Burke and Wills Expedition III — Sidney Nolan

Burke and Wills Expedition III, 1975 by Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)

Satan — George Frederic Watts

Satan, 1847 by George Frederic Watts (1817–1904)

Swamp Cottage — Davor Gromilovic

Swamp Cottage, 2018 by Davor Gromilovic (b. 1985)

“A Brief History of the Passenger Pigeon” — Lynn Pedersen

“A Brief History of the Passenger Pigeon”

by

Lynn Pedersen


Not to be confused with messenger pigeons, birds sent behind enemy lines in war, but think passengers as in birds carrying suitcases, sharing a berth on a train, or traveling in bamboo cages on a ship, always migrating on a one-way to extinction. How would extinction look on a graph? A steady climb, or a plateau, then a precipitous cliff at the dawn of humans?

Nesting grounds eight hundred square miles in area. Skies swollen with darkening multitudes. Days and days of unbroken flocks passing over. Ectopistes migratorius.

And the last of the species, Martha, named for Martha Washington, dies in a cage in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Forget clemency. We are the worst kind of predator, not even deliberate in our destruction. Our killing happens à la carte, on the side (side of Dodo?).

And because the nineteenth century did not enlist a battlefield artist for extinctions, there are no official witnesses to the slaughter, just participants. If you could somehow travel back to this scene, through the would-be canvas, you would run flailing your arms toward the hardwood forests and the men with sticks and guns and boiling sulphur pots to bring birds out of the trees, as if you could deliver 50,000 individual warnings, or throw yourself prostrate on the ground, as if your one body could hold sway.

The Exchange — Peter Martensen

The Exchange, 2018 by Peter Martensen (b. 1953)

Bloomsday budget

An economic summary (perhaps) of Ulysses. From “Ithaca”–

Compile the budget for 16 June 1904. DEBIT
1 Pork Kidney
1 Copy FREEMAN’S JOURNAL
1 Bath And Gratification
Tramfare
1 In Memoriam Patrick Dignam
2 Banbury cakes
1 Lunch
1 Renewal fee for book
1 Packet Notepaper and Envelopes
1 Dinner and Gratification
1 Postal Order and Stamp
Tramfare
1 Pig’s Foot
1 Sheep’s Trotter
1 Cake Fry’s Plain Chocolate
1 Square Soda Bread
1 Coffee and Bun
Loan (Stephen Dedalus) refunded

BALANCE

L. s. d.
0—0—3
0—0—1
0—1—6
0—0—1
0—5—0
0—0—1
0—0—7
0—1—0
0—0—2
0—2—0
0—2—8
0—0—1
0—0—4
0—0—3
0—0—1
0—0—4
0—0—4
1—7—0
0-17—5
2-19—3
CREDIT
Cash in hand
Commission recd. Freeman’s Journal
Loan (Stephen Dedalus)

L. s. d.
0—4—9
1—7—6
1—7—0

2-19—3

Burke and Wills Expedition II — Sidney Nolan

Burke and Wills Expedition II, 1975 by Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)

“Sand Flesh and Sky” — Clarence Major

“Sand Flesh and Sky”
by
Clarence Major

Our ropes are the roots
of our life. We fish
low in the earth,
the river beneath runs through our veins,
blue and cold in a riverbed.

When the sun comes up,
the moon moves slowly to the left.

I tie the logs and limbs together,
holding them in place.

The ocean beats them
smooth like rock.
Here my sense of time is flat.

I find in a strip of damp sand
footprints and marks of hands,
and torn pieces of flesh.

Night is a beast.
The tide moves, gushing
back and forth.

Sunlight touches our faces,
turning us, turning us, turning us
in our morning sleep.

“Pretty Fly” | Scene from + short riff on The Night of the Hunter

I watched  The Night Of The Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955) last night for the first time in at least fifteen years. Robert Mitchum’s Bluebeard-preacher figure is the main thing that stuck with me from earlier viewings. He’s the awful, captivating, horrifying and paradoxically ever-moving center of dread in a film that is essentially about despair and hope (qualities simplified to tattoos of “LOVE” and “HATE” on his hands). Watching it last night though, I was surprised at how beautiful, even tranquil the film is at times–a kind of tranquility underpinned by the natural world’s flat indifference to humanity’s suffering coupled with Mitchum’s character’s sinister avarice. The long scene of the children escaping on the river at night, guided in part by their own music is particularly moving, a strange interplay of chiaroscuro expressionism and documentary naturalism. The voyage echoes the film’s direct allusions to Moses’ escape in the ark of bulrushes (as well as hinting at Twain’s Huck Finn). It’s a lovely transition to the film’s final third, wherein Lillian Gish’s stern but loving maternal presence overtakes the narrative. My memory had swallowed her eminence, but I don’t think I’ll forget this time that it’s her character who gets the last hopeful words: “ They abide, and they endure.”

