Blog about reading Middlemarch (and wishing I was rereading Middlemarch)

Screenshot 2018-06-12 at 8.35.14 PM
Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

There should be a word in some language (perhaps not yet invented—word or language) to describe the feeling of Having pushed far enough into a very long novel (a novel that one has cracked into more than once) to the point that one now feels one can finally finish it.

I have felt this specific feeling a number of times in my life after finally sinking into long novels like Moby-DickGravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest. There’s a sort of relief mixed into this (as-yet-unnamed?) feeling, a letting go even, where the reader (me, I mean) surrenders to the novel’s form and content. Finally freed from the idea of reading the novel, I am able to read the novel.

There are 86 numbered chapters in George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch (not counting a “Prelude” and a “Finale”). I have just finished Chapter XXXV—not exactly a half-way point, but far enough in to finally feel like the story and the style are sticking with me. I’ve been reading a public domain copy on my iPad, after having abandoned my 1977 Norton Critical Edition—the Norton’s print is too cramped (and maybe my eyes are starting to go as I approach 40). Also, the Norton annotations are useful but too intrusive for a first read. I found myself utterly distracted by the Norton footnotes after about 50 pages; switching to a footnote-free version has alleviated a lot of the anxiety I initially felt about trying to fully comprehend Eliot’s novel in its own historical context. Dispensing with the footnotes allowed me to finally sink into Middlemarch and appreciate its wonderful evocation of consciousness-in-action.

So far, my favorite character in Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke. In part my allegiance to her is simply a matter of the fact that she initially appears to be the novel’s central character—until Eliot swerves into new narratives near the end of Book I (Book I of VIII, by the way). But beyond traditional formal sympathies, it’s the way that Eliot harnesses Dorothea’s consciousness that I find so appealing. Eliot gives us in Dorothea an incredibly intelligent yet palpably naive young woman who feels the world around her a smidge too intensely. Dorothea is brilliant but a bit blind, and so far Middlemarch most interests me in the way that Eliot evokes this heroine’s life as a series of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic revelations. We see Dorothea seeing—and then, most remarkably, we see Dorothea seeing what she could not previously see.

There are other intriguing characters too, like Dr. Tertius Lydgate, the wastrel Fred Vincy, and the would-be-Romantic Will Ladislaw (who has like, totally smoked opium, just so you know). I’m particularly fond of Dorothea’s goofy uncle Arthur Brooke.

I won’t bother summarizing the plot thus far of the novel, which is really a bunch of plate spinning, but rather offer this sentence from the novel itself:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

There’s also another self-summarizing passage a few chapters before this one, worth citing here:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent…

Each of us is a reader reading other lives as scratches on a mirror or trees in the distance, and in our reading we incorporate them into our own consciousness, our own narrative. Middlemarch is very good at evoking this social reality.

I started this blog post by trying to describe a very specific feeling for which I don’t have a word—namely, and again: Having pushed far enough into a very long novel to the point that one now feels one can finally finish it. I suspect that this is a not-uncommon feeling. I’m not so sure though of how common the other feeling I have while reading Middlemarch is. I keep feeling (feeling, not thinking): I wish that I was rereading Middlemarch and not reading Middlemarch. If I were rereading Middlemarch I could make much more sense of those mirror scratches and those trees in the distance; if I were rereading Middlemarch, I could feel the feeling of reading Middlemarch more. There is an obvious answer to this desire, of course. I can finish reading Middlemarch. Then I can reread Middlemarch. 

Advertisements

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, and interviews of Jan 2018-May 2018 (and an unrelated fruit bat)

DP167067

These are links to some of the longer pieces I’ve written so far this year. The painting of the great Indian fruit bat (c. 1777-1782) is attributed to Bhawani Das or one of his followers.

The Last Jedi and the anxiety of influence

A review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Phantom Thread

A review of Paul Kirchner’s underground comix collection Awaiting the Collapse (at The Comics Journal)

A review of The Paris Review’s overproduced podcast

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s collection Narcotics

A few paragraphs on beginning Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

On a compelling Stephen Crane character

A review of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

On a particular Gordon Lish sentence

On rereading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

Screenshot 2018-05-31 at 3.59.41 PM

On Goya’s painting The Straw Man

On Don DeLillo’s novel The Names

On the radical postmodernism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” 

Polygamy as a metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

On Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “silvery veil” — and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis

An analysis of William Carlos Williams’s ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

A close reading of Lydia Davis’s very short story “Happiest Moment”

On a passage from Gerald Murnane’s short story “Stream System”

Something on a scene from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

Screenshot 2018-05-31 at 3.59.29 PM

On John Berryman’s Dream Song 265

On making a literary cocktail, the sherry cobbler

On Robert Coover’s short story “The Brother”

On Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-Fry”

On Balthus’s portraits of young girls reading 

On the postmodern comedy-horror axis of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy

An interview with the editors of Egress, a new literary magazine devoted to innovative writing

A completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Thomas Pynchon’s novels

Screenshot 2018-05-31 at 3.58.43 PM

Antoine Volodine’s Writers blows me away

A review of Dave Cooper’s queasy abject comic Mudbite (at The Comics Journal)

On Michael Radford’s film adaptation of 1984

Is The Running Man a good film?

On William Friedkin’s paranoid, claustrophobic horror flick Bug

Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a love letter to Studio Ghibli from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi

On Hayao Miyazaki’s film Porco Rosso

A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

A review of Lady Macbeth

Screenshot 2018-05-31 at 3.59.03 PM

Blog about the first half of Antoine Volodine’s Writers

img_9711

Antoine Volodine’s collection of loosely-connected stories Writers (2010; English translation by Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive, 2014) is 108 pages. I have read the first four of the seven stories here—the first 54 pages. This is the first book by Volodine that I have read. Antoine Volodine is in fact a pseudonym, I know, but I don’t know much else about the writer. I’ve been meaning to read him for a few years, after some good folks suggested I do so, but I’ve never come across any of his books in the wild until this weekend. After I finish Writers I will read more about Volodine, but for now I am enjoying (?) how and what this book teaches me about the bigger project Volodine seems to be working towards.

That bigger project evinces in the first story in the collection, “Mathias Olbane,” which centers on the titular character, a writer who tries to hypnotize himself into a suicide attempt. Poor Mathias goes to prison for twenty-six years — “He had assassinated assassins.” Like most of the figures in Writers (so far anyway—you see by the title of this post that I am reporting from half way through, yes?) — like most of the figures in Writers, Mathias is a revolutionary spirit, resisting capitalist power and conformist order through radical violence. Before prison, Mathias wrote two books. The first, An Autumn at the Boyols’ “consisted of eight short texts, inspired by fantasy or the bizarre, composed in a lusterless but impeccable style. Let’s say that it was a collection that maintained a certain kinship with post-exoticism…” The description of the book approximates a description of Writers itself; notably, Volodine identifies his own genre as post-exoticism. Autumn at the Boyols’ doesn’t sell at all, and its sequel, Splendor of the Skiff (which “recounted a police investigation, several episodes of a global revolution, and traumatizing incursions into dream worlds”) somehow fares even worse. Mathias begins a new kind of writing in prison:

…after twenty-six years in captivity, he had forged approximately a hundred thousand words, divided as follows:

  • sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappineess
  • twenty thousand names of imaginary plants, mushrooms, and herbs
  • ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities
  • and ten thousand various words that do not belong to any language, but have a certain phonetic logic that makes them sound familiar

I love the mix of tones here: Mathias Olbane’s grand work is useless and strange and sad and ultimately unknowable, and Volodine conveys this with both sinister humor and dark pathos. Once released from prison, our hero immediately becomes afflicted with a rare and incurable and painful disease. Hence, the suicide urge. But let’s move on.

The second tale in Writers, “Speech to the Nomads and the Dead,” offers another iteration of post-exotic writing, both in form and content. The story plays out like a weird nightmare. Linda Woo, isolated and going mad in a prison cell, conjures up an audience of burn victims, an obese dead man, Mongolian nomads, and several crows. She delivers a “lesson” to her auditors (a “lesson,” we learn, is one of post-exoticism’s several genres). The lesson is about the post-exotic writers themselves. She names a few of these post-exotic writers (Volodine is addicted to names, especially strange names), and delivers an invective against the modern powers that the post-exotic writers write against:

Post-exoticism’s writers…have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and the inequalities that are exacerbated among men…

The above excerpt is a small taste of Woo’s bitter rant, which goes on for long sentence after long sentence (Volodine is addicted to long sentences). Like Mathias Olbane, Linda Woo writes in the face of futility, creating the “post-exotic word,” a word that creates an “absurd magic” that allows the post-exotic writers to “speak the world.”

