A Hedgehog — Hans Hoffmann

A Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus), before 1584 by Hans Hoffmann (c. 1545/1550–1591/1592)

“Identity” — W.S. Merwin

“Identity”

by

W.S. Merwin


When Hans Hofmann became a hedgehog
somewhere in a Germany that has
vanished with its forests and hedgerows
Shakespeare would have been a young actor
starting out in a country that was
only a word to Hans who had learned
from those who had painted animals
only from hearing tales about them
without ever setting eyes on them
or from corpses with the lingering
light mute and deathly still forever
held fast in the fur or the feathers
hanging or lying on a table
and he had learned from others who had
arranged the corpses of animals
as though they were still alive in full
flight or on their way but this hedgehog
was there in the same life as his own
looking around at him with his brush
of camel hair and his stretched parchment
of sheepskin as he turned to each sharp
particular quill and every black
whisker on the long live snout and those
flat clawed feet made only for trundling
and for feeling along the dark undersides
of stones and as Hans took them in he
turned into the Hans that we would see

23 still frames from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer

From The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis. Via FilmGrab.

Slacker

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part V

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

This post covers stories 36-31.

36. “The Captured Woman” (Amateurs, 1976)

Simultaneously creepy and funny, “The Captured Woman is narrated by an unnamed man who has, as the title suggests, captured a woman. The story begins with a double capturing: “The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.” The narrator shoots four rolls of film and develops them in his darkroom. He and the woman have consensual sex. She demands to go to church. She writes a letter to her husband, offering him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rescue her on a white horse. The husband refuses, and the angered captured woman commands the narrator to “Take me to my room and tie me up…I’m going to hate him for a while.”

In the meantime, the narrator commiserates with his pals who have also captured women. He lays out their techniques:

It is true that Q. will never get one. His way of proceeding is far too clumsy. He might as well be creeping about carrying a burlap sack.

P. uses tranquilizing darts delivered by a device which resembles the Sunday New York Times.

D. uses chess but of course this limits his field of operations somewhat.

S. uses a spell inherited from his great-grandmother.

F. uses his illness.

T. uses a lasso. He can make a twenty-foot loop and keep it spinning while he jumps in and out of it in his handmade hundred-and-fifty-dollar boots — a mesmerizing procedure.

C. has been accused of jacklighting, against the law in this state in regard to deer. The law says nothing about women.

X. uses the Dionysiac frenzy.

L. is the master. He has four now, I believe.

I use Jack Daniels.

Is “The Captured Woman” a faintly-sexist satire? Barthelme’s metaphor for his own repeated failures with women? No clue, but one of the story’s late punchlines suggest a depressive view of relationships:  “The trouble with capturing one is that the original gesture is almost impossible to equal or improve upon.”

35. “Rebecca” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Rebecca” is another melancholy “love story.” It begins with poor Rebecca Lizard “trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.” She then visits a dermatologist who can’t help her skin’s greenish hue, before going home to her girlfriend, Hilda:

Hilda is a very good-looking woman. So is Rebecca. They love each other–an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know. Hilda has long blond hair and is perhaps a shade the more beautiful. Of course Rebecca has a classic and sexual figure which attracts huge admiration from every beholder.

Hilda’s been out for a drink with another woman—just a friend—spiking an argument between the pair that’s not ameliorated by drinking too many busthead cocktails. The resolution is simple and domestic—unusually sweet by Barthelme’s standards. He punctures it with a final note:

The story ends. It was written or several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what it tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

34. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” (Amateurs, 1976)

Like“Our Work and Why We Do It,” another story from Amateurs, “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is another riff on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Both stories are successful, but “Mechanical Age” is divine—a phantasy-romance that turns the mundane into the heroic. The narrator meets Mrs. Davis, who owns a Mexican restaurant, in a supermarket. The pair takes up with each other, becoming first lovers, and then married partners. Meanwhile, God is in the basement, measuring the electric meter. There’s a flood, but our heroic couple survive it. They sing songs to each other recounting enormous mythical figures to come—giants with the mundane names Ralph and Maude. Like “Rebecca,” this story is a love story, but a melancholy one:

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

Huddle and cling is an elegant, simple, and perhaps sad solution.

In Hiding Man, his Barthelme biography, Tracy Daugherty points out that Barthelme viewed an exhibition at the MoMA in 1968 called “The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” which likely influenced the title and content of the story.

 

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33. “A Manual for Sons” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“A Manual for Sons” is the second-longest piece in Sixty Stories (after “The Emerald”), and reads like an oddity among oddities. It’s an excerpt from The Dead Father, but feels ancillary to that novel (possibly Barthelme’s best). And yet, like its progenitor novel, “A Manual for Sons” is a big fat webbed up concretization of the oedipal anxieties that course through so much of Barthelme’s work. There’s a section with three “sample” voices of fathers, all stern, cruel even. One of these fathers enlists his son’s aid in building a deck—an echo perhaps of Barthelme’s architect father:

Now run me a line down that form with the pencil. I gave you the pencil. What’d you do with the goddamn pencil? Jesus Christ kid find the pencil. OK go in the house and get me another pencil. Hurry up I can’t stand here holdin’ this all day. Wait a minute here’s the pencil. OK. I got it. Now hold it straight and run me a line down that form. Not that way dummy, on the horizontal. You think we’re buildin’ a barn? That’s right. Good. Now run the line. Good. OK, now go over there and fetch me the square. Square’s the flat one, looks like a L. Like this, look. Good. Thank you. OK now hold that mother up against the form where you made the line. That’s so we get this side of it square, see? OK now hold the board and lemme just put in the stakes. HOLD IT STILL DAMN IT. How you think I can put in the stakes with you wavin’ the damn thing around like that? Hold it still. Check it with the square again. OK, is it square? Now hold it still. Still. OK. That’s got it. How come you’re tremblin’? Nothin’ to it, all you got to do is hold one little bitty piece of one-by-six straight for two minutes and you go into a fit? Now stop that. Stop it. I said stop it. Now just take it easy. You like heppin’ me with the patio, don’tcha? Just think ’bout when it’s finished and we be sittin’ out here with our drinks drinkin’ our drinks and them jackasses ‘cross the street will be havin’ a hemorrhage. From green envy. Flee from the wrath to come, boy, flee from the wrath to come. He he.

The chuckle after the line Flee from the wrath to come is particularly menacing. For the most part though, “A Manual for Sons” balances the seriousness of its subject with humorous absurdity and swelling rhetoric:

Fathers are teachers of the true and not-true, and no father ever knowingly teaches what is not true. In a cloud of unknowing, then, the father proceeds with his instruction. Tough meat should be hammered well between two stones before it is placed on the fire, and should be combed with a hair comb and brushed with a hairbrush before it is placed on the fire. On arriving at night, with thirsty cattle, at a well of doubtful character, one deepens the well first with a rifle barrel, then with a pigsticker, then with a pencil, then with a ramrod, then with an icepick, “bringing the well in” finally with needle and thread. Do not forget to clean your rifle barrel immediately. To find honey, tie a feather or straw to the leg of a bee, throw him into the air, and peer alertly after him as he flies slowly back to the hive.

 

32. “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

In a 1982 interview, Barthelme described using this story in his writing classes:

Occasionally I’ll read something that has some pedagogic value. For example, there’s a story called “Nothing,” which I also use as an assignment. When somebody is stuck, I’ll say, well, do me a piece that describes “nothing.” Sometimes if I give that to a whole class, when they’re finished reading theirs, I’ll read mine just to show how I dealt with it.

“Nothing” is a list that tries to describe “nothing.” It begins thus:

It’s not the yellow-curtains. Nor curtain rings. Nor is it bran in a bucket, nor bran, nor is it the large, reddish farm animal eating the bran from the bucket, the man who placed the bran in the bucket, his wife, or the raisin-faced banker who’s about to foreclose on the farm. None of these is nothing.

(Rereading the lilt here, I’m reminded of Big Thief’s jam “Not.”)

The list is a mix of absurd fun, a few great punchlines (“Nor is it lobster protected from its natural enemies by its high price”), and a heavy dose of Barthelme’s beloved existentialists:

Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like a tea-leaf reader) Nothing.

Like much of Barthelme’s seventies stuff, “Nothing” is a piece that strives to find meaning in failure:

But if we cannot finish, we can at least begin. If what exists is in each case the totality of the series of appearances which manifests it, then nothing must be characterized in terms of its nonappearances, no-shows, incorrigible tardiness. Nothing is what keeps us waiting (forever).

31. “Eugénie Grandet” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

Eugénie Grandet” is the only story included in Sixty Stories that uses literal images—photographs and drawings—incorporating them into a collage distillation of Balzac’s 1833 novel of the same name. The story offers a parodic summary of a 200-page novel in just a few paragraphs, including this notorious one:

Butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter

Here, the conflict between Eugénie and her miserly father over Eugénie’s using too much butter in preparing her cousin’s eclairs is compressed into 78 butters. 

“Eugénie Grandet” isn’t just a parodic summary though. It’s also a send-up of middle-twentieth century values. In Hiding Man, Daugherty spends two whole pages on the story, arguing that it should be read within the context of its composition—namely, after the fall out of May ’68.

Daugherty writes,

In parodying this particular novel in the context of May 1968, [Barthelme] composed a potent political document. It not only touched on the rebellion’s seminal issues, but invoked the reinvigorated Sartre…[the story], firmly attached to modernist history, and appearing, as it did, in a mainstream weekly, tucked among ads for glittering cars, watches, and diamonds, is a remarkable American artifact.”

Ultimately though, “Eugénie Grandet” is a strong enough story that one can appreciate it without any knowledge of Balzac or May ’68.

Summary thoughts:  “The Captured Woman” is apt for misreading and “Rebecca” is a bit of a trifle, but it’s a tender trifle. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is as good as anything Barthelme ever wrote. “A Manual for Sons” is wonderful, and I guess I’m glad it’s included in Sixty Stories, but it does feel out of place–but maybe that’s just because I’ve read The Dead Father. “Nothing” might make a great starting place for anyone interested in Barthelme.” “Eugénie Grandet” is great stuff.

Going forward (in reverse): The next six stories are all from 1972’s Sadness—including a favorite of mine, “Daumier.”

 

Red Table — Zoey Frank 

Red Table, 2016 by Zoey Frank (b. 1987)

“Imagination” — James Baldwin

“Fanged, etc.” — Donald Barthelme

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Fathers are like blocks of marble-giant cubes, highly polished, with veins and seams-placed squarely in your path. They block your path. They cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past. They are the “past,” and very likely the slither, if the slither is thought of as that accommodating maneuver you make to escape notice, or get by unscathed. If you attempt to go around one, you will find that another (winking at the first) has mysteriously appeared athwart the trail. Or maybe it is the same one, moving with the speed of paternity. Look closely at color and texture. Is this giant square block of marble similar in color and texture to a slice of rare roast beef? Your very father’s complexion! Do not try to draw too many conclusions from this; the obvious ones are sufficient and correct. Some fathers like to dress up in black robes and go out and give away the sacraments, adding to their black robes the chasuble, stole, and alb, in reverse order. Of these “fathers” I shall not speak, except to commend them for their lack of ambition and sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the “franking privilege, ” or the privilege of naming the first male child after yourself: Franklin Edward A’albiel, Jr. Of all possible fathers, the fanged father is the least desirable. If you can get your lariat around one of his fangs, and quickly wrap the other end of it several times around your saddle horn, and if your horse is a trained roping horse and knows what to do, how to plant his front feet and then back up with small nervous steps, keeping the lariat taut, then you have a chance. Do not try to rope both fangs at the same time; concentrate on the right. Do the thing fang by fang, and then you will be safe, or more nearly so. I have seen some old, yellowed six-inch fangs that were drawn in this way, and once, in a whaling museum in a seaport town, a twelve-inch fang, mistakenly labeled as the tusk of a walrus. But I recognized it at once, it was a father fang, which has its own peculiarly shaped, six-pointed root. I am pleased never to have met that father…

A chapter from “A Manual for Sons,” itself a chapter of Donald Barthelme’s 1975 novle The Dead Father. 

The Fortune Teller — Robert Colquhoun

The Fortune Teller, 1946 by Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962)

Benjamín Labatu’s When We Cease to Understand the World (Book acquired, 11 Sept. 2021)

Benjamín Labatut’s Booker shortlisted When We Cease to Understand the World is forthcoming in the US from NYRB this fall in translation by Adrian Nathan West. The book bears blurb’s from Geoff Dyer, Mark Haddon, and Philip Pullman and Barack Obama put it on his 2021 summer reading list.

NYRB’s blurb:

When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.

Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.

Feathered Friends — Johfra Bosschart

Feathered Friends, 1962 by Johfra Bosschart (1919-1998)

Huddle and cling | Donald Barthelme

…God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket.

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

From “At the End of the Age of Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme.

Army of Irritation — Viktor Safonkin

Army of Irritation, 1999 by Viktor Safonkin (b. 1967)

RIP Norm Macdonald

RIP Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021

The Canadian humorist Norm Macdonald died today from cancer.

Macdonald’s dry, loose, deadpan style of humor was not for everyone, but I loved it. He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live when I was in high school, serving as the Weekend Update anchor and doing impressions on the show until 1998, when he was fired.

I got to see him live that year, at the University of North Florida’s homecoming thing. He was an ill-cast headliner, and the show seemed to simultaneously tank and soar as droves walked out to his postmodern/postdroll riffs on dropping acid and pigfucking. (He managed to offend the university president to the point where the dude up and left within about 10 minutes of the set.) Watching Norm Macdonald live was like an unedited extension of watching him on TV—this was a guy leading you out into some weird weeds, dropping non sequitur breadcrumbs as you went. The frustration for much of Macdonald’s audience, was, Hell, hey, where are we going?–what is this all adding up to, where’s the punchline, what’s the point? The point is the wandering of course, a sentiment that Macdonald would roast I think.

Years ago, at one of those stupid Comedy Central roasts—maybe it was Bob Saget or William Shatner?—the comedian Jim Norton described Macdonald’s loose, shuffling set as “like watching Henry Fonda pick blueberries.” Macdonald’s response is perfect:

The looseness never added up to anything like stardom (when I saw Macdonald live, still bitter from his firing at NBC, he complained that “they fucking hate me there”), but he did star in the 1998 Bob Saget-directed comedy Dirty Work (great silly stuff)as well as 2000’s Screwed (which isn’t that great). He also starred in an ABC sitcom called Norm opposite Laurie Metcalf. (I watched it sometimes over antenna TV my last years of college; at its best it was a send up of TV tropes and audience expectations, but it was hardly ever at its best.)

Norm Macdonald did plenty of voice over stuff and small role appearances, but his best stuff was his stand-up comedy and his late night appearances. He was a staple on both Letterman and Conan O’Brien, a postmodern Charles Grodin, making me sneeze beer through my nose way too late at night in the late nineties and beyond.

In the last decade of his too-short life—

—and here I just have to say, I always thought of the guy as old, old, impossibly, cantankerously old, and I now see he died way too young at 61, that he’s only two decades older than me, but I guess that’s how life works, old is just some goal posts we push away—-

In the last decade of his too-short life, Norm Macdonald continued to do his thing—stand-up and voice gigs and standby late night spots. Like every other motherfucker in the past two decades, he had a podcast, Norm Macdonald Live. This “The Aristocrats!” style bit on the serial murderer Albert Fish is one of my favorites from that era:

It wasn’t until last year, during Early Lockdown Times, that I watched his 2018 “interview” show Norm Macdonald Has a Show on Netflix. The series surpasses cringe comedy or anti-comedy or whatever you want to call it. It reads like someone who genuinely doesn’t care if the project gets renewed (which it didn’t). The best episodes are the first, with David Spade, and the fourth, with David Letterman. Spade is not bright enough to figure out that the show is a goof on showbiz, a big fuckyou to the idea of careerism in comedy; Letterman figures it out immediately and plays along, to a point. Calling what he did “anti-comedy” misses the point. He and his sidekick Adam Eget were laughing plenty.

Macdonald’s legacy might be complicated. His jokes were often very, very dark, and in the past few years, out of step with the zeitgeist. But I always found something simultaneously and impossibly oblique and sharp in what Norm Macdonald did. He wasn’t for everyone, but he spoke to me, and I’ll miss him.

Capture — Jillian Tenby

Capture, 2000 by Jillian Denby (b. 1944)

Dehydrated — Lola Gil

Dehydrated, 2019 by Lola Gil (b. 1975)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (After Maerten de Vos) — Mitchell Villa

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (After Maerten de Vos), 2021 by Mitchell Villa