Almayer’s Folly — Rene Magritte

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Almayer’s Folly, 1951 by René Magritte (1898-1967)

“Kaspar!  Makan!”

The well-known shrill voice startled Almayer from his dream of splendid future into the unpleasant realities of the present hour.  An unpleasant voice too.  He had heard it for many years, and with every year he liked it less.  No matter; there would be an end to all this soon.

He shuffled uneasily, but took no further notice of the call.  Leaning with both his elbows on the balustrade of the verandah, he went on looking fixedly at the great river that flowed—indifferent and hurried—before his eyes.  He liked to look at it about the time of sunset; perhaps because at that time the sinking sun would spread a glowing gold tinge on the waters of the Pantai, and Almayer’s thoughts were often busy with gold; gold he had failed to secure; gold the others had secured—dishonestly, of course—or gold he meant to secure yet, through his own honest exertions, for himself and Nina.  He absorbed himself in his dream of wealth and power away from this coast where he had dwelt for so many years, forgetting the bitterness of toil and strife in the vision of a great and splendid reward.  They would live in Europe, he and his daughter.  They would be rich and respected.  Nobody would think of her mixed blood in the presence of her great beauty and of his immense wealth.  Witnessing her triumphs he would grow young again, he would forget the twenty-five years of heart-breaking struggle on this coast where he felt like a prisoner.  All this was nearly within his reach.  Let only Dain return!  And return soon he must—in his own interest, for his own share.  He was now more than a week late!  Perhaps he would return to-night.  Such were Almayer’s thoughts as, standing on the verandah of his new but already decaying house—that last failure of his life—he looked on the broad river.  There was no tinge of gold on it this evening, for it had been swollen by the rains, and rolled an angry and muddy flood under his inattentive eyes, carrying small drift-wood and big dead logs, and whole uprooted trees with branches and foliage, amongst which the water swirled and roared angrily.

One of those drifting trees grounded on the shelving shore, just by the house, and Almayer, neglecting his dream, watched it with languid interest.  The tree swung slowly round, amid the hiss and foam of the water, and soon getting free of the obstruction began to move down stream again, rolling slowly over, raising upwards a long, denuded branch, like a hand lifted in mute appeal to heaven against the river’s brutal and unnecessary violence.  Almayer’s interest in the fate of that tree increased rapidly.  He leaned over to see if it would clear the low point below.  It did; then he drew back, thinking that now its course was free down to the sea, and he envied the lot of that inanimate thing now growing small and indistinct in the deepening darkness.  As he lost sight of it altogether he began to wonder how far out to sea it would drift.  Would the current carry it north or south?  South, probably, till it drifted in sight of Celebes, as far as Macassar, perhaps!

–The opening paragraphs of Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel Almayer’s Folly.

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The Reader — Odilon Redon

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The Reader, 1892 by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

The Count’s Tale — Angela Carter

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‘I have devoted my life to the humiliation and exaltation of the flesh. I am an artist; my material is the flesh; my medium is destruction; and my inspiration is nature.’

Now the valet moved painfully about, gathering together the dishes, and it grew light enough to make out the Count’s shape as he lolled against the desecrated altar, his head bare. His hair, a coarse and uniform grey, hung down to his shoulders.

‘I am impregnable because I always exist in a state of dreadful tension. My crises render me utterly bestial and in that state I am infinitely superior to man, as the tiger, who preys on man if he has any sense, is superior. My anguish is the price of my exaltation.’

I began to wonder if the Count was one of the Doctor’s agents and then I thought, no! This man might be the Doctor himself, under an assumed identity! The suspicion made me quiver.

I can hardly describe to you the man’s appalling, cerebral lucidity. He was like a corpse animated only by a demonic intellectual will. When he had rested a little, we climbed back into the carriage and rolled off across the green, spacious countryside, under a vertiginous arc of sky which began to clear and sparkle. The mountains dwindled behind us. The dew glittered in the budding hedgerows. A lark rose, singing. It was a beautiful morning in early spring.

‘The universe itself is not a sufficiently capacious stage on which to mount the grand opera of my passions. From the cradle, I have been a blasphemous libertine, a blood-thirsty debauchee. I travel the world only to discover hitherto unknown methods of treating flesh. When I first left my native Lithuania, I went at once to China where I apprenticed myself to the Imperial executioner and learned by heart a twelve-tone scale of tortures as picturesque as they are vile. When my studies were complete, I tied my tutor to the trunk of a blossoming apricot tree so the rosy petals showered down upon his increasing mutilations as, with incredible delicacy and a very sharp knife, I carved out little oysters of his living flesh – the torture known as the “slicing”, the dreaded ling ch’ih. What a terrible sight he was to behold! The apricot tree wept tears of perfumed flowers over him; that was Nature’s pity, decorative but unhelpful.

‘Subsequently I visited the rest of Asia, where, among other infamies too numerous to mention, I amputated the scarcely perceptible breasts of all the occupants of a geisha house in the exquisitely bell-haunted city of Kyoto. Then I left my crest stamped in wax plugs in all the capacious anuses of the royal eunuchs of the court of Siam. Subsequently I visited Europe where, as a reward for my villainies, I was condemned to burn at the stake in Spain, to hang by the neck in England and to break upon the wheel in a singularly inhospitable France, where, sentenced to death in absentia by the judiciary of Provence, my body was executed in effigy in the town square of Aix.

‘I fled to North America, where I knew my barbarities would pass unnoticed, and in Quebec I hired my valet, Lafleur, whose interesting nose has quite caved in under the weight of a hereditary syphilis. Young as he is, his face has already been totally obliterated by the ghastly residue of past pleasures he never tasted personally. Together we travelled the various states. I gave certain evidence in the trials at Salem, Mass., which condemned eighteen perfectly innocent persons to death by pressing. I instigated a rebellion among the slaves on a plantation in Alabama which led to bloody and wholesale retribution; they were all tied to bales of cotton and ignited by ululating Klansmen. Then, in a perfumed bordello in New Orleans, I strangled with my legs a mulatto whore just as she coaxed the incense from my member with a mouth the shape, colour and texture of an overripe plum.

But after that, I became the object of the vengeance of her enraged pimp, a black of more than superhuman inhumanity, in whom I sense a twin. And that is why I must not let him catch up with me for I know too well what he would do to me if he did so. So Lafleur and I drove over the neck of the continent, through deserts that delighted me since they were far too atrociously barren to sustain life, through jungles altogether envenomed with hatred for the brown maggots of men who dare to try to live in that green, festering meat; and then across those rearing mountains that now lie behind us than which, even in the steppes of Central Asia, I have seen nothing more arid or inimical. Refreshed, we now travel towards the coast for I feel stirring within me a strange desire to return to the peaks where I was born and perhaps I shall try to die there. Unless, that is, the vengeful pimp ensnares me first. Which is a horror beyond thought.’

From Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

Creeper — Dana Holst

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Creeper, 2017 by Dana Holst (b. 1972)

Girl Seated, Wearing Hat — Grace Cossington Smith

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Girl Seated, Wearing Hat, 1908 by Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984)

Cats in the Valley — Alice Rahon

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Cats in the Valley,  by Alice Rahon (1904–1987)

We/No! | Zamyatin/Fiedler (Books acquired, 11 Jan. 2019)

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Last Friday afternoon I stalked about my favorite used bookstore for a spare hours, first looking for a copy of Joseph Tabbi’s literary biography of William Gaddis, Nobody Grew but the Business. I’ve been reading snatches of Tabbi’s Gaddis bio on Google Books (yergh) and I’d like to like really read it. I didn’t find it in the biography section, and then I didn’t find it in the literary criticism fiction, but I did find a copy of Leslie Fiedler’s No! In Thunder. I’ve been wanting to read this for awhile. In the absence of a blurb, let me cite the original Kirkus review:

His title is from a letter of Melville’s to Hawthorne and Fiedler has adapted it to emphasize his belief that to fulfill its essential moral obligation successful art must perform a negative critical function. It is, in fact, due to its ultimate No! that serious fiction has been, initially, unacceptable. In the section on The Artist there are essays on Dante, illusion in Shakespeare, Whitman, the moral duality in Stevenson, Peretz, Kafka and Malamud, Faulkner — the Highbrow’s Lowbrow, Robert Penn Warren and Cesare Pavese.

I also picked up a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal 1921 utopian/dystopian novel We, which I haven’t read in like 20 something years. I ended up getting Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation, which seemed a bit zippier zappier and weirder than the others I browsed (I skimmed the first few chapters of each). I also just like those Penguin Classic editions, as well as the cover photograph by Georgii Petrusov.

I’ll pick through the Fiedler slowly, but We might be the next novel I read after I finish up Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which I’m really digging.

Hideout — Michèle Fenniak 

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Hideout, 2014 by Michèle Fenniak

A review of Paul Kirchner’s Hieronymus & Bosch, a slapstick comedy set in Hell

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My review of Paul Kirchner’s latest collection Hieronymus & Bosch is up at The Comics Journal. Here is the first paragraph of the review:

Paul Kirchner’s Hieronymus & Bosch collects over eighty comic strips that riff on the afterlife of a “shameless ne’er-do-well named Hieronymus” and his faithful wooden toy duck, Bosch. The hapless pair are trapped in Hell, the primary setting for most of the strips (although we do get a bit of heaven and earth thrown in here and there). Kirchner’s Hell is a paradise of goofy gags. The one-pagers in Hieronymus & Bosch cackle with burlesque energy, propelled by a simple plot: our hero Hieronymus tries to escape, fails, and tries again.

Read the whole review.

Steam Boiler with Bat — Carl Grossberg

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Steam Boiler with Bat, 1928 by Carl Grossberg (1894–1940)

“David Swan,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“David Swan”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

from Twice-Told Tales


We can be but partially acquainted even with the events which actually influence our course through life and our final destiny. There are innumerable other events, if such they may be called, which come close upon us, yet pass away without actual results or even betraying their near approach by the reflection of any light or shadow across our minds. Could we know all the vicissitudes of our fortunes, life would be too full of hope and fear, exultation or disappointment, to afford us a single hour of true serenity. This idea may be illustrated by a page from the secret history of David Swan.

We have nothing to do with David until we find him, at the age of twenty, on the high road from his native place to the city of Boston, where his uncle, a small dealer in the grocery line, was to take him behind the counter. Be it enough to say that he was a native of New Hampshire, born of respectable parents, and had received an ordinary school education with a classic finish by a year at Gilmanton Academy. After journeying on foot from sunrise till nearly noon of a summer’s day, his weariness and the increasing heat determined him to sit down in the first convenient shade and await the coming up of the stage-coach. As if planted on purpose for him, there soon appeared a little tuft of maples with a delightful recess in the midst, and such a fresh bubbling spring that it seemed never to have sparkled for any wayfarer but David Swan. Virgin or not, he kissed it with his thirsty lips and then flung himself along the brink, pillowing his head upon some shirts and a pair of pantaloons tied up in a striped cotton handkerchief. The sunbeams could not reach him; the dust did not yet rise from the road after the heavy rain of yesterday, and his grassy lair suited the young man better than a bed of down. The spring murmured drowsily beside him; the branches waved dreamily across the blue sky overhead, and a deep sleep, perchance hiding dreams within its depths, fell upon David Swan. But we are to relate events which he did not dream of. Continue reading ““David Swan,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”

Penumbra — Lukifer Aurelius

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Penumbra, 2017 by Lukifer Aurelius

In Search of Lost Time — Xiao Guo Hui

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In Search of Lost Time, 2012 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

Varo’s letters and dreams, four from Brooke-Rose, more Berlin, a signed Vollmann, and the art & arcana of D&D (Xmas books acquired, late December 2018)

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I neglected to do one of these dumb books acquired post for the books I got for xmas this year. I don’t really get a lot of books, believe it or not. One of my aunts gave me a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. I used their (horrible, difficult-to-use) website to order three books:

Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Remedios Varo (translated by Margaret Carson),

The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels by Christine Brooke-Rose, and

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin.