Linda Woo’s name appears in the next story in Writers, “Begin-ing,” if only in passing. This story belongs to an unnamed writer, yet another prisoner. Wheelchair-bound, he is interrogated and tortured by two insane inmates who have taken over their prison, having killed their captors. The pair, Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian, are thoroughly horrific, spouting abject insanities that evoke Hieronymus Boschs’s hell. They are terrifying, and I had a nightmare the night that I read “Begin-ing.” It’s never quite clear if Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian are themselves post-exotic writers gone mad or just violent lunatics on the brink of total breakdown. In any case, Volodine affords them dialogue that veers close to a kind of horror-poetry. “We can also spew out the apocalypse,” Greta defiantly sneers. They torture the poor writer. Why?

They would like it, in the end, if he came around to their side, whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory. … They would like above all for him to help them to drive the dark forces out from the asylum, to prepare a list of spies, they want him to rid the world of the last nurses, of Martians, of colonialists, and of capitalists in general.

The poor writer these lunatics torture turns inward to his own formative memories of first writings, of begin-ing, when he created his own worlds/words in ungrammatical misspelled scrawlings, filling notebook after notebook. Volodine unspools these memories in sentences that carry on for pages, mostly centering on the writer’s strange childhood in an abject classroom where he engages in depravities that evoke Pasolini’s Salò. And yet these memories are the writer’s comfort—or at least resistance—to the lunatics’ violence. Volodine’s prose in “Begin-ing” conjures Goya’s various lunatics, witches, demons, and dogs. It’s all very upsetting stuff.

Courtyard with Lunatics, 1794 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

After the depravity of “Begin-ings,” the caustic comedy of the next story “Acknowledgements” is a welcome palate cleanser. In this story’s twelve pages (I wish there were more!) Volodine simultaneously ridicules and exults the “Acknowledgements” page that often appends a novel, elevating the commonplace gesture to its own mock-heroic genre. The story begins with the the hero-writer thanking “Marta and Boris Bielouguine, who plucked me from the swamp that I had unhappily fallen into along with the bag containing my manuscript.” The “swamp” here is not a metaphor, but a literal bog the writer nearly drowned in. And the manuscript? A Meeting at the Boyols’, a title that recalls poor Mathias Olbane’s first book  An Autumn at the Boyols’. Each paragraph of “Acknowledgments” is its own vignette, a miniature adventure in the form of a thank-you note to certain parties. Most of the vignettes end in sex or death, or an escape from one of the two. “Grad Litrif and his companion Lioudmila” as well as “the head of the Marbachvili archives” (oh the names in this story!) are thanked for allowing the writer

…to access the notebooks of Vulcain Marbachvili, from which I was able, for my story Long Ago to Bed Early, to copy several sentences before the earthquake struck that engulfed the archives. My thanks to these three people, and apologies to the archivist, as I was sadly unable to locate either her name or her body in the rubble.

“Acknowledgments” is littered with such bodies—sometimes victims of disasters and plagues, and elsewhere the bodies of the married or boyfriended women the writer copulates with before escaping into some new strange circumstances (he often thanks the husbands and the boyfriends, and in one inspired moment, thanks a gardener “who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again”). He thanks a couple who shows him their collection of 88 stuffed guinea pigs; he thanks “the leader of the Muslim Bang cell” who, during his “incarceration in Yogyakarta…forbid the prisoners on the floor from sodomizing” him; he thanks the “Happy Days” theater troupe who “had the courage” to perform his play Djann’s Awakening three times “before a rigorously empty room.” Most of the acknowledgments connect the writer’s thank-you to a specific book he’s written. I’m tempted to list them all (oh the names!), but just a few—Tomorrow the OttersEve of PandemicJournal of PandemoniumGoodbye CloudsGoodbye RomeoMlatelpopec in ParadiseMacbeth in ParadiseHell in Paradise…Without exaggeration: “Acknowledgements” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.

With its evocations of mad and obscure writers, Volodine’s books strongly reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s work. And yet reading it is not like reading an attempt to copy another writer—which Volodine is in no way doing—but rather like reading a writer who has filtered much of the same material of the 20th century through himself, and has come to some of the same tonal and thematic viewpoints—Volodine’s labyrinth is dark and weird and sinister and abject, but also slightly zany and terribly funny. More to come.

 

Blog about Blog about 3

  1. There are 30 days in April. On 1 April 2018—Easter Sunday and/or April Fool’s Day—I declared on my cursed blog that I would write something on the blog every day this month. I failed to write every day on the blog in the month of April; specifically, I did not post stuff on April 13, April 20, or April 24.
  2. (Not a reason for not posting on any of these dates but fun: April 13 was a Friday the 13th; April 20 is 4/20; April 24 is my cousin’s birthday).
  3. On the 1 April Blog about post I specifically hunted down the Fool card in the Rider-Waite tarot deck that I keep out for fun. I always thought tarot was foolish silliness, even if I found some of the aesthetics attractive, before a third or maybe fourth rereading of Gravity’s Rainbow prompted my buying a deck for research purposes. The deck figures heavily in Pynchon’s novel, providing a mystical and indeterminate contrast to the novel’s motif of mathematical precision. At some point I start flipping a card every day—not as some kind of superstitious soothsaying totem, but rather for fun. I don’t know. I scattered some of those cards into these posts when I photographed books; every card was a card I flipped that day, aside from The Fool.
  4. This morning I flipped the Two of Wands, a card I like. I like most of the Wands suit (and generally dislike the Swords suit; the Cups are my thing though). It’s in the pic above, which is a lazy attempt at an organizing principle for this post, which is not The Last Blog about post, but the last one for April 2018. (Tomorrow is May 2018).
  5. I mean what I mean is, Trying to blog every day was rewarding but also exhausting. I was surprised at some of what I wrote, even a little tiny small bit happy with some of it, and I still have a slim deck of ideas on deck. I think I’ll try to do one or two of these a week, and at least do one on Sundays.
  6. So I said above (by said I mean wrote) that I used a picture as an organizing principle for this disorganized post. The pic is of a loose stack of books that I’ve read or am reading or intend to read or have maybe halfway sorta given up on. It’s a pile that needs organizing. So, from top to bottom:
  7. I reread Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance this month and loved it. I almost started a reread of The House of Seven Gables after reading it—and typing this out now, I realize that that’s what I’d like to read soon, actually. One of the favorite posts I did in this Blog about series was on making a cocktail Hawthorne’s narrator drinks in the novel.
  8. I picked up Players after reading DeLillo’s The Names, which I wrote about early in these Blog about posts. It’s been hanging out unattended for a few weeks and I’m sure I’ll get to it in 38 months.
  9. I said I’d finally read Middlemarch this year, but I find myself unwilling to commit after two or three chapters and am irritated with myself in my constantly transferring it from room to room without reading it or shelving it. Maybe I’m only interested in it because it is monstrous. (I love big fat monsters; make me read Middlemarch).
  10.  I wrote one of these Blog about posts about Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System.” I have another thing sketched out for his story “Stone Quarry” which is like this wonderfully satirical take on metafiction. I’m mostly enjoying reading this book slowly. I hate the drive to read too fast.
  11. I read The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector maybe five or six years ago and I pulled it out the other day because I think I’d like to reread it, because that’s what I like—rereading—I mean, I’ d prefer to reread Middlemarch without all the hard labor of, like, reading it first.
  12. I got the Hob Broun in the mail today and I’m going to quit writing this stupid fucking blog and go read it now.
  13. I’ll do another one of these tomorrow if I feel like it, but not if I don’t feel like it, and if I don’t not feel like it, maybe.

Blog about Three Books

Between the first Sunday of September 2015 and the first Sunday of September 2016 I ran a series of posts—every Sunday that year—I called “Three Books.” I would scan the covers of the books, and I generally tried to find books with interesting design elements to them; I would also try to find a thread between the books (but not always). The posts allowed me to write about the design and aesthetics of covers, as well as other elements of the books (y’know, like, what was actually between the covers). The posts also gave me a regular goal on a Sunday. After a year, I moved on to another series of Sunday posts I called Sunday Comics; before the Three Books thing, I posted pics of my bookshelves on Sundays and wrote about that; and before that, I posted images of death masks on Sundays. A themed post of some kind every Sunday seemed to give this accursed blog a sense of direction, however false. I don’t remember how or why I quit posting Sunday comics, but searching the tag shows me I stopped at the end of June in 2017. This whole paragraph seems like a long and rambling preamble to saying something like, Maybe I should do these Blog about posts on Sundays? Huh? What do you think?

