This is not a review of Shattering the Muses, a strange hybrid “novel” by Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori

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Rainer J. Hanshe’s new book Shattering the Muses is comprised of citations, short histories, poems, complaints and lamentations, anecdotes, essays, etchings, manipulated photographs, photographs of old documents, ink and enamel drawings, coal and ash pictures, and other media. His co-conspirator on the project is Federico Gori who provides original art for Shattering the Muses. Here are two of nine depictions by Gori of muses that open (in a sense) the narrative:

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The books is ten inches tall, seven inches wide, and one inch thick. It contains 370 pages, many of them illustrated, several blank, and five that are completely black. There are at least four fonts (and more languages than that, although the book is primarily in English).

Have I lingered over form too long here? It’s difficult to describe the content of Shattering the Muses (which often foregrounds the “narrative’s” form).

Or maybe description isn’t so difficult—perhaps we can rely on the book to name its own central problem. The question that threads through Shattering the Muses is “Beware the Book?”

Let’s look at a few examples:

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Above, we read an account—with its own embedded quotation—of The First Emperor of Qin’s ordering, two hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, a grand burning of a great many books. The account ends with the question: “Beware the book?”

(Some historians remark that Quin Shi Huang caused to be buried alive 460 Confucian scholars).

On the opposing/facing page, a 1493 German woodcut depicts Jews being buried and burned alive, scapegoats for the Black Death plague. The woodcut provides an answer to the question: “Beware the book?”: No, beware the burners. The space between the two pages is a gap for the reader to crossPut the pieces together.

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Indeed, it is the reader’s task (task is not quite the right word) to put the pieces of Shattering together. Take the pages above, for example. A passage from Areopagitica, Milton’s defense of free speech, contends that books are “not absolutely dead things,” but rather extractions of the soul’s intellect. He compares them to “those fabulous dragon’s teeth” that Cadmus scattered by Athena’s command. Milton warns that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of Life.”

The next page reproduces Johan Liss’s painting Apollo and Marsyas (c. 1627). The satyr Marsyas found and mastered the first aulos, an double-reed wind instrument cast away by Athena. (She didn’t like the shape her invention brought to her virgin cheeks). Marsyas challenged Apollo to an aulos contest and lost, natch. (Apollo’s daughters the Muses were the judges). Marsyas was subsequently flayed alive, his hide nailed to a tree. Victim for art’s sake.

(The first page of Shattering the Muses is a quote from Ovid’s Fasti. The lines describe Athena discarding her aulos: “Art is not worth this to me,” she says, seeing her reflected face deformed in the river as she produces the “sublime” music).

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One more set of two pages, then. (It’s easier to show the book than to properly describe it in words. This is not a review). Above: Tadeusz Różewicz was a Polish poet who fought in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. He survived the war. His brother Janusz, also a poet, did not. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

The facing page is a photograph of a scrap of one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri  manuscripts (specifically, P.Oxy. 67.4633). This scrap contains commentary on Homer’s Iliad, but is mostly famous because someone used it to wipe their ass. (A literary critic?)

However, Shattering the Muses is not entirely composed of loosely arranged but discontinuous fragments. Several narratives strand through the book. The most straightforward of these is the story of Renato Naso, who is the closest thing to a main character we’ll find here. When we’re introduced to him, we’re told that he’s “unknowingly putting his life in suspension…living in an eternal between.” He’s a hero (?) ripe for “rupture, fracture, and shattering.” (Perhaps if we take Shattering the Muses as a “novel” we could imagine that the events within take place in Naso’s stretched consciousness—a more secure place for such horrors than, uh, historical reality). When we first meet him, he’s leaving New York for Berlin, forced to abandon most of his books and store them in his brother’s garage. His brother’s house and garage are flooded by Hurricane Sandy, but his library miraculously survives. And yet the historical accounts of book burnings (and human burnings) cataloged in Shattering the Music attest that no library is ever safe. As Milton suggests, libricide and homicide are intertwined.