I already wrote about these books a bit in a post on New Year’s Day. I’ve been trying to go through the Varo slowly, picking through a letter or dream a day or every other day. I started the “new” Berlin the other day, reading, or really rereading, the first track, “The Musical Vanity Boxes.” I had initially read the story in my copy of Homesick (Black Sparrow Press, 1991). You can read it here online, too. I still haven’t really done more than skim over the Brooke-Rose omnibus.

The most thoughtful book I received was from my wife’s parents, although really I guess it’s basically from my wife, who got it when she saw me slavering over it in a really cool bookstore on a recent trip to Asheville. It’s a first edition of The Ice-Shirt, signed by William T. Vollmann. This was the first Vollmann book I read, and although it might not be his best it remains my favorite.

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My parents gave me a Dungeons & Dragons coffee table book called Art & Arcana that has been a fun nostalgia trip. I recovered it from my son—who it seems it really belongs to, I guess, long enough to photograph it—and this pic below of Jeff Easley’s cover art for Unearthed Arcana, which was included in advertisements for the book in like every comic book I remember buying during the mideighties. Art & Arcana is a fun visual history of D&D—from what I can tell anyway. It turns out that it’s the boy’s, not mine. img_2095

Schrödinger’s Kitten Rescue — James Jean

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Schrödinger’s Kitten Rescue, 2018 by James Jean (b. 1979)

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Hematophagus — Agostino Arrivabene

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Hematophagus, 2014 by Agostino Arrivabene (b. 1967)

“Exhibit one: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE” (Angela Carter)

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Exhibit One: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

The legs of a woman, raised and open as if ready to admit a lover, formed a curvilinear triumphal arch. The feet were decorated with spike-heeled, black leather pumps. This anatomical section, composed of pinkish wax dimpled at the knee, did not admit the possibility of the existence of a torso. A bristling pubic growth rose to form a kind of coat of arms above the circular proscenium it contained at either side but, although the hairs had been inserted one by one in order to achieve the maximal degree of verisimilitude, the overall effect was one of stunning artifice. The dark red and purple crenellations surrounding the vagina acted as a frame for a perfectly round hole through which the viewer glimpsed the moist, luxuriant landscape of the interior.

Here endlessly receded before one’s eyes a miniature but irresistible vista of semi-tropical forest where amazing fruits hung on the trees, while from the dappled and variegated chalices of enormous flowers the size of millstones, perfumes of such extraordinary potency that they had become visible to the eye exuded as soft, purple dew. Small, brilliant birds trilled silently on the branches; animals of exquisite shapes and colours, among them unicorns, giraffes and herbivorous lions, cropped up buttercups and daisies from the impossibly green grass; butterflies, dragonflies and innumerable jewelled insects fluttered, darted or scurried among the verdure so all was in constant movement and besides the very vegetation was continually transforming itself. As I watched, the pent-up force of the sweet juice within it burst open a persimmon and the split skin let out a flight of orange tawny singing birds. An elongated bud on the point of opening must have changed its mind for it turned into a strawberry instead of a waterlily. A fish sprang out of the river, became a white rabbit and bounded away.

It seemed that winter and rough winds would never touch these bright, oblivious regions or ripple the surface of the lucid river which wound a tranquil course down the central valley. The eye of the beholder followed the course of this river upwards towards the source, and so it saw, for the first time, after some moments of delighted looking, the misty battlements of a castle. The longer one looked at the dim outlines of this castle, the more sinister it grew, as though its granite viscera housed as many torture chambers as the Château of Silling.

From Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.