Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life (Book acquired, early January 2023)

The first part of Konstantin Paustovsky’s memoir The Story of a Life is forthcoming in a new translation by Douglas Smith from NYRB. Their blurb:

In 1943, the Soviet author Konstantin Paustovsky started out on what would prove a masterwork, The Story of a Life, a grand, novelistic memoir of a life spent on the ravaged frontier of Russian history. Eventually expanding to fill six volumes, this extraordinary work of a lifetime would establish Paustovsky as one of Russia’s great writers and lead to a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here the first three books of Paustovsky’s epic autobiography—long unavailable in English—appear in a splendid new translation by Douglas Smith. Taking the reader from Paustovsky’s Ukrainian youth, his family struggling on the verge of collapse, through the first stirrings of writerly ambition, to his experiences working as a paramedic on the front lines of World War I and then as a journalist covering Russia’s violent spiral into revolution, this vivid and suspenseful story of coming-of-age in a time of troubles is lifted by the energy and lyricism of Paustovsky’s prose and marked throughout by his deep love of the natural world. The Story of a Life is a dazzling achievement of modern literature.

Study of Hand — William Mulready

Study of Hand by William Mulready (1786-1863)

Free — Kenton Nelson

Free by Kenton Nelson (b. 1954)

All is telling | A passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

The task of the narrator is not an easy one, he said. He appears to be required to choose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one. Always the teller must be at pains to devise against his listener’s claim–perhaps spoken, perhaps not–that he has heard the tale before. He sets forth the categories into which the listener will wish to fit the narrative as he hears it. But he understands that the narrative is itself in fact no category but is rather the category of all categories for there is nothing which falls outside its purview. All is telling. Do not doubt it.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing. 

Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush –Pierre Dumonstier II

Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush, 1625 by Pierre Dumonstier II (c. 1585-1656)

Fire Judges — Jean-Pierre Roy

Fire Judges, 2022 by Jean-Pierre Roy (b. 1974)

David Ohle’s Motorman (Book acquired, 23 Dec. 2022)

The nicest gift I received this season was from a reader of this blog, J.I.M., who sent me a 1972 hardback first edition of David Ohle’s cult classic, Motorman. The Knopf title features a design by R. Scudellari featuring an illustration by Alan E. Cober. Like a few other Knopf titles from the seventies I have, there is no dust jacket—the title and cover art are right there on the physical cover. J.I.M. included a note with this kind gift, explaining the possible provenance of the book:

For more on Motorman, check out David Green’s big fat essay on the fiction of David Ohle at Big Other.

My biggest fattest thanks again to J.I.M.!

A Game of Children — Xiao Guo Hui

A Game of Children, 2021 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

Four from Sublunary (Books acquired, 23 Dec. 2022)

Four handsome fellas from Sublunary Editions.

I really enjoyed At the Doors and Other Stories by Boris Pilnyak (in translation by Emily Laskin, Isaac Zisman, Louis Lozowick, Sofia Himmel, and John Cournos). I dipped into the title story and just kept going. It reminded me a lot of “Mondaugen’s Story” in Pynchon’s V. While the other tales weren’t quite as strong, they were definitely weird. Great stuff.

I also read Mário de Andrade’s Hallucinated City (Jack E. Tomlins), and while these poems by the Brazilian modernist didn’t wholly zap me, there’s nonetheless a persuasive energy here.

Can Xue is maybe the “big name” in this fine little quadrant. Her novella Mystery Train is translated by Natascha Bruce, and it looks pretty fucked-up. Sublunary’s jacket copy:

A chicken-farm employee named Scratch, sent by his manager to buy feed, has boarded the right train. Hasn’t he? So what if the destination on the ticket is wrong, or if he’s locked in his compartment, or if the lights are off and it’s suddenly freezing cold? And surely the whispers of a pending accident are referring to some other event, long in the past. Right? Part allegory, part fever dream, Mystery Train leads the reader on an unsettling journey into a dark wilderness thick with intrigue, mysterious women… and wolves.

