Three Books

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Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Mass-market paperback from Ballantine Books, 1968. Cover art by Bob Pepper (not credited); no designer credited.

The first of Mervyn Peake’s strange castle (and then not-castle trilogy (not really a trilogy, really)), Titus Groan is weird wonderful grotesque fun. Inspirited by the Machiavellian antagonist Steerpike, Titus Groan can be read as a critique of the empty rituals that underwrite modern life. It can also be read for pleasure alone.

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Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. Mass-market paperback from Ballantine Books, 1968. Cover art by Bob Pepper (not credited); no designer credited.

Probably the best novel in the trilogy, Gormenghast is notable for its psychological realism, surreal claustrophobia, and bursts of fantastical imagery. We finally get to know Titus, who is a mute infant in the first novel, and track his insolent war against tradition and Steerpike. The novel’s apocalyptic diluvian climax is amazing.

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Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake. Mass-market paperback from Ballantine Books, 1968. Cover art by Bob Pepper (not credited); no designer credited.

I don’t usually include back covers in these Three Books posts, but I just love the way that Bob Pepper’s back-covers segue into each other.

Is Titus Alone my favorite in the trilogy, or is it just the one I read last? I don’t know. It’s a kind of beautiful mess, an episodic, picaresque adventure the breaks all the apparent rules of the first two books. The rulebreaking is fitting though, given that Our Boy Titus (alone!) navigates the world outside of Gormenghast—a world that doesn’t seem to even understand that a Gormenghast exists (!)—Titus Alone is a scattershot epic. Shot-through with a heavy streak of Dickens, Titus Alone never slows down enough for readers to get their bearings. Or to get bored. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to the novel. Does Titus want to get back to his normal—to tradition and the meaningless lore and order that underwrote his castle existence? Or does he want to break quarantine?

Titus Escapes might have been a better title for Peake’s third book, and its spirit of escape and adventure seem more compelling and comforting to me now than they did a month ago when I read this book.

“Cool gales shall fan the glades” — Harry Mathews

“Cool gales shall fan the glades”

by

Harry Mathews


But how choose the appropriate sticking point to start at?
Who wants to write a poem without the letter e,
Especially for Thee, where the flourished vowel lends such panache to your carnet de bal
(OK, peons: pizzazz to your dance card)? The alphabet’s such a horn
Of plenty, why cork up its treasure? It hurts to think of “you” reduced to u
In stingy text messages, as if ideally expression should be limited to formulas like x ≠ y,

Where the respectable truth of tautology leaves ambiguous beauty standing by
Waiting to take off her clothes, if, that is, her percentage of body fat
Permits it (a statement implicitly unfair, as if beauty, to remain sublime, had to keep up
Lineaments already shaped by uninhibited divinity); implying, as well, fixated onlookers, i.e.,
Men and women kidding themselves that full-front-and-back nudity is the north
Star of delight rather than imagined nakedness, shudderingly draped like a fully rigged, fully laden ship without a drop to bail,

Its hidden cargoes guessed at — perhaps Samian wine (mad-
making!) — or fresh basil
Gently crushed by its own slight weight, reviving memories of delights once stumbled on as a boy,
Delights often wreathed with necessary pain, like the stout unforgiving thorns
That tear shirt and skin as we stretch for ripe blackberries, to be gulped down fast,
Sweeter than butter and marmalade, quenching our thirst better than sucked ice,
Making us almost drunk as we shriek with false contempt at each benighted ump

Who decides against our teams. What happened to those blissful fruits, honeydew, purple plum,
White raspberry, for stealing which from Mrs. Grossman’s stand I invented ingenious alibis
That she never believed (insulting, or what?)? Where are childhood’s innocent sweetnesses, like homemade rice
Pudding and mince pie? Or the delicious resistances of various foods — bony
Lobsters, chops with their succulent tiny interstices, corn sticking to the cob, or the grilled feast
Of brook trout I caught without too much fuss after kicking a 
resentful hornets’

Nest? And when carnality replaced appetite, I was communally pronounced the horniest
Ten-year-old around; and I hadn’t even seen you. But when I did, you became the plume
In the horse’s hat of my lust. I was thirteen when we first danced together. There weren’t many afters
But I cherish my plume. There weren’t any afters, nothing, just a gentle abseil I
Could not climb back up. I still wave my plume, or my horse does, as he canters nobly
Into next year, my eighty-fifth. I hasten to add that “this coyness, lady, were no crime”

If I didn’t, in spite of all, feel so grateful to you. All manner of mercis
Fill my throat, along with immortal memories, of which I must acknowledge the thorniest
To be your disappearance, whether you tanked in river water or were scorched by Zeus’s proximity (or some such baloney);
But your firm breasts, taut nipples, and bent thighs? No thorns. All you wanted was a loosened peplum,
So I still bear your plume, and your name will not die: not to be written here or read, but my voice shall sibilate
It so shrilly that unseeded babies hear me, and every hidden woodworm wake from its dream to fall forever from the rafters.

Sous le Ciel — Xiao Guo Hui

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Sous le Ciel, 2016 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

Reclining Man — Egon Schiele

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Reclining Man by Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

RIP Bill Withers

RIP Bill Withers, 1938-2020

In-laws — David Bailin

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In-laws, 2018 by David Bailin

The Cholmondeley Ladies

The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600-10 by British School 17th century 1600-1699

The Cholmondeley Ladies, c.1600–10. Artist unidentified.

Space Navigator Trying to Locate the Lizard Thief — Davor Gromilovic

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Space Navigator Trying to Locate the Lizard Thief, 2020 by Davor Gromilovic (b. 1985)

Killy — Walton Ford

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Killy, 2019 by Walton Ford (b. 1960)

31 still frames from Haynes’s Carol

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From Carol, 2015. Directed by Todd Haynes with cinematography by Edward Lachman. Via Screenmusings.

The Final Four(horsemen of the Apocalypse) match-ups and Round Four results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

The Elite Armageddon Eight of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers is all wrapped up, and we now have our Final Four(horsemen of the Apocalypse).

Let’s go bracket by bracket:

Margaret Atwood kept it close with Aldous Huxley, but lost in the end. I was rooting for her. I’m a huge fan of Huxley’s under-read apocalyptic pre-postmodernist Ape and Essence, but I have to admit I was rooting for Atwood.

I was torn between Ballard and LeGuin in the second bracket—both authors described and diagnosed our zeitgeist. Ballard prevailed.

Ballard will square off against Huxley in the Dead British Writers bracket of the Final Four.

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Pynchon and DeLillo both had tough roads to the Final Four. Pynchon beat out Anna Kavan and David Foster Wallace to get to the Elite Eight; DeLillo bested Pat Frank and Philip K. Dick. All of these writers are great, and, more importantly to our rubric, seemed to presciently capture the current dystopia the 20th century was brewing. (Okay, Frank isn’t great, but.)

Pynchon beat DeLillo easily though.

Like Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy pretty much thumped everyone he was matched against, including low seed José Saramago in the Elite Eight. While I’m sure a ton of folks will cite The Road as his zeitgeistiest novel, I’d argue it’s Blood Meridian (or even No Country for Old Men).

Pynchon will contend with McCarthy in the White American Authors in Their Eighties bracket of the Final Four. I’m not sure how to vote. In some ways, this is like, the final bracket for me.

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Threnody

RIP Krzysztof Penderecki, 1933-2020

Canto X — Tom Phillips

Canto X: [no title] 1982 by Tom Phillips born 1937

Canto X, 1982 by Tom Phillips (b. 1937). From the Dante’s Inferno series.

Nude with Loaves — Jean Hélion

Nude with Loaves 1952 by Jean H?lion 1904-1987

Nude with Loaves, 1952 by Jean Hélion (1904–1987)

Figure in a Landscape — Francis Bacon

Figure in a Landscape 1945 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Figure in a Landscape, 1945 by Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

Little Hermit Sphinx — Leonor Fini

Little Hermit Sphinx 1948 by Leonor Fini 1908-1996

Little Hermit Sphinx, 1948 by Leonor Fini (1908–1996)

Banned Book No. 2 — Liu Ye

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Banned Book 2, 2008 by Liu Ye (b. 1964)