But the title said “Three Books”…so—Three Books, chosen somewhat at random:

img_9605

Captain Maximus by Barry Hannah. First edition hardback by Knopf, 1985. Cover design by Fred Marcellino.

Great cover, right? Fred Marcellino popped up a few times in the Three Books series.

Last summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where, along with sometime-Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang, I fondly fondled a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel RayI couldn’t bring myself to pay sixty dollars for it, but one night, after a few drinks, broke down and bid on eBay for a signed Hannah—Captain Maximus. I wound up paying six dollars more than what Knopf wanted to charge folks for an unsigned edition back in ’85. This particular copy clearly has never been read. I ended up picking up the Penguin Contemporary Classics paperback version of Captain Maximus (for three dollars of used bookstore credit) and reading that instead. The signed Hannah’s spine is still pristine, and I realize that I am something awful.

The book is purple.

img_9604

The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. English translation by Michael Kenny. First edition hardback, Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968. Design by Applebaum & Curtis Inc.

The last fifty pages or so are warped from water damage, but I couldn’t pass up this oh-so-purple, oh-so-sixties Bulgakov. I ended up liking it a lot more than I liked The Master and Margarita.

The book is purple-pink.

img_9607

The World within the Word by William H. Gass. Trade paperback by Basic Books. Cover design by Rick Pracher.

Just a wonderful collection of essays. His essay on Stein is required reading, and “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses” is perfect metafiction posing as criticism. Lovely stuff.

The book is pink.

 

Blog about Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy

Screenshot 2018-04-27 at 7.41.03 PM

I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy last weekend and then added it to a list of examples for a much bigger Thing I’ve been working on for a few years (and hence will never likely finish, unlike these Blog about posts). The much bigger Thing is about the relationship between Comedy and Horror—not purely the formal characteristics that belong to specific genres of literature, film, and art, but rather the relationship between the emotions themselves (with special attention to how literature, film, and art evoke that relationship).

The short thesis for this bigger Thing is that I think that comedy relies strongly on horror, and that the best provocations of horror are tempered in humor. There is a long list of examples in support of this thesis, including Goya and Bolaño and Larry David and Don Quixote and Candide  and Thomas Bernhard and Surrealism and Get Out and etc. —-but that’s all for said bigger Thing, and the title of this post seems to promise Something (not a big Thing) on Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy, which I recently rewatched.

I first saw The King of Comedy in the spring of 1998. I was a freshman at the University of Florida and had quickly discovered their library of films on VHS, which I would imbibe over my four years there. I started with stuff I was already a bit familiar with though. Like every other stupid eighteen-year old, I thought Taxi Driver was A Work of Genius (without fully understanding it), and I’d seen Goodfellas and Casino approximately one thousand times by this point. I started UF’s collection of Scorsese tapes with the neo-neorealism of Raging Bull, a brutal and hence thoroughly comprehensible character study, an ugly film shot in gorgeous black and white. The King of Comedy was next.

The internet in 1998 was not the internet of 2018. What I mean is that we generally learned about films through books and journals and magazines, or really other films, or really, really by word of mouth. I don’t think I had any word of mouth on The King of Comedy—what I mean is that I think I thought the film was a comedy. Which it is. Sort of. I mean, it’s funny—-very funny sometimes. But it’s also very cruel, and often scary and off putting, and generally queasy.

The King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin. That ridiculous name is on one hand a running joke, but on the other hand a vein of horror that pulsates throughout the film—an aberrant twitching oddity, a sort of literal curse, both on poor Rupert (who bears that name) and on every person who encounters him. Rupert is a would-be comedian who dreams (literally and often from his mother’s basement) of stardom. He dreams that he’ll achieve this stardom through a spotlight gig on The Jerry Langford Show, a Carson-style late night show hosted by Jerry Langford, played by a wonderfully fed-up Jerry Lewis.

Rupert is an autograph hound, an obsessive type of fan who makes Jerry’s life a literal terror.  Rupert’s foil is Masha, a trust-fund baby played by Sandra Bernhard. Masha stalks Jerry with extreme competitive anxiety; her stalking is a lifestyle elevated to art. When Masha goes too far early in the film and hijacks Jerry’s limo, Rupert sees an opening—he saves the day, ousting Masha, but then he invades the limo (proving himself stalker supreme over Masha).  In the limo ride, Rupert asks Jerry for help in advancing his career, and Jerry gives generous if general advice, which amounts to Put the work in and pay your dues. Rupert complains that he simply doesn’t have time to invest in doing the real hard grinding work, and basically demands that Jerry give him a shortcut.

In showing a deranged would-be artist who feels he’s entitled to bypass the years of work involved in honing a skill, Scorsese anticipates our current zeitgeist. Rupert Pupkin desires fame, adoration, and applause, but he is far less interested in producing an art that would earn these accolades. The King of Comedy slowly shows us that Pupkin is mentally ill, and that his disease is radically exacerbated by a culture of mass media.

The King of Comedy’s most sarcastic bite is that Rupert is eventually rewarded for his deranged behavior. He and Masha kidnap Jerry as part of a plan to get Rupert an opening set of The Jerry Langford Show. The plan succeeds, and Rupert executes it so that he not only gets to land his dream gig, he also gets to watch himself do it in front of The Girl He Liked in High School:

Rupert’s audacious gambit is part and parcel of a postmodern mass media era that makes only the slightest distinction between fame and infamy. Rupert is famous for doing something famous—and something horrific, kidnapping a beloved TV host. It’s his one bit of work, but it’s enough to land him a book deal, celebrity, and money (and a fairly short prison sentence).

Parts of Rupert’s monologue are funny, but other parts read like the memoir of a damaged soul trying to recover from an abusive childhood. And maybe these parts mix. Again, horror underwrites comedy.

This horror repeats in Scorsese’s framing of Rupert’s routine. There’s a dream-like quality to the monologue, with its television tube frame. This is not the first time we’ve seen this framing in King of Comedy—we get similar TV fantasies via Rupert’s deranged mind—but this time the plot asks us to think of it as “real,” even as Scorsese’s aesthetics suggest that the ending of the film may all be in Pupkin’s warped mind, the unseen clapping audience just another delusion of grandeur.

The same gesture is present at the end of Taxi Driver, which is essentially the twin of The King of Comedy. Travis Bickle—another ridiculous name, another loser—improbably ends up the hero of the narrative. But the conclusion of Taxi Driver has always struck me as the internal fantasy of its reactionary (anti-)hero. Likewise, The King of Comedy concludes in yet another fantasy in Rupert Pupkin’s addled consciousness.

With its metatextual contours and its insinuations of reality-as-mediated-by-mass-media, The King of Comedy is perhaps Scorsese’s most formally postmodern film (although his smaller follow-up After Hours might be his most thematically postmodern). It’s no wonder that the film didn’t land with audiences in 1983. Beyond its postmodern rhythms, The King of Comedy is essentially repulsive—nothing good happens; there is no clear hero; the world it depicts is devoid of any meaning not centered in relation to fame. Its satire is so black no light escapes. In comparison, Scorsese’s later films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are laugh riots.

The genius of The King of Comedy is something best felt. The film disrupts genre conventions (and audience expectations), pushing a comedy into a horror. Or maybe The King of Comedy is a horror film with comedic overtones. Or, really—I mean, what I really want to say here is:

The King of Comedy isn’t a horror film or a comedy film—like many of Scorsese’s best films, it’s a character study—realistic and engrossing and grotesque in its utter realism. Time has caught up with it. If Rupert Pupkin seemed an extreme example of the kind of derangement and alienation that could be aggravated by a mass media culture in the early 1980s, by today’s standards he’s perhaps charming. And that’s horrifying.

Blog about Balthus’ young girls who read

three-sisters

My young girls who read in dreaming poses are escaping from fleeting, harmful time: KatiaFrederique, and The Three Sisters. Fixing them in the act of reading or dreaming prolongs a privileged, splendid, and magic glimpsed-at time. A suddenly opened curtain sheds light from a window and is seen only by those who know how. Thus a book is a key to open a mysterious trunk containing childhood scents; we rush to open it like the child with butterflies, or the young girl with a moth. It is a gold-sprinkled time that avoids worldly alteration, time nimbused by a magic halo, time fixed in terms of what the smiling, dreaming girls see. It is surreal time in the true sense of the term.

—From Balthus’ 2001 memoir Vanished Splendors, “as told to” Alain Vircondelet. English translation by Benjamin Ivry.

balthus-katia-reading

The first Balthus painting I saw was The Bedroom. I saw it in Edward Lucie-Smith’s Movements in Art since 1945. I was maybe 17, and I found the painting not so much shocking as disturbing. It upset something in me, but I also found myself enchanted by it. In the painting an aesexual woman of dwarfish proportions, scowling and stern, pulls a black curtain to its side to allow sunlight to flood over the nude body of a young woman whose posture is simultaneously sexually vibrant and alarmingly comatose. A cat perched on a book glances out the window. There’s a dark fairy tale embedded in the painting. In its color, light, staging, subject, and theme, it’s of a piece with much of Balthus’ work. I didn’t know that over 20 years ago when I first saw it, but I did know that it intrigued me. I wanted to see more.

three-sisters-1964

As a teenager, Balthus’ visions disturbed and engaged me. My response was aesthetic, but I also found a narrative even in his most static paintings. There’s an eerie peace to his reading girls that I saw then and see now. The rooms he painted were little dreams.

c81d3d4543432d4687cc181c04e2d6f8

Now that I am older I find Balthus’ depictions of girls far, far more disturbing than I did two decades ago. Or rather, I find his paintings disturbing in a different way.

(I think here of rereading Lolita as an adult. I think I first read the book at 15 or 16, and was floored by its language; I read it again in my early 20s—and then in my late twenties. It was a different book).

And yet when I look at Balthus’ paintings of girls reading what emanates most strongly for me is that “gold-sprinkled time that avoids worldly alteration, time nimbused by a magic halo.” He captures something about the private world of reading that I identify with—what I mean is that I feel the feeling of the girls who read in his paintings.

f1c814d0e9f23e6d7165d0bba4910bb3

Elsewhere in his memoir, Balthus declares—

…I completely reject the erotic interpretations that critics and other people have usually made of my paintings. I’ve accomplished my work, paintings and drawings, in which undressed young girls abound, not by exploiting an erotic vision in which I’m a voyeur and surrender unknowingly (above all, unknowingly) to some maniacal or shameful tendencies, but by examining a reality whose profound, risky, and unpredictable unreadability might be shed, revealing a fabulous nature and mythological dimension, a dream world that admits to its own machinery.

Balthus here gives us a fitting description of the “unreadability” of the visions he depicts. Key here is that both his negation (“not by”) and its parallel divergent conjunction (“but by”) frame a perfectly apt analysis of his own work—he is a voyeur, yes, and ushers in a voyeuristic eye—but he also stages a dream world that his viewers can feel.

Blog about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-fry”

stir fry

  1. I listened to an audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s 2016 book Pond a few weeks ago, and then wound up getting a digital copy so that I could reread the stories in it.
  2. Pond did something electric to me.
  3. I audited most of it over the course of a weekend. This particular weekend was the first weekend of March. We had an unusually cold February in North Florida, and I’d more or less let my lawn and gardens go to hell. I audited most of Pond while gardening—cutting back dead branches, pulling thorny vines, clipping bushes, etc. I even dug a hole or two.
  4. I had not read a review of Pond before auditing and then reading it; I’d just heard (probably on Twitter) that it was good and odd. I point out that I did not know anything about Pond before getting in to it because I mistakenly thought that Pond was a novel for most of the auditing experience. I realized only toward the end that it was not, properly speaking, a novel—or at least not a novel in the sense that we think of novels as “novels.” Pond is more like a series of related vignettes about a young woman’s life in a remote village in Ireland. And I’m not even sure what I mean by “young woman’s life” in that previous sentence. Let it stand that the book won me over very quickly with “Morning, Noon & Night,” an episode that begins with the aesthetics of breakfast, includes an ill-advised gardening adventure, a hostile academic conference, some sexy emails, and culminates in chopping. It’s wonderful.
  5. Pond does so many things that I always want a book to do, by which I mean that Pond does things that I didn’t know I wanted a book to do until the book has done them.
  6. Pond is unique (are we allowed to use that word?) and thus reminds me of other innovative prose I love: William Carlos Williams’ poetry, Lydia Davis’s stuff, the fictions Jason Schwartz and Gary Lutz, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
  7. But the title of this post is “Blog about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story ‘Stir-fry,'” and I have produced a few hundred words thus far, none about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-fry.”
  8. (I chose to blog about “Stir-fry” not because it is my favorite in the collection or because it is an especially representative sample of Bennett’s prose, but because it is short. The longer piece “Morning, Noon & Night” offers a richer sample of Bennett’s powers and you can click on that link and read it for free and see for yourself).
  9. Okay, “Stir-fry.”
  10. The story is a title and two sentences.
  11. The title specifies the ostensible subject of the story, dinner.
  12. But the story is not about dinner; the story is about throwing dinner away.
  13. But is the story even about throwing dinner away?  I suppose that’s the central action that takes place in “Stir-fry” — tossing food away — but the story is also about consciousness in the creative process.
  14. Our narrator creates something that she knows she intends to throw away immediately after its creation.
  15. Hence, the key line to the story is the one that begins with the coordinating conjunction soBennett emphasizes the line by typographically isolating it; the effect on the page approximates poetry rather than traditional prose.
  16. “so I put in it all the things I never want to see again”: A stir-fry is usually made at least in part from leftovers or food that must be eaten soon or tossed. If we read the story literally (which we should of course), we can fill in the details with our sympathetic imaginations: A bit of rice from three days ago. That last onion. A solitary carrot going to rubber. A stub of ginger. Two small peppers, their skin now papery. The last bit of Sunday’s roast chicken. Etc.
  17. There is something deeply satisfying for some of us in using all the food in our refrigerator.
  18. But I think our sympathetic imagination could extend that phrase “things I never want to see again” even farther than the last few stray vegetables or half of a leftover pork loin or an egg clearly reaching its expiration: What else might have our narrator mixed into her stir-fry? The last little bits of blackberry jam that cling to a jar? Pickles she made two years ago? A questionable yogurt? Pine nuts past their prime? Those turnips? Why did we buy those turnips?
  19. And we can push the phrase even farther if we want: If we are creating something that we know that we will immediately discard and not use for its ostensible purpose (in this case, sustenance, life force), what else might we stir in there? What are all the things we “never want to see again”? All our feeble faults and deficiencies? Our terrible creeping anxieties? Even the bad ambitions we so often trip over? Could we throw war, prejudice, avarice into our stir-fry, and then throw those away too?
  20. Maybe I have pushed an interpretation of “Stir-fry” far too far. But I do read the vignette as a fantasy of sorts. Our narrator consciously creates something she intends to uncreate. This creative uncreation allows her to eliminate all the things she never wants to see again. The fantasy here is about opening up a new way of seeing, one unencumbered by the stale, the musty, the rancid. The desire I see is to see and taste with a fresh spirit.
  21. Or maybe “Stir-fry” is just about throwing away dinner.

Blog about like just the sheer damn orality of Robert Coover’s short story “The Brother”

This weekend I picked up a new audiobook collection of Robert Coover short stories which has been titled Going for a Beer (presumably because “Going for a Beer” is a perfect short story).  The audiobook contains 30 stories and is read by Charlie Thurston, a more than capable as an orator.

The opening story is one of Coover’s earliest published stories. “The Brother” (1962) retells the Noah narrative from the book of Genesis. I just wrote “retells,” but that’s not really the right term. Instead of retelling the story of Noah and the ark and YHWH’s flood, Coover imagines the apocalyptic affair from the perspective of Noah’s younger brother, who narrates this tale.

Noah’s unnamed brother is an earthy, sensual fellow who loves his wife and loves his wine. His wife—a sympathetic and endearing figure—is pregnant with their first child. They’re already picking out names (“Nathaniel or Anna”). Brother Noah keeps taking the narrator from his own familial duties to help build a boat though:

right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says “how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?” but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion and he says not to worry none about that just would I help him for God’s sake and because he don’t know how he can get it done in time otherwise and though you’d have to be loonier than him to say yes I says I will of course I always would crazy as my brother is I’ve done little else since I was born and my wife she says “I can’t figure it out I can’t sec why you always have to be babyin that old fool he ain’t never done nothin for you God knows and you got enough to do here fields need plowin it’s a bad enough year already my God and now that red-eyed brother of yours wingin around like a damn cloud and not knowin what in the world he’s doin buildin a damn boat in the country my God what next? you’re a damn fool I tell you” but packs me some sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for my brother

That’s kinda-sorta the opening paragraph—although no it’s not, because the whole story is just one big paragraph, a big oral fragment really, which begins with a lower-case and keeps going in a verbal rush whose only concessions to punctuation are question marks and quotation marks. No periods or commas here folks. On the page, “The Brother” perhaps approximates the blockish brickish look of a Gutenberg Bible or even the Torah, neither of which give the reader a nice period to rest on, let alone a friendly pause between paragraphs.

“The Brother” might be typographically daunting, but the apparent thickness of verbal force on the page belies its oral charms. The story is meant to be read out loud. Hell, it’s biblical, after all—a witnessing. Read aloud, “The Brother” shows us a deeply sympathetic pair of characters, a husband and wife whose small pleasures, telegraphed in naturalistic speech, might remind the auditor of real persons living today. And yet there’s an apocalyptic backdrop here. Noah’s brother and Noah’s brother’s wife—and their unborn child, and all the unborn children—will not survive YHWH’s flood.

Coover does not paint Noah as anything but a shrugging reluctant weirdo. He’s no prophet who warns and helps his brother, but rather a defeated man:

and it ain’t no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it’s the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wee\s I’m tellin you we ain’t doin nothin but cuttin down pine trees and haulin them out to his field which is really pretty high up a hill and my God that’s work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-l-l-y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still when I come home from haulin timbers around all day she’s got enough left to rub my shoulders and the small of my back and fix a hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and hangin marvelously down her back her eyes gentle but very tired my God and I says to my brother I says “look I got a lotta work to do buddy you’ll have to finish this idiot thing yourself I wanna help you all I can you know that but” and he looks off and he says “it don’t matter none your work” and I says “the hell it don’t how you think me and my wife we’re gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can’t eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun” and he just sighs long and says “no it just don’t matter” and he sits him down on a rock kinda tired like and stares off and looks like he might even for God’s sake cry

Noah’s dismissing his brother’s work strikes me as utterly cruel—he makes no attempt to explain why his brother’s efforts at creating a better world are in vain. I shared the passage at length again in part because I hope you’ll read it aloud gentle reader, but also that you’ll note that maybe you didn’t note all its blasphemies—Coover’s story is larded with “my Gods” and “damns” and “goddamns,” no different than the speech of 1962, no different than the speech of 2018.

Coover gives us a narrator like us, human, earthly, driven by simple pleasures and a basic sense of love. Noah comes off like a prick. The Bible loves its heroes, but the ordinary folks don’t even get to live in the margins. There’s more morality in orality though—in conversation and communication and talk.

You don’t have to buy the audiobook though to hear “The Brother.” Here is Coover reading it himself:

Blog about making a sherry cobbler, a cocktail I read about in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel

In the final third of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, the narrator, having departed the titular would-be utopian farm, enjoys some city time in a hotel. He takes a voyeuristic pleasure in watching people from his window, and elects to deepen the pleasure by ordering a drink: “Just about this time a waiter entered my room. The truth was, I had rung the bell and ordered a sherry-cobbler.” The explanatory end note for my Penguin Classics copy of Blithedale gives the following recipe: “A drink made with sherry, lemon juice, sugar, and cracked ice.” I decided to make a few.

A brief internet search resulted in dozens and dozens of recipes, all more or less the same iteration: long glass, crushed ice, sherry, simple syrup, citrus (oranges cited most frequently), fresh berries if you have ’em, and a straw. The straw is the kicker here. Here is a passage from Charles Dickens’ 1844 novel Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit that shows the titular hero’s delight with his first sherry cobbler (note Chuzzlewit’s ecstasy when he gets “the reed” to his lips):

‘I wish you would pull off my boots for me,’ said Martin, dropping into one of the chairs ‘I am quite knocked up—dead beat, Mark.’

‘You won’t say that to-morrow morning, sir,’ returned Mr Tapley; ‘nor even to-night, sir, when you’ve made a trial of this.’ With which he produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture—which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice—and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘There, sir!’ said Mark, taking it from him with a triumphant face; ‘if ever you should happen to be dead beat again, when I ain’t in the way, all you’ve got to do is to ask the nearest man to go and fetch a cobbler.’

‘To go and fetch a cobbler?’ repeated Martin.

‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short. Now you’re equal to having your boots took off, and are, in every particular worth mentioning, another man.’

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah—so I looked around for recipes. David Wondrich’s 2007 cocktail history Imbibe! gives a helpful baseline recipe by citing Jerry Thomas’s 1862 classic, How to Mix Drinks. From Thomas’s book:

cobbler-1

Thomas doesn’t mention muddling the oranges, although pretty much every online recipe I read called for muddling.

So reader, I muddled.

Here is my variation on the sherry cobbler (or Sherry Cobbler, or sherry-cobbler). In the loose spirit of the cocktail, I made ours entirely of ingredients I already had at the house. These were for each cocktail:

–4 oz of sherry

–1/2 oz of simple syrup

–1/2 oz of maraschino syrup

–1 oz of sparkling water

–1 clementine (muddled)

–sprigs of mint

–blueberries

–crushed ice

img_9558

The maraschino syrup was an afterthought after I’d mixed the cocktail and was about to pour it over ice—I wanted to get a pop of color at the bottom of the glass. The mint and blueberries were from our garden. The pic above is lousy; sorry—not sure why I didn’t move the dishcloth and maybe photograph the cocktails like, uh, not in front of my wife’s kombucha hotels.

So how was it? Pretty refreshing. My wife enjoyed it more than I did, although I’m not a huge cocktail guy. (I think it’s pretty hard, for example, to improve upon neat scotch , although I do like bourbon straight up in the hotter months).

I’ve always been fascinated by literary recipes, so I’m a bit surprised the sherry cobbler has evaded my attention until now, despite its having shown up in various novels I’ve read (including Nicholson Baker’s House of Holesas Troy Patterson pointed out in a remarkably thorough literary history of the cocktail at Slate years ago). I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to make a sherry cobbler again (not that I went out of my way to make these ones), but the basic cobbler recipe’s spirit is very close to my approach to making cocktails at home anyway—use what you have. In fact, the major difference between the sherry cobblers I made yesterday and the kind of cocktail I’d normally cobble together for my wife on a Saturday afternoon is the sherry—I’d usually use rum or maybe vodka. Anyway, the whole thing was fun, which is like, the point of cocktails.

Blog about the correct ranking of all Electric Light Orchestra songs with the word “blue” in the title

There are, to date, seven songs by the British rock group Electric Light Orchestra that contain the word “blue” in the title. A few of these are among ELO’s finest songs. I have put a lot of thought into this matter (by which I mean maybe five minutes), and decided that these are the correct rankings of ELO’s “blue” songs, from the not-best to the very-best:

#7. “Midnight Blue,” from Discovery (1979)

“Midnight Blue” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like a rehash of ELO’s better down-tempo ballad, “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” (from Eldorado, a much better album than Discovery). Lynne’s synthesized background vocals near the beginning point to a weirder, more-interesting tune than the standard pop song that emerges.

#6. “Birmingham Blues,” from Out of the Blue (1977)

“Birmingham Blues” is the first of two tracks from the album Out of the Blue on this list of songs with the word “blue” in the title. Out of the Blue is the only ELO album to date with the word “blue” in the title. Again, “Birmingham Blues” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like filler on an album that features songs like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.”

#5. “Blue,” from Alone in the Universe (2015)

Technically, “Blue” is by Jeff Lynne’s ELO, but c’mon. It’s basically Jeff Lynne’s show after 1974 anyway. Alone in the Universe is a surprisingly good album—most of the songs clock in around three minutes, showing a restraint and focus not always present in the seventies stuff. “Blue” is actually a bonus track. It’s a sweet little ditty, beholden to the Beatles in the best possible way. (Lynne’s best Beatlesesque numbers synthesize the signature traits of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison—and hell, even Ringo—into something new and different).

#4. “Bluebird Is Dead,” from On the Third Day (1973)

On the Third Day is kind of the album where ELO starts to become, like ELO. “Bluebird Is Dead” is probably the loosest and rawest song on this list, and I think it’s Lynne’s vocal that puts it so high up here for me.

#3. “Mr. Blue Sky,” from Out of the Blue (1977)

“Mr. Blue Sky” is basically a perfect song. It closes out the “Concerto for a Rainy Day” side of Out of the Blue perfectly, bouncing along in a Beatles-beholden bop that unloads in not one but two—and arguably three endings.

#2. “Bluebird,” from Secret Messages (1983)

Secret Messages is a bit underrated—Jeff Lynne has some great ideas on the record (a lot of them showcased in “Bluebird”), but the ideas often fail to cohere. (For example, “Loser Gone Wild” offers a pastiche of the best and worst aspects of this era of ELO—a big contrast to the pastiche of “Mr. Blue Sky,” where everything works). “Bluebird” is a gorgeous song that has to grow on any listener. It’s corny as hell—hell, most of ELO is extremely corny, which is something I love about the band. They are Not Cool, a topic for another post. Anyway, “Bluebird” is a sweet, sad, wonderfully-overproduced song about loss. At about a minute into the jam, Lynne includes an infectious sample of himself simply repeating “work work work” —  and one senses that “Bluebird” isn’t just about a human relationship, but Lynne’s own relationship to his songwriting and production.

#1. “Boy Blue,” from Eldorado (1974)

Eldorado is my favorite ELO album and “Boy Blue” is my favorite song on Eldorado. The song is another pastiche, Beatlesesque pop mixed up with orchestral flourishes, but edged around with an almost-menacing motortik drive. (In another life, ELO could have been the Great English Krautrock band). Lyrically, the song is one ELO’s most focused. Boy Blue is our hometown hero, lately at war with some heathen or another, returns: “Hey, Boy Blue is back,” the town/chorus exclaims. They make a lot of noise for their boy, and ask where he’s been for so many years in the first verse. The second verse is Boy Blue’s reply, wherein he describes the hell of war, where he saw “bold knights, dropping down like flies, “kings, rolling in the mire,” and even God pointing “the finger of doom to our foes.” Lynne’s greatest couplet is surely in this song: “I have fought in the holiest wars/ I have smashed, some of the holiest jaws.” The violence Boy Blue has experienced (he’s been jailed and impaled, among other ordeals) has made him reflect that “no man should be stricken with fear.” He ends his verse by declaring, “no man, shall cause me to take up arms again.” Lynne’s delivery of these lyrics is what really makes the song soar though—his Boy Blue persona becomes more intense even as he builds to his promise of peace.

And here is a Spotify playlist of the songs; the sequencing has nothing to do with the rankings above:

Blog about John Berryman’s Dream Song 265 (“I don’t know one damned butterfly from another”)

Hey.

Hey look. Look, hey.

This is a bait and switch. The bait was a promise in the title of the post for a Blog about John Berryman’s Dream Song 265, “I don’t know one damned butterfly from another.” Hey, I’m sorry, but the switch is that I have nothing to add here—I mean what could I add here?—-like what hey I want to say, is, just read Berryman’s poem—-

I don’t know one damned butterfly from another
my ignorance of the stars is formidable,
also of dogs & ferns
except that around my house one destroys the other
When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—

next time it will be nature & Thoreau
this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill
and even those problems O
At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe
reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t    always tell them apart
As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss
You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.

Hey, okay. I encourage you to quit now, or better yet, reread our boy Berryman. But I’ll add a little, even though I said I wouldn’t.

I don’t know one damned butterfly from another

—but I think you know about beautiful fragile transmuting things

my ignorance of the stars is formidable,

—same

also of dogs & ferns

–I know a bit about dogs; less about ferns

except that around my house one destroys the other

–I hope it’s the dogs destroying the ferns if I have to pick a side, although I’m not unsympathetic to ferns.

When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—

–This is a great rhyme. I feel like I’m the speaker’s pal here too—maybe it’s all the wine I’ve put down my fat throat, but I feel like I get what he’s doing here. I have some fat real ignorance my ownself.

next time it will be nature & Thoreau

–Oh give us a Transcendentalist vamp Johnny! (Or is it Henry?)

this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill

–Oh if one had the skill oh (I think you have the skill Johnny Henry)

and even those problems O

–Oh Oh O Ho oH O hO

At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe

–I’m reminded here of Dream Song 384 where Henry digs up his dead suicide father’s corpse from the grave: “I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down under the grass / and ax the casket open ha to see / just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard / we’ll tear apart the mouldering grave clothes ha.” The manic ha is more indebted to Poe though than any grave openings or casket axings.

reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you

–Hey but this is about Berryman’s art, his poetry, always his fucking poetry. Formal and elaborate? Out here choosing?

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,

–Oh hey me too. I mean that’s my jam too Henry John.

the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart

–I can’t either.

As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss

–I think we’d all like to be let to hear.

You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.

-Not this year

 

Blog about the American Arcadia (or Arcadian America?) scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

img_9535

I am glad I reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel for many reasons. One of those reasons is because I had completely forgotten to remember a marvelous scene near the end of the novel, in Ch. XXV — “The Masqueraders.” This episode happens near the end of the chapter. Hawthorne’s stand-in Miles Coverdale has decided to return to Blithedale after spending some time out in, like, the world.

Coverdale’s return to the utopian project he half-heartedly abandoned is thoroughly coded in Hawthorne’s signature ambivalence: He notes “a sickness of the spirits kept alternating with my flights of causeless buoyancy” as he walks through the wood. Approaching the Blithedale farm, and feels an “invincible reluctance” in his return, which causes him to linger in the forest. By and by, as the lovely transitional phrase goes, Coverdale winds his way back to his “hermitage, in the heart of the white-pine tree.” (The white-pine reference strikes me as an oblique reference here to Hawthorne himself—or rather, a nod to a distinction between white pine and black hawthorn trees, alter egos).

Here in his hermitage he rests among grapes dangling in “abundant clusters of the deepest purple, deliciously sweet to the taste.” Coverdale’s hermitage is an idealized, natural—transcendental—version of Blithedale, the grapevines (a prefiguration of communication in the American parlance) a kind of perfectly polygamous knot of communal existence.

Taken up in solo-bacchanalia, Coverdale begins devouring the grapes. Always the loner, always the voyeur, he checks out the house from his arboreal perch and notes its emptiness. He decides, drunken on sweet grapes, to skulk through the woods, where he hears “Voices, male and feminine; laughter, not only of fresh young throats, but the bass of grown people.” He continues—

The wood, in this portion of it, seemed as full of jollity as if Comus and his crew were holding their revels in one of its usually lonesome glades. Stealing onward as far as I durst, without hazard of discovery, I saw a concourse of strange figures beneath the overshadowing branches. They appeared, and vanished, and came again, confusedly with the streaks of sunlight glimmering down upon them.

“Comus and his crew” — what a lovely evocation! Comus, cup-bearer and heir of Bacchus, is a figuration of erotic chaos. Hawthorne ushers his hero into a scene of pastoral American anarchy, a strange Arcadia that Walt Whitman would try to replicate in Leaves of Grass a few years later. Note the admixture of cultures here in Hawthorne’s transcendentalist Halloween:

Among them was an Indian chief, with blanket, feathers, and war-paint, and uplifted tomahawk; and near him, looking fit to be his woodland bride, the goddess Diana, with the crescent on her head, and attended by our big lazy dog, in lack of any fleeter hound. Drawing an arrow from her quiver, she let it fly at a venture, and hit the very tree behind which I happened to be lurking. Another group consisted of a Bavarian broom-girl, a negro of the Jim Crow order, one or two foresters of the Middle Ages, a Kentucky woodsman in his trimmed hunting-shirt and deerskin leggings, and a Shaker elder, quaint, demure, broad-brimmed, and square-skirted. Shepherds of Arcadia, and allegoric figures from the “Faerie Queen,” were oddly mixed up with these. Arm in arm, or otherwise huddled together in strange discrepancy, stood grim Puritans, gay Cavaliers, and Revolutionary officers with three-cornered cocked hats, and queues longer than their swords. A bright-complexioned, dark-haired, vivacious little gypsy, with a red shawl over her head, went from one group to another, telling fortunes by palmistry; and Moll Pitcher, the renowned old witch of Lynn, broomstick in hand, showed herself prominently in the midst, as if announcing all these apparitions to be the offspring of her necromantic art.

Again though, in classic Hawthorne fashion, our author hedges all bets, tempering his mythical romantic flight in skepticism, here embodied by Silas Foster, the only real farmer (real earthworker) of Blithedale:

But Silas Foster, who leaned against a tree near by, in his customary blue frock and smoking a short pipe, did more to disenchant the scene, with his look of shrewd, acrid, Yankee observation, than twenty witches and necromancers could have done in the way of rendering it weird and fantastic.

Our narrator Coverdale also spies some men “with portentously red noses…spreading a banquet on the leaf-strewn earth; while a horned and long-tailed gentleman” tuning up a fiddle. The end result:

So they joined hands in a circle, whirling round so swiftly, so madly, and so merrily, in time and tune with the Satanic music, that their separate incongruities were blended all together, and they became a kind of entanglement that went nigh to turn one’s brain with merely looking at it.

The entanglement here—which eventually explodes in riotous communal laughter—recalls the polygamous knot of grapevines that shrouded Coverdale’s hermitage.

The great laughter prompts Coverdale to explode in his own laughter, whereupon the Bacchic party sets out after him with comic-murderous intent:

“Some profane intruder!” said the goddess Diana. “I shall send an arrow through his heart, or change him into a stag, as I did Actaeon, if he peeps from behind the trees!”

Coverdale flees.

He eventually happens upon an old rotting woodpile covered in moss, where he daydreams about “the long-dead woodman, and his long-dead wife and children, coming out of their chill graves, and essaying to make a fire with this heap of mossy fuel!” — this before finally giving himself up to the Blithedale crew.

The episode strikes me very much as a sequel or reboot of Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown,” in which a Puritan naif wonders into the woods dark and deep and witnesses all the horrors of his young country made real—he sees the dark heart of his community beating naked and bloody and raw and Satanic—and it changes him forever, essentially dulling his soul unto a living death. The American Arcadia episode of Blithedale though is a bit richer in its mythos, its paganism more complex and inclusive, its perspective character more attuned to the vibrant possibilities of a transcendental community, even as he stands on its outside—and what is an outsider but the most vital secret ingredient of any community?

Blog about my aunt’s recipe for oven rice

Ten or twelve years ago my aunt, who is the best home cook I can think of and who has made some of the best meals I have ever eaten, shared her recipe for oven rice for me. This is not a complex recipe, but rather a simple take on cooking rice that (at least for me) always turns out perfect. My aunt gave me this recipe after I tried her rice and remarked on how perfect it was—not too wet or too dry, certainly not mushy or crispy or any other texture that wasn’t perfectly pleasantly perfect. I complained that my rice often turned out too soft or too hard or too sticky or too dry. She asked how I cooked it (standard boiling and then simmering on the stove top), and then told me to start cooking it in the oven. I’ve never gone back.

This is my standard rice dish—like, if I’m going to make rice as a side, or make rice to go with beans or chicken gravy, etc., this is the go to. I generally use long grain white rice, but I’ve used the exact same recipe with various brown rices, as well as japonica, jasmine, basmati, and even middlins. I’ve had the best results when I never vary the steps that I follow; when I’ve tried to follow (or in most cases adapt) a particular rice’s cooking directions instead of following my aunt’s process, the results have never been quite as good.

Here’s the basic recipe.

You will need—

An oven

A stove top

A heavy bottomed pan, preferably enameled cast iron (I’ve found a 3.5 quart round dutch oven is ideal)

One cup of rice

Two cups of liquid—I like chicken stock or chicken broth, but do what you feel

Salt

Olive oil

img_9531

This isn’t that complicated to make:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (or your oven’s equivalent of that idealized temperature—I think you get what I mean. I mean, Know thy oven).
  2. Coat a heavy-bottomed pan (one that can go in the oven) with good olive oil, then stir in a cup of rice. Salt the pan, but, hey, don’t put too much salt in there.
  3. Heat up the pan on your favorite stove eye (or at least your second favorite—if you have another dish under way—maybe some greens, maybe chicken innards and onions, maybe red beans—don’t be afraid to set it aside for a moment. The rice only needs to set on the eye for less than the length of one song by the American punk rock band The Ramones. You can get your black eyed peas back to their spot in no time).
  4. Keep stirring until the rice is translucent but not the least bit browned. img_9532(Hey, don’t stop stirring like I did to take this pic earlier tonight. You can see on my spoon that the rice is almost there—some grains are not translucent yet though).
  5. Add your two cups of liquid (preferably chicken broth or stock). I like to take the rice off the heat when I do this, and give it maybe 30 seconds so that it’s not too hot when I add the liquid. Avoid adding cold liquid to the dish. (You can also add alcohol before the two cups of liquid—sherry or white wine are both good, or even red if you’re feeling adventurous—but keep it to just a few ounces and cook it out before you add the broth).
  6. Bring the rice and broth to a not-quite boil. Like, I hope you preheated that oven like you were supposed to, because it should be good to go. Put a lid on your dish and stick that sucker in the oven for 30 minutes. Set a timer, because you’re going to forget!
  7. Take the dish out after 30 minutes and don’t open it until you plan to serve it (it should be fine for a while if you’ve used a heavy dish). You don’t need to fluff it if you’ve done it right.

img_9533

Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System”

dacgkouvwaazexo

The title of this blog post is Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System, but I admit that I wanted to put the word story under a bit of suspicion—rein it in with quotation marks, call it a “story.”

See, “Stream System” isn’t really a “story” — except that it is — “Stream System” is, like, a kind of biographical excerpt, less fictionalized (Yeah but how do you know that?) than the other pieces I’ve thus far read in the 2018 collection of Gerald Murnane’s fiction (“fiction”?) Stream System.

In Stream System the story “Stream System” gets a little asterisk next to its title. The initial asterisk’s twin in the footnote informs the reader:

“‘Stream System’ was written to be be read aloud at a gathering in the Department of English at La Trobe University in 1988.”

(The original campus of La Trobe University is in Melbourne, Australia, a city I visited three times as a boy between 1987 and 1991; during this time my family lived in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand (but never Australia). The city of Melbourne, Florida is 177 miles south of where I currently live, and although I have driven past it, I have never visited it).

So “Stream System” is not a fiction but a speech, a written speech, but really a “story,” I guess—a story (sort of) about Murnane’s boyhood in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria.

In any case, in titling this blog post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” I found myself wanting to put quotation marks around “story,” but realizing that those quotation marks would butt up against the quotation marks of “Stream System” (quotation marks indicating, This is the title of a short work—perfectly logical quotation marks in a shared punctuation system). And well yeah so I realized that the two sets of quotation marks did not belong to the same logical system. One set of quotation marks are so-called “scare quotes”; the other set of quotation marks are simply the basic English punctuation for indicating the title of a short work—whether the work is an essay, speech, poem, or short story. Even more importantly, putting the two sets of quotation marks together looked ugly as hell.

I started with the title for the post and seem to not have gotten past it. This has been a bad start, but I’ll keep blogging.

I’m not going to summarize “Stream System” — unpacking it would be too much, like drawing a diagram of an intricate memory map. I mean, really it’s better to just read it. I’ll just say that it condenses memory into the concrete reality of place, and makes those memories bristle with sharp, strange meaning.

I just said I’ll just say, but I’ll also just say — “Stream System” is deeply unsettling: Its repetitive tics are addictive; its compulsions compel the reader along into the speaker’s reflective labyrinth. And yet for all its coercive power, Murnane’s anamnesis is also extraordinarily discomforting. Murnane’s prose never editorializes, yet its concrete prowess, its evocation of surfaces, contours, true and real details—all of this leads the reader towards an emotional epiphany that the narrator refuses to name, directly invoke, or otherwise dramatize.

And yet so but well really “Stream System” does dramatize its epiphany, or one of its epiphanies, but in this really oblique and elliptical way that walks and talks through the story’s central trauma, walks through it in such a way that it seems like the narrator has kept going, leaving the reader a bit winded and left behind, holding a stitch in his side, saying, Hey, wait, what about this, what about this really really devastating thing you just evoked?

I realize that I titled this post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” but I admit that I’m not really going to write about that devastating passage—not really. Maybe I should have titled it Blog leading up to a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System” — I mean, that’s what I should have titled this post, and I could easily go back and rewrite the title and revise this whole thing. But I won’t. Here are those four paragraphs that so very much got to me:

My brother spoke to nobody but he often looked into the face of a person and made strange sounds. My mother said that the strange sounds were my brother’s way of learning to speak and that she understood the meaning of the sounds. But no one else understood that my brother’s strange sounds had a meaning. Two years after my parents and my brother and I had left the house of red bricks my brother began to speak, but his speech sounded strange.

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground. I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech. I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then to ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother. If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine. If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy, but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

 

Blog about Blog about 2

Two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday/April Fools’ Day, I wrote a blog post I titled “Blog about Blog about” declaring a goal to blog — like, to write words about something  — every day in the month of April 2018. The basic idea was to free myself from some of the anxiety that has built up into a genuine fear of writing over the past few years, which has led to me simply not to write as much as I used to.

It is now half way through the month of April and I have written fourteen (including this one) of my intended thirty posts. I failed to write on Friday the 13th.

Here are the things I’ve written about so far and my reflections on forcing myself to write about them in a fast and loose spirit:

April 2, on Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell: I finished The Bell the day after I started the Blog about project. Had I not been doing the project, I probably would have sketched a few notes toward a review that I’d never end up actually finishing. It would hang out in the blog’s drafts folder forever. I’m strangely and probably unduly happy with what I ended up writing.

April 3, on starting a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance: Still reading Blithedale; the reread was inspired by The Bell (they share a kinda-similar setting). Writing about starting a book that you’ve already read is not hard.

April 4, on a particular Gordon Lish sentence: Reflecting on this one makes me realize that this is the kind of post I should be doing more of—looking closely at something small.

April 5, on Goya’s painting The Straw Man: I was very tired and did not want to write. I pulled down Robert Hughes’ biography Goya and thumbed through it, landing on a page I’d dogeared. Then I wrote the post. This method—grabbing a book somewhat at random—-also seems like a good way to write a post.

April 6, on the etymology of the word “blog”: I don’t even remember writing this one. I guess that’s why we write, to remember. I think that’s one of Socrates’ observations (or at least I think Plato wrote it down that Socrates observed this).

April 7, on Don DeLillo’s novel The Names: I often feel a bizarre and unnecessary guilt when I do not write about a novel I’ve read. I read The Names earlier this year and had intended to write about it and then didn’t. Or rather, I did write a bit about it, but I got bogged down in a kind of silly accounting of the novel’s approach to linguistics, which isn’t really what interested me about it that much anyway. The Blog about approach freed me to the extent that I didn’t even bother to quote from the novel, which is like, a bad approach to writing reviews—but a blog isn’t a review.

April 8, on Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”: I think we read in my class that day or maybe the day before. I turned my notes into the post, sort of. Maybe that’s cheating.

April 9, on an image from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance: Don’t recall writing it at all, although I recall the image, which, I don’t know. Maybe these reflections aren’t as valuable to me as I thought they would be.

April 10, on the“ The Silvery Veil” tale that’s embedded in The Blithedale Romance : I also made some connections here to Madame Psychosis, a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’m sure someone’s already made those connections and written about them somewhere, but most of my Google searches led me back to, like, my own blog, which says more about my search strategies than anything else I guess.

April 11, on William Carlos Williams’ ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” (a poem about a Brueghel painting): My favorite thing in writing this was realizing how frequently Williams’ poem “The Dance” (about a Brueghel painting) is mistakenly cited as having been published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962). There is a poem called “The Dance” in Brueghel but it is not about a Brueghel painting. That “Dance” was published in The Wedge in 1944.

April 12, on Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment”: Again, I think the takeaway here is: Go smaller.

April 13: Didn’t write. Couldn’t get it out. Make up post? How about this picture I took of a stack of books I’m reading that I thought I might write about it and then thought, Nah…

img_9524

April 14, on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal of April 14, 1841—which happens to correlate with Hawthorne’s time on Brook Farm, the basis of his novel The Blithedale Romance which I’m still reading: I actually really enjoyed writing this one, although I don’t think anyone really read it. I researched mid-19th century farm equipment for almost an hour.

April 15 is today. I saw Wes Anderson’s film Isle of Dogs with my wife and kids and thought I would write about it, but then I didn’t. I wrote this post instead.

Blog about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 14th, 1841 (including a recipe for buckwheat cakes)

For years now, I’ve been reading, rereading, and sharing on this website excerpts from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journals. I like to post selections that share dates. For example, yesterday, April 13th, I posted Hawthorne’s notebook entry from April 13th, 1841. This particular post, which records Hawthorne’s arrival at Brook Farm, was especially felicitous, as I’m currently reading Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, which is loosely based on the author’s time at Brook Farm.

In the novel’s second chapter, the Hawthorne-figure (Coverdale) arrives at Blithedale on “an April day, as already hinted, and well towards the middle of the month.” He complains that though the morning could be described as “balmy,” by noon it was snowing. Hawthorne’s corresponding journal entry (composed over a decade before he published Blithedale) perhaps-mockingly refers to Brook Farm as a “polar Paradise”; some of this language finds its way into the protagonist’s description of Blithdale: “Paradise, indeed! Nobody else in the world, I am bold to affirm—nobody, at least, in our bleak little world of New England,—had dreamed of Paradise that day except as the pole suggests the tropic.”

There are twenty-four chapters to Blithedale, and Hawthorne devotes the first five to that first day (presumably April 13th, 1841). The novel’s sixth chapter, “Coverdale’s Sick Chamber,” begins the next morning with our narrator too sick to attend to his first day of farm work. However, Hawthorne’s journal makes clear that the real-life Hawthorne did not fall ill until a few weeks later, around April 28th, and that he recovered around May 4th (“My cold no longer troubles me, and all the morning I have been at work under the clear, blue sky, on a hill-side”).

(I know my audience—you come to this site to read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s head colds, right?).

Unlike his stand-in Coverdale, Hawthorne went to work at Brook Farm almost immediately. He recounts his first morning’s work in his journal entry for April 14, which I have annotated via footnotes:

April 14th, 10 A.M.–. . . I did not milk the cows last night, 1 because Mr. Ripley 2 was afraid to trust them to my hands, or me to their horns 3, I know not which. But this morning I have done wonders. 4 Before breakfast, I went out to the barn and began to chop hay for the cattle, and with such “righteous vehemence,” as Mr. Ripley says, did I labor, that in the space of ten minutes I broke the machine. 5 Then I brought wood and replenished the fires; and finally went down to breakfast, and ate up a huge mound of buckwheat cakes. 6 After breakfast, Mr. Ripley put a four-pronged instrument into my hands, which he gave me to understand was called a pitchfork 7; and he and Mr. Farley being armed with similar weapons, we all three commenced a gallant attack upon a heap of manure. This office being concluded 8, and I having purified myself, I sit down to finish this letter. . . .

Miss Fuller’s cow hooks the other cows, and has made herself ruler of the herd, and behaves in a very tyrannical manner. . . . I shall make an excellent husbandman,–I feel the original Adam 10 reviving within me.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 14th, 1841. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

1 Coverdale’s first night at Blithedale ends with Slias Foster (the only real farmer there) telling everyone to go to sleep early as they have “nine cows to milk, and a dozen other things to do, before breakfast.”

2 George Ripley, a Unitarian minister and charter member of the Transcendentalist Club, founded Brook Farm in 1840. Following Charles Fourier’s brand of communal socialism,  Brook Farm was intended to put transcendentalist idealism into concrete action. Ripley has no clear corollary in Blithedale as far as I can tell.

Never fear—Hawthorne reports in his journal a few days later (April 16th): “I have milked a cow!!!” What charming enthusiasm! Not two !! but three exclamation marks!!! Hawthorne only deploys a triple exclamation one other time in the journals collected as The American-Notebooks: On May 31st, 1844, he joyously notes, “P.S. 3 o’clock.–The beef is done!!!” Dude got excited for bovines.

I genuinely love Hawthorne’s ironic humor, which I think is often overlooked by some readers.

Good job breaking the farm equipment there, city boy! The reference to “machine” here is vague; you can read more about 19th-century feed-cutters (and see some images of them) here.

A contemporaryish recipe for buckwheat cakes from S. S. Schoff and ‎B. S. Caswell’s 1867 cookbook The People’s Own Book of Recipes and Information for the Million: Containing Directions for the Preservation of Health, for the Treatment of the Sick and the Conduct of the Sick-room : with a Full Discussion of the More Prominent Diseases that Afflict the Human Family, with Full Directions for Their Rational Treatment : Also, 1000 Practical and Useful Recipes, Embracing Every Department of Domestic Economy and Human Industry : with Copious Notes and Emendations, Explanatory and Suggestive:

buckwheat cakes

7 If you haven’t caught on, Hawthorne (and the rest of these fops too) is going to be a terrible farmer.

Hawthorne’s phrase “a gallant attack upon a heap of manure” is a wonderfully poetic turn, but his referring to finishing his shit-shoveling as “this office being concluded” straight up kills me.

Margaret Fuller was the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, one of American feminism’s earliest works. She was also the first editor of The Dial, (first a transcendentalist journal, and later a vehicle for modernist literature). Fuller spent time at Brook Farm, although she was never a full member. Many critics and historians suggest that Fuller is in part the inspiration for Zenobia, the soul of Hawthorne’s Blithedale.

10 The biblical Adam was of course the first gardener. Hawthorne’s romantic turn of phrase points to the idealism of Brook Farm’s utopian experiment—but also underscores the eventual fall.