The Problems of Bartleby

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What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?

This question seems like a bad starting place.

Let me share an anecdote instead.

—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”

At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).

Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.

So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.

I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:

“I would prefer not to.”

—While we’re here—

“I would prefer not to”

So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?

Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.

But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”

Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:

At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.

I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”

“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“You must.”

He remained silent.

Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.

“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.

These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.

We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.

We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.

And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.

Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.

Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).

—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:

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I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.

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Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).

I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:

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So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?

—Slight shift:

The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.

I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?

First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”

The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.

Now, to shift back (perhaps):

Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?

Should they?

—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.

The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”

Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?

Should it?

—Well. No. And then no.

I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?

“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.

—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).

And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellowthe idea of a fellowa ghost.

So, look, here’s a take on it:

The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state of being a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a good guy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.

Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).

And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.

Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint.  But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.

Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s  “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.

And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).

So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).

Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.

And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.

Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.

Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.

Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.

Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.

So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.

— And the epilogue:

We all recall the epilogue, yes?

Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”

For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.

Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.

We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

?

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Size Matters

I went to my favorite local bookstore this afternoon and for reasons beyond me I was compelled to pick up Jonathan Littell’s divisive 2009 novel The Kindly Ones, a massive tome running to almost 1000 pages in its trade paperback edition. Okay. The reasons I bought it are not completely beyond me: they mostly stem from Paul La Farge’s essay “A Scanner Darkly,” published in the May, 2009 issue of The Believer. Previous Believer feature essays have led to me picking up excellent books by writers I’d never heard of, including 2666 and The Rings of Saturn. Anyway, the book is massive, and I don’t really have time to read it any time soon. There is a hobbit-sized stack of review copies lingering by my nightstand, more arriving all the time, not to mention the books I habitually pick up weekly. Which, more often than not, tend to be pretty big like, uh, The Kindly Ones.

Why is this? Why the attraction to big books? In his essay included at the end of Bolaño’s 2666, Ignacio Echevarría cites a passage from the book where literature professor Amalfitano wonders that:

Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

The “bookish pharmacist” in question has explained that he favors the preciseness of “Bartleby” over Moby-Dick, the polish of The Metamorphosis over The Trial. Amalfitano, Bolaño’s stand-in, points out that it takes “the great, imperfect, torrential works” to “blaze paths into the unknown.” Put another way, the masters need space; space to overflow, make errors, experiment, joust with other masters, play in and with time. Obviously, the passage (as Echevarría and a million other critics have noted) is a defense for the sprawl of 2666 itself, but I think it speaks to why many readers are drawn to the big books. They can be ragged and overflowing but they also have more room to take the measure of spirit, soul, life. They can evoke this world and others. They can be grand.

Not to say that the smaller books can’t do this in turn. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is masterful in its precision and humor. But Tree of Smoke is the better book. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest trumps everything else the man wrote. White Noise is more manageable than (and perhaps superior to) Underworld, but the bigger book allows Don DeLillo the space he needs to explore so much of American history and American psyche. And these are just contemporary examples. There’s James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Sterne. Cervantes. Supply your own names.

But I also love novellas and those long short stories of strange size like Joyce’s “The Dead” or, yes, “Bartleby” (sidebar: Really, what is “Bartleby”? A long short story? A short novella? What is it?). There’s something pure and refreshing about them, especially when consumed quickly, especially when consumed between a few of those long books. And a confession: I love it when review copies come in that hover around 200 pages, particularly when the novel is the writer’s first or second. There’s a glut, a horrendous, miserable glut, of first-time novelists who feel they must say everything about everything in 380 or 450 or, God forbid, 500+ pages. It’s really too much. I suppose the rule, if there has to be a rule (there doesn’t) is impossibly simple (and perhaps just impossible): if you’re going to write a really, really big book, make sure it’s addictive, compulsive reading. I’m not sure if The Kindly Ones is great art or a potboiler posing as art, but I am pretty certain that its length alone, for whatever reason, is part of its attraction.

