Picnic at Wittenham — George Warner Allen

Picnic at Wittenham, 1948 by George Warner Allen 1916-1988

October — William Merritt Chase

October, 1893 by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

Uzbek Woman in Tashkent — Vasily Vereshchagin

Uzbek Woman in Tashkent, 1873 by Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904)

Any serious writer is experimental in that he’s trying to do something new or better | Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s works have been termed “experimental” by most critics but he thinks that can be said of most serious writers. “Any serious writer is experimental in that he’s trying to do something new or better.” A serious writer, he adds, sits down and begins to write and develop the story as he goes along. “He doesn’t just sit down and 70,000 or 80,000 words come full blown into his head.” He suggests that anyone who intends to write “read to know what’s been written before—both good and bad.” This point complements the theory of author as experimenter, for, as McCarthy said, “you will see things in other writers you admire and that you think you can do better.”

From a November, 1968 feature on Cormac McCarthy published in The Lexington Herald-Leader. The article is included in “Cormac McCarthy’s Interviews in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1968–1980,” published in The Cormac McCarthy Journal. The last feature in the collection centers on McCarthy’s efforts to adapt William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying into a film.


The day after that he experienced what at first he thought might be some variation of déjà vu. He’d finished lunch and stood at the door of a corner restaurant, able to see, at a severe angle, the lean elderly man who frequently appeared outside Federal Hall holding a hand-lettered political placard over his head for the benefit of those gathered on the steps. He, Lyle, was cleaning his fingernails, surreptitiously, using a toothpick he’d taken from a bowl near the cash register inside the restaurant. The paradox of material flowing backward toward itself. In this case there was no illusion involved. He had stood on this spot, not long ago, at this hour of the day, doing precisely what he was doing now, his eyes on the old man, whose body was aligned identically with the edge of a shadow on the façade of the building he faced, his sign held at the same angle, it seemed, the event converted into a dead replica by means of structural impregnation, the mineral replacement of earlier matter. Lyle decided to scatter the ingredients by heading directly toward the man instead of back to the Exchange, as he was certain he’d done the previous time. First he read the back of the sign, the part facing the street, recalling the general tenor. Then he sat on the steps, with roughly a dozen other people, and reached for his cigarettes. Burks was across the street, near the entrance to the Morgan Bank. People were drifting back to work. Lyle smoked a moment, then got up and approached the sign-holder. The strips of wood that steadied the edges of the sign extended six inches below it, giving the man a natural grip. Burks looked unhappy, arms folded across his chest.
“How long have you been doing this?” Lyle said. “Holding this sign?”

The man turned to see who was addressing him.

“Eighteen years.”

Sweat ran down his temples, trailing pale outlines on his flushed skin. He wore a suit but no tie. The life inside his eyes had dissolved. He’d made his own space, a world where people were carvings on rock. His right hand jerked briefly. He needed a haircut.

“Where, right here?”

“I moved to here.”

“Where were you before?”

“The White House.”

“You were in Washington.”

“They moved me out of there.”

“Who moved you out?”

“Haldeman and Ehrlichman.”

“They wouldn’t let you stand outside the gate.”

“The banks sent word.”

Lyle wasn’t sure why he’d paused here, talking to this man. Dimly he perceived a strategy. Perhaps he wanted to annoy Burks, who obviously was waiting to talk to him. Putting Burks off to converse with a theoretical enemy of the state pleased him. Another man moved into his line of sight, middle-aged and heavy, a drooping suit, incongruous pair of glasses—modish and overdesigned. Lyle turned, noting Burks had disappeared.

“Why do you hold the sign over your head?”

“People today.”

“They want to be dazzled.”

“There you are.”

Lyle wasn’t sure what to do next. Best wait for one of the others to move first. He took a step back in order to study the front of the man’s sign, which he’d never actually read until now.



CIRCA 1850–1920 Workers hands cut off on Congo rubber plantations, not meeting work quotas. Photos in vault Bank of England. Rise of capitalism.

THE INDUSTRIAL AGE Child labor, accidents, death. Cruelty = profits. Workers slums Glasgow, New York, London. Poverty, disease, separation of family. Strikes, boycotts, etc. = troops, police, injunctions. Bitter harvest of Ind. Revolution.

MAY 1886 Haymarket Riot, Chicago, protest police killings of workers, 10 dead, 50 injured, bomb blast, firing into crowd.

SEPT 1920 Wall St. blast, person or persons unknown, 40 dead, 300 injured, marks remain on wall of J. P. Morgan Bldg. Grim reminder.

FEB 1934 Artillery fire, Vienna, shelling of workers homes, 1,000 dead inc. 9 Socialist leaders by hanging/strangulation. Rise of Nazis. Eve of World War, etc.

There was more in smaller print fitted onto the bottom of the sign. The overweight man, wilted, handkerchief in hand, was standing five feet away. Lyle, stepping off the sidewalk, touched the old man, the sign-holder, as he walked behind him, putting a hand on the worn cloth that covered his shoulder, briefly, a gesture he didn’t understand. Then he accompanied the other man down to Bowling Green, where they sat on a bench near a woman feeding pigeons.

From Don DeLillo’s novel Players.

More evil than we’d imagined | From Don DeLillo’s novel Players

Our big problem in the past, as a nation, was that we didn’t give our government credit for being the totally entangling force that it was. They were even more evil than we’d imagined. More evil and much more interesting. Assassination, blackmail, torture, enormous improbable intrigues. All these convolutions and relationships. Assorted sexual episodes. Terribly, terribly interesting, all of it. Cameras, microphones, so forth. We thought they bombed villages, killed children, for the sake of technology, so it could shake itself out, and for certain abstractions. We didn’t give them credit for the rest of it. Behind every stark fact we encounter layers of ambiguity. This is all so alien to the liberal spirit. It’s a wonder they’re bearing up at all. This haze of conspiracies and multiple interpretations. So much for the great instructing vision of the federal government.

From Don DeLillo’s novel Players.

Crowning of the Happy Feline — Leonor Fini

Crowning of the Happy Feline, 1974 by Leonor Fini (1908-1996)

“The Movie” — Don DeLillo

“The Movie”

the overture for the novel Players

by Don DeLillo

Someone says: “Motels. I like motels. I wish I owned a chain, worldwide. I’d like to go from one to another to another. There’s something self-realizing about that.”

The lights inside the aircraft go dim. In the piano bar everyone is momentarily still. It’s as though they’re realizing for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble. Beyond the windows not a nuance of sunset remains. Four men, three women inhabit this particular frame of arrested motion. The only sound is drone. One second of darkness, all we’ve had thus far, has been enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition. In the cabin just ahead, the meal is over, the movie is about to begin.

As light returns, the man seated at the piano begins to play a tune. Standing nearby is a woman, shy of thirty, light-haired and unhappy about flying. There’s a man to her left, holding the rim of his drinking glass against his lower lip. They’re clearly together, a couple, wearing each other.

The stewardess moves past with pillows and magazines, glancing into the cabin at the movie screen, credits super-imposed on a still image of a deserted golf course, early light. Near the entrance to the piano bar, about a dozen feet from the piano itself, are two chairs separated by an ashtray stand. Another obvious couple sits here, men in this case. Both look at the piano player, anticipating their own delight at whatever pointed comment his choice of tunes is meant to suggest.

The third woman sits near the rear of the compartment. She pops cashew nuts into her mouth and washes them down with ginger ale. She’s in her early forties, indifferently dressed. We know nothing else about her. Continue reading ““The Movie” — Don DeLillo”

The Green Room — Salman Toor

The Green Room, 2019 by Salman Toor (b. 1983)

Peace and happiness through all the land | Pharaoh Sanders

RIP Pharaoh Sanders, 1940-2022

Thanks for the music.


Mild derealization at the used bookstore (Books acquired, 23 Sept. 2022)

The first time that I remember having intense derealization in my adult life was when I spent a few hours cleaning out a large spare closet in the house my wife and I were then living in.

This was about sixteen years ago, close to the birth of our first child, our daughter, and I was removing from the closet boxes of nostalgia: high school and college papers, paintings and sketches, patches, guitar pedals, old issues of MAD Magazine, punk zines, stereo wire, soon-to-be obsolete audiovisual cables, record sleeves without records, 3.5 inch floppy disks, memory cards from abandoned cameras, rolls of film, tennis balls, band t-shirts I’d never fit into again, heavy stereo equipment, and so on and etc.

I was removing all these old things to make space for new things, a pattern that I’ve followed ever since. And well anyway, not an hour into the process I began to get an odd dizziness, a feeling that none of this was real. I was not thinking about any of the objects but something about their accumulated physicality overruled my subjectivity. I recall having to turn off the record I was listening to, drinking a lot of cold water, and lying down. But the sensation kept on, like a low-grade psychotropic trip.

I experienced similar misadventures later in similar circumstances—reorganizing large bookshelves, moving offices, more stuff with closets. I also began to (rarely) experience full-blown anxiety attacks later in life, usually triggered by driving an automobile over a large bridge or on a complex highway, and the feelings of derealization I’d previously experienced were a part of those attacks, but they were also accompanied by feelings of dread and difficulty breathing. Those kinds of attacks are awful; the derealization thing is just trippy and weird. And it happened to me today while I was browsing for books. I’m not sure if it was the closeness of the aisles or the smell or a certain book or the mild change in weather that we had in north Florida today, where the throbbing humidity and scorching sun relaxed to a cloudy eighty. I think it was the screaming child who triggered it though, thrashing around on the ancient cut carpet, slapping the carpet, kicking her feet like a swimmer. Her mother and siblings walked away from her, walked into another aisle of this mazelike used bookstore, while I completely lost and never regained the name of the author I was searching for in the “T” section of Classics.

From there I leaned into the unreality and made a nice little trip of it, reminding myself that if I am a little bit crazy, that makes me a normal American. I too have microplastics in my blood! I too feel the stress of the appearance of unrelenting, non-stop change!

I picked up two books: Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins and Osvaldo Soriano’s A Funny Dirty Little War. I mostly knew Marías from his “La Zona Fantasma” columns in The Believer, and I have read only one book by MaríasVoyage Along the Horizon, which I scarcely remember. But I know Roberto Bolaño was a fan, so I’d always meant to return and try again. Today, I saw a hardback copy of Thus Bad Begins (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) propped lazily up against a hardback copy of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black. Mantel died yesterday; Marías died a dozen days ago; both books had strayed from their author’s placards, not unusual in this wonderful sprawling store. So I picked it up. It’s probably not the best starting place for Marías, right? I’ll try. I love the title; I am shallow.

The title on the spine attracted me to Osvaldo Soriano’s A Funny Dirty Little War (translated by Nick Caistor), the goofy, menacingly violent cover intrigued me and the Calvino blurb and first three pages sold me.

I don’t have a conclusion for this blog. I still feel a little outside of myself.


No failed work, only work pending | Hilary Mantel

It has always been axiomatic that when the dying speak, they cannot lie. I knew a man whose mother told him, as she lay dying, who his real father was: like a woman in a Victorian melodrama. She might as well have climbed out of bed and kicked his feet from under him. The truth was far too late to do him any good, and just in time to plunge him into misery and confusion and the complex grief of a double loss. Some truths have a sell-by date. Some should not be uttered even by the dying. Some cannot be uttered. When a victim of Henry VIII faced the headsman, the standard scaffold speech praised the king: his justice, his mercy. You didn’t mean this, but you had to think about the people left behind: some flattery might help them. Oppressors don’t just want to do their deed, they want to take a bow: they want their victims to sing their praises. This doesn’t change, and it seems there are no new thoughts, no new struggles with censorship and self-censorship, only the old struggles repeating: half-animated corpses of forbidden childhood thoughts crawling out of the psychic trenches we have dug for them, and recurring denials by the great of the truths written on the bodies of the small.

I have 97 notebooks in a wooden box. I do not count them as suppressed volumes. I work on the principle that there is no failed work, only work pending: that there is nothing I won’t say, only what I haven’t said yet. In my novel in progress I have written, “If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” A notebook written eight years ago says, “I am searching for a place where the truth can be uttered: a place, I mean, that is not an execution ground.”

From Hilary Mantel’s essay “Blot, Erase, Delete,” published in Index on Censorship, Vol. 45, Issue 3, 2016.

A review of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black

In Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a fat psychic named Alison endures the harrowing torment of a collective of ghosts she calls the Fiends, the spirits of cruel men from her childhood. When a young, aimless woman named Colette comes into Alison’s life and assumes managerial duties for her career, Alison’s bilious past comes to a head. Colette engineers more and better gigs for Alison (the death of Princess Diana causes a huge spike in business), who, despite her genuine psychic talents, must nonetheless run the kind of scam the “punters” in her audience crave. Colette and Alison soon move in together, buying a new house in a quiet, boring suburb outside of London; their prefab homestead is drawn in sharp contrast to the slums of Aldershot where Alison grew up–the novel’s second setting. As Beyond Black progresses, contemporary suburban Britain increasingly crumbles into Alison’s grim, greasy past in Aldershot. Alison’s chief tormentor is, ironically, her “spirit guide,” a mean little man named Morris, a one-time frequent customer for Alison’s prostitute mother. Alison, like many victims, has suppressed much of her grotesque childhood, but it’s hard to black out everything with psychic baggage like Morris weighing her down. In time, more and more of the Fiends reemerge, forcing Alison to confront her mother and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of those awful men. As the book lurches to its chilling climax, Alison asserts independence, casting out her metaphysical and psychological demons.

At its core, Beyond Black asks what it means to be haunted and how one might survive an abusive past intact. A slim specter of a character named Gloria floats through the book. The Fiends, whose vile antics are sometimes compared to a gypsy circus, have dismembered Gloria with the old saw trick. In Alison’s memory, pieces of Gloria are scattered around her childhood home, parceled out, fed to dogs, transported in boxes at midnight, hidden. Alison’s awful mother frequently alludes to Alison herself being “sawed up,” a metaphor that dances on the literal as we come to realize that the old drunk has pimped out her daughter repeatedly. Mantel’s novel investigates the return of the repressed, and although she gives us something like a happy ending, the book’s central thesis seems to be that pain cannot be abandoned or hidden, but only mitigated through direct confrontation.

The book’s humor does nothing to lighten its grim subject–if anything it exacerbates and confounds the darkness at the heart of Beyond Black. Mantel’s gift for dialogue fleshes out her characters (even the spectral ones), and while the book aims for a satirical tone at times, its characters are too richly drawn to be mere cutouts in a stage production. Mantel’s satire of contemporary English life is sharp and bleak; you laugh a little and then feel bad for laughing and a page later you’re horrified. It’s a successful book in that respect. It’s one real weakness is in the character of Colette, whose voice gives way to Alison’s past by the book’s end. This is actually no problem, as Colette’s narrative life is not nearly as interesting as Alison’s psychic traumas; Colette is, however, catalyst for the changes in Alison’s life. It would’ve been nice to see more resolution here, but I suppose Beyond Black hews closer to real life here, with all its messy loose ends.

I chose to read Beyond Black because I enjoyed Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall so much. The books have little in common other than being well-written and tightly paced, and I think that anyone who wanted more Mantel after an introduction via Wolf Hall would do right to pick up Beyond Black. Recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in 2010. RIP to Hilary Mantel, who died “suddenly but peacefully” yesterday at 70.]

I’d Harass God | Emily Dickinson

Reading Girls — Helene Schjerfbeck

Lukevat tytöt (Reading Girls), 1907 by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946)

Salome — Henry Ossawa Tanner

Salome, 1900 by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

King Kong à Paris — Sergio Ceccotti

King Kong à Paris, 2019 by Sergio Ceccotti (b. 1935)