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:

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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:

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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

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

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

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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…

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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 “The Silvery Veil” allegory in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis)

This afternoon I got to Ch. XIII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance. Titled “Zenobia’s Legend,” most of the chapter is given over to the titular heroine’s tale “The Silvery Veil,” a wonderfully pre-postmodern moment in Hawthorne’s novel.

Let’s look lookingly at the layers: The Blithdale Romance is Hawthorne’s ironic-but-sincere dark-romantic semi-autobiographical account of his time at Brook Farm, a failed utopian community of Transcendentalists who maybe didn’t quite, uh, transcend. Zenobia is based partially on the great American feminist Margaret Fuller (who also did time on Brook Farm).  Taking center stage here in (the aptly-numbered) thirteenth chapter of Blithedale, Zenobia extemporizes a story about The Veiled Lady. This Veiled Lady is a local celebrity, a clairvoyant of some renown who (we learn in the opening chapter of the novel) has recently disappeared. Zenobia’s yarn is a leisure-time amusement, one she contends that she’ll spin to get out of an apparent rut:

“I am getting weary of this,” said she, after a moment’s thought. “Our own features, and our own figures and airs, show a little too intrusively through all the characters we assume. We have so much familiarity with one another’s realities, that we cannot remove ourselves, at pleasure, into an imaginary sphere. Let us have no more pictures to-night; but, to make you what poor amends I can, how would you like to have me trump up a wild, spectral legend, on the spur of the moment?”

Ironically however, Zenobia clearly relies on her “own features” as well as the features of Blithedale’s spectral ingenue Priscilla to inform her performance. Despite her declaration to “remove” herself and her auditors “into an imaginary sphere,” Zenobia essentially recasts poor Priscilla’s waifery into a supernatural ultraromantic mode. The story’s basic conceit is thus: There is a famous veiled lady who may be extraordinarily beautiful or who may be extraordinarily ugly. No one knows what she looks like because like the the veil obviously hides her face, preventing any viewer’s agency to interpret for himself.

Zenobia’s legend is a tale within a tale within a tale—a performance that each member of the small Blithedale community will recode into their own readings. However, Zenobia guides her audience toward a certain conclusion, all but declaring that meek Priscilla is in fact the Veiled Lady—hell, Zenobia even throws a bit of gauze she’d been vamping with over the poor dear’s head at the climax of her tale.

“The Silvery Veil,” in another pre-postmodern layer, is a thin but clear echo of Hawthorne’s famous allegory “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which was published 15 years before The Blithedale Romance, and would clearly have been known to Hawthorne’s intended audience of Transcendentalites. (There’s perhaps a more clear connection between “The Silvery Veil” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” : Hawthorne likely based the titular minister on the real-life preacher Joseph Moody, who wore a handkerchief over his faceBlithedale features a character named “Old Moodie” who we eventually learn is Pricilla’s secret father).

So Hawthorne overloads the allegory with meaning and misdirection—is Zenobia’s legend “The Silvery Veil” the secret key to Priscilla’s identity? A clue to Blithedale’s destiny? A watery paraphrase of Hawthorne’s own stronger story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”? Simply a Saturday night’s entertainment?

The trick of the tale I think rests in the undecidability of what’s under the veil, in the not knowing, which is neatly summed up in a paragraph:

Some upheld that the veil covered the most beautiful countenance in the world; others,—and certainly with more reason, considering the sex of the Veiled Lady,—that the face was the most hideous and horrible, and that this was her sole motive for hiding it. It was the face of a corpse; it was the head of a skeleton; it was a monstrous visage, with snaky locks, like Medusa’s, and one great red eye in the centre of the forehead. Again, it was affirmed that there was no single and unchangeable set of features beneath the veil; but that whosoever should be bold enough to lift it would behold the features of that person, in all the world, who was destined to be his fate; perhaps he would be greeted by the tender smile of the woman whom he loved, or, quite as probably, the deadly scowl of his bitterest enemy would throw a blight over his life.