Biblioklept Interviews Melville House’s Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson, along with wife Valerie Merians, heads Melville House Publishing, an independent book house putting out some of the best stuff on the market today. They also have a bookstore in Brooklyn that regularly hosts all kinds of neat literary-type events. Melville House is the outgrowth of Johnson’s literary blog MobyLives, an insightful source of reportage on the literary world today. In 2007, the Association of American Publishers awarded Melville House the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing and in 2009 The Village Voice declared Melville House “The Best Small Press of the Year.” I talked to Johnson by phone last week and he answered my questions with patience and humor. We discussed how Johnson finds the marvelous books he publishes, translation, novellas, and upcoming releases from Melville House. After the interview he was kind enough to ask me about my own blog and offer me some encouraging words. Just a few days after our talk it was announced that one of Melville House’s recent publications, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven had won the 2010 Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

Biblioklept: I want to begin by congratulating Melville House on Hans Fallada’s novel, Every Man Dies Alone. It’s done really well both critically and commercially. The book is something of a “recovered classic,” published just last year for the first time in English. Can you tell us a little bit about how Melville House came to publish the book?

Dennis Johnson: Well, it was a search it’s a real saga about hunting down that book. I’m always interested in finding material from that part of the world and that time of history because I think a good deal of very good literature was lost between the two wars. And it’s just writing that I like a lot. So a friend of mine, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg had family that came through that part of the world at that time and I asked her if she had any recommendations and she told me I should look into Hans Fallada, who I’d never heard of. So I tracked down a couple of his titles that had been translated–because he was a bestselling writer here in the 1930s–and it took a while but I found some of those books which had been out of print for a long time and I really loved them. And then, von Furstenberg told me that his best one had never been translated. That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it. And, at that point, once we’d discovered it, it was pretty easy sailing. But tracking down his stuff that had been translated and finding out more about him was really kind of a fun bit of detective work.

B: Did Michael Hoffman translate it specifically for Melville House?

DJ: Yeah, he did. We hired him to do it.

B: Is that normally how you go about with these works–like Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan or Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack? Hiring a translator?

DJ: Well, there’s a couple of things you can do. You can find the translator, or you can reprint things that have been translated already, if you think it’s already a good translation–that’s a less expensive way to do a translated book. So for example, with the Fallada, I bought some old translations of his other books and published them simultaneously with the new translation of Every Man. There was, you know, there was no old translation to buy. But two of his other books, two great books, one called The Drinker and one called Little Man, What Now? I thought were pretty well translated so we just bought those old translations. They were out of print, they were available [for publication].

B: It seems like a lot of the books you guys put out are–I don’t know how to put it–recovered classics or cult books or just books that English-reading audiences just aren’t necessarily exposed to. Is that purposeful with Melville House?

DJ: I think we have a fairly mixed list. The names you were citing a minute ago . . . Balestrini, he’s only been translated once, I think, thirty or forty years ago. But he’s a very prominent writer in Italy. And it wasn’t exactly a “discovery,” it was just someone that we thought American audiences should know about. Imre Kertész on the other hand is extremely famous, he’s a Nobel Prize winner and he’s published by Knopf. We were thrilled when he wanted to come to Melville House. So, you know, some of these writers are here, some are not. We publish some well known writers, some very obscure writers. We try to mix it up. You know, there’ s no rule, just good literature.

B: Can you talk a little bit about the Contemporary Art of the Novella series? How did it come about?

