Curzio Malaparte’s Diary of a Foreigner in Paris (Book acquired 27 April 2020)

Curzio Malaparte’s Diary of a Foreigner in Paris is new from NYRB in translation from Stephen Tilley. NYRB’s blurb:

In 1947 Curzio Malaparte returned to Paris for the first time in fourteen years. In between, he had been condemned by Mussolini to five years in exile and, on release, repeatedly imprisoned. In his intervals of freedom, he had been dispatched as a journalist to the Eastern Front, and though many of his reports from the bloodlands of Poland and Ukraine were censored, his experiences there became the basis for his unclassifiable postwar masterpiece and international bestseller, Kaputt. Now, returning to the one country that had always treated him well, the one country he had always loved, he was something of a star, albeit one that shines with a dusky and disturbing light.

The journal he kept while in Paris records a range of meetings with remarkable people—Jean Cocteau and a dourly unwelcoming Albert Camus among them—and is full of Malaparte’s characteristically barbed reflections on the temper of the time. It is a perfect model of ambiguous reserve as well as humorous self-exposure. There is, for example, Malaparte’s curious custom of sitting out at night and barking along with the neighborhood dogs—dogs, after all, were his only friends when in exile. The French find it puzzling, to say the least; when it comes to Switzerland, it is grounds for prosecution!

Books acquired, 26 May 2020

I dropped by the bookstore yesterday to pick up some more books by Muriel Spark. I finished her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over the Memorial Day weekend and was hungry for more. I picked out Loitering with Intent and The Girls of Slender Means, mostly because of the covers and titles.

I read about half of The Girls of Slender Means yesterday and this morning, and it’s really good. Set primarily “Long ago in 1945,” Girls focuses on a few months in the lives of some of the titular inhabitants of the “May of Teck Club.” The narrator dips between the consciousness of a few of these “girls of good family but slender means,” but focuses primarily on Jane Wright, a would-be member of the “world of books” whose 1963 phone calls to some of the other “girls” frames the narrative proper. It’s witty stuff, occasionally vicious, and even includes some literary hoaxing! I’ll probably finish it tonight.

I also picked up John Domini’s collection of literary criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb, which I’ve been wanting to pick through for ages now. When I spied the unbroken spine, I assumed it was new, but no–just unread. I opened it up to find the price and saw that not only was the book used (half cover price), it was signed by the author. On top of that, this copy was inscribed to another author, a somewhat-famous sci-fi writer (you might have seen a recent film adaptation of one of his novels). Anyway, it was a strange find.

Melville/Ishiguro (Books acquired, 13 May 2020)

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My beloved bookstore reopened this Monday. This past Wednesday, I donned my finest mask, got into the car for the first time in a while, and drove the 1.1 miles to my beloved bookstore, which reopened this Monday. I had done curbside pickup on a few books for my kids sometime early in April, but I hadn’t been into a bookstore since the middle of March.

The staff were all wearing masks, as were the few customers in the store (with the exception of two elderly patrons). The store is a sprawling maze of stacks covering close to 25,000 (very irregular, bendy, weird) square feet (it’s not a small space), and the stacks were marked for distancing.

I managed to find all the books on my list—two dystopian teen novels for my not-quite-yet-teen daughter, novels by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman for the boy (who’s already finished both), a copy of My Brilliant Friend for my wife, who loved the filmic teevee adaptation (I gave my copy to my department head years ago, thinking she’d love it, but she never mentioned anything about it to me, and I don’t press), and two books for me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and Herman Melville’s fourth novel Redburn (which I’ve been meaning to read for awhile after reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s literary biography of Melville a few weeks ago). Edward Gorey did the Redburn cover, by the way.

Despite already being into four other novels, I started in on The Unconsoled. The novel reads like a hallucinatory series of side quests in the strangest first-person video game ever made–a novel of absurdity and art and time and memory, wherein the first-person narrator Ryder, on a mission he can never quite name or even possibly remember, constructs and deconstructs his (always-deferred) present “reality” on a moment-to-moment basis. The book is weird in the best way—it reminds me a lot of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Anna Kavan’s Ice, João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, and pretty much everything by Kafka. I imagine it will frustrate many readers with its refusal to cohere or to settle on a plot, but I’m digging it big time.

Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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I just finished the first section of Guillermo Stitch’s new novel Lake of Urine (from indie Sagging Meniscus). The beginning of the novel has made me want to read the rest of the novel. It is weird, man, which I guess you’d expect from a novel titled Lake of Urine. So far, the book seems to run on its own comic-logic, a verbal slapstick routine that shifts in voice and tone from  paragraph to paragraph. The sentences are fantastic; Stitch’s prose so far reminds me of Barry Hannah and Donald Barthelme, but also definitely its own thing. Here’s a blurb, via the author’s site:

 Once upon a time that doesn’t make a blind bit of sense, in a place that seems awfully familiar but definitely doesn’t exist, Willem Seiler’s obsession with measuring his world—with wrapping it up in his beloved string to keep the madness out—wreaks havoc on the Wakeling family.

Noranbole Wakeling lives in the scrub and toil of the pantry, in the ashes of the cold hearth…which, come to think of it, also sounds pretty familiar…She lives, too, in the shadow of her much wooed and cosseted sister, worshipped by the madman Seiler but overlooked by everyone else.

And that, it turns out, is a good thing.

As lives are lost to Seiler’s vanity, the inattention spares her. She spots her chance to break free of the fetters that tie her to Tiny Village—and bolts.

But some cords are never really cut. In her absence, the unravelling of the world she has escaped is complete. Another madness—her mother’s—reaches out to entangle her newfound Big City freedom. The unpicked quilt-work of a life in ruins threatens to ruin her own. It will be up to Noranbole to stitch it all together, into something she can call true.

The blurb doesn’t really capture the energy and humor in Lake of Urine though (let alone its utter weirdness. Here’s an excerpt; the conversation is between Emma Wakeling (mother of Urine and Noranbole) and her tenant, William Seiler:

The melts are not long off.

. . .

Yes?

Yes.

The days grow lengthier and more detailed.

I’m not, eh . . .

You have been here for nine weeks.

Yes.

You may recall the conversation we had in November, Mr Seiler, which resulted in your entering my employ.

A bit formal.

Just answer.

I do remember, yes.

Your brief which I outlined at the time was to be of assistance to me during the winter in the monitoring of my two girls, both of whom were of marriageable age and one of whom was attractive—a siren to the lads of the county.

Yes.

I haven’t asked much else of you.

No.

Apart from the sharpening of some tools. Indeed your . . . remunerations have exceeded what we originally agreed in both nature and degree. Despite your squirreling yourself away in that shed, increasingly. I am only trying to help, you know.

Yes.

A man’s fluids require frequent liberation or they will stew.

Some of the tools are really very blunt.

I have asked for this little chat Mr Seiler because I wish to express my disappointment.

Oh?

Oh? I surprise you? Really? You are surprised? For reals? You didn’t anticipate disappointment here, today?

Well . . .

You need reminding perhaps of yesterday’s unfortunate events? The toesnappingly cold trek through wolf-infested forest? The yelling and the wailing? The gnashing? The wet clouds of breath in the grief-stricken air, the frozen-teared faces of the bereaved? A quick recap?

No, I do remember.

Excellent. You would acknowledge then that as we approach the end of your tenure here one of my girls appears to be—and I recognize that there is some evidential uncertainty here—dead?

That would appear to be the case, yes, notwithstanding the as you say murky specifics.

I am to be grateful I suppose, to be appreciative of the fact that at least it isn’t my Urine who has been lost.

Eh . . .

You give no indication, Mr Seiler, that you recognize the seriousness of the . . . the precariousness of your . . . hm?

Oh, no . . . no, no I can . . . what?

Be under no illusions, Seiler. One more dead daughter and you’re fired.

That does seem fair.

Now lie still. Stop squirming!

 

Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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A few days ago, a perhaps-not-unprecedented-yet-still-weighty crop of books arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters. Five, to be clear, which is a lot of good mail in These Uncertain Trying Unprecedented Challenging Difficult Fucked the Fucked Up Times™. At first I felt electric joy, and then I felt overwhelmed, burdened even—I’m in the middle of Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge and I’m reading this really great as-yet-unpublished novel by Adam Novy and I’m still making my merry way through the voluminous volume The Complete Gary Lutz. (And how did Tyrant, the publisher, get that name? Do they plan on assassinating Lutz to ensure their book is truly complete?) I’m also doing my job, which is a bunch of reading and writing, and trying to do the homeschool thing. Is this a complaint? It is not. I am okay.

But so well and anyway—

The five books that showed up initially were a source of joy but then caused a weird panic. I picked up Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan, btw) this afternoon because it was on top of a neat stack I’d stacked. (A big part of my day is going around and stacking things and wiping down surfaces.) I started reading, and the sentences were good. The first sentence made me want to read the next sentence, a pattern that continued. I read the first eight chapters (I love short chapters, and I love short books—books should be over 700 pages or under 200), and really dig the voice Ramos channels here. Let’s take these early paragraphs, which might could maybe perhaps be the germ of its own separate novel:

Until I was eighteen, I hoed a hard roe, earning five tostoes for twelve hours’ work. That was when I committed my first act worthy of mention. At a wake that ended up in a free-for-all, I moved in on this girl, Germana—a sarara, a blond mulatta, flirty as hell—and tweaked the stern of her ass. The kid about wet herself, she love it so much. Then she flipped and made up to João Fagundes, a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses. The upshot was that I knocked Germana around and knifed João Fagundes. Sot the police chief arrested me. I was beaten with a bullwhip, took my medicine and stewed in my own juices, rotting in jail for three years, nine months, and fifteen days, where I learned to read with Joaquim the shoemaker, who had one of those tiny Bibles, the Protestant kind.

Joaquim the shoemaker died and Germana was ruined. When I got, she’d gone downhill—had an open-door policy and the clap.

(lmao — “a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses.”)

Our narrator is a charming brute who brutally charms his way into ownership of São Bernardo, a ranch gone to seed.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb:

Paulo Honório is a sometime field hand who has kicked and clawed and schemed his way to prosperity, becoming master of the decrepit estate São Bernardo, where once upon a time he toiled. He is ruthless in his exploitation of his fellow man, but when he makes a match with a fine young woman, he is surprised to discover that this latest acquisition, as he sees it, may be somewhat harder to handle. It is in Paulo Honório’s own rough-hewn voice that the great Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos, often compared to William Faulkner, tells this gritty and dryly funny story of triumph and comeuppance, a tour de force of the writer’s art that is beautifully captured in Padma Viswanathan’s new translation.

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (Book acquired 21 April 2020)

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A number of people whose literary taste I admire and have learned from (including this guy) have told me to read Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia. (English translation is by Frank Wynne, by the way.)

I avoided any reviews or descriptions (although a bit of chatter and stray lines have led me to believe the book has an abject grimy grittiness to it—and the back of this copy compares it to Cormac McCarthy), but trips to my beloved bookstore never yielded a copy over the past six months or so. I was looking for the Fitzcarraldo Editions edition, which was probably a mistake. Those are hard to come by in the States.

A few weeks—days? —I don’t know man, time has been weird, we all know that right? Like this virus, a post-postmodern moment, has shifted again our human relationship with time/space, revealing that the modernist schedules and movements and timelines and tics that we’d been following, perhaps even believing in, were fictions—which of course, those of us birthed in the postmodern era understood, either fully or at least intuitively—but we had to subscribe to those fictions to like, survive—but now, now, hey, now what is our relationship to time and space?—does anyone else wake up at 3am and then go back to sleep at 7am?—has anyone else ordered a book off the internet, possibly drunk, or possibly in a weird mix of sleep aids and melatonin, or possibly just a bit crazed?—these aren’t real questions—

So—

At some point in the recent past, Fitzcarraldo Editions tweeted about an ebook sale that reminded me to get Animalia. (A basic twitter search reveals that my previous paragraph is as idiotic as you no doubt took it to be, if you bothered to even read it. This happened on 30 March 2020.) Of course, I could not get the ebook in the States.

I’m not sure when exactly I ordered a copy of Animalia from an indie bookseller online. When it showed up the other day I was a bit surprised: first that I’d ordered it, second that it was an uncorrected proof. But I was happy that some idiot version of myself from the past sent me this gift, the first physical book I’ve gotten in what seems like a long time.

From an excerpt of the novel at Granta:

The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.