Hence, other background “characters” emerge more prominently than others in Shattering the Muses: Hitler, Mussolini, the Gestapo. The specter of the Nazis and the Holocaust weigh heavily here, heavier than the (many) other libriciders documented. Against this evil Hanshe gives us a resistance—a wonderful chapter lingers on Samuel Beckett, who’s escaped Occupied Paris to hide in the small village of Roussillon. There, “separated from his library…literary freedom erupts” for Beckett. Absence is a generative power.

Other figures resist through art, even if they perish in the horror, like Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered by the Nazis near Győr and tossed into a mass grave. In a poetic turn, Hanshe notes “it is a daring Marsyas that he becomes, risking his flesh doubly before a merciless & savage Apollo, for he will not cast his aulos to the turf of the riverbank.” Deft touches like these link this “novel’s” motifs of beauty and destruction, art and murder.

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One Day I’m Going to Grow Wings #2, 2016, Federico Gori

A narrative forms too from more oblique strategies—a plague of mutating billboards, for instance, or spiderwebs of poetry. Handbills, demands, stray bits of philosophy. But maybe I’m back where I started—go all the way back to the title here: This is not a review of Shattering the Muses. I can’t properly parse it, really. It’s overwhelming—linguistically, philosophically, typographically, aesthetically. Intellectually is a word to use here. Hell. It’s a lot to digest all at once. Let me admit that I’m more interested in picking at it slowly. Hanshe’s put a lot of material on the table. It’s a rich meal.

Who is Shattering the Muses for? I hope that I’ve shared enough snippets to give you a sense of what (might be) happening here. I enjoyed it, and enjoy it more in the sense of a text to return to. At the same time, this book is clearly Not For Everyone. Shattering the Muses is an encyclopedic poem, a Choose Your Own Adventure story of aesthetic horror and loss. It’s not likely to cohere for you quickly and neatly, but it’s a weird joy to think (and feel) through.

Last word goes to the Text:

Beware the Book?

Beware the Purifiers!

Beware Libricide.

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A review of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows

One way to measure how great a work of literature is might be to ask how true (or “True,” if one is feeling particularly romantic) the writing is. We can find facts anywhere, but details and data are not the same as art. Great literature happens in the arrangement of that data, by presenting details with the right ear and eye for truth—and also, the good sense to know what to withhold from the audience, who, after all, are a part of the equation. The stories collected in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, both inspiriting and crushing, are some of the most psychologically true pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

First Love collects nine stories, all composed and published in the 1950s; all but one was originally published in The New Yorker. Although discrete entities, the stories function together. First Love is very much a novel-in-stories, with recurring characters, themes, and motifs. Brodkey’s stories document the strange little bubble of time between WWII and the turmoil of the sixties, and his writing, a kind of late modernism, reflects this period, when the ideal of the American Dream began to be redefined in terms of new modes of class and education.

The first few stories in the collection are told from the first-person perspective of an adolescent, likely an iteration of Brodkey himself. Opener “State of Grace” serves as an overture to the collection, introducing a family that will be transposed throughout the tales. There’s the narrator, a sensitive, awkward boy, beginning to feel strains of alienation from his older sister and his mother. Dad is out of the picture, and with him, the family’s fortunes have fallen: big sis is expected to marry the right man for money—and for class.

These themes are explored in greater length in the very-long short story “First Love and Other Sorrows,” a compact little novella, really, that everyone should read at some point. The narrator, likely the same boy from the first story, describes his life at the end of his high school career in St. Louis, as he prepares to move on to college soon. Again, the major explicit conflict of the story revolves around his sister’s romances, as their mother pressures her to marry the right man. The real conflict though is the boy’s emerging realization of his own dramatic detachment from his family; or, more accurately, the young man is coming to realize the underlying instability that adults tend to hide from children. The boy observes his older sister, whom he reveres—

It occurred to me that she didn’t really know what she was doing; she was not really as sure of everything as she seemed. It was a painfully difficult thought to arrive at, and it clung to me. Why hadn’t I realized it before? Also, she sort of hated me, it seemed to me. I had never noticed that before, either. How could I have been so wrong, I wondered. Knowing how wrong I had been about this, I felt that no idea I had ever had was safe. For instance, we were not necessarily a happy family, with the most wonderful destinies for my sister and me. We might make mistakes and choose wrong. Unhappiness was real. It was even likely…