DJ: Well, we originally had a series called just the Art of the Novella. It’s classics, many of them translated, classics from around the world, lots of European classics, and some of those are new translations that we did it, some are old translations that we reprinted. And that series did really, really well and people really seemed to love it so we decided that we would do a contemporary version of that series and try to mix it up the same way. And so the new series has new discoveries in it, some old reprints, things from around the world, we’re expanding beyond Europe and Russia, we’ve got a native Japanese author named Banana Yoshimoto in it coming out, we’ve got African writers, South American writers . . . It’s been off to a very good launch. I think we’ve done about fourteen or fifteen books in that series so far and it’s going really well. You know, it’s very hard to publish translation in the United States. It doesn’t . . . it doesn’t sell. It’s hard to keep it in store for a long time. And it’s expensive to do translated books because you have to pay your translator. In the Contemporary series we often use new translations because it’s new work that’s never been translated before and that can get very expensive because you’ve got two authors, you know, you have to pay the author, the translator, and that’s why a lot of people are cutting back on doing translations. But we wanted to keep doing translations and we had to figure out a way to keep doing it and one idea we had was, if we had this series of short novels . . . well, one, they’re just cheaper to do, they cost less to buy from another publisher, they cost less to make because they’re less paper and they cost less to translate because they’re shorter. And you know, you pay by how long. So, it suddenly became a more economical way for us to publish translated books. The booksellers, they like the Contemporary series. They get the whole series and they keep it in the store. So, for example, we’re about to do a deal with a new book store in Fort Greene called Greenlight where they would do a whole wall of these books. Other stores do a spin-rack of these books. And they just keep them. And what usually happens with new books is you just get a few weeks in the bookstore and if it doesn’t sell they return it. And so we would get really creamed on the translated work because it wouldn’t have very long in the store and it’s hard to get publicity for them and then they just didn’t have enough time to sell. But, if they’re taking the whole series and keeping them on display, forever, well, then these books have a real chance of surviving. So there were a lot of good reasons for us to do a Contemporary series. And in the end, the reason was that it allowed us to keep doing really good, serious, translated work.

B: What do you think about “rock star” writers like Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño whose English translations sell very well? Does that help the prospects of translated books at all?

DJ: Well, every year there are one or two books that are translated that do very well. But they’re the exception to the rule. At any given point in the year, you look at the New York Times bestseller list for fiction, there’s almost never a translated book on it. Or if there is, it’s some, you know, Scandinavian murder mystery or something. It’s very rare it’s a serious work of literature. So I would say those writers are the exception to the rule. But it’s certainly does help those of us selling translated fiction to be able to point to those things. It encourages booksellers to give us a chance.

B: Can you tell us a little bit about upcoming titles and authors you’re excited about?

DJ: Well, we’re doing another Fallada–

B: Wolf Among Wolves, right?

DJ: We’re doing Wolf among Wolves in May. And we’re doing the paperback for Every Man Dies Alone at the end of this month, as a matter of fact. So those are two that I’m really excited about. We have some really great nonfiction coming out. We just published a book about North Korea called The Cleanest Race. It’s about understanding North Korea through its propaganda. It’s got a lot of really wild art showing the propaganda posters and movie stills and things. And then we’ve got some novels coming out, one from a young British writer named Lee Rourke. It’s the first novel. It’s called The Canal and I think it’s one of the very best novels we’ve ever published. It’s generating a lot of excitement. We’re doing another one with Kertész next year, which is a big novel called Fiasco. He wrote a trilogy years ago about his experience in the camps. What was he, fifteen or something, when he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, working in a Nazi factory trying to turn coal into gasoline? And he wrote a novel called Fatelessness about that and another one called Kaddish for an Unborn Child. And Knopf published Kaddish and Fatelessness but they never published Fiasco. So we’re really excited about that.

B: Something I enjoy about MobyLives is your perspective as a publisher covering real news about book selling.

DJ: Thanks. It’s a labor of love. If you look at the historic arc of the website, you can see that we became more informed by being a publisher. I wasn’t a publisher when I started it and it was much more general-interest reader kind of thing. I try to get help. I try to make the staff here participate, I think it makes it a little more wide-ranging.

B: So, have you ever stolen a book?

DJ: Sure, yeah. I used to steal a lot of books from my brother. I remember stealing Gore Vidal’s Burr. My big brother’s a lot older than me and he left the house when I was a kid and I remember stealing a lot of his books. So Burr yeah, a novel Vidal wrote about Aaron Burr. Fantastic book. I still have it. He hasn’t asked for it back. I don’t think he knows.