Plain Fingers — Yu Hong

Plain Fingers, 2013 by Yu Hong (b. 1966)

The Return — Stephen Greene

The Return, 1950 by Stephen Greene (1918-1999)

Burke and Wills Expedition I — Sidney Nolan

Burke and Wills Expedition I, 1975 by Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)

W.D. Clarke’s She Sang to Them, She Sang (Book acquired, 12 June 2021)

W.D. Clarke’s second novel She Sang to Them, She Sang is new from Slovenian indie corona\samizdat, which describes it as a “Pocket book 425 pages.”

It’s a nice little faboy, and the print isn’t pocket-sized, although I don’t know if I own a pair of pants with pockets that could accomodate She Sang to Them, She Sang. (I’ve included a beer can in the photo and a backdrop of NYRBs to give a sense of the novel’s odd physical scale).

Here’s Clarke’s blurb:

Katie, Jo, and Manny have got the deal of their lifetimes finally in their sights, but nowhere is it written in the Family Home Inspection Kit to triple-check the stories they tell themselves—about issues overlooked, upkeep not kept up, or damage concealed; about how more than finances flow from one generation to the next; about veiled motivations for entering into relationships of a contractual nature (be they fiduciary, informal, or solemnized); finally, about the real origins of these stories themselves, which upon closer inspection are revealed to be mere lean-tos built upon shabby foundations, and whose parlors furnish-forth tedious after-dinner speakers, who are not only the most long-winded, but also the most unreliable, of guests….

Through an innovative presentation of events (in which thoughts nested within and discoursing with other thoughts are “corralled” visually on the page), the narrative moves from one perspective to the next as each protagonist somehow manages to convince themselves of their autonomy, even as this most seemingly banal of events, the simple sale of a house, gathers to itself enough psycho-kinetic energy to threaten all who find themselves in need of shelter under its creaking joists.

I was a fan of Clarke’s first novel White Mythology. I wish I’d given it a proper review back in 2016.

 

Spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen | Notes on some Thomas Pynchon letters I have not read

I’m sure this is old news to long-time Pynchon fanatics, but I came across two articles earlier this week while searching archives for something else (which I did not find). Both articles were composed by the late theater critic Mel Gussow. The first article, “Pynchon’s Letters Nudge His Mask,” published 4 March 1998, details the then-recent Morgan Library’s acquisition of Pynchon’s correspondence to his former agent Candida Donadio. The collection apparently acquired more than 100 letters, composed from 1963 to 1982. Pynchon fired Donadio in early 1982:

Most of the letters are signed ”later, Tom,” one, ”love, Tom.” Then suddenly on Jan. 5, 1982, he writes, ”As of this date, you are no longer authorized to represent me or my work,” and signs the letter ”Cordially, Thomas Pynchon.” In a follow-up letter, he asks Ms. Donadio’s assistant to send him everything else of his that she still has. He does not mention the letters.

Donadio sold the letters to arts patron Carter Burden for $45,000 in 1984; a few years after his death, his family bequeathed the collection to the Morgan.

Mel Gussow appears to have had complete access to the letters. The first article includes a number of interesting observations. “He typed the letters single space on graph paper, until his Olivetti broke; then he switched to printing in longhand,” Gussow writes. The graph paper detail gels with some of the pics of letters from UT’s Harry Ransom archive. 

According to Gussow’s reading of the letters, Pynchon “moved from Mexico to California, from Texas to London, trying to preserve his anonymity and privacy.” Pynchon is of course well-aware of his reclusive reputation:

When he hears that the humorist H. Allen Smith has written an article for Playboy claiming to be both J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, he says, ”What no one knows is that Smith is actually Pierre Salinger, and I am H. Allen Smith.”

Pynchon writes of his hatred for Time magazine magnate Henry Luce and his admiration for James Agee’s A Death in the Family. He’s sickened by a 1964 profile by Dick Schaap published in The New York Herald Tribune, claiming it makes him feel “homicidal” — again though, these are private letters. (I have had no success tracking down Schaap’s article; I’m assuming that this Schaap is the same one who made his bones as a New York sportswriter.)

Gussow’s article notes Pynchon’s early self-assurance of his literary abilities:

In April 1964, Mr. Pynchon tells Ms. Donadio he is facing a creative crisis, with four novels in process. With a sudden bravado, he says, ”If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium.”

How many of those novels came to fruition? It’s hard to guess, I guess. It’s clear that Pynchon’s ideas might gestate for decades:

In a handwritten letter in January 1975, Mr. Pynchon mentions for the first time another work in progress, Mason & Dixon, 22 years before it was published.