Hawthorne’s description here immediately reminded me of Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the P.G.O.A.T., a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest who wears a veil either because she’s too beautiful to behold and/or because she bears a physical deformity to abject to bear. I can’t actually remember if it’s the “and” or the “or” in that previous sentence that’s correct, even though I’ve read IJ a few times (and even not that long ago). Which is like, maybe the point of this literary veiling—what I mean is that we read faces, we read expressions, and the veil covers over what we would read directly, giving us a blank space to interpret through the lens of our wild (or not so wild) imaginations. Hawthorne’s veils (and maybe Wallace’s veils) require an inward reading, asking us to interpret a signifier that does not bear a clear signified—a most puzzling sign.

Blog about “a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” (in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance)

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I hit Chapter XII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon and was delighted by some lines from its first paragraph, wherein Our Narrator Coverdale retreats to a little fort he’s made in the woods:

Long since, in this part of our circumjacent wood, I had found out for myself a little hermitage. It was a kind of leafy cave, high upward into the air, among the midmost branches of a white-pine tree. A wild grapevine, of unusual size and luxuriance, had twined and twisted itself up into the tree, and, after wreathing the entanglement of its tendrils around almost every bough, had caught hold of three or four neighboring trees, and married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy.

I was deeply disappointed that the version of myself who had read this same physical copy of The Blithedale Romance almost 15 years earlier had failed to muster a single annotation on the passage (despite having left like 10,000 other scratches and loops on the yellow pages).

Hawthorne’s naturalism is fantastically naturalistically fantastical. The wild grapevine he conjures here that “married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” is simultaneously a physical entity “wreathing” itself around the surrounding trees and at the same time a metonymy for the Bacchic spirit that pulls the souls of Blithedale into a weird marriage, an “inextricable knot of polygamy.” Hawthorne’s image points to exuberant and wild joy on one hand, but also to the thick bonds that tightly tie desire down in any moral system. The grapevine image serves as shorthand for the entire novel, underlining the push-pull tension of the narrator’s (and author’s!) conflict between Puritanism and Transcendentalism. The “inextricable knot of polygamy” is wonderfully pure in its impurity, in its radical transcendence.

Gerald Murnane’s Stream System (Book acquired, 5 April 2018)

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Four stories into Gerald Murnane’s Stream System and digging it a lot. I’ll do some kind of post about some of the stuff in here soon. For now, here’s FS&G’s blurb:

Never before available to readers in this hemisphere, these stories―originally published from 1985 to 2012―offer an irresistible compendium of the work of one of contemporary fiction’s greatest magicians.

While the Australian master Gerald Murnane’s reputation rests largely on his longer works of fiction, his short stories stand among the most brilliant and idiosyncratic uses of the form since Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov. Brutal, comic, obscene, and crystalline, Stream System runs from the haunting “Land Deal,” which imagines the colonization of Australia and the ultimate vengeance of its indigenous people as a series of nested dreams; to “Finger Web,” which tells a quietly terrifying, fractal tale of the scars of war and the roots of misogyny; to “The Interior of Gaaldine,” which finds its anxious protagonist stranded beyond the limits of fiction itself.

No one else writes like Murnane, and there are few other authors alive still capable of changing how―and why―we read.

Blog about Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.

While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.

The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.

The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:

The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.

Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.

The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.

Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…”  Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.

This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —

In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.

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—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.

(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).

I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.

Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.

A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.

Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.

For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).

The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:

I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.

Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.

What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”

What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.

Blog about Don DeLillo’s novel The Names, which I read a few weeks ago and now only half remember

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A physical copy of Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names is on a shelf a few steps away from me. Normally I’d pick it up and thumb through it before writing about it—or better yet, reread it before writing about it—or even better, simply not write about it at all. But none of that would be in the spirit of these Blog about posts.

The plot of The Names, such as I remember it, is something like this: the novel’s protagonist and narrator (whose name may or may not be named Nick—I don’t really remember) is an American operative of some kind who basically works for the CIA. This specific job description is never really clear to the American protagonist or anyone else in the novel. He moves to Greece to be closer to his wife, who has left him, and his son, a budding novelist of sorts (despite being like nine or ten), whom DeLillo based on Atticus Lish (son of Gordon Lish and now a superb novelist in his own right)  The protagonist’s estranged wife works an archaeological dig headed by an older dude named Owen (the protagonist’s son’s novel is Owen’s fictional biography). Owen, and later (or is it before—I can’t remember?!) the protagonist, encounter a weird language cult that performs ritualistic linguistic murders.