The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Cerebral and often ethereal, Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack attempts to recount an attempt to recount a simple anecdote, the unnamed author’s epiphanic sighting of a jeep bearing the British flag during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. No, there’s not a typo in the previous sentence: Kertész’s slim novella is more about a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth than it is about a student uprising against an oppressive Stalinist regime. The unnamed narrator (presumably a version of Kertész) is prompted by his former students to tell the story of the Union Jack; he spends most of the novella attempting to tell his readers of that attempt to tell his anecdote. The problem is that to really tell the story of the Union Jack, our narrator tells us:

I would have to tell about the books I was reading at the time, about my passion for reading, what nourished it, the vagaries of chance on which it hinged, as indeed does everything else in which, with the passage of time, we discern what, whether it be the consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny, is in any event our destiny; I would have to tell you about when that passion started, and whither it propelled me in the end; in short, I would have to tell almost my entire life story.

The narrator then concedes that to tell one’s whole life story is “impossible,” and sets out then instead to build to his story about the Union Jack by first explaining his initial encounter with the opera of Richard Wagner, one of several epiphanies that form the essential plot of the novella. The narrator is an old man looking back on a young man who is somehow the same man but also somehow not. As a way of understanding this disjunction, the old man narrates his tale as a series of the young man’s “formulations” of possibility and identity. These formulations include an early encounter with the Hungarian writer Ernő Szép, a transcendent viewing of Wagner’s Die Walküre, and an obsession with Thomas Mann’s The Blood of the Walsungs. For the young narrator (who surely must be Kertész), these moments offer “a kind of metaphysical solace” amid the horrors of the Stalinist regime, which the narrator calls “the disaster.” He continues: ” . . . put simply, even in the depths of disaster, and in the lowest depths of consciousness of that disaster, I was never again able to carry on living as if I had not seen and heard Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre.” These experiences offer the narrator hope in the form of Platonic aesthetic ideals, vibrantly extant in striking relief against the grim disaster-world of communist Hungary. And yet, despite the literary bent of the narrator’s experiences, he ultimately eschews them in favor of pure, unmediated living, fearing that “literature has fallen under suspicion”:

One should strive for formulations that totally encapsulate the experience of life (that is to say, the disaster); formulations that assist one to die and yet still bequeath something to posterity. I don’t mind if literature, too, is capable of such formulations, but what I see increasingly is that only bearing witness is able to do this, possibly a life passed in muteness without being formulated as a formation.

For the narrator (come on, he’s got to be Kertész!) to bear witness is beyond problematic; it approaches impossible, hence the elliptical layering of his narrative. He spends almost seventy pages spiraling toward telling an anecdote that clocks in at just one page. He admits again and again that the construct of his narrative, “the spirit of formulability,” is “by no means the same thing, of course, as the real spirit of those details” of life during the “disaster.” Kertész writes of the

. . .iron curtain that rises between formulation and being, the iron curtain that rises between the storyteller and his audience, the iron curtain that rises between one person and another, and, in the end, the impenetrable iron curtain that rises between a person and himself, between a person and his own life.

If the problem of witnessing through formulation always rises like an iron curtain, then Kertész does offer some of his own metaphysical solace at the end of The Union Jack, to both his interior audience of former students and his exterior audience of readers. He tells them–and us–that:

. . . anecdotes apart, every story and everybody’s story is one and the same story when it comes down to the essentials, and that these selfsame stories are really essentially all horror stories; that essentially every event is really a horror even, and even history too had long, long ago become, essentially, at best just horror history.

Okay, sure, that seems mighty grim for something I’ve claimed as “metaphysical solace”–but it does speak to an essential connection, an essential ability for formulations to match in a shared “horror history” that might transcend time and place. For Kersétz (or the young narrator, to be fair), there must have been something at the core of Wagner’s opera, something in the spirit of its storm, that connected to–and in some way sublimated–the horror of “the disaster.”

I’ve tried in this review to convey a sense of Kertész’s challenging style. His long, elliptical sentences branch out over pages at a time, often–very often–floating into awfully abstract territory. At times, The Union Jack reads more like a work of continental philosophy than a novella, and it’s not the first place to go to for an account of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I read the book in two sittings, but one would’ve better matched its breathless rhythm. The book reminds me very much of the work of W.G. Sebald in a number of ways: its philosophical density, its challenging allusiveness, and its melancholy tone. Like Sebald’s stuff, The Union Jack is a personal coming-to-terms, with not just history, but with how one might witness to history. It’s a very rewarding book, and Tim Wilkinson should be commended for his translation, as should Melville House for their continued commitment to bringing under-translated authors to an English-reading audience. Highly recommended.

The Union Jack is new in trade paperback from Melville House. The book is part of Melville House’s continuing series, The Contemporary Art of the Novella.

In Praise of the Novella

How long is a novella? Longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Sure. Yet this answer doesn’t seem satisfactory. Is Melville’s Bartleby a novella or just a really, really long short story? I’m pretty sure Melville’s Billy Budd and Benito Cereno are both novellas. What about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? The edition we read last week clocked in at a slim 40 pages. Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl–at about 100 pages each, these seem in novella territory. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that’s a novella, right? What about García Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold? James Joyce’s The Deador is it “The Dead”?–is collected in Dubliners but it also gets published as a novella. So which is it? Short story, novella–or both?

The Dead has recently been republished by Melville House as part of their Art of the Novella series. They’ve also got a series called The Art of the Contemporary Novella which we’re just loving over here. Lore Segal’s Lucinella was a treat and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan floored us. Melville House was kind enough to send a copy of  A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib and we’ve thoroughly been enjoying it. Like all of the books in the series it fits neatly in a blazer pocket and is ideal reading at traffic lights and doctor offices. It’s kinda hard to beat that. Praise the novella for its compact nature and ease of readability. Full review forthcoming.

It was the copy of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, new in trade paperback from Picador, that showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters this week that kinda sorta prompted this whole post. The book, detailing a three-week visit from a terminally-ill friend is terse and tense and, uh, spare, a perfectly-paced exercise in all the ugliness of being human and having emotions. Ugh. Garner makes great use of the novella as a specific medium here. The book is a sustained internalized encapsulation of a brief period, vivid and funny, but also harsh, as Garner lays bare all those things we think but shouldn’ t say (and think we shouldn’t think). At any greater length her prose might risk veering into navel-gazing territory, but the constraint of the novella provides a control and rhythm that compels (and rewards) reading. Full review forthcoming.

So anyway, here’s an admission: we’ve never read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities but all these novellas prompted us to pick up a copy today at our favorite used book store. It’s a novella, right? It’s certainly slim. And choppy. We’ll get to it soon.

Lucinella — Lore Segal

Lucinella_LoreSegal

The story of a group of poets and critics in the late 60s/early 70s NYC should not be so fun or rewarding. From its first page, Lore Segal’s novella Lucinella invents itself as a scathing satire of writers and would-be writers. Segal’s book paradoxically reveres its subject matter, a back-biting and insular literati; and yet at the same time it exposes their solipsistic, narcissistic, cannibalistic shortcomings. These are not particularly generous people, but they are somehow endearing.

Lucinella takes first-person authority to tell the story–and boy does she take authority, bending reality, reason, and narrative cohesion to fit her whim. Lucinella is a poet (a minor poet, perhaps), and Lucinella is very much a poetic action, an act of creation in thirteen parts. The story begins with our (utra-)self-conscious heroine at the idyllic artists’ retreat Yaddo, where she’s ostensibly trying to compose a poem about a root cellar but really just having a grand ole time with a host of notable intellectuals, the poets and critics who will populate the book. “I will make up an eye here, borrow a nose or two there, and a mustache and something funny someone said and a pea-green sweater, so it’s no use your fitting you keys into my keyholes, to try and figure out who’s who,” Lucinella tells us. No worries, Lucinella, we had no idea who, if anyone, your Betterwheatling and Winterneet and Meyers were based on–heck, it took us a few pages to figure out that your Zeus was, um, y’know, that Zeus.

Segal’s (or Lucinella’s) inventions work within a hyperbolic schema set to slow burn. Describing a fellow poet of greater renown:

This Winterneet walking beside me has walked beside Roethke, breakfasted with Snodgrass and Jarrell–with Auden! Frost is his second cousin; he went to school with Pound, traveled all the way to Ireland once, to have tea with Yeats, and spent the weekend with the Matthew Arnolds. He remembers Keats threw up on his way from anatomy; Winterneet says he admires Wordsworth’s poetry, but couldn’t stand the man.

This is pretty much Lucinella‘s program: plausibly esoteric literary references running amok into sublimely surrealistic sketches. If you don’t like that, take your sense of humor to its doctor. Lucinella’s time at the haven of Yaddo is soon up, and she must return to the monster of Manhattan, where young poet William (despite his too-thin neck) shows up at her doorstep to fall in love and eventually marry her. The two attend every literary party, where they feel alternately bedazzled, thrilled, or–mostly–slighted. William, composer of a never-quite-finished epic about Margery Kempe, takes his snubs especially hard, even when he’s being celebrated (and published). We weren’t there, but it seems that Segal evokes her Manhattanite milieu with painterly (or perhaps cartoonly) accuracy. Really, the infighting intellectuals are reminiscent of poseurs and scenesters of any time and place. Lucinella and William go to parties, throw parties, complain about parties, and throw fits like children when they don’t get invited to parties. It’s all very real and very silly and very funny. In one (literally) fantastic set-piece (okay, the whole book might be a fantasy set-piece), Lucinella meets Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella at a party, giving her an(other) opportunity to critique herself. “There’s old Lucinella, the poet,” says one character. “She hasn’t written much in these last years. Used to be good in a minor way” comes the nonchalant reply. Young Lucinella fares no better, although she does manage an affair with William (don’t worry, Lucinella proper hooks up with Zeus in one of the book’s strangest flights of fancy).

The real seduction, as Lucinella points out at a party (of course), is her attempt to seduce her reader into a trenchant unreality that the poets and critics pretend is reality even as they bemoan the reality that their addiction to unreality is their main reality. Yeah. It’s all a bit surreal, and it all comes to a head quite pointedly twice in the novel. The first unmasking occurs at a symposium where the group holds forth on weighty matters – “Why Read?” – “Why Write?” – “Why Publish?” The house lights come up to reveal our fretting poets addressing an empty hall. Even in 1970, no one cares about reading and writing and publishing. And it’s not just the symposium–when Lucinella hosts a party for her pal Betterwheatling, who’s just published a collection of a criticism, she’s shocked to realize as the party dwindles that, not only has she not read his new book, she’s never read anything he’s written. But that’s not all: “I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain.” Betterwheatling’s punishment: “I’ll never invite him to another party!” Ahhh . . . the petulance. Oh, all the backstabbing and perceived slighting and posing and posturing leads up to an apocalyptic climax, complete with a proper de-invention of Lucinella. It’s all really great.

If Lucinella is light on plot–which we don’t really think it is, despite its slim build, light weight, and 150 or so pages–it’s big on ideas and even bigger on voice. Lucinella is kinda like that crazy art chick you knew in college who was always working on some project that never quite came to fruition, and her cohorts are just the sort of mad loonies you spend time alternately ducking calls from or hoping to run into at a party (depending on your mood). Her evocation of the youthful excitement and nascent romance of poetry reminds us of some of Roberto Bolaño‘s work, particularly the joyful jocularity of Garcia Madero’s section of The Savage Detectives (Segal’s volume is in no short supply of exclamations points). The book builds to a massive millennial climax, a hodgepodge of social consciousness movements and poetry and block party–a moveable feast of paranoia and art and possibility and good clean fun, and, more than anything else, the death-sentences we impose upon ourselves. But we’re overextending our review. Let’s just say that the book is great, and if you love books that both simultaneously mock and valorize the creative process, you’ll probably dig Lucinella’s metafictional tropes. Highly recommended.

Lucinella is in print again for the first time since the 1970s thanks to indie stronghold Melville House Publishing.