A. V. Marraccini’s We the Parasites also seems very promising. The jacket copy describes content—

Intertwining fig wasps, Updike, Genet, Twombly, Rilke, jewel heists, and a vividly rendered panoply of histories and myths from classical antiquity, it both tells a strange love story and makes a slantwise argument about reading with the body. We The Parasites reconfigures how longing changes and informs our relationship with art and literature, and asks what it means to want.

—but the small book’s rhetorical form seems even more intriguing.

Interior with a Woman Combing a Little Girl’s Hair — Jacobus Vrel

Interior with a Woman Combing a Little Girl’s Hair, c. 1654-1662 by Jacobus Vrel (active 1654 – 1662)

Milk 0102 — Mu Pan

Milk 0102, 2022 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)

Still Life with Plaster Head and Books — Felice Casorati

Still Life with Plaster Head and Books by Felice Casorati (1883-1963)

Clever Hans — Natalie Frank

Clever Hans, 2013 Natalie Frank (b. 1980)

Hans went into the stable, cut out all the calves’ and sheep’s eyes, and threw them in Grethel’s face. Then Grethel became angry, tore herself loose and ran away, and became the bride of Hans.

“Clever Hans,” The Brothers Grimmd; trans. by George Bell.

The Prophecy — Kent Monkman

The Prophecy, 2021 by Kent Monkman (b. 1965)

The wolf had crossed the international boundary line at about the point where it intersected the thirtieth minute of the one hundred and eighth meridian | A passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing

The wolf had crossed the international boundary line at about the point where it intersected the thirtieth minute of the one hundred and eighth meridian and she had crossed the old Nations road a mile north of the boundary and followed Whitewater Creek west up into the San Luis Mountains and crossed through the gap north to the Animas range and then crossed the Animas Valley and on into the Peloncillos as told. She carried a scabbedover wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steeltrap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.

She wandered the eastern slopes of the Sierra de la Madera for a week. Her ancestors had hunted camels and primitive toy horses on these grounds. She found little to eat. Most of the game was slaughtered out of the country. Most of the forest cut to feed the boilers of the stampmills at the mines. The wolves in that country had been killing cattle for a long time but the ignorance of the animals was a puzzle to them. The cows bellowing and bleeding and stumbling through the mountain meadows with their shovel feet and their confusion, bawling and floundering through the fences and dragging posts and wires behind. The ranchers said they brutalized the cattle in a way they did not the wild game. As if the cows evoked in them some anger. As if they were offended by some violation of an old order. Old ceremonies. Old protocols.

She crossed the Bavispe River and moved north. She was carrying her first litter and she had no way to know the trouble she was in. She was moving out of the country not because the game was gone but because the wolves were and she needed them. When she pulled down the veal calf in the snow at the head of Foster Draw in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico she had eaten little but carrion for two weeks and she wore a haunted look and she’d found no trace of wolves at all. She ate and rested and ate again. She ate till her belly dragged and she did not go back. She would not return to a kill. She would not cross a road or a rail line in daylight. She would not cross under a wire fence twice in the same place. These were the new protocols. Strictures that had not existed before. Now they did.

She ranged west into Cochise County in the state of Arizona, across the south fork of Skeleton Creek and west to the head of Starvation Canyon and south to Hog Canyon Springs. Then east again to the high country between Clanton and Foster draws. At night she would go down onto the Animas Plains and drive the wild antelope, watching them flow and turn in the dust of their own passage where it rose like smoke off the basin floor, watching the precisely indexed articulation of their limbs and the rocking movements of their heads and the slow bunching and the slow extension of their running, looking for anything at all among them that would name to her her quarry.

At this season the does were already carrying calves and as they commonly aborted long before term the one least favored so twice she found these pale unborn still warm and gawking on the ground, milkblue and near translucent in the dawn like beings miscarried from another world entire. She ate even their bones where they lay blind and dying in the snow. Before sunrise she was off the plain and she would raise her muzzle where she stood on some low promontory or rock overlooking the valley and howl and howl again into that terrible silence. She might have left the country altogether if she had not come upon the scent of a wolf just below the high pass west of Black Point. She stopped as if she’d walked into a wall.