The Names’ great appeal is DeLillo’s riffs on language and meaning in a postmodern era. The language cult isn’t some socioculturally-realistic entity that draws the reader in, but rather an occasion for monologue. The novel is very much a monologue, no matter who is speaking. This may sound like a criticism as I now type it out (it does to me, anyway), but DeLillo’s monologue has a fun force to it. It’s sort of like a Derridean teledrama in novelistic form, all its pollyglossic intentions subsumed into a low dry clipped clever voice: DeLillo waxes on film; DeLillo waxes on pleasure; DeLillo waxes on Americanism; DeLillo waxes on expatriation; DeLillo waxes on globalism; DeLillo waxes on airports; DeLillo waxes on terrorism. A big takeaway from the novel for me was that DeLillo wrote his 9/11 novel two decades before the fact. No wonder he wrote Falling Man so quickly; he’d already thought through the problems.

I can’t really remember the linguistic system or philosophy or language critique in The Names, but I do remember the repetitions—the word name threads throughout, usually pointing toward a symbol, a referent, a landing strip. DeLillo also repeats the word recognition—which I take to simply be the power of name(s) (why would I use the adverb “simply” there?!). But the keyword isn’t name—I think the keyword of The Names is the world, a term that seems to refer to the absolute set of possibility (linguistic or otherwise) that Exist—a shifting, unstable, but nevertheless complete set that everyone must play within.

While its expatriation visions ring true, DeLillo doesn’t fully conjure the world in The Names, although that’s never his intention, I think. The whole affair is more oblique. Clipped is the word I used before—the novel is dry, witty, but resists being pegged as glib through its strangeness and humor.  I laughed a lot in The Names. What I think I like most though is the ending, which I still remember—I haven’t read everything by DeLillo, but I’ve read a lot, and I can’t think of another of his that sticks the ending so well. And he does it by borrowing. DeLillo cribs from the protagonist’s son’s novel—which is to say from a child’s novel—which is to say from a real child’s work, Atticus Lish’s stuff—and that cribbing is somehow the magic ingredient that makes the rest of his novel rise up. It’s a second voice (or hey, the idea of a second voice) in a monologue, and it makes a huge difference.

Blog about starting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

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I started a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon, prompted by Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell and its utopian commune setting. I don’t think I’ve read Blithedale in a dozen or so years; the copy I’m reading is from grad school. The margins brim with every sort of nonsense, every damn adjective circled, etc.

My son, seven, picked up the novel and remarked that he didn’t know that I read romances. I tried to explain Romance here; failed. Then my daughter read the blurb. I asked her what she thought and she said the she liked the betrayal part but wasn’t sure about the rest. I flipped it over and read the blurb, which I’m not sure I’d read before. The blurb is all about sex, which seems about right.

The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s horniest novel. Here is a passage from just three chapters in, where protagonist Miles Coverdale conjures some delight in imagining his lively host Zenobia au naturale (right after damning domestic work altogether)—

“What a pity,” I remarked, “that the kitchen, and the housework generally, cannot be left out of our system altogether! It is odd enough that the kind of labor which falls to the lot of women is just that which chiefly distinguishes artificial life—the life of degenerated mortals—from the life of Paradise. Eve had no dinner-pot, and no clothes to mend, and no washing-day.”

“I am afraid,” said Zenobia, with mirth gleaming out of her eyes, “we shall find some difficulty in adopting the paradisiacal system for at least a month to come. Look at that snowdrift sweeping past the window! Are there any figs ripe, do you think? Have the pineapples been gathered to-day? Would you like a bread-fruit, or a cocoanut? Shall I run out and pluck you some roses? No, no, Mr. Coverdale; the only flower hereabouts is the one in my hair, which I got out of a greenhouse this morning. As for the garb of Eden,” added she, shivering playfully, “I shall not assume it till after May-day!”

Assuredly Zenobia could not have intended it,—the fault must have been entirely in my imagination. But these last words, together with something in her manner, irresistibly brought up a picture of that fine, perfectly developed figure, in Eve’s earliest garment. I almost fancied myself actually beholding it!

Ah Hawthorne! The “fault must have been entirely in my imagination,” Miles muses. That last line — “I almost fancied myself actually beholding it!” — doesn’t appear in the Gutenberg version of The Blithedale Romance I linked to above (and here too, I guess). The editors of my Penguin Classics edition note that the line was probably deleted from the original manuscript “due to Sophia Hawthorne’s prudishness.” But the line—and really, here, I mean that that adverb almost—tells us so much about our unreliable narrator, Miles Coverdale. To almost fancy beholding an imaginative vision is to have absolutely imaginatively beheld the vision, and then applied a second consciousness to the whole affair—a witness to the sinful vision, a witness who reports to one’s own awkward soul.