Other points:

Pynchon refers to his second novel The Crying of Lot 49 as “a short story, but with gland trouble.” At one point, he hopes to sell both 49 and his first novel V. to Hollywood. We know Pynchon’s love for film, but Gussow underlines it:

He reveals himself as an avid moviegoer, offering capsule reviews. When the possibility of writing film criticism for Esquire arises, he says he would love to do it and explains: ”I can be crisp, succinct, iconoclastic, noncoterie, nonprogrammatic . . . also curmudgeonly, insulting, bigoted, psychotic and nitpicking. A boy scout’s decade of virtues.”

I’d love to see some of those capsule reviews.

I’d also love to see some of Pynchon’s responses to his peers’ work (if you can call the peers). Donadio sends Pynchon novels, and Gussow notes that, “He is generous in his responses, applauding John Cheever, John Hawkes, Bruce Jay Friedman and lesser-known writers.”

Gussow’s first article concludes with the alarm of Pynchon’s then-lawyer, Jeremy Nussbaum:

”It’s a rather startling event,” said Mr. Nussbaum. ”I’ve never heard of an agent selling letters of a client, except after the death of the client. They were entrusted to her in a relationship of confidence, and they were sold against his wishes.”

Nussbaum’s alarm (which is of course Pynchon’s alarm) bears fruit; a few weeks later (21 March 1998), Mel Gussow reports that “The Morgan Curtails Access to a Trove of Pynchon Letters.” The gist of the whole deal is that Pynchon’s letters to Donadio won’t be available until after his death, and even then with limited access.

Forgive me for indulging in this nonsense. Pynchon’s true contemporary William Gaddis put it best: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology?”

Pynchon prefigured the dregs sentiment by almost a decade, in a more self-deprecating mode. Gassow notes that Pynchon writes to his then-agent in ’78 about a suggestion he write his autobiography:

As for spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen, for some strange reason.

It’s all in the novels then.

The Blue Bird II — Natalie Frank

The Blue Bird II, 2019 by Natalie Frank (b. 1980)


“The Blue Bird”

by

Madame d’Aulnoy

Translated from the French by

Andrew Lang


Once upon a time there lived a King who was immensely rich. He had broad lands, and sacks overflowing with gold and silver; but he did not care a bit for all his riches, because the Queen, his wife, was dead. He shut himself up in a little room and knocked his head against the walls for grief, until his courtiers were really afraid that he would hurt himself. So they hung feather-beds between the tapestry and the walls, and then he could go on knocking his head as long as it was any consolation to him without coming to much harm. All his subjects came to see him, and said whatever they thought would comfort him: some were grave, even gloomy with him; and some agreeable, even gay; but not one could make the least impression upon him. Indeed, he hardly seemed to hear what they said. At last came a lady who was wrapped in a black mantle, and seemed to be in the deepest grief. She wept and sobbed until even the King’s attention was attracted; and when she said that, far from coming to try and diminish his grief, she, who had just lost a good husband, was come to add her tears to his, since she knew what he must be feeling, the King redoubled his lamentations. Then he told the sorrowful lady long stories about the good qualities of his departed Queen, and she in her turn recounted all the virtues of her departed husband; and this passed the time so agreeably that the King quite forgot to thump his head against the feather-beds, and the lady did not need to wipe the tears from her great blue eyes as often as before. By degrees they came to talking about other things in which the King took an interest, and in a wonderfully short time the whole kingdom was astonished by the news that the King was married again to the sorrowful lady. Continue reading “The Blue Bird II — Natalie Frank”

Blog about some recent reading (Süskind/Shange/Dara/Walton/Cain)

Last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading—

–(a poor substitute for meaningful reviews, blogs about recent reading—but so and in some measure of fairness to myself, the last few weeks were larded with occasions—promotional ceremonies, out-of-town graduations, visits to new schools, and a triumvirate of family birthdays. So…)—

So last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading I was about halfway through Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985, in translation by John E. Woods). The novel is kinda sorta historical magical realism, if that makes sense, although it’s really straightforward in its telling (the good ole third-person omniscient/free indirect style). It’s pre-Revolutionary France and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has a magical mystical murderous sense of smell. He’s born a freak and lives a freaky life. We follow Grenouille, a bastard abandoned to a quick near-death in a pile of fish guts, from a group home for orphans to a tanner’s factory to his time as an unrecognized perfume genius, concocting enchanting scents for not just Paris’s wealthiest, but the European elite. He becomes a journeyman, an ascetic hermit, and a serial killer. The novel culminates in twin orgies, ecstatic and then thanatopic. I wonder if Woods’s translation tamed things down a bit, or if Süskind’s original German is so…clinical…there’s something about the prose that elides the lurid abject rot under it all. (Oh, and I rewatched Tom Twyker’s 2006 film adaptation after finishing Süskind’s novel—it’s a fine effort, but simply can’t do what a novel can do—namely, take us convincingly into Grenouille’s estranging consciousness. We’re let with some lovely gross set pieces. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman chew up all the scenery they can fit in their mouths.)

I picked up Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982) after finishing Perfume. It was Shange’s first novel, unless I’m mistaken, and there’s something wonderfully uneven to it. The titular trio are sisters hailing from Charleston, South Carolina and environs. The sisters (mythical muses, but also concrete people) are the daughters of Hilda Effania, a weaver. Hilda’s children appreciate her craft, but they long for newer, stranger art. Sassafrass seeks to elevate weaving into fine art; Cypress flits from classical ballet to new forms of dance; the youngest, Indigo, is part musician, part magician—her fiddle conjures all kinds of charms. Here, Shange borrows touches of Gullah-Geechee culture, and the novel’s evocations of Charleston and the coastal Sea Islands to its east will resonate with anyone familiar with the terrain. (The novel might be read with/against Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut, Edisto, a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a white male teenager living in the titular South Carolina Sea Island.) Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo doesn’t exactly have a plot, per se, which is lovely—the novel seems to sprawl out in different tangles, a kind of diffident rejection of Hilda Effania’s skilled weaving. Each daughter rebels, but returns to the hearth. Shange loads the novel with recipes, letters, journal entries, and magic spells, and if the end result is wildly uneven, it’s also lots of fun and often moving.

I got Evan Dara’s Permanent Earthquake (2021) on my birthday, a few days ago. I read the first 30 or so pages. I will write more later.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev  (2021) is Dawnie Walton’s debut novel. It deserves its own long review, but the short of it is—good stuff. Opal & Nev takes the form of an oral history of the fictional titular early seventies rock-freak-soul outfit: a bald Afro-punk progenitor (Opal) and a pasty ginger Brit (Nev). The narrator is S. Sunny Shelton; her father, Jimmy Curtis, played drums on the first Opal & Nev record, and “was beaten to death by a racist gang during the riot” at a label showcase, as the novel’s astonishing opening paragraph attests. Nev carries Opal out on his back in the ensuing violent aftermath, and a photographer captures the moment. The photo becomes iconic, symbolic, and the touchstone of the oral history Shelton assembles. And that oral history: Walton adroitly ventriloquizes her cast—the aging British producer, the asshole label owner, the worried Christian sister, the “Hey-I’m-not-racist-but-look-I’m-actually-racist” Southern rocker-turned Trump supporter. Nev and Opal are particularly well-defined; as the novel develops, we start to see their masks crack. The diversity of perspectives on the novel’s central event–the murder of Shelton’s father Jimmy (and the subsequent photograph of Opal on Nev’s back)—leads to a compelling twist in the novel’s climax. The twist plays out in the book’s second half, as Opal & Nev undertake a reunion show at a big festival concert (something like Bonnaroo, I guess). The novel is set right before the 2016 election, leading to a number of ironies, and Shelton—telegraphing Walton, I suspect—is not shy of editorializing (nor should she be). Opal & Nev also contains lots of footnotes. Many of these footnotes flesh out the alternate reality of Walton’s imagined musicsphere, but some offer historical girding to the narrative proper. For example, Walton, through Shelton, lets us know who Josephine Baker was, and that George Wallace was a notorious racist, and that Stephanie St. Clair was an infamous Harlem racketeer. Etc. These footnotes made me feel old in the sense that they seem designed to help a younger audience navigate the mostly-real (and real in the ugliest, realest ways possible) of Opal & Nev, while also absorbing much that American history has sought to whitewash. Ultimately, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev kept me reading because the voices were so compelling. Watson lets her subjects speak, channeling all of their flaws and glories. Recommended.

Years ago someone—who was it, was it you?—told me to read James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). I got a copy of Three Complete Novels this weekend, and read Postman over two days. Cain’s novel is visceral, gross, violent, and fast fast fast. It’s a basic stranger-comes-to-town plot, only the town is reduced to a young wife dissatisfied with her husband (and the husband in question). It’s also told from the perspective of the stranger, a quippy drifter who reminded me more of Camus’ Mersault than anything else. (I think it would be fascinating to rewrite this novel from another character’s perspective, by the way.) The novel did for me exactly what I needed—sort of zapped me, reset my reading rainbow. Cain’s prose is so economical that I found myself having to go back to previous sentences at times to make sure that I was comprehending his camera-flow. An unhealthy juvenile puma shows up in a late courtroom scene. This novel is wonderfully grotesque. I’m ashamed that I’ve never seen the 1946 film version (starring Lana Turner)—but I have seen the 1945 adaptation of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, so I look forward to reading that (and Double Indemnity). Great stuff, even if the postman never rings, not even once.

A Couple on the Floor of a Forgotten Church — Ilya Milstein

A Couple on the Floor of a Forgotten Church, 2018 by Ilya Milstein