Three Books

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Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. 1985 first-edition hardback from Knopf. Jacket design by Sara Eisenman; jacket illustration by Dagmar Frinta.

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The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback from Windstone Trade. Cover art by Linda Bordelon; no designer credited.

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True Grit by Charles Portis. 1968 hardback Book Club from Simon & Schuster. Jacket design by Paul Davis.

I picked up a 1985 Vintage Contemporaries edition of Charles Portis’s first novel Norwood this summer and promptly snorted the thing up my brain. I then sought out the rest of Portis, and read most of it, with the exception of Gringos, which I’m, I don’t know, saving, if that makes sense.

True Grit might be the best of the novels, from a technical standpoint. Walker Percy’s blurb on the back of my copy compares it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Mattie Ross’s is as achieved and engrossing and complex as Huck’s, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing American hero. I wish I had read it years ago. I’ll make sure my kids don’t repeat my error. Like Huck FinnTrue Grit seems like a book one returns to like an old friend, only to find the friend has changed in some deep way. (But of course it’s only you that’s changed you old bastard, reading now through older dimmer eyes.)

While True Grit is likely Portis’s best novel, my favorite in the quartet I’ve read is The Dog of the South, a road trip novel, shaggy, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like a novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage—or maybe that’s unfair (I love Hannah, godbless his soul)—maybe what I mean is that Portis’s loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel has more structure than Hannah’s jazz. Anyway, I loved Dog, but in spite of and because of its faults.

Masters of Atlantis is the strangest in the quartet. It’s a novel about con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Again, a very American novel, whatever that means. Atlantis has a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness. It also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels (think of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, or Baum’s Oz, or Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Gatsby, etc.). Atlantis, told in a third-person voice, feels a bit more distant than the first-person immediacy of True Grit or The Dog of the South, or even the third-person voice of Norwood, which hovers around its protagonist’s brain pan and eye line, and doesn’t flit much farther. Atlantis also covers a hearty lifetime of secret society shenanigans. It’s a loose, shaggy epic, and seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages. In any case, I ate it up, just like I ate up the other three. I waited far too long for Charles Portis, but I suppose late is better than never. Highly recommended.

A review of Alfred Döblin’s turbulent, encyclopedic riot of a novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.

What is it about?

The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.

But again: What is it about?

Well:

Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.

Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.

Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of. 

With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)

General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.

And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”

And do I spoil the final line?

Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.

Three Books

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Don Quixote by Kathy Acker. Grove Press trade paperback, 1986. Cover design by Neil Stuart. Cover illustration by Catherine Denvir.

A messy punkpostmodern cartoon, a big long jazz howl at the moon.

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The Egghead Republic by Arno Schmidt; English translation by Michael Horowitz. Marion Boyars trade paperback, 1982. Cover design by Imre Reiner, who likely drew the illustration (although he is not explicitly credited).

I found the first 50 pages utterly exhausting, and there were 100 more. I tried. The cover designer Imre Reiner is most famous for his font designs, but he also illustrated many many books, including a 1941 edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

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Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz; English translation by Celina Wieniewska. Cover design by Neil Stuart. Cover illustration by Bruno Schultz. (The novel includes thirty black and white illustrations by Schultz.)

A gross, surreal, dispiriting nightmare. I recall “enjoying” it.

It crafted in his neck two narrow grooves and folding its wings over him it began to drink his blood | From Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

They walked on into the dark and they slept like dogs in the sand and had been sleeping so when something black flapped up out of the night ground and perched on Sproule’s chest. Fine fingerbones stayed the leather wings with which it steadied as it walked upon him. A wrinkled pug face, small and vicious, bare lips crimped in a horrible smile and teeth pale blue in the starlight. It leaned to him. It crafted in his neck two narrow grooves and folding its wings over him it began to drink his blood.

Not soft enough. He woke, put up a hand. He shrieked and the bloodbat flailed and sat back upon his chest and righted itself again and hissed and clicked its teeth.

The kid was up and had seized a rock but the bat sprang away and vanished in the dark. Sproule was clawing at his neck and he was gibbering hysterically and when he saw the kid standing there looking down at him he held out to him his bloodied hands as if in accusation and then clapped them to his ears and cried out what it seemed he himself would not hear, a howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world. But the kid only spat into the darkness of the space between them. I know your kind, he said. What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.

—from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian

On the Halloween chapter of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

Mischief Night, Jamie Wyeth

The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.

A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:

He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…

The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.

Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:

She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.

What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.

Here is the next paragraph:

Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.

The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.

Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:

The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!

Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.

Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.

The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this post in October of 2018.]

The Marquis de Sade’s Aline and Valcour, or, the Philosophical Novel (Books acquired some time last week)

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Later this year, indie publisher Contra Mundum Press is releasing a three-volume English translation of the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 epistolary novel Aline and Valcour. The translation is by John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Geneviève Barque.

It looks pretty wild. Here’s Conta Mundum’s blurb:

Set against the impending riptide of the French Revolution and composed while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, Aline and Valcour embodies the multiple themes that would become the hallmark of his far more sulfurous works.

This epistolary work combines genres, interweaving the adventure story with the libertine novel and the novel of feelings to create a compelling, unitary tale. Turbulence disrupts virtuous lives when corrupt schemers work incestuous designs upon them that don’t stop with abduction and seduction — as crime imposes tragic obstacles to love and delivers harsh threats to morality and religion.