One October morning, alone in the sty, tending to the sow about to farrow, the genetrix is felled by a pain and, without even a cry, falls to her knees on the freshly scattered straw whose pale, perfumed dust is still rising in whorls. Her breaking waters drench her undergarments and her thighs. The sow, also in the throes of labour, trots in circles, making high whining sounds, her huge belly jiggling, her teats already swollen with milk, her swollen vulva dilated; and it is here, on her knees, and later on her side, that the genetrix gives birth, like a bitch, like a sow, panting, red-faced, her forehead bathed with sweat. Slipping a hand between her thighs, she feel the viscid mass tearing her apart. She buries her fingers in the fontanelle, rips out the stillborn foetus and flings it far from her. She grips the bluish umbilical cord attached to it and from her belly pulls the placenta which falls to the ground with a spongy sound. She stares at the tiny body covered in vernix caseosa, it looks like a yellowish worm, like the grey and golden larva of a potato beetle ripped from the rich soil and the roots on which it feeds. Daylight filters between loose boards, streaking the sour, dusty air, the bleak half-light that reeks of a knacker’s yard, and falls on the lifeless form lying on the straw. The genetrix gets to her feet, split in two, one hand under her skirt touching the swollen lips of her sex. She steps back, horrified, and leaves the sty, careful to latch the door, leaving to the sow the afterbirth and its fruit. For a long time she leans against the wall of the sty, motionless, gasping for breath. Bright blurred shapes float in her field of vision. Then she leaves the farm and takes the road towards Puy-Larroque, limping through a heavy drizzle that washes her face and the skirt stained brown with lochia. Without a glance at anyone, she crosses the village square. Those who see her notice the soiled skirt she is gripping in one fist, the pallid face, the lips pressed so tightly that the mouth is white as an old scar. Her brown hair has escaped her scarf and is plastered to her face and neck. She pushes open the church door and falls to her knees before the crucifix.

Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (Book acquired, 9 March 2020)

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Henri Bosco’s novel Malicroix (in English translation by Joyce Zonana) is one of NYRB’s new titles. Their blurb:

Henri Bosco, like his contemporary Jean Giono, is one of the regional masters of modern French literature, a writer who dwells above all on the grandeur, beauty, and ferocious unpredictability of the natural world. Malicroix, set in the early nineteenth century, is widely considered to be Bosco’s greatest book. Here he invests a classic coming-of-age story with a wild, mythic glamour.

A nice young man, of stolidly unimaginative, good bourgeois stock, is surprised to inherit a house on an island in the Rhône, in the famously desolate and untamed region of the Camargue. The terms of his great-uncle’s will are even more surprising: the young man must take up solitary residence in the house for a full three months before he will be permitted to take possession of it. With only a taciturn shepherd and his dog for occasional company, he finds himself surrounded by the huge and turbulent river (always threatening to flood the island and surrounding countryside) and the wind, battering at his all-too-fragile house, shrieking from on high. And there is another condition of the will, a challenging task he must perform, even as others scheme to make his house their own. Only under threat can the young man come to terms with both his strange inheritance and himself.

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone (Book acquired, sometime in February 2020)

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Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is new from NYRB in English translation by Charlotte Collins. NYRB’s blurb:

West Germany, 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Jonathan Fabrizius, a middle-aged erstwhile journalist, has a comfortable existence in Hamburg, bankrolled by his furniture-manufacturing uncle. He lives with his girlfriend Ulla in a grand, decrepit prewar house that just by chance escaped annihilation by the Allied bombers. One day Jonathan receives a package in the mail from the Santubara Company, a luxury car company, commissioning him to travel in their newest V8 model through the People’s Republic of Poland and to write about the route for a car rally. Little does the company know that their choice location is Jonathan’s birthplace, for Jonathan is a war orphan from former East Prussia, whose mother breathed her last fleeing the Russians and whose father, a Nazi soldier, was killed on the Baltic coast. At first Jonathan has no interest in the job, or in dredging up ancient family history, but as his relationship with Ulla starts to wane, the idea of a return to his birthplace, and the money to be made from the gig, becomes more appealing. What follows is a darkly comic road trip, a queasy misadventure of West German tourists in Communist Poland, and a reckoning that is by turns subtle, satiric, and genuine. Marrow and Bone is an uncomfortably funny and revelatory odyssey by one of the most talented and nuanced writers of postwar Germany.

Blog about some books acquired, 13 March 2020

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After one week of abstinence I drove the mile or so to the used bookstore I go to too often and browsed.

I was specifically looking for the other Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake, the 1956 novella Boy in Darkness, and the unfinished Titus Awakes, completed by Peake’s wife Maeve after his death. I’m in the last few pages of Titus Alone, and I guess I don’t want to exit his proseworld just yet. Anyway, I went to this bookstore almost every week of February looking for Peake books with no luck after having picked up Gormenghast there on a lark a while back. I ended up buying the first and third of the Gormenghast trilogy online, because I couldn’t find them there, but today I found the complete trilogy in matching Ballantine editions. I did not find the other Gormenghast books though.

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As much as I hated to break up the triplets pictured above, I picked up the Ballantine Titus Groan and adopted it to fit my other Ballantine editions. There is a specific student I have in mind whom I think will love the Penguin edition of Titus Groan I’ll give him next week (even though my dog bit it).

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I’m obviously a sucker for covers, as any one who’s followed this blog for a while probably knows, and the Ballantine covers are better, I think—the Penguin editions of Peake’s trilogy are great, but they shy away from the bizarre nature of the narratives, tilting toward respectability.

Indeed, I like browsing in large part because I like the aesthetics of books, particularly older books. I absolutely loved this Edward Gorey cover for a 1957 edition of Joseph Conrad’s Victory—but I settled for a picture. I mean, I doubt I’ll read lesser-known Conrad at this point. But I love the orange and the blue, and Gorey’s handlettering:

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I often settle for just a snapshot of a beautiful cover, like this bizarre one for The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela. I didn’t pick it up a few weeks ago, but then wished I had.

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I had left it on the shelf like this, face outward. It wasn’t there today, and I wished that I had picked it up. Apparently it is brutal and was banned for a few years in its native Spain.

So well and anyway when I spied another Avon-Bard spine with a strange title I pulled it out, wowed at the cover, and dove in. Brazilian author Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s Zero instantly struck a chord with me. The book is typographically all over the place, with text offset in boxes or laid out in columns. There are diagrams, enormous fonts, glypsh, citations, footnotes, etc. The book is a dystopian satire that seems to be written in its own idiom. The translation is by Ellen Watson. The wonderful cover art is uncredited (as far as I can tell).

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I’ve never been able to get through Julio Cortázar’s famous book Hopscotch (despite many attempts), but I liked the short stories by him that I’ve read. I’m also a sucker for anything supershort, so when I saw his collection Cronopios and Famas (translated by Paul Blackburn), I was intrigued. I love a book in slices and morsels that I can snack on for a while (I’m really digging Gary Lutz’s The Complete Gary Lutz for the same reason). Most of the stuff in here is under three pages; much of it is much shorter too, like “Theme for a Tapestry”:

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While scanning for anything by Rudolph Wurlitzer (no dice), I spied the spine of Charles Wright’s The Wig. Wright has been on my radar for a while now, mostly due to Ishmael Reed’s consistent endorsement of him (in both fiction and nonfiction alike), and when I pulled the volume to reveal its beautiful cover, I saw Reed’s name on the margin (and on the blurb on the back), and had to have it. The cover art is by Phelonise Willie; design by Scott di Giolamo:

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Titus Alone (Book acquired, 29 Feb. 2020)

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Not a dozen pages into Mervyn Peake’s 1959 novel Titus Alone something very strange happens: A man shows up in a car. The narrator simply uses the word “car,” and our hero Titus seems to accept the technological marvel in stride, using the word himself a bit later.

The strangeness of the car, a thing wholly banal in our own contemporary world, derives from its technological dissonance compared to the previous two Titus novels, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950).

These first two novels of the so-called “Gormenghast Trilogy” take place primarily in a strange, isolated castle called Gormenghast, and the limited terrain around it. The world of Gormenghast and environs seems medieval, stagnant, insular, but also wonderfully baroque, a world that centers on byzantine rituals that have been practiced and observed for at least seventy-seven generations. No one living knows what the rituals mean or from whence they derive; indeed, the rituals seem to be their own telos.

Tinged with fantastic and strange imagery, these first two novels are not fantasy per se, at least not in the traditional sense. They owe more to Charles Dickens’ novels than to the Nordic and Germanic myths that underwrite so much of Tolkien. The books are also wonderfully grotesque, full of weird mutants in varying stages of decay, imagery reflected in Peake’s illustrations for his books (which recall Leonardo’s caricatures). Peake’s prose style is singular as well: his syntax is thick, his vocabulary Faulknerian. Peake essentially creates an original idiom through which Gormenghast can exist. The world is so insular that it creates and sustains itself, both aesthetically and verbally.

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Young Titus Groan is stifled by all of this insularity and apparently-meaningless ritual, however, and he escapes it at the end of Gormenghast. Somehow he arrives into a new world—the narrative logic is dreamy, perhaps because Titus arrives in this new world asleep in a boat, a positively mythic image. And then he’s picked up by the motorist Muzzlehatch, who feeds him and lets him rest and recover. Titus then witnesses a terrible battle between a camel and a mule, members of Muzzlehatch’s strange menagerie. After he leaves—he’s always leaving, always more or less alone, a word that repeats throughout Titus Alone—after Titus leaves Muzzlehatch, he arrives in a technologically-advanced city of glass and steel. He escapes flying surveillance drones and soon drops into a party (quite literally), where he meets Juno, a beautiful woman twice his age who will later take him as a lover. I should stop summarizing. Titus Alone is episodic, picaresque even, with one damn thing happening after another. The chapters are short and propulsive — most are no more than the front and back of a pageIt’s just one damn thing happening after another, and happening with an energy and rapidity that seems the opposite of the methodical rhythm of the first two books. It reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide and Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, both punchy picaresques, but also Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass or even Walter Murch’s 1985 film Return to Oz.

I passed a little over the half way mark of Titus Alone this afternoon. The book somehow has taken an even more surreal turn, as Titus enters the Under-River, a labyrinthine Hadean space under the city populated by outcasts and refugees. Peake’s overview of these underdwellers is cinematic and at times startling; he seems to point to a much larger universe, but one that Titus (and the reader) will never fully glimpse. And yet Titus Alone takes its hero (and the reader) into the new, into a world that must be rich and severe and stocked with lore—only Peake keeps us isolated from knowing. We are on the outside of knowing, alone.

A Charles Portis miscellany, a signed Stanley Elkin oddity, and Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult novel Nog (Books acquired, 21 Feb. 2020)

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I went to my beloved used bookstore the first three Fridays in February, searching for a few things: novels by Rudolph Wurlitzer (no luck); Titus Alone, the last novel in Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy (no luck; might have to order it); the penultimate Harry Potter novel (for my nine-year-old; plenty of copies—apparently his sister never made it that far).

did pick up Escape Velocity, a compendium of the late great Charles Portis’s journalism, essays, and short stories. There’s also a three-act play, Delray’s New Moon, which The Arkansas Repertory Theatre performed in 1996, and a 2001 interview with Portis that was part of The Gazette Project, which comprised a series of interviews with staff of the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette.

Portis worked for the Gazette early in his career, but it’s Civil Rights reporting for The New York Herald Tribune that’s more immediately compelling. Stories on the Klan rallies, Birmingham terror, and the assassination of Medgar Evers seem to add a new complexity and dimension to the South of Portis’s novels Norwood and The Dog of the South.

The essays in Escape Velocity seem especially promising, and also seem to inform the novels—at least the first one I read, “That New Sound from Nashville,” did. There’s something almost-gonzo about Portis’s technique (some of his early journalism vibrates with local color and ironic editorializing, too).

I’ve only read two of the five short stories in the collection. All are quite short, and the two I read feel like sketches, to be honest. Still, I’m interested in the fiction that Portis produced after his last novel Gringos, and three of the stories are from that era, along with the play Delray’s New Moon, which I hope will be richer than the stories I’ve read so far.

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At the bookstore, I spied the gilt spine of The First George Mills, a 1980 oddity that comprises the first part (roughly 50 pages) of Stanley Elkin’s 1982 novel George Mills. The spine struck me as odd—so thin, so irregularly-shaped, etc. The book itself seemed like a novelty almost, and I was surprised to find Elkin’s signature at the end. I was even more surprised to find the signature of Jane Hughes, the apparent illustrator of this volume, whose illustrations do not appear in my copy. A bit of internet browsing seems to suggest that Hughes’s illustrations—of horses—were glued insets. Still, I was happy to forgo five bucks of my trade credit for Elkin’s signature.

When I got home from the bookstore a copy of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s cult classic 1969 novel Nog had arrived in the mail from Two Dollar Radio (along with a sticker and a bookmark and a thank you note—godbless indie publishers). I will be reading this book next, starting tonight. Here is the Thomas Pynchon blurb that made me interested in Wurlitzer:

Wow, this is some book, I mean it’s more than a beautiful and heavy trip, it’s also very important in an evolutionary way, showing us directions we could be moving in — hopefully another sign that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of re-enlightenment is beginning to arrive, to take hold. Rudolph Wurlitzer is really, really good, and I hope he manages to come down again soon, long enough anyhow to guide us on another one like Nog.