She circled the set for the better part of an hour sorting and indexing the varied scents and ordering their sequences in an effort to reconstruct the events that had taken place here. When she left she went down through the pass south following the tracks of the horses now thirty-six hours old.

By evening she’d found all eight of the sets and she was back at the gap of the mountain again where she circled the trap whining. Then she began to dig. She dug a hole alongside the trap until the caving dirt fell away to reveal the trap’s jaw. She stood looking at it. She dug again. When she left the set the trap was sitting naked on the ground with only a handful of dirt over the waxed paper covering the pan and when the boy and his father rode through the gap the following morning that was what they found.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing.

Best Books of 1973?

A conversation with a colleague in January of 2022 led to my blogging about the possible “Best Books of 1972.” The post was fun to research, so here’s a sequel of sorts: What were the best books from fifty years ago?

(I don’t have to do any research for a quick answer: Gravity’s Rainbow was the best novel of 1973.)

Just as in last year’s post, I’m mostly interested in novels here, or books of a novelistic/artistic scope.

Still, with that said, I’ll begin with commerce: What were the bestsellers of 1973? The New York Times bestsellers list for 1973 picks up where their ’72 list left off, with Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull leading sales for the first 11 weeks (Bach’s novel was the bestseller of 1972 for half a year). Genre fiction from Frederick Forsyth, Jacqueline Susann, and Mary Stewart accounts for more than half the year. More notable bestsellers include Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. (Gravity’s Rainbow was not a chart topper.)

Critic John Leonard’s end of the year wrap up for the Times in 1973 is especially instructive. He leads with Gravity’s Rainbow, describing it as

…one of the longest, darkest, most difficult and most ambitious novels in years. Its technical and verbal resources bring to mind Melville, Faulkner and Nabokov and establish Pynchon’s imaginative continuity with the great modernist movement of the early years of this century. Gravity’s Rainbow is bone‐crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, poetic, dull, inspired, horrific, cold and blasted.

Leonard also recommends Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark (“her most artful exploration of her major themes: the relation of self and society, intelligence and feeling, madness and health, and, above all, the role of modern woman”) and John Leonard Clive’s  Macaulay, the Shaping of the Historian.

Some notable titles that the editors of the NYT Book Review append to Leonard’s feature include Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, Thomas McGuane’s Ninety‐Two in the Shade, and John Cheever’s The World of Apples. The editors also call out “disappointing efforts by Don DeLillo (Great Jones Street) and Marge Piercy (Small Changes).”

In addition to the essayistic feature, the Times also offered up an extensive list of notable titles. There are around 200 books on this list, which I’ve used to help generate my own list at the end of this post. (The most interesting entry I’d never heard of is The Exile of James Joyce by Helene Cixous 

Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter is not on the list because it was not published in 1973. It was published in 1972. But it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1973.

Infamously, there was no Pulitzer Prize awarded for fiction in 1974, even though the jurists were unanimous in their recommendation that Thomas Pynchon win it for Gravity’s Rainbow. (Gravity’s Rainbow did win the 1974 National Book Award.)

The New York Times list also fails to include Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm. White won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.

Neither does the NYT list include Alan Gardner’s Red Shift, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, Anna Kavan’s Who Are You?, Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Devil Tree, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Charles Bukowski’s South of No North, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born or Thomas Rockwell’s juvenile classic How to Eat Fried Worms.

Here is my (almost certainly incomplete) list of the best books of 1973:

Água Viva, Clarice Lispector

The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Child of God,  Cormac McCarthy

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, B. S. Johnson

Crash, J.G. Ballard

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Red Shift, Alan Gardner

State of Grace, Joy Williams

Sula, Toni Morrison

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

Here is my short (complete) list:

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon

No better (Peanuts)