The narrator’s epiphany is articulate and crushing and wholly real: it documents the ugly realization that the fantasies of a middle class childhood — “happily ever after” — are, indeed, mere fantasies. Brodkey twins this moment in another epiphany at the end of the story that I would love to discuss but fear spoiling; suffice to say that the final line of the story, forever etched in my brain, is simply one of the finest and most fitting moments I’ve ever read.

The next story, “The Quarrel,” finds our young hero, a bit more jaded, off to Harvard, where he falls in with a bitter rich kid named Duncan; they quickly make it their business to despise everything, adopting (unearned) world-weary poses and contrarian natures. Against the advice of their families, the two take a semester off college to tour Europe, spending much of their time bicycling across France. The story documents the kind of friendships that many young people emerging from adolescence engage in: fierce, passionate, identity-defining relationships that always buckle under their own weight. Hence—

Duncan enjoyed Pernod. It made me sick. Duncan hated talking to people. I talked to everyone. My French vocabulary was better than Duncan’s. His pronunciation was better than mine. I became terribly adept at not irritating Duncan before breakfast. I couldn’t see that he appreciated any of this, or that he responded with any similar awareness. For the fiftieth time, I thought him unfair. The moment came when I could no longer stand the sound of his voice, or his ideas. After traveling with him day and night, without a break, for fifty-three days, I felt my senses suffocating in an awareness of Duncan.

“The Quarrel” perfectly captures the strange paradoxes of youthful, immature friendships that can’t survive; reading it forced me to remember myself at eighteen, and to recall a friendship similar to that between the narrator and Duncan, an intense friendship that burned out bitterly and quickly, yet nevertheless helped me to define myself.

“The Quarrel” is the last story in the collection written in first-person perspective; indeed, Brodkey’s narrative shift signals a shift in development; as his characters age (as they do through the collection), he allows himself to step outside of them a bit, as if the psychological pain he explores is almost too much to bear. “Sentimental Education” tells the story of an intense first love (the male lead seems like another iteration of the narrator from the first three stories). In a free indirect style, Brodkey glamorizes, valorizes, and satirizes the young lovers, all at once, exploring the passion and shame and confusion of early adulthood. Here, he describes what happens when the pair begin a sexual relationship—

Their first dip in sensual waters left them nonplussed. They didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to persuade themselves that something had really happened, but the minute it was over, they couldn’t believe they had ever done such a thing. They rushed into further experiences; they broke off in the middle of embraces and looked at each other, stunned and delighted. “Is this really happening?” they both asked at different times, and each time the other said, “No,” and they would laugh. They knew that nothing they did was real, was actual. They had received a blow on the head and were prey to erotic imaginings, that was all. But at the same time they half realized it was true, they were doing these things, and then the fact that they, Caroline and Elgin, shared such intimacy dazed and fascinated them; and when they were together, they tried to conceal it, but this indescribable attraction they felt for each other kept making itself known and draining all the strength from their bodies.

“Sentimental Education” retraces the fallout explored in “The Quarrel,” as the young lovers inevitably fall apart.

After this love story, Brodkey shifts his attention to a character named Laura (or, in one version, “Laurie”), who seems to be a version of the narrator’s sister from the first few stories. The five Laura stories are much shorter than the other narratives. These tightly detailed miniature portraits trace the development of Laura as she chooses the man her mother didn’t approve of; this plot is very much in the background of the stories, though, an implicit detail that nevertheless hangs over Laura’s psychological development. The Laura stories seem to trace what it means to grow old but not mature. They recall the narrator in “First Love and Other Stories” epiphany that adulthood might be a murky or unhappy place. “Laura” documents postpartum depression and “Trio for Three Gentle Voices” subtly explores the ways in which parents seek to avoid repeating their own parents’ mistakes. “Piping Down the Valley’s Wild” is a simple, elegant story about Laura’s husband’s college roommate coming over for dinner. Reading it, I experienced an uncanny transposition, as if I were observing a reinterpretation of something I experienced a few weekends ago. The story ends with another sad epiphany—

She just wanted this day to go on forever and ever, unending, with all its joys intact, and no one changing, nothing new happening, just these same things occurring over and over. Because how did you know happiness would come back? Or if it came back, that it would be as good as this? Laura sighed and wiped her eyes surreptitiously. The trouble with being happy was that it made you frightened.