Coverdale is the Hawthorne-figure, or rather an ironized version of Hawthorne, who recalls his memories of his time on real-life Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community founded by Unitarian preacher George Ripley and his wife Sophia in the mid-1850s. Hawthorne brings his pessimistic bent to the whole business (failed business), but shows us this perspective though Coverdale’s Romantic, even nostalgic optimism—an optimism clouded by experience:

The better life! Possibly, it would hardly look so now; it is enough if it looked so then. The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed.

Yet, after all, let us acknowledge it wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s daydream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure. And what of that?

So the sex of sexy Blithedale, even in its first chapters, is to be “consummated…by a failure.” But if I recall, there’s a lot of blithely lively fun in getting to that failure, and I’m enjoying Hawthorne’s often-ironic but always deeply-felt sentences, sentences that dwell on the ways in which we imagine and then try to create (and perhaps fail to create) the better life.

Blog about Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

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I have just finished Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. This is the first novel I have read by Murdoch and I now want to read more novels by Murdoch, which I suppose is the best praise I can offer the novel.

The Bell is set primarily in Imber House, a large old mansion in the English countryside. Imber House adjoins a Benedictine abbey; this nunnery is essentially closed off to the outside world. The residents of Imber House form a “brotherhood,” a laity of would-be acolytes who strive to find spiritual meaning in the commercial and often venal world of the postwar era. Various conflicts between these characters drive the plot of The Bell.

One of these conflicts, especially notable for a novel published in 1958, involves Michael, the leader of the Imber House community. A former schoolmaster who dreamed of joining the clergy, Michael lost his job in a small scandal for “seducing” one of his students, Nick, a teenage boy at the time. Over a decade later, circumstance brings Nick to Imber House, where his twin sister Katherine is staying. Katherine plans to join Imber Abbey; in the meantime, her family hopes that the religious solitude at Imber House will help Nick recover from his alcoholism. The conflict between Michael and Nick becomes further charged when the youngest member of Imber House, a teenager named Toby, befriends both of them.

I could go on about Michael and Nick and Toby and Katherine and etc., but the real star of The Bell is Dora Greenfield, a wonderfully complicatedly simple unassuming unpretentious flighty former art student who has recently left her demanding husband Paul. Through Murdoch’s precise free indirect style, we get to inhabit Dora’s constantly vacillating mind. Like many people, Dora does not know what she is going to do, and even when she thinks through a plan, she often ends up doing the opposite of what she had intended to do. There is a hilarious passage in the novel’s first chapter when Dora goes through a lengthy imaginative exercise about giving up her train seat to an elderly woman. Dora’s thought experiment ends like this:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

The blank space between those sentences highlights a radical gap between contemplation and action.

The train-seat passage is one of many humorous episodes in The Bell, but Murdoch’s humor is underwritten by a deeper menacing anxiety, which can be neatly summed up in the novel’s opening sentences:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

Those opening lines basically summarize the big thematic plot of The Bell—the conflict between controlling and ultimately abusive Paul and his much younger wife. (“She married him a little for his money,” Murdoch writes just a few paragraphs in, wedging the detail between more positive aspects of Paul’s character–the “a little” is just genius there, the slightest omission from Dora’s consciousness slipping into the third-person narrator for the briefest of moments). The opening lines of The Bell also showcase Murdoch’s rhetorical powers. Her comic precision here reverberates with a hazardous undertone.

Will Dora really return to her husband? Or will she become her own person—whatever that means? The Bell satisfies these questions with complex answers. The novel has every opportunity to veer toward pat conclusions. Murdoch fills her novel with images that suggest a conventional tragic conclusions, and then surpasses these conventions, turning them into something else. A death by drowning might be foreshadowed, but someone will learn to swim; an epiphany achieved in an art museum might not meet its achievement outside of aesthetic response; the Blakean contraries of innocence and experience might be synthesized into a new, original viewpoint. There’s something real about The Bell—it offers a realism that points outside of its own literary contours. The English novelist A.S. Byatt puts it far better than I can in her essay “Shakespearean Plot in the Novels of Irish Murdoch”:

 …The Bell seems to me arguably Miss Murdoch‘s most successful attempt at realism, emotional and social—the tones of voice of the members of the religious community are beautifully caught, the sexual, aesthetic and religious passions and confusions of the three main characters, Dora, Michael, and, to a lesser extent, Toby, are delicately analysed with the combination of intellectual grasp and sensuous immediacy of George Eliot.

Byatt’s comparison to Eliot reminds me that I had intended to read Middlemarch some time this year—but to be fair to myself, I put The Bell on the same list. I won’t be reading Middlemarch next though; The Bell, with its story of a would-be utopian community, strongly reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, which I haven’t read in ages. And after I read that, I’d like to read another one by Iris Murdoch. Any recommendations?

“White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington

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“White Rabbits”

by

Leonora Carrington

THE TIME has come that I must tell the events which began in 40 Pest St. The houses which were reddish-black looked as if they had survived mysteriously from the fire of London. The house in front of my window, covered with an occasional wisp of creeper, was as blank and empty looking as any plague-ridden residence subsequently licked by flames and saliv’d with smoke. This is not the way that I had imagined New York.

It was so hot that I got palpitations when I ventured out into the streets—so I sat and considered the house opposite and occasionally bathed my sweating face.

The light was never very strong in Pest Street. There was always a reminiscence of smoke which made visibility troubled and hazy—still it was possible to study the house opposite carefully, even precisely; besides my eyes have always been excellent.

I spent several days watching for some sort of movement opposite but there was none and I finally took to undressing quite freely before my open window and doing breathing exercises optimistically in the thick Pest Street air. This must have blackened my lungs as dark as the houses. One afternoon I washed my hair and sat out on the diminuitive stone crescent which served as a balcony to dry it. I hung my head between my knees ¡and watched a blue-bottle suck the dry corpse of a spider between my feet. I looked up through my lank hair and saw something black in the sky, ominously quiet for an airplane. Parting my hair I was in time to see a large raven alight on the balcony of the house opposite. It sat on the balustrade and seemed to peer into the empty window, then poked its head under its wing apparently searching for lice. A few minutes later I was not unduly surprised to see the double windows open and and admit a woman onto the balcony—she carried a large dish full of bones which she emptied onto the floor. With a short appreciative squawk, the raven hopped down and picked about amongst its unpleasant repast.

The woman, who had hemp-long black hair, wiped out the dish, using her hair for this purpose.

Then she looked straight at me and smiled in a friendly fashion. I smiled back and waved a towel. This seemed to encourage her for she tossed her head coquettishly and gave me a very elegant salute after the fashion of a queen.

“Do you happen to have any bad meat over there that you don’t need?” she called.

“Any what?” I called back, wondering if my ears had deceived me.

“Any stinking meat? Decomposed flesh … meat?”

“Not at the moment,” I replied, wondering if she was trying to be funny.

“Won’t you have any towards the end of the week? If so, I would be very grateful if you would bring it over.”

Then she stepped back into the empty window and disappeared. The raven flew away. Continue reading ““White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington”

“Easter Eve” — Anton Chekhov

“Easter Eve”

by

Anton Chekhov


I was standing on the bank of the River Goltva, waiting for the ferry-boat from the other side. At ordinary times the Goltva is a humble stream of moderate size, silent and pensive, gently glimmering from behind thick reeds; but now a regular lake lay stretched out before me. The waters of spring, running riot, had overflowed both banks and flooded both sides of the river for a long distance, submerging vegetable gardens, hayfields and marshes, so that it was no unusual thing to meet poplars and bushes sticking out above the surface of the water and looking in the darkness like grim solitary crags.

The weather seemed to me magnificent. It was dark, yet I could see the trees, the water and the people. . . . The world was lighted by the stars, which were scattered thickly all over the sky. I don’t remember ever seeing so many stars. Literally one could not have put a finger in between them. There were some as big as a goose’s egg, others tiny as hempseed. . . . They had come out for the festival procession, every one of them, little and big, washed, renewed and joyful, and everyone of them was softly twinkling its beams. The sky was reflected in the water; the stars were bathing in its dark depths and trembling with the quivering eddies. The air was warm and still. . . . Here and there, far away on the further bank in the impenetrable darkness, several bright red lights were gleaming. . . .

