Flann O’Brien, Charles Olson, Karel Capek (Books Acquired, Earlier This Week)

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(Some Very Handsome) Books Acquired, 10.18.2011 (Melville House Debuts The Neversink Library)

The good people at Melville House, debut The Neversink Library this week, a line of international titles that have been overlooked, neglected, and under-appreciated, many languishing out of print for years. I was pleased as punch to get three from the fall line up (another Neversink title coming out this Fall is a new edition of Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, covered by Biblioklept affiliate Noquar just a few weeks ago). Pics of the titles below—you can see how handsome and unified the design is here.

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Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan

Set in a remote Siberian depot immediately following the demolition of one of the gulag’s notorious camps and the emancipation of its prisoners, Faithful Ruslan is an embittered cri de oeur from a writer whose circumstances obliged him to resist the violence of arbitrary power. “Every writer who writes anything in this country is made to feel he has committed a crime,” Georgi Vladimov said. Dissident, he said, is a word that “they force on you.” His mother, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policy, had been interred for two years in one of the camps from which Vladimov derived the wrenching detail of Faithful Ruslan. The novel circulated in samizdat for more than a decade, often attributed to Solzhenitsyn, before its publication in the West led to Vladimov’s harassment and exile.

A starving stray, tortured and abandoned by the godlike “Master” whom he has unconditionally loved, Ruslan and his cadre of fellow guard dogs dutifully wait for the arrival of new prisoners—but the unexpected arrival of a work party provokes a climactic bloodletting. Fashioned from the perceptions of an uncomprehending animal, Vladimov’s insistently ironic indictment of the gulag spirals to encompass all of Man’s inexplicable cruelty.

20111018-170446.jpgThe President by Georges Simenon—

At 82, the former premier lives in alert and suspicious retirement— self exile—on the Normandy coast, writing his anxiously anticipated memoirs and receiving visits from statesman and biographers. In his library is the self-condemning, handwritten confession of the premier’s former attaché, Chalamont, hidden between the pages of a sumptuously produced work of privately printed pornography—a confession that the premier himself had dictated and forced Chalamont to sign. Now the long-thwarted Chalamont has been summoned to form a new coalition in the wake of the government’s collapse. The premier alone possesses the secret of Chalamont’s guilt, of his true character—and has publicly vowed: “He’ll never be Premier as long as I’m alive . . . Nor when I’m dead, either.”

Inspired by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, The President is a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a probing account of the decline of power.

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I think this is the one I’ll dip into first: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies—

An untutored Welsh tramp who became a popular poet acclaimed by the conservative Georgians and the vanguard Ezra Pound alike, W. H. Davies surprised his contemporaries with the unlikeliest portrait of the artist as a young man ever written.

After a delinquent childhood Davies renounced home and apprenticeship and at twenty-two sailed to America—the first of more than a dozen Atlantic crossings, often made by cattle boat. From 1893 to 1899 he was schooled by the hard men of the road, disdaining regular work and subsisting by begging. Crossing Canada to join the “Klondyke” gold rush, Davies fell while hopping a train. His foot was crushed and his leg amputated. “All the wildness had been taken out of me,” Davies wrote, “and my adventures after this were not of my own seeking.”

Praised by Osbert Sitwell for his “primitive splendour and directness,” Davies evokes the beauty and frontier violence of turn-of-the-century America in prose that George Bernard Shaw commended to “literary experts for its style alone.” The insurgent wanderlust that found an American voice in Jack London and Jack Kerouac is expressed here in a raucous true adventure story by the man Shaw called “the incorrigible Supertramp who wrote this amazing book.”

War With the Newts — Karel Capek


Even though the plot of War with the Newts may not shock audiences accustomed to its “human-invention-intended-for- good-becomes-in-the-end-not-so-good” story, readers shouldn’t neglect this often-overlooked science-fiction classic from 1937 by notable Czech writer and satirist Karel Capek.  Humans, motivated by a range of impulses: greed, curiosity, and sometimes even the best of intentions, have created an uncontrollable menace and brought about the end to their dominion over the planet.  Computers, robots, even monkeys have spelled doom for mankind, but Capek warned, in this short and sparkling book, that while masses of intelligent amphibians must be dealt with cautiously, true danger arises from our manipulation of the natural world, the unceasing capitalist drive to increase production by exploiting the weakest, and our inability to foresee the consequences of our actions.

The action begins when a drunk but benevolent sea captain discovers a new species of amphibians inhabiting the waters near an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean.  These docile creatures are able to breathe on land, walk on their hind legs, and communicate using rudimentary sounds and gestures.  The captain trains them to speak a pidgin English and dive for pearls before arming them so that they might fend off the sharks that prey on their young.  Once he receives generous financial backing from a Dutch conglomerate, he ships them to similar islands where pearl harvests have been been impossible or unproductive.  Eventually big business determines that the tireless and fecund newts are valuable for the expansion and development of economic activities near the coasts and under the seas and develop a global marketplace for trade in their labor and bodies.  Educated, well-equipped, and trained to use with the most advanced technologies, the newts produce the greatest expansion of wealth in the history of the world before taking it all for themselves, returning the continents to the bottom of the ocean while requiring a small cadre of humans, relocated to the mountains, to produce the steel and weapons required to support their new Atlantis.

Written as a history book, Capek brilliantly footnotes his narrative with carefully crafted primary sources: newspaper reports, academic studies, religious tracts, political manifestos and corporate minutes in order to illustrate human reaction to new, unsettling circumstance.  A nimble author blessed with the knowledge and skill to write comfortably about a wide variety of subjects, Capek captures both the progressive and cautious voices that shape human reaction to the slow advancement of a new and underestimated intelligence.  He shows that agreement against economic interest is impossible;  labor, for instance, bemoans loss of work to newt hordes while agriculture comes to rely on the millions of new mouths that have to be fed.  Scholars measure, analyze, and categorize; anonymous tract-writers urge an uneasy populace to take up arms against sea-dwelling usurpers while the young and fashionable flock to newt cults, giving themselves up to sexual licentiousness they relish the mysterious and taboo.

But though Capek capably documents trivialities, most of his accounts reflect the time in which he lived and wrote, between the two great European wars, situated between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s new Germany, at the height of colonial exploitation, not yet separated by a century from the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the American Civil War.  In a report written by the “Salamander Syndicate,” the organization responsible for the organization and dissemination of the world trade in newts justifies the “humane” husbandry, categorization, and sale of newts according to their physical attributes.  Exemplary newts are invited to join committees and expound on their visions for a future shared with humans.  Echoes of American abolitionist thought appear in the debates waged in the media regarding the existence of newt art and culture, their assumed “soullessness,” and the minimal levels of education required for their lives as workers.

The newts, masters of human technology, eventually take over.  Humans, fleeing to higher ground,  are incapable of bringing the fight to the seas.   War with the Newts is an indictment not only of our ability to take without question unearned economic value, but also of our inability to halt the mechanisms by which we accrue those benefits once it becomes evident that the process of enrichment, by itself, is detrimental to the common good.  This is a very good book, a satire of the institutions that will fail when we need them the most, created by a writer whose demonstrated virtuosity deserves more attention.