy victim of his terrible skill. Moreover, it never entered into the head of any of us to suspect him of anything like cowardice. There are persons whose mere look is sufficient to repel such a suspicion. But an unexpected incident occurred which astounded us all.
One day, about ten of our officers dined with Silvio. They drank as usual, that is to say, a great deal. After dinner we asked our host to hold the bank for a game at faro. For a long time he refused, for he hardly ever played, but at last he ordered cards to be brought, placed half a hundred ducats upon the table, and sat down to deal. We took our places round him, and the play began. It was Silvio’s custom to preserve a complete silence when playing. He never disputed, and never entered into explanations. If the punter made a mistake in calculating, he immediately paid him the difference or noted down the surplus. We were acquainted with this habit of his, and we always allowed him to have his own way; but among us on this occasion was an officer who had only recently been transferred to our regiment. During the course of the game, this officer absently scored one point too many. Silvio took the chalk and noted down the correct account according to his usual custom. The officer, thinking that he had made a mistake, began to enter into explanations. Silvio continued dealing in silence. The officer, losing patience, took the brush and rubbed out what he considered was wrong. Silvio took the chalk and corrected the score again. The officer, heated with wine, play, and the laughter of his comrades, considered himself grossly insulted, and in his rage he seized a brass candlestick from the table, and hurled it at Silvio, who barely succeeded in avoiding the missile. We were filled with consternation. Silvio rose, white with rage, and with gleaming eyes, said:
“My dear sir, have the goodness to withdraw, and thank God that this has happened in my house.”
“Flight” by John Steinbeck
Out fifteen miles below Monterey, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean. Behind the farm the stone mountains stood up against the sky. The farm buildings huddled like the clinging aphids on the mountain skirts, crouched low to the ground as though the wind might blow them into the sea. The little shack, the rattling, rotting barn were gray-bitten with sea salt, beaten by the damp wind until they had taken on the color of the granite hills. Two horses, a red cow and a red calf, half a dozen pigs and a flock of lean, multicolored chickens stocked the place. A little corn was raised on the sterile slope, and it grew short and thick under the wind, and all the cobs formed on the landward sides of the stalks.
Mama Torres, a lean, dry woman with ancient eyes, had ruled the farm for ten years, ever since her husband tripped over a stone in the field one day and fell full length on a rattlesnake. When one is bitten on the chest there is not much that can be done.
Mama Torres had three children, two undersized black ones of twelve and fourteen, Emilio and Rosy, whom Mama kept fishing on the rocks below the farm when the sea was kind and when the truant officer was in some distant part of Monterey County. And there was Pepe, the tall smiling son of nineteen, a gentle, affectionate boy, but very lazy. Pepe had a tall head, pointed at the top, and from its peak coarse black hair grew down like a thatch all around. Over his smiling little eyes Mama cut a straight bang so he could see. Pepe had sharp Indian cheekbones and an eagle nose, but his mouth was as sweet and shapely as a girl’s mouth, and his chin was fragile and chiseled. He was loose and gangling, all legs and feet and wrists, and he was very lazy. Mama thought him fine and brave, but she never told him so. She said, “Some lazy cow must have got into thy father’s family, else how could I have a son like thee.” And she said, “When I carried thee, a sneaking lazy coyote came out of the brush and looked at me one day. That must have made thee so.”
Pepe smiled sheepishly and stabbed at the ground with his knife to keep the blade sharp and free from rust. It was his inheritance, that knife, his father’s knife. The long heavy blade folded back into the black handle. There was a button on the handle. When Pepe pressed the button, the blade leaped out ready for use. The knife was with Pepe always, for it had been his father’s knife.
One sunny morning when the sea below the cliff was glinting and blue and the white surf creamed on the reef, when even the stone mountains looked kindly, Mama Torres called out the door of the shack, “Pepe, I have a labor for thee.”
There was no answer. Mama listened. From behind the barn she heard a burst of laughter. She lifted her full long skirt and walked in the direction of the noise.
Pepe was sitting on the ground with his back against a box. His white teeth glistened. On either side of him stood the two black ones, tense and expectant. Fifteen feet away a redwood post was set in the ground. Pepe’s right hand lay limply in his lap, and in the palm the big black knife rested. The blade was closed back into the handle. Pepe looked smiling at the sky.
Suddenly Emilio cried, “Ya!”