A couple of paces from me I saw the dark silhouette of a peasant in a high hat, with a thick knotted stick in his hand.

“How long the ferry-boat is in coming!” I said.

“It is time it was here,” the silhouette answered.

“You are waiting for the ferry-boat, too?”

“No I am not,” yawned the peasant—”I am waiting for the illumination. I should have gone, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t the five kopecks for the ferry.”

“I’ll give you the five kopecks.”

“No; I humbly thank you. . . . With that five kopecks put up a candle for me over there in the monastery. . . . That will be more interesting, and I will stand here. What can it mean, no ferry-boat, as though it had sunk in the water!”

The peasant went up to the water’s edge, took the rope in his hands, and shouted; “Ieronim! Ieron—im!” Continue reading ““Easter Eve” — Anton Chekhov”

Dave Cooper’s Mudbite (Book acquired, 28 March 2018)

 

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Dave Cooper’s Mudbite is new in glorious full-color hardback from Fantagraphics. Here is the front cover:

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And here is the other front cover (Mudbite is a tête-bêche):

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I hope to post a review of Mudbite at The Comics Journal soon, but for now, here’s Fantagraphics’ blurb:

Eddy Table, the star of Mudbite, first appeared the early ’90s in Cooper’s award-winning underground comics series, Weasel. His stories were based on baffling dreams and reveled in a unique sort of logical nonsense. Mudbitecompiles two all-new Eddy Table stories, “Mud River” and “Bug Bite,” in which Eddy returns to his roots, acting as Dave’s alter ego in these dreamlike narratives.

In “Mud River,” Eddy makes a foolish mistake, causing a sweet, innocent Amazon to bonk her head, turning her into a very impressionable automaton. Of course, Eddy can’t resist taking advantage of this unexpected development, even as a river of mud approaches. In “Bug Bite,” Eddy has brought his family on a vacation to Europe, but he’s soon distracted by a series of manifestations of his own obsessions  — voluptuous women, mysterious and collectible “microdevices,”  and a strange, impromptu jam session. When he loses his family entirely, he’s led into a dark, slimy corridor inhabited by shiny black eels. What is their connection to the microdevices? And how will all this impact his family?

Mudbite marks the first new graphic novel by fan favorite Dave Cooper in more than 15 years, marking a welcome return to the medium that he made his name in before focusing on fine art and television, where he has focused most of his creative energy since.

(Another) Moby-Dick (Book acquired, 26 March 2018)

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While I wasn’t thrilled to return to work after a pleasant Spring Break, I was very happy to find a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in the campus mail today. A Norton book rep visited our campus before the break and asked what my favorite book was. It was kind of her to send me their new critical edition.

I wrote a post almost five years ago about the various versions of Moby-Dick that I’ve accumulated (including a Norton Critical Edition). Since that post, I’ve picked up two more illustrated children’s versions, another comic book version, as well as an edition illustrated by Barry Moser. I will almost certainly reread the book this year.

Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour | From Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

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The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, c. 1756, Thomas Gainsborough

Dora had been in the National Gallery a thousand times and the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face. Passing between them now, as through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending on her. She wandered a little, watching with compassion the poor visitors armed with guide books who were peering anxiously at the masterpieces. Dora did not need to peer. She could look, as one can at last when one knows a great thing very well, confronting it with a dignity which it has itself conferred. She felt that the pictures belonged to her, and reflected ruefully that they were about the only thing that did. Vaguely, consoled by the presence of something welcoming and responding in the place, her footsteps took her to various shrines at which she had worshipped so often before: the great light spaces of Italian pictures, more vast and southern than any real South, the angels of Botticelli, radiant as birds, delighted as gods, and curling like the tendrils of a vine, the glorious carnal presence of Susanna Fourment, the tragic presence of Margarethe Trip, the solemn world of Piero della Francesca with its early-morning colours, the enclosed and gilded world of Crivelli. Dora stopped at last in front of Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters. These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike.

Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. Even Paul, she thought, only existed now as someone she dreamt about; or else as a vague external menace never really encountered and understood. But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all.

These thoughts, not clearly articulated, flitted through Dora’s mind. She had never thought about the pictures in this way before; nor did she draw now any very explicit moral. Yet she felt that she had had a revelation. She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.

From Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell.