“Olives” — Donald Hall

“Olives”

by

Donald Hall


“Dead people don’t like olives,”
I told my partners in eighth grade
dancing class, who never listened
as we fox-trotted, one-two, one-two.

The dead people I often consulted
nodded their skulls in unison
while I flung my black velvet cape
over my shoulders and glowered
from deep-set, burning eyes,
walking the city streets, alone at fifteen,
crazy for cheerleaders and poems.

At Hamden High football games, girls
in short pleated skirts
pranced and kicked, and I longed
for their memorable thighs.
They were friendly—poets were mascots—
but never listened when I told them
that dead people didn’t like olives.

Instead the poet, wearing his cape,
continued to prowl in solitude
intoning inscrutable stanzas
as halfbacks and tackles
made out, Friday nights after football,
on sofas in dark-walled rec rooms
with magnanimous cheerleaders.

But, decades later, when the dead
have stopped blathering
about olives, obese halfbacks wheeze
upstairs to sleep beside cheerleaders
waiting for hip replacements,
while a lascivious, doddering poet,
his burning eyes deep-set
in wrinkles, cavorts with their daughters.

Aurora — Remedios Varo

Aurora, 1962 by Remedios Varo (1908-1963)

“Some Bright Paintings” — Gilbert Sorrentino

The Sophists — Jeffrey Chong Wang

The Sophists, Jeffrey Chong Wang

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (Book acquired, 19 Sept. 2020)

NRYB has a forthcoming collection of Nikolai Leskov stories (novellas, really) called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The collection features new translations from Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, and William Edgerton. NYRB’s blurb:

Nikolai Leskov is the strangest of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His work is closer to the oral traditions of narrative than that of his contemporaries, and served as the inspiration for Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin contrasts the plotty machinations of the modern novel with the strange, melancholy, but also worldly-wise yarns of an older, slower era that Leskov remained in touch with. The title story is a tale of illicit love and multiple murder that could easily find its way into a Scottish ballad and did go on to become the most popular of Dmitri Shostakovich’s operas. The other stories, all but one newly translated, present the most focused and finely rendered collection of this indispensable writer currently available in English.

The collection includes six novellas: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Sealed Angel, The Enchanted Wanderer, The Steel Flea, The Unmercenary Engineers, and The Innocent Prudentius.

I read a few of these stories some years back in a Borzoi collection of Leskov stories called The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories; those translations were by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and included some much shorter tales).

I also highly highly recommend Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch’s 2016 film adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

L’Annunciata — Agostino Arrivabene

L’Annunciata, 2016 by Agostino Arrivabene (b. 1967)

William Gaddis: In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about”  

Brigitte Felix: If I may ask the same question, phrasing it differently:  Jack Gibbs says at one point “Most god damned readers rather be at the movies because when you walk in to the movies you walk in empty-handed and leave much the same way.”  What do you think your readers walk out with, after reading J R, for example?

 William Gaddis: [after a long pause]  I suppose . . . here’s the heart of the matter, he’s drawn a picture of . . . In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about.”  It’s buried usually under paragraphs, but this is what America is all about.  I suppose that one wants the reader to put the book down finally, having finished it — not after starting it, which is the case, frequently — and say, Yes, that’s what America is all about: it is a paper empire, it’s Gresham’s Law, the bad drives out the good, and so forth . . .

From William Gaddis’s 1993 interview in with Brigitte Félix and Marc Chénetier  in La Quinzaine littéraire.

Goethe in Purgatory — Thomas Theodor Heine

Goethe In Purgatory, 1932 by Thomas Theodor Heine (1867–1948). Via/more.

The Magician — Xiao Guo Hui

The Magician, 2010 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

It is hard not to be appalled by existence | Ron Padgett

It is hard not to be appalled by existence.
The pointlessness of matter turns us into cornered animals
that otherwise are placid or indifferent,
we hiss and bare our fangs and attack.
But how many people have felt the terror of existence?
Was Genghis Khan horrified that he and everything else existed?
Was Hitler or Pol Pot?
Or any of the other charming figures of history?
Je m’en doute.
It was something else made them mean.
Something else made Napoleon think it glorious
to cover the frozen earth with a hundred thousand bloody corpses.
Something else made . . . oh, name your monster
and his penchant for destruction,
name your own period in history when a darkness swept over us
and made not existing seem like the better choice,
as if the solution to hunger were to hurl oneself
into a vat of boiling radioactive carrots!
Life is so awful!
I hope that lion tears me to pieces!

William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, John Updike and other writers on book dedications

Bobbie Ann Mason: “Book dedications are…a private message in a public place… They’re like reading the personals.”

Joseph Heller: “I have not the slightest understanding of what they mean…none of my books except the first one have any.”

Richard Ford: “All of my books are dedicated to my wife.”

Ward Just: “My last seven books were all dedicated to my wife.”

Kaye Gibbons: “In the new printings of A Virtuous Woman, I’m deleting my ex-husband’s name and replacing it with my second and final husband’s Frank Ward.”

Christopher Buckley: “I was finishing The White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, ‘Now type, “For my wife, with love.”‘ And she cried. I dedicated my first book, Steaming to Bamboola, to John Lennon. It was about the merchant marine, and he was the son of a merchant seaman, and he died while I was writing it, and I was very sad, so I just dedicated it to him.”

Nicholson Baker: “I hope to dedicate several more books to my wife although not every one. You don’t want to be like Nabokov. Every book was to Vera, to Vera, to Vera.”

Susanna Moore: “My favorite dedication is by Gregor von Rezzori. In one of his books, he just says, For whom else but you!'”

William Gaddis: “You never dedicate a book to another writer. You’d worry that he wouldn’t like it.”

John Updike: “You worry with another writer, that he won’t like the book, that you’re like the cat who’s bringing a dead mouse to the back door.”

From “Dedicated Lines,” an article by Jamie Malanowski in the 25 Dec. 1995 issue of The New Yorker.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (Book acquired, 18 Sept. 2020)

I ended up reading Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot earlier this month. I’m a big fan of Southern literature—Faulkner and O’Connor, Barry Hannah and Charles Portis, etc.—but Percy has been a blind spot up until now. I got copies of Lancelot and The Second Coming when my college’s library removed a ton of books last year. They’d been in my office for months, and when I went back at the beginning of the fall semester to grab some textbooks—I’m teaching online only now—I grabbed the Percys (Percies?). I picked up Lancelot and then never really put it down. Something about its comedic grotesquerie, its insane monologuing just…clicked for me right now.

I figured I should read Percy’s first and most famous novel The Moviegoer next, so I picked up a used copy last week. I was stoked to find a 1971 Noonday edition with a cover design by Milton Glaser. I read the first fifty pages this weekend, and have enjoyed it so far, but maybe Lancelot spoiled me a bit. Percy’s first novel seems far more restrained and measured—subtler, really, although Lancelot is, to be clear, out there. While Lancelot reminded me of Barry Hannah’s zany, mean-spirited stuff, so far The Moviegoer strikes me as soaked in existentialist ennui. The main character and narrator, Binx Bolling, echoes Camus’ hero of The Stranger, Mersault so far. I do enjoy Percy’s evocation of New Orleans in the late fifties very much, but I was hoping for a little more humor. Still, I’ll stick with it.

For He Was Mad — Bernie Wrightson

By Bernie Wrightson, 1948-2017

Cormac McCarthy: Would you wish the Nobel Prize off on a friend or an enemy? 

Who should be the next American Nobel Prize winner?

CORMAC McCARTHY: Would you wish the Nobel Prize off on a friend or an enemy?

What would you have done, do you think, if it hadn’t been for writing?

CORMAC McCARTHY: I think I can say that if I hadn’t been a writer I’d have been what I have been all my life anyway: one more unemployed person of dubious character.

From “Don’t Everybody Talk at Once! (The Esquire Literary Survey).” Published in Esquire, August 1986.

The “article” consists of a ten-question questionnaire Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills sent to around fifty American writers. These are the only two answers from Cormac McCarthy.

An Old Envelope — Chester Arnold

An Old Envelope, 2016 by Chester Arnold (b. 1952)

Another Postmodernists Dinner

I’ve written about the so-called “Postmodernist Dinner” on this blog before. The 1983 dinner was organized and hosted by Donald Barthelme, and attended by John Barth, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes, among others (Thomas Pynchon politely declined).

This morning, searching for something other than what I ended up finding, I came across a 1988 New York Times describing another Postmodernists Dinner. This particular dinner was organized by Robert Coover in honor of his friend John Hawkes’s retirement form Brown University. Well, I’ve written dinner here, but really the dinner was the celebration at the end of a conference at Brown. From Caryn James’s article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto”:

When the novelist Robert Coover organized a conference called ”Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction,” he invited some old friends to Brown University. There would be panel discussions that might define literary post-modernism once and for all, Mr. Coover said, but mostly it would be ”a family gathering” to mark John Hawkes’s retirement as a teacher of writing at Brown.

The poster above, signed by many of the panelists, is part of Washington University in St. Louis’s Modern Literature Collection. Here is the collections description of the event:

“Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction” sponsored by Brown University as part of the 1988 Brown University Reading and Lecture Series on April 4-6, 1988. Notable writers include Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish, Robert Kelly, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Baumbach, Toby Olson, John Hawkes, Meredith Steinbach, William Gass, William Gaddis, Marilynne Robinson, Geoffrey Wolff, Leslie Fiedler, Marc Chenetier, Maurice Couturier, Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, Sinda Gregory, Tom LeClair, Richard Martin, and Larry McCaffery.

In her article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto,” James describes the group as “almost all the major novelists sometimes called post-modernist . . . sometimes simply called difficult.” She continues:

They assaulted realism in the 1960’s, turning language inside out, crossing paths and forming friendships along the way. Twenty years later, here they all were, a group the critic Leslie Fiedler called ”iconoclasts with tenure” – the writers the current minimalists reacted against, an avant-garde no longer ahead of its time.

James then goes on to describe some “family friction” between the group during the panel called ”Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction,” moderated by Leslie Fiedler:

The author of the classic study Love and Death in the American Novel and recent works on popular culture posed questions one writer later described as the sort you fear getting from little old ladies in tennis shoes. Why do you write? Who is your audience? The panelists floundered, told anecdotes, skated – sometimes charmingly – on the surface of the questions. “I know exactly who I’m writing for,” said Mr. Barthelme. “They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive.” Mr. Gaddis, whose fiction includes the two immense novels The Recognitions and J. R., said he wrote ”to avoid boredom, which is probably why I came up here today.”

At this point, I knew I’d read about this particular panel before, but I couldn’t remember where—possibly in Tracy Daughtery’s Barthelme biography, Hiding Man? Anyway, Fiedler continued to piss off some of the postmodernists:

When Mr. Fiedler concluded by saying, “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” many writers became furious and insulted.

I’m pretty sure Fiedler meant the comment from a place of deep contempt for contemporary culture, but whatever; James notes that

Some were so incensed they threatened to stay away from Tuesday night’s big dinner, the event Mr. Coover was playing as the centerpiece of the celebration.

She continues by describing the postmodernists dinner;

The main event was worthy of a post-modern novel, a dreamlike scene in which people from one life wander into a room where they don’t belong. Mr. Coover had discovered a modest Portuguese restaurant in East Providence, to which he often brought colleagues from Brown, where he teaches. Some became regulars; some never returned.

That was the sight of Mr. Hawkes’s retirement party, and between the fried calamari and roast pig, the lights went down and the audience was captive at its long narrow tables for the entertainment – traditional Latin fado songs to guitar accompaniment.

The host raconteur and main singer was named Manny. He wore a maroon jacket, told corny jokes and sang songs reminiscent of a discount Julio Iglesias (though he reminded Mr. Elkin of the nightclub singer in ”Broadway Danny Rose”). He stood at the head of the writers’ table, now and then glancing at Mr. Hawkes or Mr. Gaddis while shouting, “You’re lookin’ good!” Some people squirmed; some clapped along; Mr. Coover loved it. There were three sets in all.

And like a good postmodern comedy, there’s a happy ending:

Late in the night, Mr. Coover joked that he had not thrown this party for Mr. King, and Mr. Fiedler took his chance to make amends. “Whatever I said, I said with irony and with real affection for you,” he told Mr. Hawkes. “I hope it’s taken in that spirit.” Some family members held a grudge, but Mr. Hawkes hugged Mr. Fiedler and gave him the ultimate Hawkesian compliment. “Leslie,” he said, “you’re the most erotic critic here.”

Here’s a clipping of the event, again from Washington University’s invaluable Modern Literature Collection:

lnexplicable Joy in the Time of Corona — Eric Fischl

lnexplicable Joy in the Time of Corona, 2020 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)