Pepe’s wrist flicked like the head of a snake. The blade seemed to fly open in midair, and with a thump the point dug into the redwood post, and the black handle quivered. The three burst into excited laughter. Rosy ran to the post and pulled out the knife and brought it back to Pepe. He closed the blade and settled the knife carefully in his listless palm again. He grinned self-consciously at the sky.
The heavy knife lanced out and sunk into the post again. Mama moved forward like a ship and scattered the play.
I got a review copy of My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, the first novel from Patricio Pron a few days ago and wandered into it a bit yesterday afternoon but then got distracted by something else. Anybody read this one—or anything by Pron? Curious what you think…
From a Granta interview:
Name the five writers you most admire at the moment (any period, language or genre).
David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño.
Here is publisher Knopf’s blurb for My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain:
The anticipated American debut of one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists: a daring, deeply affecting novel about the secrets buried in the past of an Argentine family.
A young writer, living abroad, makes the journey home to South America to say good-bye to his dying father. In his parents’ house, he finds a cache of documents—articles, maps, photographs—and unwittingly begins to unearth his father’s obsession with the disappearance of a local man. Suddenly he comes face-to-face with the ghosts of Argentina’s dark political past and with the long-hidden memories of his family’s underground resistance against an oppressive military regime. As the fragments of the narrator’s investigation fall into place—revealing not only a part of his father’s life he had tried to forget but also the legacy of an entire generation—this audacious novel tells a completely original story of corruption and responsibility, history and remembrance.
You can also read “Ideas,” a story by Pron published in The Paris Review, which I think is an excerpt from the book. First paragraph:
On April 16, 1981, at approximately three P.M., little Peter Möhlendorf, whom everyone called der schwarze Peter, “black Peter,” went home from the village school. His house was on the eastern edge of Sterberode, a town of some five thousand inhabitants outside the East German town of Magdeburg whose main economic activity is farming—asparagus, mostly. His father, who was in the basement of the house when little Möhlendorf arrived, would later say that he heard him come in and then could infer from the sounds in the kitchen, which was above the basement, what he was doing: he flung his backpack beneath the staircase landing, went to the kitchen, took a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, and poured himself a glass, which he drank standing; then he put the carton back in the refrigerator and went out into the backyard. Anyway, that was what he did every day when he came home from school and it could be that his father hadn’t really heard the noises he later would say he heard but rather had heard Peter come home and from that had guessed the rest of the series of actions. However, what his father did not know, as he listened or thought he listened to the noises his son was making above his head, was that little Peter was not going to return home that night or the nights that would follow, and that something incomprehensible and frightening was going to open up before him and the rest of the townspeople, and it would swallow everything up.
“An Ideal Family” by Katherine Mansfield
That evening for the first time in his life, as he pressed through the swing door and descended the three broad steps to the pavement, old Mr. Neave felt he was too old for the spring. Spring—warm, eager, restless—was there, waiting for him in the golden light, ready in front of everybody to run up, to blow in his white beard, to drag sweetly on his arm. And he couldn’t meet her, no; he couldn’t square up once more and stride off, jaunty as a young man. He was tired and, although the late sun was still shining, curiously cold, with a numbed feeling all over. Quite suddenly he hadn’t the energy, he hadn’t the heart to stand this gaiety and bright movement any longer; it confused him. He wanted to stand still, to wave it away with his stick, to say, “Be off with you!” Suddenly it was a terrible effort to greet as usual—tipping his wide-awake with his stick—all the people whom he knew, the friends, acquaintances, shopkeepers, postmen, drivers. But the gay glance that went with the gesture, the kindly twinkle that seemed to say, “I’m a match and more for any of you”—that old Mr. Neave could not manage at all. He stumped along, lifting his knees high as if he were walking through air that had somehow grown heavy and solid like water. And the homeward-looking crowd hurried by, the trams clanked, the light carts clattered, the big swinging cabs bowled along with that reckless, defiant indifference that one knows only in dreams…
It had been a day like other days at the office. Nothing special had happened. Harold hadn’t come back from lunch until close on four. Where had he been? What had he been up to? He wasn’t going to let his father know. Old Mr. Neave had happened to be in the vestibule, saying good-bye to a caller, when Harold sauntered in, perfectly turned out as usual, cool, suave, smiling that peculiar little half-smile that women found so fascinating.
Ah, Harold was too handsome, too handsome by far; that had been the trouble all along. No man had a right to such eyes, such lashes, and such lips; it was uncanny. As for his mother, his sisters, and the servants, it was not too much to say they made a young god of him; they worshipped Harold, they forgave him everything; and he had needed some forgiving ever since the time when he was thirteen and he had stolen his mother’s purse, taken the money, and hidden the purse in the cook’s bedroom. Old Mr. Neave struck sharply with his stick upon the pavement edge. But it wasn’t only his family who spoiled Harold, he reflected, it was everybody; he had only to look and to smile, and down they went before him. So perhaps it wasn’t to be wondered at that he expected the office to carry on the tradition. H’m, h’m! But it couldn’t be done. No business—not even a successful, established, big paying concern—could be played with. A man had either to put his whole heart and soul into it, or it went all to pieces before his eyes…
“Grace” by James Joyce
TWO GENTLEMEN who were in the lavatory at the time tried to lift him up: but he was quite helpless. He lay curled up at the foot of the stairs down which he had fallen. They succeeded in turning him over. His hat had rolled a few yards away and his clothes were smeared with the filth and ooze of the floor on which he had lain, face downwards. His eyes were closed and he breathed with a grunting noise. A thin stream of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
These two gentlemen and one of the curates carried him up the stairs and laid him down again on the floor of the bar. In two minutes he was surrounded by a ring of men. The manager of the bar asked everyone who he was and who was with him. No one knew who he was but one of the curates said he had served the gentleman with a small rum.
“Was he by himself?” asked the manager.
“No, sir. There was two gentlemen with him.”
“And where are they?”
No one knew; a voice said:
“Give him air. He’s fainted.”
The ring of onlookers distended and closed again elastically. A dark medal of blood had formed itself near the man’s head on the tessellated floor. The manager, alarmed by the grey pallor of the man’s face, sent for a policeman.
His collar was unfastened and his necktie undone. He opened eyes for an instant, sighed and closed them again. One of gentlemen who had carried him upstairs held a dinged silk hat in his hand. The manager asked repeatedly did no one know who the injured man was or where had his friends gone. The door of the bar opened and an immense constable entered. A crowd which had followed him down the laneway collected outside the door, struggling to look in through the glass panels.
The manager at once began to narrate what he knew. The constable, a young man with thick immobile features, listened. He moved his head slowly to right and left and from the manager to the person on the floor, as if he feared to be the victim of some delusion. Then he drew off his glove, produced a small book from his waist, licked the lead of his pencil and made ready to indite. He asked in a suspicious provincial accent:
“Who is the man? What’s his name and address?”
A young man in a cycling-suit cleared his way through the ring of bystanders. He knelt down promptly beside the injured man and called for water. The constable knelt down also to help. The young man washed the blood from the injured man’s mouth and then called for some brandy. The constable repeated the order in an authoritative voice until a curate came running with the glass. The brandy was forced down the man’s throat. In a few seconds he opened his eyes and looked about him. He looked at the circle of faces and then, understanding, strove to rise to his feet.
Quantin followed the procession for a few minutes out of morbid curiosity. The choice of narrower side streets, where it was easier to enlist the wall’s support, was probably deliberate, he thought, but then a long notice stuck to the stone exactly at eye level arrested his attention and, with it, his progress. The notice—in the manner of a proper, not overly pushy advertisement—listed the advantages ofso-called heavy dreams. Having come across the subject once before, Quantin read the fine print carefully, line by line: “The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true, we can hand our customers ‘turnkey dreams.’ Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleepy reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life. Where dreams unburdened by anything disappear like drops of water in the sand, dreams containing a certain harshness will, as they evaporate in the sun, leave a hard kernel on the roof of Plato’s famous cave: these dposits will collect and accrue, eventually forming a swordlike stalactite.
“Speaking in more modern terms,” the fine print went on, “our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customer’s call this ‘world history.’ But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.”
From Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s short story “The Branch Line,” collected in NYRB’s Memories of the Future (translation by Joanne Turnbull).
Needing another book the same way I need another hole in the head, I nevertheless dropped by my local used bookstore to browse—the place is huge, and a day of grading term papers made me feel zapped and perhaps depressed. Anyway. Spotted a beautiful Penguin edition of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi and had to have it. Here’s a passage some soul saw fit to dogear:
I had never heard of Georg Büchner or his novella fragment Lenz, but it was shelved next to Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas and both stood out because of their odd shapes.
Here are the blurbs for Lenz, which more or less sold me:
Finally, I did not buy yet another edition of Moby-Dick, despite this midcentury Rinheart cover—but I had to snap it to share: