With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.” I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.
The opening lines hooked me:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.
The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.
Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:
Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.
Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].
Angels, Denis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.
Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.
The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”
Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.
And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.
Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.
The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].
Chevron tiles swirl into swaying lush red curtains, into an impressionistic recap, into the framed and cabineted picture of Our Girl, into the opening bars of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Falling,” and we are back in Twin Peaks.
THE OPENING TITLES
Well, I shivered. I wish the opening titles had gone on longer.
The twin waterfalls cascade into silk fire curtains, and then we’re back on the dizzying floor, chevrons swirling into black. The red room.
The Giant speaks to Special Agent Dale Cooper. He tells him to “Listen to the sounds,” strange scrapings emanating from an old phonograph.” Is this the Black Lodge? “It is in our house now,” we learn. (But what is the “It”?). The Giant seems to send Cooper on a mission: “Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds…with one stone.”
Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, still sporting spectacles of varying hues, obtains shovels in a remote mountain forest location. The scene is slow, the sound of the wind in the tall trees seems just as important as the few lines of dialogue here. We’re not really in Twin Peaks yet, but we’re not far.
NEW YORK CITY
Oh, we’re in New York City.
THE GLASS BOX
We’re out of Twin Peaks. The lighting, staging, colors, the low rumbling hum in the background—Lynch paints something here closer to his films after Fire Walk With Me—something sharper, blacker, browner than the soft edges of the original Twin Peaks run.
Tracey brings coffee. Tracy’s curious about what’s behind all those locked doors. Pandora. “You’re a bad girl Tracey.” There’s no pie in the scene, and the coffee is not in the wholesome mugs we might find at, say, the Double R Diner.
THE GREAT NORTHERN HOTEL
The Horne Brothers are back. Ben survived the last episode of Season 2, apparently (But what about Audrey Horne?!). Ashley Judd is in Twin Peaks now. Jerry Horne has a weed business. There’s a zaniness to the scene, notes of preciousness even—we are back in Twin Peaks, in Twin Peaks.
THE TWO SHERIFF TRUMANS
There are two Sheriff Trumans. “One is sick and the other is fishing,” Lucy—still the receptionist of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office a quarter of a century later–informs us. The quirky vibes of The Great Northern Hotel carry over. But really, Where is Sheriff Truman? Could “sick” and “fishing” be taken as metaphors? Are there literally two Trumans, somehow both Sheriffs?
INTO THE NIGHT
Twin Peaks’s zany daymode could be read as a parodic inversion of television tropes; a quarter century later, it’s harder to see these inversions, simply because television as a medium (in storytelling, but more importantly, in aesthetics) has caught up to Twin Peaks. The zaniness has a twin—the sinister night, often equally manic, often casually brutal.
David Foster Wallace once described Kyle MacLachlan as “potato faced,” and I’ll admit that I have a hard time seeing him as a sinister figure. He’s no Leland Palmer (or Bob), but he wears his weight well in a scene that tip toes the line between grotesquerie and cartoonish parody. Distortion is necessary.
Dark Cooper—“Mr. C,” as moonshine-swilling addresses him—comes to collect two teens–Ray and Darya—for what? Are these doppelgängers of Richard and Linda? They go into the night, and we are in Twin Peaks.
We’re back in New York.
Tracey returns with coffee and sneaks her way into the locked room with the glass box and young man. We get something resembling exposition—a billionaire pays the young man to watch the glass box. “We’re not supposed to say anything about this place or that glass box.”
SEX & VIOLENCE
Tracey and the young man imbibe a bit of coffee, make out, and then she disrobes. Sex ensues. We are clearly in the realms of premium pay cable, and not the American Broadcasting Company.
The glass box fills with a black atmosphere, and a ghostly humanoid appears. The wraith descends on the couple and attacks them. Was Tracey allowed in to the locked room as a kind of bait?
This is perhaps the goriest thing I can recall in a scene directed by Lynch.
BUCKHORN, SOUTH DAKOTA
We are not in Twin Peaks, but parts of Buckhorn definitely feel like Twin Peaks—there’s a quirkiness here, an at-times belabored zaniness, and even a slowness to the South Dakota scenes. At this point in “My log has a message for you,” we perhaps realize that Mark Frost and David Lynch have no intention of milking nostalgia; they’re going to tell a new story, one with strange new strands. There’s a lot of material on the table by now, here in the episode’s second half. Jane Adams, who I think is a fantastic actress, is the detective who shows up to investigate a murder scene—a woman’s head, missing an eye, paired with a headless male body. Somehow Buckhorn and New York City will connect back to Twin Peaks.
MY LOG HAS A MESSAGE FOR YOU
“Something is missing and you have to find it. It has to do with Special Agent Dale Cooper,” the Log Lady tells Deputy Hawk. She tells him that he will find it by way of “something to do with your heritage.” A reference to the Black and White Lodge? The Giant sends Cooper on a mission; the Log Lady sends Hawk on a mission.
BACK IN BUCKHORN
Jane Adams is really underutilized here. She turns up Principal Hastings as a murder suspect. Hastings is played by Matthew Lillard (who seems so much older here than my memory has preserved him).
SOMETHING IS MISSING
“But Agent Cooper is missing,” Lucy informs Hawk. She helpfully reminds him, in what I take to be a piece of jokey exposition that falls in line with the original series’ jabs at television tropes, that Agent Cooper has been missing for 24 years, since before the birth of her son Wally. (Recall that the second season ended with Lucy very, very pregnant). Hawk, who appears to be in charge of the Sheriff’s Office, tells Andy to pull out all the old files on Cooper. Hawk promises to bring coffee and donuts the next morning.
BACK IN BUCKHORN
Principal Hastings is interrogated and he comes across guilty as hell. The cops get a search warrant. Detectives, one with an oh-so-Lynchian broken flashlight, search Hastings’s Volvo. In the truck, under a cooler, they discover a scrap of flesh. (I can’t help but see here an echo of MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont finding a severed ear in Blue Velvet.
DID I WATCH THE NEXT EPISODE RIGHT AWAY?
I wanted to but no, my wife had to go to sleep, but I’ll watch it tonight.
Lynch’s great strength is his evocation of color, light, and sound to create mood. The estrangement this mood often produces can threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and can also create the impression of tonal disjunctions—between characters, characterization, dialogue, motivation, and all of the other things we expect a television show should do. My primary interest in Lynch’s work is the feeling it produces in me, and the finest moments in “My log has a message for you” produced those feelings—feelings that words don’t refer to so easily.
Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”
Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.
Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town,
Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.
Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa).
And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.
What I mean to say:
Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.
Bolaño then, to steal a line from Borges’s story, locates in Dahlmann/Borges “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.” (English translation of the Borges here by Anthony Kerrigan; Chris Andrews translates Bolaño).
Bolaño’s retelling of Borges’s tale is initially marked by a heightened self-consciousness on the part of its hero Pereda, who, over time, gives over to an entirely different consciousness. Let me share a passage of some length; note the hazy dream-tone:
On the way back to his ranch, he dozed off a couple of times. He woke up from his second nap on one of the streets of Capitán Jourdan. He saw a corner store that was open. He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges. For a moment, he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in “The South,” and it seemed unfair, partly because he now had debts to repay and partly because he wasn’t ready to die, although Pereda knew that death is an occurrence for which one is never ready. Seized by a sudden inspiration, he entered the store on horseback. Inside, he found an old gaucho, strumming the guitar, the owner, and three younger guys sitting at a table, who started when they saw the horse come in. Pereda was inwardly satisfied by the thought that the scene was like something from a story by di Benedetto. Nevertheless, he set his face and approached the zinc-topped bar. He ordered a glass of aguardiente, which he drank with one hand, while in the other he held his riding crop discreetly out of view, since he hadn’t yet bought himself the traditional sheath knife. He asked the owner to put the drink on his account, and on his way out, as he passed the young gauchos, he told them to move aside because he was going to spit. This was meant as affirmation of his authority, but before the gauchos could grasp what was happening the gob of phlegm had flown from his lips; they barely had time to jump. May the rain fall soft on you, he said, before disappearing into the darkness of Capitán Jourdan.
Is this insufferably romantic episode real or simply imagined by our hero? Borges perhaps would simply answer, Yes.
We can find that Yes in”The South,” which turns the binary of real/imagined on its metaphorical ear. The story is larded with examples, but I’ll share one where Dahlmann dozes on a train ride to the ranch (just as decades later Pereda will doze on his train ride to a ranch, and then (then?!) doze on a horse):
Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge.
Two men at a time, Borges tells us; Bolaño will continue exploring that bifurcation decades later with Dahlmann’s doppelgänger Pereda. Do either of the men actually ever wake up? Are their journeys merely their own fictions—or, more Borgesian, the fictions they cobble from the fragments of precursor fictions, shot through the lens of “nostalgic and literary knowledge?”
The extent of Dahlmann’s literary knowledge is never quite clear, although Borges (of course) names a precursor text for “The South”: Weil’s The Thousand and One Nights, a book so intertextually fraught and metatextually overdetermined that I feel little need to remark on its Borgesian significance other than to point out that the tales in that volume are Scheherazade’s way of saving her own life. In “The South,” we are told that Dahlmann uses The Thousand and One Nights as a tool for “suppressing reality” and that during his intense illness it “served to illustrate nightmares.”
Does Dahlmann actually die then, or does he, through literature, imagination, and story-telling, like Scheherazade, stave off death for one more night? Again, I think that the Borgesian answer here is, Yes.
Although I’ve been citing Anthony Kerrigan’s early translation of “The South” here, I think Andrew Hurley’s more recent one makes a marvelous emendation that resonates with the spirit of the tale (and actually fits the original Spanish): He translates the last line into the present tense: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains.” Dahlmann is still alive at the end of “The South.” Like the enormous sleeping cat that dozes in his memory, Dahlmann “lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”
Tellingly, Pereda doesn’t share my interpretation—for him, Dahlmann dies. Recall that “he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in ‘The South.’” Bolaño’s tale (typically Bolañoesque) radiates a cryptic, sinister morbidity, one saturated in dark humor. In a moment that seems both ironic and wholly earnest, Pereda fantasizes a death coded through “nostalgic and literary knowledge,” one modeled after “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.”
I’ve plugged Borges’s lines into a different context here, but they work, and really the context isn’t so different. In “The South,” the specific ancestor alluded to is Dahlmann’s “maternal grandfather…Francisco Flores, of the Second Line Infantry Division, who had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel.” Dahlmann figuratively or literally (Yes) repeats his ancestor’s romantic death.
And then Bolaño repeats his ancestor’s romantic death, reconfiguring the climax at the end of “The South,” in which Dahlmann faces off against the muchachones. I consulted three different translations of “The South”; each one does something a bit different with the youths who threaten Dahlmann: country louts, ruffians, young thugs.
How does Bolaño translate these young men? At the end of “The Insufferable Gaucho,” our quixotic hero, dirty, haggard, “attired like a cross between a gaucho and a rabbit trapper,” perhaps dreaming, perhaps insane, peers into a cafe, where he sees
. . . a group of writers who looked as if they worked in advertising. One of them, who had an adolescent air, although he was over fifty and maybe even over sixty, kept putting a white powder up his nose and holding forth on world literature. Suddenly, the eyes of the fake adolescent met Pereda’s. For a moment, their gazes locked, as if, for each of them, the presence of the other were a gash in the ambient reality. Resolutely and with surprising agility, the writer with the adolescent air sprang to his feet and rushed out into the street. Before Pereda knew what was going on, the writer was upon him.
Of course Bolaño, list-maker, canon-maker, curator, always registering the competitive anxieties of poets and authors, of course Bolaño will turn the threatening youth into a fucking writer!
Significantly, Pereda sees (or more likely believes he sees, although Bolaño doesn’t tip his hand here) “Bebe and an old man (An old man like me! Pereda thought)…presiding over one of the most animated tables.” The image betokens a fantastic displacement in Pereda’s warped mind, yes, but also perhaps signals Bolaño’s fantasy to hash out literary matters in a buzzing cafe with his father, Borges. In any case, this is the last we hear of Bebe, a detail that undercuts the reality of what happens next, as the coked-up writer advances on the insufferable gaucho:
Pereda realized that he had grasped his knife, then let himself go. He took a step forward and, without anyone noticing that he was armed, planted the point of the blade, though not deeply, in his opponent’s groin. Later, he would remember the look of surprise on the man’s face, in which terror blended with something like reproof, and the writer’s words as he groped for an explanation (Hey, what did you do, asshole?), as if there could be an explanation for fever and nausea.
Bolaño’s gaucho—the fantastic reconfiguration of Borges’s gaucho, son of Borges’s gaucho, but also doppelgänger to Borges’s gaucho—Bolaño’s gaucho performs a symbolic castration, an Oedipally-charged act of violence that seems to tip into visceral reality in the story’s last moments.
Bolaño turns the country louts into cosmopolitan poseurs, writers that look like yuppie admen, and then he has his hero cut one—right in the crotch.The gesture revises the ambiguous ending of “The South,” following through with the once-suspended knife fight.
Whether or not this final episode actually happens or happens only in the protagonist’s mind may or may not matter to you, reader. “The Insufferable Gaucho” is stocked with surreal Lynchian moments, from Pereda riding his horse into the country store, to a publisher being attacked by a feral rabbit (after which Pereda cauterizes the man’s neck wound with his knife!).
As the story progresses, Pereda shakes off nostalgia and literary reference. Like a bedraggled Quixote, he lives his romance. His consciousness, once informed by Borges and Antonio di Benedetto, becomes freer, asserts its own fantasy as self-generative and self-sufficient. When Pereda first entered the country store, “He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges”; later in the tale, holding a party for his son, Pereda “sent for the foremost of Capitán Jourdan’s guitar-strumming gauchos, warning him beforehand that he was to do strictly that: strum, without playing any song in particular, in accordance with the country way.” Pereda omits Borges as the source of style here: Borges becomes the country way.
The fantasy Bolaño constructs allows him to simultaneously posit Borges as his literary progenitor and then erase the evidence of that progenitor, even as his contours and essence remain. Bolaño-as-Bebe remains a marginal figure—Bolaño’s own stable consciousness, perhaps?—while knife-weilding Pereda enacts Borges’s revenge on all the poseurs and hacks. And if Pereda is too passionate, too romantic, too violent, too unstable—so be it. At least he thought enough of his son to class him with Borges the Great.
And it’s through this gesture—this literary trick—that Bolaño asserts and defends the literary lineage he lays his claims to: His romantic ancestor, Borges.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept published aversion of this essay in May of 2014].
I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.
These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as
….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.
Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.
There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh. Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.
The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.
In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.
If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.
[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The Vorrh. In addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].