This realization again encodes the paradox of adulthood, pointing toward its radical instability. To grow up, in Brodkey’s terms (terms I again point out strike me as utterly true) is to face irretrievable loss at every single moment, even as you gain new friends, new lovers, or new children. The joys of life are predicated on the necessary loss of these joys: existence costs.

First Love and Other Sorrows is a book that deserves more attention. In its spirit and art, it matches (and surpasses) other mid-century American narratives like The Catcher in the Rye or The Glass Menagerie, and in its spare, precise, minimal style, it points toward the later fiction of writers like Raymond Carver. This is a beautiful, sad book, the kind that leaves a deep impression. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this review in April of 2011].

A review of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad

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Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901 by Ilya Repin

Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.

Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.

In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—

It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.

Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.

The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—

That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.

Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].

A review of Barry Hannah’s cult classic collection Airships

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In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—

I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.

Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—

We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.

He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —

Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.

The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.

Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—

The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.

This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—

In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.

A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.

Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–

My Beloved Daughter,

Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.

Your Dad,

Crabfood

Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.

I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want  to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011. I am currently listening to the audiobook of the Hannah omnibus Long, Last, Happy, and just finished the first section, which contains most of Airships. The audiobook is good, but I wish it was Hannah reading it himself.]

Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons condenses myth into vibrant narco noir

Yuri Herrera’s new novella Kingdom Cons condenses myth and archetype into concrete, brutal noir. Gritty and visceral, but also elegant and surreal, Herrera’s prose bristles with cinematic energy in a tale of blood magic and the relationship between power and art.

In Kingdom Cons, our central protagonist Lobo is a singer of corridos, ballads he improvises in dive bars for a few coins to survive on. Herrera paints Lobo’s backstory in quick but rich strokes that evoke a hardboiled, hardscrabble life:

The next day his father went to the other side. They waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.

In one of these cantinas Lobo encounters “the King,” a Mexican drug lord. Lobo is instantly smitten by the King’s power; or, more precisely, by the aesthetics of power that attend the King. Lobo sees himself as a reader of blood. Indeed, he’s survived the streets by

…learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.

Lobo believes he detects magic in the King’s blood, and vows to become a retainer in the King’s Court, which in time he does. There, in the Palace, he takes up a new mantle. He becomes “the Artist,” a singer of narcorridos he composes to flatter his patron, the King. In the Court,

The Artist realized that people saw him only when he sang or they wanted to hear how tough they were; and that was good, because it meant he could see how things worked in the court.

The Artist’s personality is quickly subsumed into this archetypal Court, which includes the Manager, the Journalist, the Jeweler, the Doctor, the Girl, and the Heir. There’s also the Witch and the Commoner, agents who bring the plot of Kingdom Cons to its climax. There’s a cinematic, page-burner quality to the plot, a briskness that perhaps disguises the novella’s heavier themes of art and power.

Herrera weaves these themes into their own subtle climax. The Artist is initially spellbound by the King, whose very “smile seemed a protective embrace” to the singer. The narcobaron urges the Artist to tell the truth in his corridos, even if the truth is brutal: “Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” And yet in time the Artist begins to parse the layers of distinction to “truth,” and to see the complicated relationship between truth, beauty, and power. He grows into a new art, a new blood.

Indeed, Kingdom Cons is a subtle, spare Künstlerroman, in which Herrera’s hero’s quiet, internal observations lead him to a new artistic outlook. Regarding a slain narco’s corpse, the Artist thinks first that the man probably deserved his death, before appending the notion: “if there’s one thing we deserve, it’s a heaven that’s real.” When the Artist recognizes himself in a “an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet,” he laments “It’s as if there is no right to beauty.” The Artist seeks to create a right to beauty, to secure a heaven that’s real, but his tools are limited—and thoroughly mediated in violence, in blood. Herrera pushes his hero “to feel the power of an order different from that of the Court,” a power that emanates from “his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” Herrera’s skill as a writer evokes that “separate reality,” first by creating a mythical-brutal narcoland noir, and then by evoking the consciousness of an artist trying to navigate that violence and find his own power through art, through words.

In its finest moments—of which there are many—Herrera evokes his hero’s consciousness in action. Consider the following passage. The Artist has sneaked out of the Palace to return “to the cantina where he’d first met the King”; there, he observes again, becomes eyes and ears that will channel grimy reality into artful storytelling:

…he heard the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack:

The wetback who’d been deported by immigration and was unwanted on this side as well. They’d told him to sing the anthem, explain what a molcajete was and recite the ingredients of pipián to see if he was really allowed to stay; his jitters made him forget it all so they kicked him out too. The narco-in-training who sent bindles of smack over the river with a slingshot and then simply crossed over to pick them up, until one day he got a wild hair and hit a gringo in the head with his whiterock crackshot, and tho that was the end of his business, he still got a kick out of calling himself an avenger. The woman who, to free herself of her cheating husband, sold the house to a much-feared loanshark and left hubby with no house, no wife, and no peace. The boy who faked his own kidnapping to wheedle money from his parents, who believed the ransom note was real and replied, You know what? We’re tired of that bum, how about bumping him off for half the price? And the boy, out of utter sorrow, said Okay, collected the cash, spent it on booze and then kept his word.

The force of storytelling leads the Artist to an epiphany about the King—and, more significantly, to himself as an artist capable of creating a “separate reality.”

I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours. I wrote “trilogy” above, but to be clear, I’d be very happy if Herrera, Dillman, and And Other Stories kept putting out these fine novellas. Highly recommended.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a perfect novella

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].

A review of Angels, Denis Johnson’s first novel

AngelsDenis 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].

My log has a message for you | Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 1

I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN IN 25 YEARS

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

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.”

SHOVELS

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.

COFFEE

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.

DARK COOPER

Hooboy.

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.

MORE COFFEE

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.

FEELINGS

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.

Bolaño’s Borges

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, ruffiansyoung 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].

Lost in The Vorrh

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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.

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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 VorrhIn 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].

“Translation is an act of risk” | An interview with Rainer J. Hanshe on translating Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare

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.

Self-Portrait by Charles Baudelaire, 1863-64

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”

Not a review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

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  1. What follows is not a novel of Han Kang’s 2007 novel The Vegetarian, which I read this weekend (in Deborah Smith’s 2015 English language translation).
  2. Here—by which I mean this link—is a review of The Vegetarian by Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang. He reviewed the novel two years ago on this blog, in depth, and with plenty of like, citations and examples from the novel itself.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. My adjective/noun combo for The Vegetarian: “dreamy queasiness.”
  8. Or maybe: “queasy dreaminess.”
  9. 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).
  10. 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.

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On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about storytelling

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Talhas 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).

Capture

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.

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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.

Perhaps its best to assess Atwood’s ending using her own rubric. Here are the last lines of her 1983 short story “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in answering How and Why. 

A review John Williams’s cult novel Stoner

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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 it an 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].

A quick note on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog

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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 Sharikand 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.

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

Let me recommend a novel for you.

The novel is Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama.

Zama was first published in Argentina in 1956.

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.

These lifelike moments of “unplotted inevitability” are enthralling. Di Benedetto doesn’t just show us Zama seeing, he shows us Zama seeing what he is seeing. He shows us consciousness at work—or rather, consciousness in distress. In a representative passage which can stand alone as a bizarre parable in search of a moral, Zama, having lost all his money betting on horses, awakes from a drunken stupor to witness a spider crawling on a fellow drunkard: 

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: 17901794, 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.

At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were | A riff on Paul Bowles

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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.