“Indian Camp” — Ernest Hemingway


“Indian Camp”


Ernest Hemingway  

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.

Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.

The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time.

“Where are we going, Dad?” Nick asked.

“Over to the Indian camp. There is an Indian lady very sick.”

“Oh,” said Nick.

Across the bay they found the other boat beached. Uncle George was smoking a cigar in the dark. The young Indian pulled the boat way up on the beach. Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars.

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“Flavia and Her Artists” — Willa Cather


“Flavia and Her Artists”


Willa Cather    

As the train neared Tarrytown, Imogen Willard began to wonder why she had consented to be one of Flavia’s house party at all. She had not felt enthusiastic about it since leaving the city, and was experiencing a prolonged ebb of purpose, a current of chilling indecision, under which she vainly sought for the motive which had induced her to accept Flavia’s invitation.

“As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers” (Thomas De Quincey)


As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers, and the power of selection more and more a desperate problem for the busy part of readers. The possibility of selecting wisely is becoming continually more hopeless as the necessity for selection is becoming continually more pressing. Exactly as the growing weight of books overlays and stifles the power of comparison, pari passu is the call for comparison the more clamorous; and thus arises a duty correspondingly more urgent of searching and revising until everything spurious has been weeded out from amongst the Flora of our highest literature, and until the waste of time for those who have so little at their command is reduced to a minimum. For, where the good cannot be read in its twentieth part, the more requisite it is that no part of the bad should steal an hour of the available time; and it is not to be endured that people without a minute to spare should be obliged first of all to read a book before they can ascertain whether in fact it is worth reading. The public cannot read by proxy as regards the good which it is to appropriate, but it can as regards the poison which it is to escape. And thus, as literature expands, becoming continually more of a household necessity, the duty resting upon critics (who are the vicarious readers for the public) becomes continually more urgent — of reviewing all works that may be supposed to have benefited too much or too indiscriminately by the superstition of a name. The praegustatores should have tasted of every cup, and reported its quality, before the public call for it; and, above all, they should have done this in all cases of the higher literature — that is, of literature properly so called.

From Thomas De Quincey’s essay “The Literature of Knowlege and the Literature of Power,” part of The Poetry of Pope.

(And Yet Another) Moby-Dick (Book Acquired, 4.18.2014)

Books, Literature, Writers


So I bought yet another copy of Moby-Dick, despite the many several editions already in our home.

I’d looked for an edition of the Barry Moser illustrated M-D for years—casually, in used book shops—but after a few (ahem) glasses of chardonnay, I bought one for next to nothing on eBay.

Moser’s etchings are superb, of course, and they most often illustrate the technical, scientific, or historical aspects of the novel. Great stuff.




With the assurance of a sleepwalker (William T. Vollmann)

Books, Literature, Writers

Their slave-sister Guthrún, marriage-chained to Huns on the other side of the dark wood, sent Gunnar and Hogni a ring wound around with wolf’s hair to warn them not to come; but such devices cannot be guaranteed even in dreams. As the two brothers gazed across the hall-fire at the emissary who sat expectantly or ironically silent in the high-seat, Hogni murmured: Our way’d be fairly fanged, if we rode to claim the gifts he promises us! . . .—And then, raising golden mead-horns in the toasts which kingship requires, they accepted the Hunnish invitation. They could do nothing else, being trapped, as I said, in a fatal dream. While their vassals wept, they sleepwalked down the wooden hall, helmed themselves, mounted horses, and galloped through Myrkvith Forest to their foemen’s castle where Guthrún likewise wept to see them, crying: Betrayed!—Gunnar replied: Too late, sister . . .—for when dreams become nightmares it is ever too late.

When on Z-Day 1936 the Chancellor of Germany, a certain Adolf Hitler, orders twenty-five thousand soldiers across six bridges into the Rhineland Zone, he too fears the future. Unlike Gunnar, he appears pale. Frowning, he grips his left wrist in his right. He’s forsworn mead. He eats only fruits, vegetables and little Viennese cakes. Clenching his teeth, he strides anxiously to and fro. But slowly his voice deepens, becomes a snarling shout. He swallows. His voice sinks. In a monotone he announces: At this moment, German troops are on the march.

What will the English answer? Nothing, for it’s Saturday, when every lord sits on his country estate, counting money, drinking champagne with Jews. The French are more inclined than they to prove his banesmen . . .