Rainer J. Hanshe is the translator of My Heart Laid Bare & Other Texts, a collection of writings by Charles Baudelaire, new from Contra Mundum Press. Over a series of emails, Hanshe was kind enough to talk to me about My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire, dandyism, translation, art, stealing books, and all other manner of topics.
Biblioklept: What is My Heart Laid Bare? Did Baudelaire envision its publication in his lifetime?
Rainer J. Hanshe: The title My Heart Laid Bare is Edgar Allan Poe’s, and it’s he who conceives of a book that, if daring enough, if ‘bare’ enough, could revolutionize human thought, opinion, and sentiment. This could be achieved, Poe said, “by writing and publishing a very little book. Its title should be simple — a few plain words — ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But this little book must be true to its title.” Baudelaire took up Poe’s provocation and his Mon cœur mis à nu is one of a number of different books that he dreamt up and hoped to write “without lassitude — in a word to be in good heart day after day.” Others Baudelaire mentioned along with it in an 1864 letter included Histoires grotesques et sérieuses, Les fleurs du Mal, Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, Contemporaines, and Pauvre Belgium! The first notes for Mon cœur mis à nu begin in 1859, two years after the initial publication of The flowers of Evil, if not possibly somewhat earlier, and continue until 1865, ceasing only due to Baudelaire’s severe health condition (he would die in 1867 at just 46 years of age), hence they comprise the final decade of his writing life.
Aside from the more direct root of Poe, Rousseau was another of Baudelaire’s models, albeit a negative one to surpass. Baudelaire said that “all the targets of [his] rage” would be collected in Mon cœur mis à nu. “Ah! if ever that sees the light of day, J-J’s Confessions will seem pale.” As I describe in the synopsis, it is an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note, and extended reflection. It is not however some memoir-like spewing of Baudelaire’s bios; rather, it is the baring of his l’esprit, and as a crystallization of such, it isn’t some kind of ‘tell-all exposé’ (Rousseau’s notion of absolute transparency, an indulgence we could well do without, especially considering its pernicious ramifications), but to me a much higher form of ‘confession,’ for it is the arc of thought, the play of the mind in its every breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion, and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature, the arts (George Sand receives some choice malicious arrows), and love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en générale), and outlines of his conception of the dandy and the Poet.
The Poet for Baudelaire is I would say a figure similar in kind to Nietzsche’s untimely personage, the posthumous human, a kind of philosophical anthropologist who hovers over the earth, examining the human species both from within and externally, from a sub species aeternitatis perspective, diagnosing it like a physician (much of the book’s terminology is medical taxonomy).
In 1861, two years after beginning Mon cœur mis à nu, sieged by resignation, calumny, and ill health (nervous disorders, vomiting, insomnia, fainting fits, recurrent syphilitic outbreaks), Baudelaire expresses doubt that he will ever complete his various projects. “My situation as regards my honor, frightful — and that’s the greatest evil. Never any rest. Insults, outrages, affronts you can’t imagine, which corrupt the imagination and paralyze it.” Three years later, it was against the continuing extremities of an exacerbated solitude, frayed nerves, self-described terrors, and constant hounding by creditors that Baudelaire implored himself to remain stalwart (“I must pull myself together, take heart! This may well bring rewards.”) and write.
Clearly, he did envision publishing the book in his lifetime, and he diligently worked at it, steeling himself against his trials to the degree within his power, but it was never completed. The obstructions he faced were abundant; the somatic afflictions inordinately taxing. The threat of his impending decline or decay is sharply articulated in one passage wherein he speaks of “feeling the wind of the wing of imbecility” passing over him. Various translators have rendered that as “the wing of madness,” but Baudelaire says “imbécillité,” not folie or démence. The notion of “the wing of madness” has greater Gothico-Romantic cache, but it’s not what Baudelaire says, and in this case, there’s a relatively exact equivalence of terms. It was more physical weakness and feebleness that he feared, and experienced, and believed would finally incapacitate him, as it did, not madness. His aphasia and heart attacks led to his losing his ability to speak and thereafter, his ability to read and write — the death of the writer.
We have only the existing fragments then, which have been translated in full, but they were published posthumously. Despite no such title existing in the text, or any related material, French editors originally published the work as “Journaux intime” (Intimate Journals), which included two other sections, “Fusées” and “Hygiène.” Translations into English followed suite, and they adopted the false title, which must at last be discarded. If Baudelaire hadn’t been besieged by illnesses as he was, he would have imaginably given us a definitive version of Mon cœur mis à nu considering that he did complete other books he began around the same period (Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, et cetera). It remains a fragmentary work then, in both senses, yet one that is substantive enough to merit our continued attention.
Biblioklept: For me, the fragmentary nature of My Heart Laid Bare is in some ways more appealing than the cohesion of a more polished philosophical or poetic text. It’s a discursive read, and there’s joy in tying (or failing to tie) the fragments together. This reading experience is perhaps as close as we can get to seeing Baudelaire thinking (and feeling). At the same time, there’s perhaps a risk of the average reader’s misreading or misinterpreting some of Baudelaire’s riffs, quips, and jabs here. How tempting was it to footnote the hell out of My Heart Laid Bare?
Hanshe: In his poet’s notebook, Paul Valéry said that “a work is never necessarily finished, for he who has made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it […]. He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things.” Similarly, he says elsewhere that, “in the eyes of lovers of anxiety and perfection, a work is never finished but abandoned.” Since Baudelaire never prepared a definitive version of the book, we cannot know what he would have changed, or not, yet as a work closely aligned with his self, it’s something that could never have been completed, only abandoned. Hence, it would always remain fragmentary. Think of Schlegel’s poetics of the fragment where even ‘incompleteness’ is exceptionally refined, an architecturally precise aesthetic form (sculpturally, this calls to mind Giacometti). In his essay on German Romanticism, Walter Benjamin pointed out that aphoristic writing is not proof against systematic intentions (an accurate insight made about Nietzsche’s work in fact, albeit one lost on many of his later readers…), that one can write aphoristically and still think through one’s philosophy or writing “in a comprehensive and unitary manner in keeping with one’s guiding ideas.” In this way, it’s not that Baudelaire’s book lacks cohesiveness; it’s deliberately fragmentary to eschew finality, and because the self, the ‘heart’ being laid bare, is never complete. That Baudelaire worked on it for nearly ten years though makes it probable that its character was quite well defined before illness permanently disrupted his voluntarily abandoning it.
There are certainly unities, or thoughts that overlap and intertwine within the book, as there are with other books of Baudelaire’s, and when I began translating it, I kept track of those I was aware of while also benefitting from the extensive and exemplary notes that the French editors amassed. The critical addendum was therefore unfurling like an infinite papyrus, threatening to end in it being as long, if not longer, than the book itself. In a way, that kind of critical gesture is an act of usurpation and domination, just as overly lengthy introductions can be (consider the grand effrontery of Foucault’s introduction to Binswanger’s Dream & Existence, which is twice the length of the book). At a certain point, I felt that continuing to amass notes would have made the book extremely cumbersome, one unpleasant to read, merely due to sheer volume. There’s also something about a massive critical addendum that’s imposing, if not intrusive, to many readers. Additionally, it was a question of elegance: I didn’t want to litter the book with footnote numbers; alternative methods to that could have easily been devised but, ultimately, I opted against including extensive notes. While as readers we can disavow them altogether, not having them makes for a more comfortable book to wield. Finally, encountering it would be more like coming upon Baudelaire’s own notebook, free of editorial invasiveness, thereby leaving the reader to his or her own rapturous encounter with it, however intractable it may be. As for misreading or misinterpreting, I don’t think such can ever be definitively foreclosed. While errant and contentious readings exist, to fear risking them is to argue that we can fathom authorial intention, or that there are definitive and absolute interpretations. Reading should be dangerous, risky, volatile, something that threatens to undermine, overwhelm, and mutate us, if not put the world into metamorphosis, as books can and have done, though hardly as much in our depleted and toothless epoch. Otherwise, reading is just entertainment, a diversionary narcotic, and we have to be willing to be shattered by books, to undergo both subtle and emphatic shocks.
Biblioklept: What is Flares?
Hanshe: Quite simply, it’s a writer’s notebook; as such, it doesn’t have a single focus but is more motley, something of a hybrid entity. To paraphrase, we could call it The Poet Laid Bare (of poetic form). Nonetheless, I believe it has two principal nerve centers: critique and meditation.
The critique is many-tendrilled, with its points of observation being the craft of the writer, art and aesthetics, love, pleasure, and intoxication (numerous types), religion and theology, politics, etc. The writer’s smelting room and sometimes place of furious venting. As with Mon cœur mis à nu, there is a root in Poe, who in his Marginalia spoke of “a peculiar type of criticism” that “can only be designated by the ‘German ‘Schwarmerei’ — not exactly ‘humbug’ but ‘sky-rocketing’…” Baudelaire took up this idea, naming his work fusées, which is an expansive translation of the English skyrockets. A fusée is a pyrotechnical device (rocket, flare, or firework), musket, or heraldic emblem, hence the title corresponds well with the work’s variegated character. It is something incendiary, combative, and elegant. The manifold subtitles peppered throughout “Flares” offer us a provisional overview of its character, too: Plans, Projects, Suggestions, Notes, Hygiene, Morality, Conduct, Method. Here we see the writer’s notebook, the critique, and the meditation.
In speaking of intellectual gymnastics, the altar of the will, moral dynamics, the great deed, perfect health, the hygiene of the soul, political harmony of character, eurhythmy of character and faculties, self-purification, mastery of time, and accomplishing one’s duties, Baudelaire enumerates a concentration of terms and concepts related to self-cultivation. The book thus contains a kind of technology of the self, the outline of Baudelaire’s martial praxis for the artist — intellectual gymnastics and the sanctification of the will both bespeak an agonistic sensibility, as does his paean to greatness and his call to achieve it in contradistinction to the tremendous oppositional force of nothing less than an entire nation. What is this but Baudelaire’s Miltonic-Satanic typology. “The man of letters rends foundations…” (Flares §6) Such terminology, and the repeated invocations to himself to master his will and to work diligently to become who he is, are part of a regimen of poetic self-shaping. “Want every day to be the greatest of men!!!” (My Heart… §70) The references to Emerson and his Conduct of Life further reinforce that, which is but one reason why in the book’s synopsis I made a parallel to Marcus Aurelius, characterizing the book as Baudelaire’s meditations, which I see as its second nerve center. The poet is clearly concerned with self-government, and this shaping or cultivation of the self is meant to strengthen him, thereby aiding his accomplishing his artistic tasks, of which the book is in part a record.
These notions can be woven together with other parts of the work, i.e. §16 of “Flares,” where Baudelaire speaks of the most perfect type of virile Beauty (the Miltonic Satan), or the Emersonian hero (he who is immovably centered), giving us the supreme artistic model of Satan, that is, Satan as the light-bringer, the visionary, he who is anti-human (“Let us defy the people, common sense, the heart, inspiration, and evidence.” §47; “The man of letters is the enemy of the world.” §53). In §21 of ”Flares” Baudelaire asks, “To give oneself to Satan, what is it?” The book provides us with some answers, as does his poetry (the “Litanies of Satan” et alia), and his Dandy (a superior figure) is another type with similarly sublime aspirations. It is the onset of the anti-Christian hyperanthropos. “The poet, the priest, and the soldier are the only great men among men: … the rest are made for the whip” (§47). Continue reading ““Translation is an act of risk” | An interview with Rainer J. Hanshe on translating Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare”→
I meant to read The Vegetarian after reading Ryan’s review, but got sidetracked, (Sidetracked is not the right metaphor. I hoped to read it but didn’t. Until this weekend).
Anyway, in the meantime while I was not reading it, The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which means it got plenty of reviews and attention, which is good, because it’s a “good” book (whatever that means—what I mean is it’s a perplexing and fucked up and weird book), and also I’ve been out in the sun drinking beers all day and I know I couldn’t muster, like, a review.
To really review the book, I’d have to reread it anyway, which I’ll probably do. The narrative’s arranged in three sections told via three very different perspectives—kinda sorta Rashomon style, I guess—and information in each section shades and intensifies information in other sections—so rereading the first two sections would be, um, valuable to seeing/feeling the novel anew.
I use seeing/feeling above in lieu of understanding. The Vegetarian produced an aesthetic sensation in me (by which I maybe mean emotion that I don’t have the right word for. This previous statement sounds like boilerplate hyperbole, but it’s not—I literally cannot think of an accurate word to describe the feeling of the end of the novel. I’ve read takes on the novel that use terms like “unsettling” or “disturbing,” but these seem like adjectives without clear or proper referents.
My adjective/noun combo for The Vegetarian: “dreamy queasiness.”
Or maybe: “queasy dreaminess.”
Does that hold appeal for you, kind reader? A dreamy queasy South Korean novel about a woman who stops eating meat after a weird dream and whose family reacts extremely poorly to her decision to stop eating meet? That description sounds way more banal than the novel really is. The books’ not banal at all; it’s a weird take on cruelty and abjection and refusal, refusal, refusal. It’s confounding. (I don’t have the right adjectives right now).
I don’t have the right adjectives right now. Maybe I’ll just hit “publish” on this post and then repost Ryan’s review, which is far more detailed and perceptive and interesting than this non-review. In fact, I’m sure I’ll do that.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.
Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake, plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).
In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.
Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.
Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.
This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:
I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.
The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s“The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.
Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).
The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.
You can mean thousands.
Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:
It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.
The Book of Job.
Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.
Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.
The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.
“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.
After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.
Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.
John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner documents the quiet and often painful life of William Stoner, an English professor at the University of Missouri. In a direct, lucid style, the novel follows Stoner from the time he first enters the University of Missouri as a freshman, to his old age and eventual death.
The son of poor farmers, Stoner is sent to school to study agriculture, only to become quickly bewildered by a required survey course of English literature. Obsessed by the affecting mysteries literature presents, Stoner pursues English as a major (never a smart move, young people) and in time becomes a teacher, safe in the university’s protection from the bustle and toil of the real world—he even neglects to enlist to serve in the Great War.
Stoner’s love of literature, learning, and the university itself cannot, however, protect him from the pain and despair of an unfulfilled life. This is a very sad book, and one made even sadder by the plainness and smallness of its tragedies. These tragedies seem all the more real in Williams’s simple, unadorned style, which we see (or, more accurately, don’t see—Williams’s technique is never on show) here in the novel’s opening paragraph:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.’
As its beginning suggests, Stoner recounts one man’s professional failures. To steal a line from Dylan Thomas, Stoner’s words forked no lightning — he writes one mediocre book and is clearly no one’s favorite teacher. Even worse, he’s fated to teach scattered freshman composition courses for most of his career instead of the senior seminars most academics crave for intellectual stimulation. Who blocks him? His biggest professional enemy is Lomax, a vengeful hunchback who becomes chair of the English department and then makes Stoner’s professional life hell. Lomax retaliates Stoner’s attempt to prevent Lomax’s protégé—a poseur and an intellectual hack—from completing his degree. It’s the sort of dastardly, petty politics that won’t be unfamiliar to teachers.
It’s not just Stoner’s professional life that languishes in sad, decaying inertia. Stoner’s marriage is also a terrible failure, doomed from the outset. It’s not exactly clear why Stoner falls so hard for Edith, a brittle, neurotic rich girl; it’s even more unclear why she agrees to marry him. Their marriage is doomed before it even begins. Williams writes:
Years later it was to occur to him that in that hour and a half on that December evening of their first extended time together, she told him more about herself than she ever told him again. And when it was over, he felt that they were strangers in a way that he had not thought they would be, and he knew that he was in love.
Stoner’s idealistic love for Edith matches his idealistic love for reading and study, which at times becomes his sole reason for being:
Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
Stoner’s love for his subject does not translate into his being an inspiring teacher though (just as his initial love for Edith does not lead him to being a successful marriage partner):
He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom.
Stoner is very much a novel about that gulf between feeling and form, ideal and expression, and if Williams plumbs Stoner’s frequent failures to cross that gulf, there are still small moments of triumph, ones that brought a broad smile to my face, albeit a smile tempered by irony and pained by the general tone of doom that pervades the book.
Particularly painful is Stoner’s relationship with his daughter Grace. After Grace’s birth, Edith becomes emotionally paralyzed from postpartum depression and even moves out of the house. Undisturbed, Stoner finds great joy in becoming his infant daughter’s primary caretaker. However, when Edith returns, she slowly drives a wedge between Stoner and Grace.
The disintegration of Stoner’s relationship with his only child was by far the most frustrating plot point of the book for me to endure. There were many times when I wished to grab him by his stooped shoulders, shake him hard, and cry, “Look, man, your life is passing you by! Wake up!” Stoner’s inattention and Edith’s neurotic behavior all but destroy their daughter, who becomes pregnant in high school, moves away from home, and eventually becomes a hardcore alcoholic. Here’s a heartbreaking passage from late in the book; Grace has made a rare visit to her aging parents, and stays up to talk with her father:
They talked late into the night, as if they were old friends. And Stoner came to realize that she was, as she had said, almost happy with her despair; she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become. He was glad that she had that, at least; he was grateful that she could drink.
It’s not the great gulf between Stoner and Grace that is most painful—it is the sense of lost opportunity, of unfulfilled love that hurts the most. Stoner chooses paralysis; sure, the narrative is highly realistic, achingly aware of his limited options—but at the same time Stoner’s inaction and inertia can be maddening. He doesn’t even try.
Late in life, sick and approaching death — am I spoiling too much of the novel? — late in life, Stoner reflects (via Williams’s impeccable and unobtrusive free indirect style):
And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?
What did you expect? he asked himself.
It’s a small epiphany I suppose, and one achieved at great price—it’s also crushingly realistic, even if Stoner is, say, 40 odd years late to a realization most of us make by our mid-twenties. Stoner’s near-death epiphany is wrapped in futility and resignation; there’s no rage against the dying of the light here. Still, Williams’s depiction of the end of his character’s life is one of the most stunning and moving portrayals of death that I’ve read in all of fiction. Here, I was reminded of Katherine Anne Porter’s fantastic story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” Williams’s style is unlike Porter’s stream-of-consciousness technique—he’s far more lucid, yet keenly attuned to the changing of his protagonist’s consciousness. And while I’m comparing Williams to other writers, I should point out how strongly Stoner reminded me of Harold Brodkey’s sad and moving collection First Love and Other Sorrows.
Stoner’s straightforward style and direct, linear plot make itan unlikely candidate for a cult novel (a status it has achieved thanks in large part to a reissue from the NYRB a few years ago). Stoner flaunts none of the stylistic innovations (or gimmicks) of its postmodern contemporaries and Modernist forbears. It does not obsess over strange or marginalized figures. Its discourse never bristles with dramatic allusion or mythical and archetypal overtones. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of overlooked novel whose dedicated, vocal admirers like to press on others. And with good reason of course: this is a deeply moving, engaging, and often exasperating novel. It will make you truly, deeply sad. Highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review on 20 April 2012].
I surprised myself by picking up and rapidly reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 Soviet satire The Heart of a Dog this week. I read Michael Glenny’s translation (Harcourt Brace, 1968) at a quick clip, finding the novel propulsive and zany. I didn’t know anything about the plot beforehand, which I think helped me to enjoy the novel all the more. I liked The Heart of a Dog more than Bulgakov’s posthumously-published classic, The Master and Margarita. I had a rough idea of Master’s plot, whereas my ignorance of the events in The Heart of a Dog allowed me to ride along its zany track without loaded expectations. Perhaps this first paragraph is a way of saying: The Heart of a Dog is a quick, fun, funny read, probably better read without too much foregrounding.
A bit of foregrounding—not too much—The Heart of a Dog begins with the sad howl of a street mutt in Moscow. We’ll first get to know this dog as Sharik, and then later Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. Sharik opens the novel: “Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The line is prescient and ironic: Our pup will, in time, be reborn as a human. The basic plot of The Heart of a Dog is a riff on Frankenstein. Eminent surgeon (and vocal critic of the Communist Party) Dr. Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky finds the poor beast and restores him to the fattest health. Dr. Phil’s scheme though is a bit nefarious though. The not-quite-mad scientist, securing a thief’s corpse, trepans his poor dog’s skull and inserts the rogue’s pituitary gland. He then transplants the human’s testicles into the dog. Hormones and testes turn Sharik into a terrible shape-shifting speechifying brute, a mannerless boor who cannot be trained and who will not abstain from vodka. In time, Sharik (in the guise of Poligraf Poligrafovich) makes Dr. Phil’s life hell, leading the brief novel to its zany climax.
As with The Master and Margarita, I’m sure there was a lot that I missed in The Heart of a Dog. Undoubtedly, some of Bulgakov’s allusive jokes and jabs couldn’t land on my ignorant skull. What did come through though was a mean-but-fun satirical streak, a howling and yapping and biting at power, groupthink, philistinism, and hypocrisy. I liked the book.
I’ve just now (after having written that paragraph) gone back and read Michael Glenny’s April 1968 introduction to the novel (I always skip prefaces and intros). His final paragraph is far finer analysis than I can muster—but I can share it with you:
Like all the best satire, The Heart of a Dog can be read and relished in several ways: On one level it is a comic story of splendid absurdity; it also pokes fun at the discomforts, shortages, and anomalies of life in the Moscow of the twenties. But it has more profound meanings. It is a fierce parable about the Russian Revolution. The “dog” of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries—treated, in fact, like animals instead of human beings. The weird surgeon, a specialist in rejuvenation (for “rejuvenation” read “revolution”), is the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps of Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation that he performs in order to transform the dog into the simulacrum of a human being is the revolution itself. In the story this modern Frankenstein is so appalled by the unredeemable beastliness of the creature he has conjured up that he reverses the process and turns his “new man” back into a dog. With this ending Bulgakov implies that he would like to see the whole ghastly experiment of the Revolution canceled out; unfortunately, successful revolutionaries, even when they realize their mistake, cannot reverse history by a stroke of the pen as an artist can with his fictional creatures. The bitter message is that the Russian intelligentsia, which made the Revolution, is hence-forth doomed to live with—and eventually be ruled by—the crude, unstable, and potentially brutal race of hominids—homo sovieticus—which it has called into being. Bulgakov saw the Revolution as a hideously misguided attempt to achieve the impossible—to change humankind. Man is brutish by nature, and “Soviet man,” he warns, is little more than a lout who has been led to believe he is the very pinnacle of creation. The results of giving power to such men will be disastrous; in fact, Stalin’s terror was carried out ten years later by exactly the sort of callous, brutal cretins that Bulgakov satirizes in this grimly prophetic story.
NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.
What is Zama about?
Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:
[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.
He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.
Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.
Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:
I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.
I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure. The city and its harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.
I observed, among its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.
There we were: Ready to go and not going.
The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.
In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:
As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.
The spider approached the drunk. From a quarter vara away, these spiders can leap and bite so that if taken by surprise, even a man who’s awake has no time to defend himself. I had no wish to move. I could crush it with my boot but would postpone until the last.
The spider moved toward the sleeping head and I watched to see whether anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Would the man—obedient to some mysterious warning instinct—suddenly awaken and kill it? He did not. Now the insect was crawling in his hair. I didn’t see it climb up; I saw it there on him and then I was quite certain I should do nothing.
The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:
I reviewed the episode. At no point had I felt any emotion, except when I imagined the man had wakened and was about to deliver himself of an entirely justified diatribe against me.
The passage is representative of Di Benedetto’s rhetorical skill—he gives us a deceptively lucid first-person narrator who articulately elides key information, both from the reader and himself. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.
And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less.Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799—
–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 1790, 1794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—
Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”
Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.
Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama, “A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and to J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:
The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.
Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.
Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.
I was too young the first time I took a crack at Paul Bowles’ 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky. I was maybe 15 or 16 I think, reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, and William Burroughs at the time. I couldn’t click with Bowles.
Two decades later—by which I mean this January—I read/audited The Stories of Paul Bowles and fell in a weird love with them: Spare but sharp, wild but obscure, his fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them—indeed, they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Sometimes the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together.
The best of the stories are wonderfully confusing, like “Tapiama,” the surreal, abject tale of a photographer’s picaresque journey into a mad foreign night. Bowles’ style succeeds in lucidly conveying the murk of a crashing consciousness:
The photographer had begun to suspect that something had gone very wrong inside him. He felt sick, but since he was no longer a living creature he could not conceive it in those terms. He had shut his eyes and put his hand over his face. “It’s going around backward,” he said. The undrunk cumbiamba was in his other hand.
Saying the sentence had made it more true. It was definitely going around backward. The important thing was to remember that he was alone here and that this was a real place with real people in it. He could feel how dangerously easy it would be to go along with the messages given him by his senses, and dismiss the whole thing as a nightmare in the secret belief that when the breaking-point came he could somehow manage to escape by waking himself up.
“Tapiama” is probably my favorite thing by Bowles, or at least the tale that best exemplifies what I like best in Bowles—the alienation of a stranger in a strange land, the creepy ickiness of realizing the unreal. Bowles’ characters are frequently tourists who wish to be more than tourists, who make ironic-romantic claims towards becoming travelers. He awakens these travelers to reality’s nightmare. There’s a quality here that I love, that dread noir thing that other storytellers like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño evoke so well.
Bowles’ early stories succeed in evoking anxious, uncanny dread — “The Scorpion,” “By the Water,” “You Are Not I” are all easy go-to examples. I found the later tales in The Stories of Paul Bowles less intriguing, but emotionally richer. Sadder. Bowles’ later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also in style. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.
After I read The Stories of Paul Bowles, I read The Sheltering Sky, the fan favorite of this cult author. I’ll admit I was disappointed, although I probably failed the novel, not the other way around. I liked it best in its rawest moments, its looser strands creeping out like tendrils in another direction; often these tendrils were cut off in the service of a more formally organized novel—a novel that sags heavily in the middle, but explodes into a weird nightmare in the end as Kit, the book’s true hero, travels in a way her husband Port fails to.
The Sheltering Sky is larded with fantastic moments and meditations though, like the one below. Here, Bowles shows that to be human is to invest an aesthetic (and simultaneously anesthetic) viewpoint into one’s daily life—and that to invest in this viewpoint is to calculate psychic and emotional costs and payoffs:
He did not look up because he knew how senseless the landscape would appear. It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking. He knew how things could stand bare, their essence having retreated on all sides to beyond the horizon, as if impelled by a sinister centrifugal force. He did not want to face the intense sky, too blue to be real, above his head, the ribbed pink canyon walls that lay on all sides in the distance, the pyramidal town itself on its rocks, or the dark spots of oasis below. They were there, and they should have pleased his eye, but he did not have the strength to relate them, either to each other or to himself, he could not bring them into any focus beyond the visual. So he would not look at them.
While I was admittedly disappointed in The Sheltering Sky, I found much in it to propel me on into more of Bowles’ writing. I next read Up Above the World—mostly because of its title. Phrases and iterations of “out in the world” repeat through Bowles’ writing, so it intrigued me. This 1966 novel has a reputation as being one of Bowles’ lesser novels, but I enjoyed it more than The Sheltering Sky—perhaps my expectations were lower.
Up Above the World’s reputation as a slighter work might have to do with the fact that it’s something of a genre fiction—a slow-burn thriller, a crime story really. There’s a cinematic structure to it, and a plainness to its tone that belies a murderous intensity. I won’t spoil the trick of the novel, but it twists in sinister, delightful ways, leaving loose threads for the reader to tie together.
I’ll close by sharing my favorite passage from Up Above the World. This moment comes in the crux of the novel, in its middle when Dr. Slade—a tourist who perhaps had the pretensions of being a traveler—shifts from one dimension to the next:
He reached out his hand and pressed the door handle, took two or three steps on the spongy grass, and raised his head. In front of him, not three feet away, there was a face—a muzzle, rather, for it surely belonged to an animal—looking at him with terrible intensity. It was unmoving, fashioned from a nameless, constantly dripping substance. Unmoving, yet it must have moved, for now the mouth was much farther open; long twisted tendons had appeared in each cheek. He watched, frozen and unbelieving, while the whole jaw swiftly melted and fell away, leaving the top part of the muzzle intact. The eyes glared more savagely than before; they were telling him that sooner or later he would have to pay for having witnessed that moment of its suffering. He took a step backward and looked again. There were only leaves and shadows of leaves, no muzzle, no eyes, nothing. But the leaves were pulsating with energy. At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were.
At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were: This is the monstrous power of Bowles’ best moments—his ability to evoke visceral reality, his ability to show how consciousness transforms the real into the surreal, even as it tries to navigate that reality. He shows that we are all tourists in our own heads.
Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner is new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press.
The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.
Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.
So…what’s it about?
For summary, I’ll lazily cite the back of the book:
…Quiet Creature on the Corner throws us into a strange world without rational cause and effect, where everyone always seems to lack just a few necessary facts. The narrator is an unemployed poet who is thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But then he’s abruptly taken to a countryside manor where all that’s required of him is to write poetry. What do his captors really want from him?
There’s a lot more going on than that.
So…what’s it about? What’s the “a lot more”?
Maybe let’s use body metaphors. Maybe that will work here.
We are constantly leaking. Blood, sweat, tears. Piss, shit, decay. Cells sloughing off. Snot trickling. Vomit spewing. Shuffling of this mortal etc.
(—Are we off to a bad start? Have I alienated you, reader, from my request that you read Noll’s novella?—)
What I want to say is:
We are abject: there are parts of us that are not us but are us, parts that we would disallow, discard, flush away. We are discontinuous, rotten affairs. Bodies are porous. We leak.
We plug up the leaks with metaphors, symbols, tricks, gambits, recollections, reminiscences. We convert shame into ritual and ritual into history. We give ourselves a story, a continuity. An out from all that abjection. An organization to all those organs. We call it an identity, we frame it in memory.
What has this to do with Noll’s novella?, you may ask, gentle reader. Well. We expect a narrative to be organized, to represent a body of work. And Quiet Creature on the Corner is organized, it is a body—but one in which much of the connective tissue has been extricated from the viscera.
We never come to understand our first-person narrator, a would-be poet in the midst of a Kafkaesque anti-quest. And our narrator never comes to understand himself (thank goodness). He’s missing the connective tissue, the causes for all the effects. Quiet Corner exposes identity as an abject thing, porous, fractured, unprotected by stabilizing memory. What’s left is the body, a violent mass of leaking gases liquids solids, shuttling its messy consciousness from one damn place to the next.
Perhaps as a way to become more than just a body, to stabilize his identity, and to transcend his poverty, the narrator writes poems. However, apart from occasional brusque summaries, we don’t get much of his poetry. (The previous sentence is untrue. The entirety of Quiet Creature on the Corner is the narrator’s poem. But let’s move on). He shares only a few lines of what he claims is the last poem he ever writes: “A shot in the yard out front / A hardened fingernail scraping the tepid earth.” Perhaps Quiet Creature is condensed in these two lines: A violent, mysterious milieu and the artist who wishes to record, describe, and analyze it—yet, lacking the necessary tools, he resorts to implementing a finger for a crude pencil. Marks in the dirt. An abject effort. A way of saying, “I was here.” A way of saying I.
Poetry perhaps offers our narrator—and the perhaps here is a big perhaps—a temporary transcendence from the nightmarish (un)reality of his environs. In an early episode, he’s taken from jail to a clinic where he is given a nice clean bed and decides to sleep, finally:
I dreamed I was writing a poem in which two horses were whinnying. When I woke up, there they were, still whinnying, only this time outside the poem, a few steps a way, and I could mount them if I wanted to.
Rest, dream, create. Our hero moves from a Porto Alegre slum to a hellish jail to a quiet clinic and into a dream, which he converts into a pastoral semi-paradise. The narrator lives a full second life here with his horses, his farm, a wife and kids. (He even enjoys a roll in the hay). And yet sinister vibes reverberate under every line, puncturing the narrator’s bucolic reverie. Our poet doesn’t so much wake up from his dream; rather, he’s pulled from it into yet another nightmare by a man named Kurt.
Kurt and his wife Gerda are the so-called “captors” of the poet, who is happy, or happyish, in his clean, catered captivity. He’s able to write and read, and if the country manor is a sinister, bizarre place, he fits right in. Kurt and Gerda become strange parent figures to the poet. Various Oedipal dramas play out—always with the connective tissue removed and disposed of, the causes absent from their effects. We get illnesses, rapes, corpses. We get the specter of Brazil’s taboo past—are Germans Kurt and Gerda Nazis émigrés? Quiet Creature evokes allegorical contours only to collapse them a few images later.
What inheres is the novella’s nightmare tone and rhythm, its picaresque energy, its tingling dread. Our poet-hero finds himself in every sort of awful predicament, yet he often revels in it. If he’s not equipped with a memory, he’s also unencumbered by one.
And without memory the body must do its best. A representative passage from the book’s midway point:
Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.
Here, we see the body as its own theater, with consciousness not a commander but a bewildered prisoner, abject, awakened into reality by a puddle of piss and threatened by external authorities, those who call themselves cops. Here, a theatrical seizure conveys meaning in a way that supersedes language.
Indeed our poet doesn’t harness and command language with purpose—rather, he emits it:
No, I repeated without knowing why. Sometimes a word slips out of me like that, before I have time to formalize an intention in my head. Sometimes on such occasions it comes to me with relief, as though I’ve felt myself distilling something that only once finished and outside me, I’ll be able to know.
And so, if we are constantly leaking, we leak language too.
It’s the language that propels Noll’s novella. Each sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Adam Morris’s translation rockets along, employing comma splice after comma splice. The run-on sentences rhetorically double the narrative’s lack of connecting tissue. Subordinating and coordinating conjunctions are rare here. Em dashes are not.
The imagery too compels the reader (this reader, I mean)—strange, surreal. Another passage:
Our arrival at the manor.
The power was out. We lit lanterns.
I found a horrible bug underneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman. I was on my knees and I smashed it with the base of my lantern. The moon was full. The low sky, clotted with stars, was coming in the kitchen window. December, but the night couldn’t be called warm—because it was windy. I was crawling along the kitchen tiles with lantern in hand, looking for something that Kurt couldn’t find. I was crawling across the kitchen without much hope for my search: he didn’t the faintest idea of where I could find it.
What was the thing Kurt and the narrator searched for? I never found it, but maybe it’s somewhere there in the narrative.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is like a puzzle, but a puzzle without a reference picture, a puzzle with pieces missing. The publishers have compared the novella to the films of David Lynch, and the connection is not inaccurate. Too, Quiet Creature evokes other sinister Lynchian puzzlers, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (or Nazi Literature in the Americas, which it is perhaps a twin text to). It’s easy to compare much of postmodern literature to Kafka, but Quiet Creature is truly Kafkaesque. It also recalled to me another Kafkaesque novel, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark—both are soaked in a dark dream logic. Other reference points abound—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s etchings, etc. But Noll’s narrative is its own thing, wholly.
I reach the end of this “review” and realize there are so many little details I left out that I should have talked about–a doppelgänger and street preachers, an election and umbanda, Bach and flatulence, milking and mothers…the wonderful crunch of the title in its English translation—read it out loud! Also, as I reach the end of this (leaky) review, I realize that I seem to understand Quiet Creature less than I did before writing about it. Always a good sign.
João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and look forward to future English translations—Two Lines plans to publish his 1989 novel Atlantic Hotel in the spring of next year. I’ll probably read Quiet Creature again before then. Hopefully I’ll find it even weirder.
Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The GoldenNotebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:
[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]
The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. DailyTelegraph.
July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.
July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.
Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.
The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:
30th March2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.
This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this?
Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.
I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:
The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:
Friday June 18, 1999
Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..
I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).
Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine):
We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.
“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha!He would read the paper and make clippings out of it, like Pivner père in Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, who builds his own Inhumanity Museum:
…he picked up his newspaper. The Sunday edition, still in the rack beside him, required fifty acres of timber for its “magic transformation of nature into progress, benefits of modern strides in transportation, communication, and freedom of the press: public information. (True, as he got into the paper, the average page was made up of a half-column of news, and four-and-one-half columns of advertising.) A train wreck in India, 27 killed, he read; a bus gone down a ravine in Chile, 1 American and 11 natives; avalanche in Switzerland, death toll mounts . . . This evening edition required only a few acres of natural grandeur to accomplish its mission (for it carried less advertising). Mr. Pivner read carefully. Kills father with meat-ax. Sentenced for slaying of three. Christ died of asphyxiation, doctor believes. Woman dead two days, invalid daughter unable to summon help. Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. “Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. “Ashamed of world,” kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded) he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous.
Fénéon’s faits divers owe their survival to scissors and paste: His mistress cut each column from the paper and collected them in an album. A century later, NYRB published Novels in Three Lines, their own album of Fénéon’s faits divers.
Recently, the writer Teju Cole has followed Fénéon’s example, composing his own series of small fates. Cole began his small fates while working on his “new book, a non-fictional narrative of Lagos.” Cole’s small fates had their origin in the crime and metro sections of the Nigerian newspapers that he read daily. Attracted to the “life in the raw” presented here, Cole revised the news articles into a synthesis of Fénéon’s style with his own. He felt that these stories were “too brief, too odd, and certainly too sensational” for his new book, and yet he was compelled to tell them anyway. Even if he couldn’t fit them into his new book, they were nevertheless part of his storytelling project.
Fénéon was elevating a preexisting form of newspaper reporting, artfully injecting humor and subtle observation into the structure of his faits divers, unlike Lessing, Gaddis, or Gass, who used clippings to inject reality—and the real human inhumanity of reality—into their fictional texts.
Perhaps Fénéon was motivated by the same spirit as those later authors. Perhaps like Pivner the Elder in Gaddis’s The Recognitions “the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself.” There’s something defensive about the humor in Fénéon’s faits divers, a human reaction to horror we misname inhuman.
Is there another way to react? In her short story “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor converts the Inhumanity Museum into a strange, private shrine. Mrs. Greenleaf (whom the protagonist Mrs. May regards with utter contempt) buries her clippings and prays over them:
Instead of making a garden or washing their clothes, her preoccupation was what she called “prayer healing.” Every day she cut all the morbid stories out of the newspaper—the accounts of women who had been raped and criminals who had escaped and children who had been burned and of train wrecks and plane crashes and the divorces of movie stars. She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so, moving her huge arms back and forth under her and out again and finally just lying down flat and, Mrs. May suspected, going to sleep in the dirt.
The opening lines suggest an ironic displacement. Mrs. May, a thoroughly worldly figure, devoid of spirituality, thinks that Mrs. Greenleaf should be “making a garden or washing,” activities we might associate with a kind of spiritual activity—Eden-building or purifying (for Mrs. May these would be quotidian chores). Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer healing is of course explicitly spiritual, but its spirituality directly responds to the awful lurid everyday morbidity of the news.
O’Connor doesn’t use the same (in)direct cut and paste technique as some of the other writers I’ve mentioned here, but her fiction is full of newspaper and magazine readers. I think now of Bailey, the ill-fated father in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” whom we meet “bent over the orange sports section of the Journal.” There’s something lurid about the orangeness, a bright distraction. (In O’Connor’s universe The Holy Bible is the book everyone evades contemplating). And it’s in that same paper that the Misfit is introduced, the serial killer who brings the characters from distraction back to reality.
…in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
While O’Connor was deeply invested in her own “Christian view of the world,” I think she offers a description, if not a definition, of how the Inhumanity Museum can function in literary texts. It’s the violent shock of the real that the author wishes to evoke. The utter banality of how that reality is communicated through mass texts serves to bring the shock into sharper relief.
Is the goal then to unlearn the dulled reading habits that Gaddis showcases in Pivner?: “Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart.” Yet to be so fully absorbed into the pain and ugliness and stupidity of the world would surely result in crushing madness, or “chaos,” as Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook claims. And perhaps that’s why the Inhumanity Museum is such an important location. A museum has an exit.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published this post in August, 2014].
Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.
Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:
The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.
And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.
The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”
Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.
But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.
Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drang movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.
Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.
In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.
Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.
Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:
The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.
Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.
What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:
Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .
Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:
The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!
The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review in June of 2013].
Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.
I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.
To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:
We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).
Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”
Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.
And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:
Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.
It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.
But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).
Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.
Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.
So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.
The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.
I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:
This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.
O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.
The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.
When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:
‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’
‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.
The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:
. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’
This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.
And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.
This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:
I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.
Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.
Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .
But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.
But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in May of 2012].
Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’ novel.
Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.
The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:
Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.
The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine.
A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering—
—okay, wait, it occurs to me now that I’ve completely neglected to offer any kind of plot description that might anchor this ostensible “review,” to set up who exactly Miss Goering is, etc., so here goes (and I encourage you to just go ahead and skip the next long paragraph)—
A bad summary: Two Serious Ladies comprises three long chapters, each of which might stand on its own as a long short story. Part the first: Miss Goering is rich but strange. Her childhood is bizarre; alienated from others “she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a human being.” Her attempt to baptize another child luckily doesn’t end in a drowning. She grows up out of step with her peers, dresses odd, speaks odd. One day out of nowhere appears a Miss Gamelon, who becomes her (often disagreeable) companion. At a party she runs into the other serious lady, Mrs. Copperfield, whose adventures in Panama comprise the second section of the book. At the same party she meets Arnold, a would-be artist, goes home with him, meets his folks, his father. She elects to move (with Arnold and Miss Gamelon) to a run-down cottage on a drab island, forsaking her wealth, sort of. Part the second: We shift to section two, the Copperfields’ adventures in Panama. Mr. Copperfield checks the couple into a seedy hotel in the wrong part of town and promptly drops his wife off where the brothels are. She moves into a run-down hotel with a prostitute named Pacifica while her husband does God-knows-what. There’s a lot of drinking and near-madness, run-ins with bad boyfriends and snooty hoteliers. Mr. Copperfield leaves without his wife. Part the third: We return to Miss Goering and gang in the dilapidated cottage. Arnold’s father soon moves in with them. Miss Goering starts going out at night alone. She gets picked up at bar and moves in with a man named Andy. She eventually leaves him for a gangster who mistakes her for a prostitute. On a dinner date—okay, not really a dinner date but—on a dinner date with the gangster (who, like the dinner date, is never actually named as a “gangster”), Miss Goering runs into Mrs. Copperfield. Both are much changed.
—okay, so this time with (or without) some context—
A third-act epiphany—again transitory and hard-purchased—parallels Mrs. Copperfield’s fear and trembling. Miss Goering and her gangster:
This man, they had noticed, drove up to the saloon in a very beautiful big automobile that resembled more a hearse than a private car. Miss Goering had examined it one day when the man was drinking in the saloon. It appeared to be almost brand new. She and Andy had looked in through the window and had been a little surprised to see a lot of dirty clothes on the floor. Miss Goering was completely preoccupied now with what course to take should the newcomer be willing to make her his mistress for a little while. She was almost sure that he would, because several times she had caught him looking at her in a certain way which she had learned to recognize. Her only hope was that he would disappear before she had the chance to approach him. If he did, she would be exempt and thus able to fritter away some more time with Andy, who now seemed so devoid of anything sinister that she was beginning to scrap with him about small things the way one does with a younger brother.
And of course she gives in to her terrible desire. The plot of Two Serious Ladies might be described as a search for “anything sinister.” Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield seek the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: disasters, abysses, madness. Love?
The novel most reminded me of what I love best in the films of David Lynch and the fiction of Roberto Bolaño—that sense of perverse night-time dread, the sordid intimation of just how easily the veneer might crack, of how simple it might be for civilization to give way to the madness under the surface.
David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño suffuse their work with an absurd howling humor that percolates along with the dread, and Two Serious Ladies operates along the same horror/humor axis. The book is hilarious, but my several attempts to capture that here in a few excerpts of dialogue fail to translate into this digest form. Will you take my word? Will you take my word that the book was much funnier the second time I read it?
The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review of Two Serious Ladies in February of 2015].