“Everything has been merely attempted, nothing completed” (Thomas Bernhard)

At the same time I had to tell myself that we invariably made excessive demands of everything and everybody: nothing is done thoroughly enough, everything is imperfect, everything has been merely attempted, nothing completed. My unhealthy craving for perfection had come to the surface again. It actually makes us ill if we always demand the highest standards, the most thorough, the most fundamental, the most extraordinary, when all we find are the lowest, the most superficial, the most ordinary. It doesn’t get us anywhere, except into the grave. We see decline where we expect improvement, we see hopelessness where we still have hope: that’s our mistake, our misfortune. We always demand everything, when in the nature of things we should demand little, and that depresses us. We see somebody on the heights, and he comes to grief while he is still on the low ground. We want to achieve everything, and we achieve nothing. And naturally we make the highest, the very highest demands of ourselves, completely leaving out of account human nature, which is after all not made to meet the highest demands. The world spirit, as it were, overestimates the human spirit. We are always bound to fail because we set our sights a few hundred per cent higher than is appropriate. And if we look, wherever we look, we see only people who have failed because they set their sights too high. But on the other hand, I reflect, where should we be if we constantly set our sights too low?

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.

Go Away | From Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Concrete

If I go away, I said to myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall simply be leaving a country whose absolute futility utterly depresses me every single day, whose imbecilities daily threaten to stifle me, and whose idiocies will sooner or later be the end of me, even without my illnesses. Whose political and cultural conditions have of late become so chaotic that they turn my stomach when I wake up every morning, even before I am out of bed. Whose indifference to the intellect has long since ceased to cause the likes of me to despair, but if I am to be truthful only to vomit. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in my iron chair, in which everything that once gave pleasure to so-called thinking people, or at least made it possible for them to go on existing, has been expelled, expunged and extinguished, in which only the most primitive instinct for survival prevails and the slightest pretension to thought is stifled at birth. In which a corrupt state and a corrupt church join forces to pull at the endless rope which, with the utmost ruthlessness and callousness, they have for centuries wound round the neck of a blind and stupid people, a people imprisoned in its stupidity by its rulers. In which truth is trodden underfoot, and lies are sanctified by all official organs as the only means to any end. I shall be leaving a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which truth is not understood or quite simply not accepted, and falsehood is the only legal tender in all transactions. I shall be leaving a country in which the church practises hypocrisy and in which socialism, having come to power, practises exploitation, and in which art says whatever is acceptable to these two. I shall be leaving a country in which a people educated to stupidity allows its ears to be stopped by the church and its mouth by the state, and in which everything I hold sacred has for centuries ended up in the slop pails of the rulers. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall only be going away from a country in which I no longer have any place and in which I have never found happiness. If I go away, I shall be going away from a country in which the towns stink and the inhabitants of the towns have become coarsened. I shall be going away from a country in which the language has become vulgar and the minds of those who speak this vulgar language have for the most part become deranged. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which the only model of behaviour is set by the so-called wild animals. I shall be going away from a country in which darkest night prevails at noonday, and in which virtually the only people in power are blustering illiterates. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall be leaving the disgusting, depressing and unconscionably filthy public lavatory of Europe. To go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, means leaving behind me a country which for years has done nothing but afflict me with the most damaging depression and has taken every opportunity, no matter where or when, of insidiously and malignantly urinating on my head.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.

“Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” (Moby-Dick)

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

From “The Symphony,” Chapter 132 of Melville’s Moby-Dick. The speaker is, of course, Ahab.

 

“I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me” (Moby-Dick)

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

From “A Squeeze of the Hand,” Chapter 94 of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

“He was an aphorism writer” (Thomas Bernhard)

He was an aphorism writer, there are countless aphorisms of his, I thought, one can assume he destroyed them, I write aphorisms, he said over and over, I thought, that is a minor art of the intellectual asthma from which certain people, about all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses’ night tables, I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room; the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser.

 

“I’m Searching” — Clarice Lispector

The opening paragraph to Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H.