Here comes an ultimatum! His head twitches like a gun recoiling on its carriage. He grips the limp forelock which perpetually falls across his face. But then the English tell the French: The Germans, after all, are only going into their own back garden.—By then it’s too late, too late.

I know what I should have done, if I’d been the French, laughs Hitler. I should have struck! And I should not have allowed a single German soldier to cross the Rhine!

To his vassals and henchmen in Munich he chants: I go the way that Providence dictates, with the assurance of a sleepwalker.—They applaud him. The white-armed Hunnish maidens scream with joy.

From William Vollmann’s Europe Central. 

For the past 100 pages or so, Vollmann has referred to Hitler as the sleepwalker (I’m almost positive that the word Hitler hasn’t been used in the text up until now), and while context has made it clear that this sleepwalker is Hitler, the source of the moniker is only clarified at this point.

How can love be self-ironic? (William T. Vollmann)

Books, Literature, Writers

I promise you that from the first time she took his hand—the very first time!—he actually believed; she was ready, lonely, beautiful; she wanted someone to love with all her heart and he was the man; she longed to take care of him, knowing even better than he how much he needed to be taken care of—he still couldn’t knot his necktie by himself, and, well, you know. He believed, because an artist must believe as easily and deeply as a child cries. What’s creation but self-enacted belief? —Now for a cautionary note from E. Mravinsky: Shostakovich’s music is self-ironic, which to me implies insincerity. This masquerade imparts the spurious impression that Shostakovich is being emotional. In reality, his music conceals extremely deep lyric feelings which are carefully protected from the outside world. In other words, is Shostakovich emotional or not? Feelings conceal—feelings! Could it be that this languishing longing I hear in Opus 40 actually masks something else? But didn’t he promise Elena that she was the one for him? And how can love be self-ironic? All right, I do remember the rocking-horse sequence, but isn’t that self-mockery simply self-abnegation, the old lover’s trick? Elena believes in me, I know she does! How ticklishly wonderful! Even Glikman can see it, although perhaps I shouldn’t have told Glikman, because . . . What can love be if not faith? We look into each other’s faces and believe : Here’s the one for me! Lyalya, never forget this, no matter how long you live and whatever happens between us: You will always be the one for me. And in my life I’ll prove it. You’ll see. Sollertinsky claims that Elena’s simply lonely. What if Elena’s simply twenty? Well, I’m lonely, too. Oh, this Moscow-Baku train is so boring. I can’t forgive myself for not kidnapping my golden Elenochka and bringing her to Baku with me. Or does she, how shall I put this, want too much from destiny? My God, destiny is such a ridiculous word. I’ll try not to be too, I mean, why not? It’s still early in my life. That nightmare of the whirling red spot won’t stop me! I could start over with Elena and . . . She loves me. Ninusha loves me, but Elena, oh, my God, she stares at me with hope and longing; her love remains unimpaired, like a child’s. I love children. I want to be a father. I’ll tell Nina it’s because she can’t have children. That won’t hurt her as much as, you know. Actually, it’s true, because Nina . . . Maybe I can inform her by letter, so I don’t have to . . . Ashkenazi will do that for me if I beg him. He’s very kind, very kind. Then it will be over! As soon as I’m back in my Lyalka’s arms I’ll have the strength to resolve everything. If I could only protect that love of hers from ever falling down and skinning its knee, much less from growing up, growing wise and bitter! Then when she’s old she’ll still look at me like that; I’ll still be the one for her.

From William T. Vollmann’s big fat historical novel Europe Central, which is so big and fat that I think a comprehensive review of it will be just maybe beyond me by the time I get to the end of it, so maybe some citation, a bit of riffing, yes?

The novel recounts (a version) of the Eastern front of WWII. Polyglossic, discontinuous, musical, mythic, often discordant, Vollmann shifts through a series of narrators, his turns oblique, jarring. And while Vollmann includes political and military leaders, his analsyis/diagnosis focuses on artists, musicians, and writers.  The above passage—which struck me especially for its discussion of the feeling of feeling, the aesthetics of feeling—this passage offers a neat encapsulation of Vollmann’s narrative digressions.

The “I” at the beginning of the citation is one of the “Shostakovich” sections narrators. Although unnamed (as of yet), he seems to be a high-ranking officer in Stalin’s secret police. At times though, this narrator—all of the narrators!—seem to merge consciousness with Vollmann, the novel’s architect, who interposes his own research and readings (or are they the narrators?). We see this in the dash introducing some lines from the conductor Evegny Mravinsky—key lines that I find fascinating—which Vollmann (or Vollmann’s narrator) uses to critique/question the relationship between art, emotion, intention, and authenticity (current subjects of deep fascination for me). Then—then!—without warning, Vollmann enters the consciousness of another “I,” Shostakovich himself, whose elliptical thoughts, muddied and warbling, illustrate, illuminate, and complicate Mravinsky’s critique.

Feelings conceal—feelings!—yes, yes, yes I think so: Here Vollmann (through several layers of complicating narrators, which lets just set aside for a second, or perhaps altogether, at least for now)—here Vollmann offers a fascinating description followed by its problem: If earnest expression can be couched in irony—if we use feelings to hide other feelings in art (etc.)—then what does that mean for love, which I think Vollmann (here, elsewhere) believes to be A Big Important Thing? Is a self-ironic love possible? Likely even?

I’m tempted here to deflect, move to another piece of art, like say, It’s A Wonderful Life, a film that I understand anew every year, a film I found baffling, frightening as a child; a film that bored me as teen; a film that I resented as a young man; a film that I appreciated with a winking ironic cheer a few years later—and then, now, or nowish, as an adult, a film I feel I understand, that its sentiment, raw, affects me more deeply than ever. (I was right as a child to be baffled and frightened). (What if anything self-ironic love?).

So I deflected. And am ranting, trying to set out a few thoughts for Something Bigger—something on Authenticity and Inauthenticity, The Con-Artist vs. The Poseur, the Aesthetics of Feeling the Feeling, of Anesthetizing the Feeling (of Feeling the Feeling). Look at me, I capitalized some of my words. Sorry.

“I stole a book” (Clarice Lispector)

Literature, Writers

The moment her aunt went to pay for her purchases, Joana removed the book and slipped it furtively between the others she was carrying under her arm. Her aunt turned pale.

Once in the street, the woman chose her words carefully:

— Joana.. . Joana, I saw you…

Joana gave her a quick glance. She remained silent.

— But you have nothing to say for yourself? — her aunt could no longer restrain herself, her voice tearful. — Dear God, what is to become of you?

— There’s no need to fuss, Auntie.

— But you’re still a child… Do you realize what you’ve done?

— I know…

— Do you know… do you know what it’s called… ?

— I stole a book, isn’t that what you’re trying to say?

— God help me! I don’t know what I’m going to do, you even have the nerve to own up!

— You forced me to own up.

— Do you think that you can… that you can just go around stealing?

— Well… perhaps not.

— Why do you do it then… ?

— Because I want to.

— You what?

— her aunt exploded.

— That’s right, I stole because I wanted to. I only steal when I feel like it. I’m not doing any harm.

— God help me! So, stealing does no harm, Joana.

— Only if you steal and are frightened. It doesn’t make me feel either happy or sad.

The woman looked at her in despair.

— Look child, you’re growing up, it won’t be long before you’re a young lady… Very soon now you will be wearing your clothes longer… I beg of you: promise me that you won’t do it again, promise me, think of your poor father who is no longer with us.

Joana looked at her inquisitively:

— But I’m telling you I can do what I like, that…

A biblioklept episode from Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.


Käthe Kollwitz kept painting poor people (Kollwitz/Vollmann)

Art, Literature, Writers


She worked without reference to the fiery proto-Cubism of those years, the representational, classical past as dead as the Second Reich itself, dead, dead!—as dead as the Tsarist officers who’d now sunk beneath their own weedy mucky parade grounds so that the Party of Lenin and Stalin could march across their moldering faces. Since 1912 she had kept a room on Siegmund-shof for her plastic arts. That was where she would create the mourning woman out of stone. Mostly she carved, etched, and painted in that flat on Weissenbürgerstrasse. Those were the years when the figures in other people’s paintings began to go ever flatter, more garish, more distorted, the colors hurtful to her although she liked some of the galloping calligraphic riders in Kandinsky. Grosz’s desperately angry caricatures, the X-ray bitterness of Otto Dix, not to mention abstract constructivism; she didn’t swim with that tide. Käthe Kollwitz kept painting poor people, starving people (white figures in dark fields, dark chalk on brown Ingres paper), raped women, mothers with dying children, mothers with dead children. In the end she depicted mainly herself, her stricken, simian face thinking and grieving. She too was a mother with a dead child.

From William Vollmann’s Europe Central.

“Five common methods by which sex gains an entrance into literature” (William H. Gass)

Books, Literature

So I shall, keeping one in each of my four pockets while one is in my mouth, describe five common methods by which sex gains an entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows thieves break in upon our dreams to rape our women, steal our power tools, and vandalize our dreams. The commonest, of course, is the most brazen: the direct depiction of sexual material— thoughts, acts, wishes; the second involves the use of sexual words of various sorts, and I shall pour one of each vile kind into the appropriate porches of your ears , for pronounc-ing and praising print to the ear is what the decently encouraged eye does happily. The third can be considered, in a sense, the very heart of indirection, and thus the essence of the artist’s art— displacement: the passage of the mind with all its blue elastic ditty bags and airline luggage f r o m steamy sexual scenes and sweaty bodies to bedrooms with their bedsteads, nightstands, water-glasses, manuals of instruction, thence to sheets and pillowcases, hence to dents in these, and creases, stains and other cries of passion which have left their prints , and finally to the painted chalk-white oriental face of amorously handled air and mountains,, lewdly entered lakes. The fourth I shall simply refer to now as the skyblue eye (somewhere, it seems to me, there should be a brief pinch of suspense), and the fifth, well, it’s really what I’m running into all my inks about, so I had better mention it: the use of language like a lover . . . not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.

From William H. Gass’s essay-novel On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.

“Nothing but Trouble” | Gordon Lish’s New Collection Goings Plays with the Problems of Language

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers


Ostensibly a collection of fictional short stories, Gordon Lish’s Goings reads more like a memoir-in-fragments. All thirteen stories are told by a first-person narrator named Gordon, who parenthetically appends an exclamatory repetition of his name (“I, Gordon (Gordon!)”) throughout the work, a verbal tic that registers the tension between the author and narrator, memory and truth. All these stories are in some way about memory and truth—and language, always language. Some of the tales are heavier on plot than others, although “heavier” is hardly the right modifier—let’s be honest—the plots here are thin, almost nonexistent: gestures, images, feelings—but that’s not why we read Gordon Lish, is it?

Opener “My Personal Memoir” sets the tone here, its title an honest ironic joke, I suppose. Old Gordon tells the story of young Gordon and his boyhood chums playing paddle-ball. A minor tragedy ensues. That’s pretty much the plot, but with Lish it’s really about the sentences, the memory behind the sentences, or maybe the inability of sentences to communicate the memories, or maybe just the failure of all of it—language, memory, truth—themes that carry through the collection in Lish’s (Lish’s!) often tortuous syntax.

In “Für Whom?”, Lish offers a sketch of his family, his boyhood piano lessons, his teacher, his competitive anxieties, his burgeoning lust:

Siblings, families—what else is there to say? Furthermore (I love that: the chance to flaunt it with echt balance), it was I whose fingers took up his arpeggios while his backside thrummed ever more thrummingly to a kind of low-register attunement to the propinquity of Miss Buggell’s same. Oh, the nearness of her ass (sirs, and madam, it was no rump, now was it?), all yearning angularities not infrequently settling itself within fractions of centimeters afar. I quote, of course. Yes, I, Gordon (Gordon!), aged seven, aged six, aged eight, hankered after that piano teacher as I have never since hankered after the person of a woman since.

In another strong story, “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America,” Lish returns again to his parents, weaving them into a strange half-rant that moves from rutabagas to spelling to Kierkegaard to Grace Paley to lettuce. Like most of these stories, “For My Mother” is obsessed with its own telling (and the conditions that might authorize its telling). Its narrator tells us:

I don’t know. I don’t look anything up in any fucking dictionary. Who’s writing this? I’m writing this. The dictionary is not in any goddamn charge of this act of expression, or of this, if you please, scription. Even me, even I, even the author of this is barely in charge of it. Or of anything else. And you know why? Would you like to know fucking why? Because he does not fucking want to be—is that answership enough for you. Make sure you have mastered the spelling of your father’s name of of your mother’s name. Never refer to your mother as “Mom.” Never use the word “reference” as a verb. The same goes for “experience,” the word. Never start a sentence with the word “however.”

Lish’s narrator Gordon continues offering editorial advice, which I suppose we may take ironically or otherwise. In any case, the book is crammed with moments like these, little fits of our narrator’s (author’s?) doubt coupled with a commanding viewpoint on how language could, should, mean.

At least one (very funny) story, “Knowledge,” hangs entirely around Lish-as-editor—only this time, our Gordon isn’t cutting into Raymond Carver’s prose or tightening up some Barry Hannah. No, he’s tearing down a poorly-worded sign from a lamp post. Gordon (Gordon!), “for the decency of my community, for its bloody battered decency,” tears it down. The sign? — “WE ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURED THIS PAST SUNDAY IN THIS AREA. WE HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.” There’s a story in there too, in that sign, but our narrator’s not interested in any human characters that the sign’s written characters, letters, might try to represent. The brilliance of the story: Lish leaves it to the reader to suss out the gap between the meaning of the sign—the information that it communicates—and the narrator’s critique of how that sign communicates.

“Avant La Lettre” offers another literary space for gaps to evince between reader, narrator, and author. Our narrator Gordon (Gordon!) tells us at the outset: “The title, pay it no mind. It does not apply. It does not appertain,” suggesting that he doesn’t even know what the phrase means, that it just came to him as he “sat down to tell you about a mystery (the vanishing of the man on the corner).” The immediate denial of a link between the meaning of the story’s title and the story’s content isutterly disingenuous, a clue really to the mystery here (more of a non-mystery, an anecdote at best). Lish pokes fun at the denial by repeatedly referencing literary theorists throughout the story: “(tell Barthes, tell Derrida, tell Badiou)” and then “Well name it and (tell Schopenhauer, tell Schelling, tell Spinoza or Freud) it dies.” The punch line to the story is too good to spoil here, but it can’t hurt to share part of the set-up. Lish writes (or Gordon (Gordon!) says):

Where’s in me anymore (in Gordon, in Gordon!) the discipline for the creation of the succession of elaborations, for the concatenation of the falsifications, for the accruing of the exhausting collocations?

I’m sad….Writing’s not the god of me.

Is writing not the god of you, speaker? And what is “Avant La Lettre” but a succession of elaborations, a concatenation of falsifications, an accrual of collocations?

“Avant La Lettre” admittedly requires from its reader a certain comfort with (or at least understanding of) postmodern literary theory; this is a story that casually (and of course not casually) references Alphonso Lingis and Julia Kristeva.

Other material here is less obscure (and more subtle) in its treatment of theory. “In the District, Into the Bargain” uses a chance meeting between widower Gordon and a widowed acquaintance to restage the central paradox of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (you know: “This is not a pipe”).  There’s also the oblique feminism of “Women Passing: O Mysterium!” and the semiotic play of “Troth.” This is all great stuff, or maybe not. I mean I loved it, lapped it up, but I’m the audience for this. I’m Lish’s (Gordon’s!) reader, the reader he addresses so directly in closer “Afterword.” Only I’m not—because “Afterword” is so clearly written to, spoken to Lish himself.

This literary solipsism, onanism, pick-your-ism is so not for everyone. Lish is a cult writer, and his performance here is appropriate to any aging (aged!) cult leader, one who’s painfully aware of how easy it is to point out a naked charlatan. The structure of Goings is something like I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-myself-try-to-see-myself-etc. But the book is very funny, often painful, and downright moving at times, like in “Gnat,” where Lish shares a simple memory of trying on a new shirt for his wife, or the terror of “Speakage,” a two-page dialogue between young Gordon and his mother that begins “What is it, die?” The stories here are real—obscure, sure, difficult, yes, but also emotional, rewarding.

Goings In Thirteen Sittings is not the best starting place for anyone interested in Lish’s prose. This new book continues a project that will feel familiar to those who’ve read Self-Imitation of My Self, Epigraph, and My Romance, books that many critics felt were too insular, too inscrutable. New readers might do better to start with Mourner at the Door (although you can’t really lose in picking up Collected Fictions, which collects that book among others). I also highly recommend the Iambik recording of Lish reading selections from Collected Fictions. Hearing his intonation and rhythm totally changed how I read his prose, enriched my understanding of what he was doing and how he was doing it.

But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering on its two epigraphs. The second, ascribed to “Anon.” (another joke on Lish’s part, I think): “Mother! Father! Please!” The first is from a literary critic, but in its phrasing on the page it looks like a poem. In any case, it’s a fitting summary for Goings:


Goings In Thirteen Sittings is available now from OR Books.