I did not go to the bookstore on this day, the last Friday of February 2020. I finished Gormenghast instead.

Two Books (Books acquired, 7 and 14 Feb. 2020)

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Robinson by Muriel Spark. Penguin Books, 1964. Cover drawing by Terence Greer.

I have not yet read Muriel Spark, but I’ve noted she’s been compared to Ann Quin and Anna Kavan. Robinson looked more interesting to me (and shorter) than her more famous novels The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Memento Mori, and I love this cover.

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Alchemy by Titus Burckhardt. Penguin Books,1974. Cover design by Walter Brooks, using a drawing from Basilius Valentinus’s “Aurelia Occulta Philosophorum” in Theatrum Chemicum, Argentoratie, 1614. vol. IV. Chocked full of glorious black and white images.

Two by Dmitry Samarov (Books acquired 7 Feb. 2020)

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Copies of Dmitry Samarov’s latest books, Soviet Stamps and Music to My Eyes showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters the other week. I started in on Music to My Eyes, a kind of fragmentary memoir told in sketches (both verbal and literal) of the Chicago music scene. The determiner “the” in the previous sentence is wrong, of course, as is the singular noun “scene” — Samarov’s book shows the diversity of the city’s music, even if fans will be able to connect the dots between bands like Eleventh Dream Day, Mekons, and Brokeback. There are stories that float around Nick Cave, Arto Lindsay, Neko Case, and many, many others. Samarov’s brief chapter on the Silver Jews ends with an anecdote about not getting to meet Berman in 2018. The final lines are heartbreaking: “Maybe there’ll be more songs. Then I could stop being mad at him for walking away too soon.”

Here’s Samarov on U.S. Maple, who made some of the strangest music ever during that weird slice of time from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts. U.S. Maple is by far the most confounding live band I’ve ever seen; it’s easy to throw around the word deconstruction, but their live performances were deconstructions of rocknroll:

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Read my 2012 interview with Dmitry Samarov.

S.D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid (Book acquired, 23 Dec. 2019)

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An AR copy of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few days before Xmas. I was inundated with books, both review copies and gifts and gifts to myself, but still excited—I think Chrostowska’s novel Permission is great. (I was lucky enough to interview Chrostowska about the novel, too.)

The book’s blurb points to a kind of sci-fi or dystopian plot that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected from Chrostowska (all the better):

In the near future, sleep has been banned. Our unnamed, dream-prone narrator finds himself following Chevauchet, a diplomat of Onirica, a foreign republic of dreams, to resist the prohibition. On a mission to combat the state-sponsored drugging of citizens with uppers for greater productivity, they traverse an eerie landscape in an everlasting autumn, able to see inside other people’s nightmares and dreams. As Comprehensive Illusion — a social media-like entity that hijacks creativity — overtakes the masses, Chevauchet, the old radical, weakens and disappears, leaving our narrator to take up Chevauchet’s dictum that “daydreaming is directly subversive” and forge ahead on his own.

In slippery, exhilarating and erudite prose, The Eyelid revels in the camaraderie of free thinking that can only happen on the lam, aiming to rescue a species that can no longer dream.

The Eyelid is forthcoming from Coach House Proof in April of this year.

(Two illustrated) Books acquired, 24 Jan. 2020

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Like the seventh-graders before her, my daughter has to read Ray Bradbury’s somewhat over-rated novel Fahrenheit 451 this year. I gave her my copy, a 1980 edition that I stole from my cousin, who is ten years older than I am, like a quarter-century ago. (I would share a pic of this edition, but my daughter took it to school and left it there, because she is irresponsible. It looks like this though.) So she needs the 60th-anniversary edition, apparently, so I head to the local used bookstore I love to browse on a Friday afternoon, where they have about a bajillion copies of F451, bu not this ugly-assed big-assed new trade paperback.

did by way of random wondering come across the very unusual volume The Counterfeiters by Hugh Kenner though. Its spine called to me–the title, the font. The cover, quite strange. And Kenner, of course, the Joyce scholar who mentored the dude who I took a life-changing Joyce class in grad school. The Counterfeiters features art by Guy Davenport, including this piece, entitled Citizen Marx and Mr. Babbage Observed in Their Courses:

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Other illustrations include Turing, Warhol, and Yeats, all subjects of the essays here.

I picked up a mass-market 1973 paperback copy from Doubleday, but here’s Dalkey Archive’s blurb for their 2005 reprint:

Wide-ranging enough to encompass Buster Keaton, Charles Babbage, horses, and a man riding a bicycle while wearing a gas mask, The Counterfeiters is one of Hugh Kenner’s greatest achievements. In this fascinating work of literary and cultural criticism, Kenner seeks the causes and outcomes of man’s ability to simulate himself (a computer that can calculate quicker than we can) and his world (a mechanical duck that acts the same as a living one).

This intertangling of art and science, of man and machine, of machine and art is at the heart of this book. He argues that the belief in art as a uniquely human expression is complicated and questioned by the prevalence of simulations—or “counterfeits”—in our culture. Kenner, with his characteristically accessible style and wit, brings together history, literature, science, and art to locate the personal in what is an increasingly counterfeit world.

The contemporary 1972 New York Times review of the book, by the like-totally-unbiased illustrator Guy Davenportconcludes thus:

It is therefore perhaps too early to re view The Counterfeiters. It looks like science fiction to the half‐educated and like fiction to the conservative scholar. A generation (when? where?) that doesn’t know that literary criticism is supposed to be dull and flat‐footed will embrace it as a magic book.

I picked up another illustrated book too, Mr. Pye by Mervyn Peake. After picking up the first two books in Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy earlier this month, and loving the first one, which I’ve almost finished, I scouted for the third—no luck—but I’m a sucker for Penguin Editions, and Mr Pye seemed too hard to pass up for two bucks. Peake illustrates:

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The Complete Gary Lutz (Book acquired, 6 Jan. 2020)

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My dad slipped me a Barnes & Noble giftcard on Christmas Day; his sister had given it to him. “Never happen,” he said. “You’ll use it.” I’m pretty sure I used it that very night, after some drinks. I got a cookbook my wife had been wanting that was pretty expensive, a Joy Williams novel I still haven’t done a book acquired post on, and The Complete Gary Lutz.

New from indie TyrantThe Complete Gary Lutz collects all five of Lutz’s story collections to date, including Partial List of People to Bleach, the only one I’ve read. How long will the title of the book remain true? Will Lutz bow out? How long until this is The Incomplete Gary Lutz?

The collection is about 500 pages, and I’ve been dipping into randomly, reading one or two of the shorter stories a day, like “Grounds”:

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Tyrant’s blurb:

For nearly three decades, Gary Lutz has been writing quietly influential, virtuosic short fictions of antic despair. In barbed sentences of startling originality, Lutz gives voice to outcasts from conventional genders and monogamies—and even from the ruckus of their own bodies. Making their rounds of daily humiliations, Lutz’s self-unnerving narrators find themselves helplessly trespassing on their own lives.

This omnibus volume, with an introduction by Brian Evenson, gathers all five of Lutz’s sometimes hard-to-find collections and features sixty pages of previously uncollected stories—including his two longest.

Another shorty:

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Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing (Book acquired 13 Jan. 2020)

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I got an email from an independent bookseller a few days ago confirming that I bought a copy of  Ishamel Reed’s 1986 novel Reckless Eyeballing. I had no recollection of purchasing the novel online, although this kind of thing has happened more than once. It was a Saturday night; I may or may not have had a few tumblers of scotch, and was probably jonesing for more Reed after having finished Flight to Canada. Anyway, it showed up today. Here is the back cover:

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And here is the first paragraph of Larry McCaffery’s contemporary review of the novel in The Los Angeles Times:

Early on in “Reckless Eyeballing,” one of the book’s many beleaguered black men observes that “throughout history when the brothers feel that they’re being pushed against the wall, they strike back and when they do strike back it’s like a tornado, uprooting, flinging about, and dashing to pieces everything in its path.” This passage provides a perfect entryway into Ishmael Reed’s latest novel, for like many other black men, Reed obviously feels that “the brothers” are catching it from all sides–and not just from the usual sources of racial bigotry, but from ‘60s liberals now turned neo-conservatives, from white feminists who propagate the specter of the black men as phallic oppressor, from other racial minorities anxious to wrest various monkeys off their own backs.