“Man Grows Used to Everything, the Scoundrel” — Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment)

” . . . Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”

He sank into thought.

“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”

—From Chapter II of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.

Some Annotations on the First Sentence of William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

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1. Let’s start with the what:

Agapē Agape is the last novel by William Gaddis, that underread titan who gave us The Recognitions and J R. Agapē Agape was published in 2002, four years after Gaddis’s death. Agapē Agape is 96 pages in my Penguin Classics edition (the font is rather large, too)—almost exactly one-tenth the length of The Recognitions in my Penguin Classics edition, which is 956 pages (and in a smaller font).

2. And why?

Let’s say I’ve struggled with this review, perhaps more than I struggled with writing about J R (which I did here and here) or The Recognitions (which I did here and here), which seems nonsensical because those books are so big and this one is so short. But that’s a surface argument.

See, Agapē Agape is dense. It seems to compact and condense all of Gaddis’s themes and ideas and motifs into this little book that’s uranium heavy, too dense to allow for line breaks or paragraph breaks or indentations, let alone chapters. It’s one big block of text.

3. And so—

After reading the book twice I’ve marked every page (which is exactly like marking no pages), and at this point the only way that I can find to discuss it (I know there must be others) is to annotate the opening paragraph, its first sentence, really—which of course isn’t really a paragraph or a sentence in the traditional grammatical sense—I mean, there are a set of clauses, some fused sentences, perhaps a comma splice or two—but what marks it as a discrete sentence is that it’s punctuated by a question mark, a tiny caesura before the next onslaught of words. (Some of Agapē Agape’s sentences go on for pages).

4. The style of Agapē Agape recalls Thomas Bernhard, who Gaddis’s narrator accuses of having plagiarized the book that the narrator has yet to write. The accusation (ironic, purposefully, of course) points to Agapē Agape’s concern for synthesis, for transmitting some clear thesis statement out of the muddle of Western culture. Agapē Agape tries to suss out that muddle and as such is larded with discussions of Plato, Nietzsche, Melville, Hawthorne, Byron, Freud (“Sigi”!), Bach, Caesar, Joyce, Pulitzer, Tolstoy, Frankenstein, Huizinga, Pound, Philo T. Farnsworth, player-pianos . . . It overwhelms the narrator; it overwhelms the reader. But enough dithering—

5. —here is the opening sentence:

No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece, houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about, that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?

6. “No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I,”

Ulysses ends with a “Yes”; Agapē Agape begins with a “No.” This is a deeply negative book, cruel almost, bitter, caustic, acidic, but also erudite, funny, and even charming. We see right away the narrator—surely a version of Gaddis himself—concerned with the ancient problem of communication, the problem that occupied Plato and every philosopher since: “I’ve got to explain all this.” We also see here the same stream-of-consciousness technique here that Joyce used so frequently in Ulysses (putting aside Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence)—the suspended referent, the unnamed (the unnameable?): “I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I”—while I what? Still can? Still live? From the outset, Agapē Agape is a contest against time, death, and entropy.

7. “why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized”

Synthesis, synthesis, synthesis. Making books out of other books. Plugging literature into other literature. I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man, said someone once. And then others said it again. And then I cited it here, now.

I’m reminded here of a list that Gibbs (erstwhile Gaddis stand-in in J R) keeps in his pocket, a scrap paper crammed with ideas, fragments, citations:

Is it possible to get it sorted?

Recall now Gaddis’s hero Ezra Pound. From Tom McCarthy’s essay on synthesis, “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:

With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”

It is the reader’s job to make Agapē Agape cohere.

8. “when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it”

Agapē Agape may be said to have a few formalizing plots beyond its object of synthesizing Western culture vis-à-vis art and entertainment.

One of these formalizing elements is the idea of an old man divvying up his property to his daughters. Oh, hey, King Lear anyone? What’s most interesting to me about this plot (okay, more of a motif really) is that it’s the only allusive device that the narrator doesn’t remark upon. We have a narrator who’s trying to control all these notes and clippings, all these scraps of culture, a narrator with a sharp (if distracted intelligence) who nevertheless fails to remark upon the fact that his personal circumstances echo the great dismal swan song of English literature. King Lear: madness, unraveling, degeneracy, death, entropy.

9. “while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece,”

Another formalizing element in Agapē Agape are the health issues the narrator faces, presumably a series of surgeries that involve at least one of his legs. The motif of surgeries, of transplants, and implants runs throughout The Recognitions and J R as well. In The Recognitions we get poor Stanley’s mother’s amputated leg, another strange reliquary trace floating through the text. In J R, we get Cates prepped for a heart transplant, yet another organ transferral for this massive man. There’s the idea here of borrowed parts, that humans might not be “natural,” cohesive entities but rather a collection of parts that may be swapped out. Again, synthesis in the face of break down; the surgeon as entropy repairman.

10. “houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about,”

Here, the personal, the concrete, the immediate, and the real tips into what Gaddis took to be the grand subject of his corpus—collapse, chaos, entropy. Spelled out clearly in the next line:

11. “that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight,”

I don’t think commentary from me is necessary here. Instead, let me share a quote from Gibbs in J R, ranting to his young students:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

12. “entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?”

The age of the amateur. Paint-by-numbers. Everyone wants to write a novel but no one wants to read one. Etc. When the narrator grumbles “where technology came from in the first place,” he means entertainment. That’s one thesis in Agapē Agape: that the technological progress we so value, that so underwrites the march of our grand civilization has its roots in toymaking and child’s play.

13. The novel that follows this addled, rattled opening line is remarkable for its brilliance, its cruelty, but most of all its sheer verbal force. Gaddis showed a mastery of voice in J R, a heteroglossic novel of speech, speech, speech, a grand dare to any reader, I suppose. Agapē Agape is even more stripped down, the monologue of a dying voice, a voice that’s been too-long ignored and under-appreciated. I don’t know if something so sad, so personally sad can be called perfect, but I can’t think of a more appropriate or fitting final statement from Gaddis.

“Quite an Original” — Herman Melville on Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Satan

This is Chapter XLIV of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man:

“Quite an original:” A phrase, we fancy, rather oftener used by the young, or the unlearned, or the untraveled, than by the old, or the well-read, or the man who has made the grand tour. Certainly, the sense of originality exists at its highest in an infant, and probably at its lowest in him who has completed the circle of the sciences.

As for original characters in fiction, a grateful reader will, on meeting with one, keep the anniversary of that day. True, we sometimes hear of an author who, at one creation, produces some two or three score such characters; it may be possible. But they can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan. That is to say, they are not, in a thorough sense, original at all. They are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once.
More likely, they are what are called odd characters; but for that, are no more original, than what is called an odd genius, in his way, is. But, if original, whence came they? Or where did the novelist pick them up?

Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his. But in the one fair, new species of quadrupeds are hardly more rare, than in the other are new species of characters—that is, original ones. Their rarity may still the more appear from this, that, while characters, merely singular, imply but singular forms so to speak, original ones, truly so, imply original instincts.

In short, a due conception of what is to be held for this sort of personage in fiction would make him almost as much of a prodigy there, as in real history is a new law-giver, a revolutionizing philosopher, or the founder of a new religion.

In nearly all the original characters, loosely accounted such in works of invention, there is discernible something prevailingly local, or of the age; which circumstance, of itself, would seem to invalidate the claim, judged by the principles here suggested.

Furthermore, if we consider, what is popularly held to entitle characters in fiction to being deemed original, is but something personal—confined to itself. The character sheds not its characteristic on its surroundings, whereas, the original character, essentially such, is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things.

For much the same reason that there is but one planet to one orbit, so can there be but one such original character to one work of invention. Two would conflict to chaos. In this view, to say that there are more than one to a book, is good presumption there is none at all. But for new, singular, striking, odd, eccentric, and all sorts of entertaining and instructive characters, a good fiction may be full of them. To produce such characters, an author, beside other things, must have seen much, and seen through much: to produce but one original character, he must have had much luck.

There would seem but one point in common between this sort of phenomenon in fiction and all other sorts: it cannot be born in the author’s imagination—it being as true in literature as in zoology, that all life is from the egg.

In the endeavor to show, if possible, the impropriety of the phrase, Quite an Original, as applied by the barber’s friends, we have, at unawares, been led into a dissertation bordering upon the prosy, perhaps upon the smoky. If so, the best use the smoke can be turned to, will be, by retiring under cover of it, in good trim as may be, to the story.

Ben Marcus Talks About His Novel The Flame Alphabet

Novels Make Lousy Gifts (But We Should Give Them Anyway)

Novels make lousy gifts.

Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).

I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.

If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.

I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:

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I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).

In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).

To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.

At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.

But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].

I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).

What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).

People like books with pictures though, generally.

Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.

Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a  sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

Here’s another entry in our Thanksgiving series of literary recipes–a recipe for fish stew, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. The recipe is Henry Perowne’s, the novel’s protagonist who makes it for dinner on the titular day. The adaptation below comes from journalist Damian Barr, who wrote an excellent article about recipes in literature for The Times.

Into a stockpot of boiling water (a litre or more), put the bones of three skates (or other boned fish), with heads intact. If you have no obliging local fishmonger, use a pound or more of white fish.

Add a dozen or so mussels to the stock. Simmer for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, strip and chop three onions and eight fat cloves of garlic. Soften over a low heat in a casserole with a lot of olive oil. When they have melted sufficiently, add: a couple of crushed red chillies, a pinch of saffron, some bay leaves, orange-peel gratings, oregano, five anchovy fillets, two cans of peeled tomatoes

When these have blended together in the heat, add a quarter bottle of white wine. Then strain off the stock and add to the casserole. Simmer the mix for 20 minutes.

Rinse and/or scrub the clams and remaining mussels and place in a bowl.

Cut the monkfish tails into chunks and place in a separate bowl.

Wash the tiger prawns and add to the monkfish bowl. Keep both bowls refrigerated until ready to cook. Just before dinner, reheat the casserole.

Simmer the clams, monkfish, mussels and prawns in the casserole for ten minutes.

Eat the stew with brown bread, or garlic bread, salad and a hearty red wine.

Trans-Atlantyk — Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz’s semi-autobiographical novel Trans-Atlantyk is a slim, bristling work that dances out over a mere 122 pages with a force that simultaneously exhausts and engages. Our hero is the eponymous Gombrowicz, a Polish intellectual who travels via pleasure cruise to visit Argentina. The ship arrives to the near-immediate news that the Nazis have occupied Poland. Most of the dutiful, patriotic Poles clamber back on the ship; Gombrowicz, doubling the real-life author, elects to stay in a self-imposed exile. None of the reasoning or rationale behind these decisions is made especially clear (indeed, I had to glean much of the reasoning for these events from the book’s introduction). Here is how the scene plays out in Gombrowicz’s strange syntax—

Then would I fain have fallen on my knees! Albeit I did not fall at all, just quietly began to Curse, Damn mightily but only to Myself: “Sail, sail, you Compatriots, to your People! Sail to that holy Nation of yours haply Cursed! Sail to that St. Monster Dark, dying for ages yet unable to die! Sail to your St. Freak, cursed by all Nature, ever being born and still Unborn! Sail, sail, so he will not suffer you to Live or Die but keep you for ever between Being and Non-being. Sail to your St. Slug that she may ever the more Enslime you.” The ship turned aslant now and was moving off so this I likewise say: “Sail to that Madman, to that St. Bedlamite of yours—oh, haply Cursed—so that he may Torment, Torture you by those leaps and frenzies of his, drown you in blood, howl at you and by his Howling howl you out, by Torturing torture you, Children of yours, wives, to Death, to Agony—in agony himself, in the agonies of Madness Madden you, O’ermadden you!” With this Curse, turning my back on the ship, I entered the Town.

The passage, which I encourage you, gentle reader, to read again (go ahead, I’ll wait), showcases much of Trans-Atlantyk’s strange power: the archaisms, the snaky syntax (Gombrowicz repeatedly delays his predicate verb or even his subject, burying them at the end of the sentence), the bizarre capitalization, the acid humor, the bloody pathos, the impossible tone. So many of the book’s conflicts are laid bare in this passage. We see the essential conflict of an individual vs. the culture and society that would claim him as its mouthpiece; we find Poland, “that St. Monster Dark,” that cursed “St. Slug” forever trailing behind the rest of Europe, playing out the fight between tradition and modernism; we find the conflict of the exile, projected through the distortion of a fun house mirror, smacking back on our narrator who himself is now cursed “for ever between Being and Non-being.”

Trans-Atlantyk was composed during and after WWII, and much of the madness inherent in its themes became normalized during this time. As if to call attention to these psychic disjunctions, Gombrowicz writes Trans-Atlantyk in the mode of the gawęda, an antiquated form of Polish folk narrative popular with the rural nobility. Gawęda, oral in scope and tradition, emphasizes inner-textual creation, randomness, digression, alliteration, and, above all, energetic narrative freeplay—features Trans-Atlantyk displays with remarkable force. Gombrowicz uses this idiom in a celebratory mode, showcasing the possibility and liveliness of language, but he also ironizes language itself: Trans-Atlantyk might be read as a sustained attack on Poland’s obsessions with archaic tradition, as well as an attack on patriotism and patriarchal authority in general. In the 1994 translation I read, Carolyn French and Nina Karsov render Gombrowicz’s pseudo-gawęda in a kind of 17th or 18th century English style—and they do so to grand effect. Their “Translator’s Note” is perhaps the most instructive piece of scholarship on how translation happens that I have ever read. It’s worth the price of admission alone. And while I do not possess the skills to read the book in its original Polish, I imagine that French and Karsov have accurately and faithfully telegraphed the spirit of Gombrowicz’s novel.

If we return briefly, kind reader, to the excerpt above, we find our hero penniless and cursed, heading into town. Here he finds an odd non-home among the Polish ex-pats, who humorously call the Argentinians “aliens.” (Gombrowicz repeatedly stages scenes that show the extreme disconnection between the Poles and their New World surroundings; it is as if these Europeans are unable to comprehend that they are in the midst of a culture other than their own). Unsure of what to do and fearing the stigma of being a traitor (and, honestly, broke), Gombrowicz heads to the Polish Legate, essentially to turn himself in, but also in the hopes of gaining some kind of employment. He meets with the Polish Minister in a scene that is hilarious but, in its historical irony, also shocking and sad. The Minister is something of a mouthpiece for the Polish attitude that Gombrowicz satirizes—

He drew a breath. Did flash his eye. Did say: “We will, by my troth. I say this to you, and I say this so you cannot say that I was saying that we would not Vanquish, since I say to you that we will Vanquish, will Win, for we will reduce to dust with our mighty, gracious hand—smash, crush to dust, powder, with Sabres, Lances, anatomize, annihilate, and under our Colours and in our Majesty, oh Jesus Maria, oh Jesus, oh Jesus . . . we will grind, Kill! Oh, we will kill, anatomize, demolish! And why are you staring so? I tell you indeed, we will annihilate! Indeed you can see, you can hear the Minister himself, the Gracious Envoy is telling you we will Annihilate; perchance you can see that the Envoy himself, the Minister, is pacing here before you, waving his hands and telling you that we will Annihilate! And don’t you dare bark thus: that I didn’t Pace before you, that I didn’t Say, as you see that I do Pace and Say!”

The minister’s phallic aggression, bound in two of the book’s motifs—walking and speaking—reveals the deep paranoia that seethes under the surface of the ex-pat community; indeed, it’s this very paranoia that drives Gombrowicz to the Legate in the first place. In any case, Gombrowicz soon finds a job as a bank clerk, although the specifics here are a bit murky. The real-life Gombrowicz worked as a bank clerk for years in Argentina, famously saying that the job gave him the freedom to write while his boss wasn’t looking. Thankfully, Trans-Atlantyk spends little time in its protagonist’s workplace, but I think it’s worth sharing one of the few passages about office life in the book. There’s a Kafkaesque scope to Gombrowicz’s observations about the modern office, an innate realization of the dehumanizing aspects inherent in bureaucracy, but also a strong vein of absurd humor—

Amidst these rustlings I slightly opened the door that led to the next Room. A big room, long and Darkish, and a row of tables at which clerks sit, over Promissory Notes, Ledgers, Folios studiously bent; and such a number of Papers, so lumped, Swamped that you can hardly move, for likewise on the floor there a multitude of papers and old scribblings; and Ledgers from a cupboard protrude and even to the ceiling heave, out onto the windowsills bulge and swamp the Office. So if any of the clerks moves, he rustles as a Mouse in these papers.

The description continues, Gombrowicz marking the ways  in which the clerks remain at their desks even to eat. As the passage reaches its conclusion, the scene described might take place in any contemporary office—

Whereupon Tea was brought in, viz. Mugs with coffee and buns on a tray, and then all the clerks, having paused in their work, set upon the food. And anon, as usual, discourse sounded. I was overcome by laughter at the sight of that Coffee Drinking of those clerklets! Since at first sight one could see that, for years, sitting together in this Office, every day the eternal Coffee drinking and the eternal Bun munching, with these same old jokes treating themselves, they at once all there was of theirs was comprehended.

So much of contemporary life is there: its mundane rituals, its mechanical repetitions, its pathetic consolations. If Gombrowicz feels contempt for the idea that an individual owes a duty to society, that contempt extends right into the workplace.

Yet I’m barely scratching the surface here. The real plot of Trans-Atlantyk—and bear in mind, kind reader, that this plot hurtles or waltzes or jerks through its motions, rarely employing conventional narrative sequencing signals; rather, we have here a picaresque of sorts, a constant deferral of clear meaning—the real plot of Trans-Atlantyk (if such a thing exists) careens around a good old-fashioned duel. Somehow our hero falls into this intrigue, which results when a senior Polish man finds his honor assaulted. What assaults his honor? The lascivious intentions of a notorious and wealthy homosexual Argentinian on said senior Pole’s son. It’s easy here to frame the conflict in any number of dualities: Euorpean vs. New World, patriarchal tradition vs. homosexual outsider, familial order vs. alien anarchy. But there’s more to the conflict than mere duality. The homosexual Gonzalo, with his predatory designs on the Pole’s teenage son, comes to embody himself that core conflict of “Being and Non-being,” a figure whose conceptual impossibility reflexively engenders new and untold possibilities. Here’s our narrator’s description—

Ergo methinks: And what is’t? Where am I? What do I do? And from him would I have fled long ago, yet sorrowful sore was I to desert my only companion. For a Companion he was. Yet, when by the Tree he so together with me, I feel somewhat discomfited as neither Fish nor Fowl. Viz. hairs black, manly he had on his hand, but this hand—Dimpled, White, dainty Hand . . . and likewise perchance foot . . . and although a Cheek dark with shaven hairs, this Cheek of his charms and coquettes as if ’twere not Dark but indeed white . . . and likewise Leg though Manly as if ‘twould be a Dainty leg and Charms in curious caprices . . . and though head of a man in his prime, bald at the brow, Wrinkled, this head as if slips off a head, seeking to be a dainty head . . . So he as if fain would not himself Transforms in the silence of the night, and now you wit not whether ’tis He or She . . . and perchance, being neither this nor that, he has the aspect of a Creature and not a human . . . He lurks, the rascal, stands, says naught, and only at his Boy silently gazes. So I think, what the Devil, Werewolf, and wherefore I here with him . . .”

Notice how this in-betweener, this “Werewolf” recapitulates the perception of his own indeterminacy back on our narrator, who feels “discomfited as neither Fish nor Fowl.” This radical ambiguity plays out through the remainder of the novel, which alternately writhes, skips, and dances in an exploration of a world without fixed meaning, or, perhaps more accurately, a world where all meaning must be questioned, weighed not just in words and books but also in blood. Trans-Atlantyk ends in an explosion of radically ambiguous laughter, a gesture of hilarity and violence, joy and ridicule—it is a laughter that might claim the reader as its object or, perhaps, invite the reader to laugh along.

Trans-Atlantyk is a marvelous dare to readers, a work of language invention on par with the best in late modernism. Like any work that creates and enacts its own idiom, Trans-Atlantyk poses a learning curve that will doubtless frustrate or intimidate many readers. But its rewards are plentiful for those willing to trek through its anarchy and slip unresisting into its chaos. Recommended.

Book Acquired, 8.29.2011

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Got a finished copy of Chad Harbach’s (n+1) début novel The Art of Fielding today; the book comes out next week from Little, Brown & Company. Their description—

At Westish College, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for the big leagues until a routine throw goes disastrously off course. In the aftermath of his error, the fates of five people are upended. Henry’s life’s purpose is called into question. Guert Affenlight, the college’s president, has fallen helplessly, unexpectedly in love. Owen Glass, Henry’s gay roommate, becomes swept up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the team captain, realizes he guides Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish to start a new life after an ill-fated marriage. As the season counts down to its climax, these five confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets, and help one another to find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence, and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others.

 

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

Here’s another entry in our Thanksgiving series of literary recipes–a recipe for fish stew, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. The recipe is Henry Perowne’s, the novel’s protagonist who makes it for dinner on the titular day. The adaptation below comes from journalist Damian Barr, who wrote an excellent article about recipes in literature for The Times.

Into a stockpot of boiling water (a litre or more), put the bones of three skates (or other boned fish), with heads intact. If you have no obliging local fishmonger, use a pound or more of white fish.

Add a dozen or so mussels to the stock. Simmer for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, strip and chop three onions and eight fat cloves of garlic. Soften over a low heat in a casserole with a lot of olive oil. When they have melted sufficiently, add: a couple of crushed red chillies, a pinch of saffron, some bay leaves, orange-peel gratings, oregano, five anchovy fillets, two cans of peeled tomatoes

When these have blended together in the heat, add a quarter bottle of white wine. Then strain off the stock and add to the casserole. Simmer the mix for 20 minutes.

Rinse and/or scrub the clams and remaining mussels and place in a bowl.

Cut the monkfish tails into chunks and place in a separate bowl.

Wash the tiger prawns and add to the monkfish bowl. Keep both bowls refrigerated until ready to cook. Just before dinner, reheat the casserole.

Simmer the clams, monkfish, mussels and prawns in the casserole for ten minutes.

Eat the stew with brown bread, or garlic bread, salad and a hearty red wine.

“The book educates you about the book” — NPR Profiles Philip Roth

In case you missed it: NPR’s All Things Considered spoke with Philip Roth about his new book Nemesis earlier this week. From the profile–

Nemesis is Roth’s 31st work, and at age 77, he still continues to take risks with his narrative style. In Nemesis, he doesn’t reveal the identity of the narrator until well into the novel.

“It just dawned on me as I was writing along,” Roth explains. “The book educates you about the book.”

Though Roth developed the novel’s narrative structure unexpectedly, he was motivated to do so by a novel that continues to inspire him: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In the novel’s first scene, the reader is introduced to Charles Bovary, Madame Bovary’s husband-to-be, as a schoolboy. The scene is narrated by the collective voice of his mocking classmates — a voice that then disappears.

“Well, I don’t have the guts for that,” Roth says, laughing. “That’s what made Flaubert Flaubert, you know. But indeed, it is from the charm of that opening of Madame Bovary that I took my lead.”

 

Inherent Vice — Thomas Pynchon

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Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia. Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it. At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader. And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).

While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills, Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world. If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:

. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.

Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be. At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.

Inherent Vice is available from Penguin August 4th, 2009.