Embedded within Aline and Valcour are sojourns in unknown lands in Africa and the South Seas: Butua, a cannibalistic dystopia, and Tamoé, a utopian paradise headed by a philosopher-king. In Butua, a lustful chief and callous priesthood rule over a doomed people, with atrocious crimes committed in broad daylight, while in Tamoé happiness and prosperity reign amidst benevolent anarchy.

Although not sexually explicit, Aline and Valcour shared the fate of Sade’s other novels — banned in 1815 and later classified a prohibited work by the French government. Published clandestinely, it did not appear in bookstores until after WWII. Continuously in print in France ever since, today it occupies the first volume of the Pléiade edition of the author’s collected works.

This is the very first rendering of the book into English since its publication in 1795.

Three Books

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Complete Tales & Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Fat trade paperback by Vintage; most recent date indicates 1975 but that can’t be right. No designer credited.

You know Poe.

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Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston. 1983 trade paperback edition from Turtle Island. Neither designer nor photographer are credited.

A wonderful and weird trip to Jamaica and Haiti…and zombies!

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From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell. 2004 irregular-big trade paperback from Top Shelf. No designer/artist credited, but it’s clearly Campbell’s work.

One of my favorite scary novels ever. I reviewed it like a decade ago on this site. I found this postcard in it, a collage by the surealist Jacques Prévert:

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The postcard, from James Cooke, included this text, a quote of Cormac McCarthy’s horror novel Blood Meridian:

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted.

James won a postcard-based contest on this site like a decade ago, god love him.

 

 

Three Books

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Taking Care by Joy Williams. 1985 trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

I read this book earlier this year. It’s really great. I reviewed it on this site, writing—

These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

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Norwood by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

Norwood isn’t the best book I’ve read so far this year but it is the book I most enjoyed reading, and after reading it, I sought everything else by Portis (consuming everything so far except the late novel Gringos, which I’m sort of holding onto as like…I dunno? A consolation prize at some point? Is that grim?). I picked Norwood up on a wonderful whim this summer, possibly simply because it was a Vintage Contemporaries edition (and slim). I’m so glad I did. Great read.

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Cathedral by Raymond Carver. 1989 trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Garnet Henderson.

This was the first Vintage Contemporaries edition I ever bought. I bought it when I was maybe 17, sometime in the late nineties, I guess, and I was always vaguely embarrassed of the cover, especially when I used it in not one but two college courses at the end of that decade (Carver was still very cool in that era. He seems to have fallen out of favor. Good for him!) Henderson’s ultra-literal cover of the story “Cathedral” is…something. (I still prefer Lovell’s whimsical work, which is more, uh, I dunno, metaphysical (?)). I circled four short story titles on the table of contents for some reason: “A Small Good Thing,” “Where I’m Calling From,” “Vitamins,” and “Cathedral.” All great numbers. I also am fond of “Feathers” and “Chef’s House,” but I didn’t circle those titles. The rest of the stories I don’t remember, although I’m sure I read them at least once or twice.

Come, you, I want to show you something | From Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz 

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Come, you, I want to show you something. The harlot Babylon, the great harlot, that sitteth upon many waters. I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints.

Franz Biberkopf drifts through the streets, trots his trot and doesn’t stop, he’s getting his strength back. It is warm summer weather, Franz schlepps himself from bar to bar.

He steers clear of the heat. In the bar they are just drawing the first beers.

The first beer says: I come from the cellar, from hops and malt. I am cool, how do I taste?

Franz says: Bitter, good, cool.

Yes, I’ll cool you down. I cool the men, then I make them warm, and then I take away their superfluous thoughts.

Superfluous thoughts?

Yes, most thoughts are superfluous. Am I right or am I right? – Right.

A small schnapps stands bright yellow before Franz. Where did you spring from? – They burnt me, man. – You have a bite to you, fellow, you’ve got claws. – Well, that’s what makes me a schnapps. Expect you haven’t seen one in a while. – No, I was almost dead, little schnapps, I was almost dead and done for. Gone without a return ticket. – You look like it too. – Look like it, cut the cackle. Let’s try you again, come here. Ah, you’re good, good and fiery. – The schnapps trickles down the back of his throat: fire.

The smoke from the fire rises in Franz, it scorches his throat, he needs another beer: you’re my second beer, I’ve already had one, what have you got to say to me? – Taste me first, fatso, then we can talk. – All right.

Then the beer says: now listen, you, if you drink another couple of beers, and another kummel, and another grog, then you’ll swell up like dried peas. – So? – Yes, then you’ll be fat again, and then what will that look like? Can you be seen among people like that? Have another swallow.

And Franz grabs his third: I’m swallowing. One after the other. All in nice order.

He asks the fourth: what do you know, darling? – She just growls back blissfully. Franz knocks her back: I believe yer. Whatever you say, my darling, I believe yer. You’re my little sheep, and you and me are going up to the meadow together.

From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

 

Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek

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I got a copy of Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek strips a few weeks ago and have been reading a strip a day, or sometimes reading two or four strips a day, or sometimes reading no strips a day.

Snake Creek comprises the first volume of Snake Creek comix created by Lerman between the summers of ’18 and ’19. Lerman made one each day, as far as I can tell, which, like props.

The heroes of Snake Creek are maybe-human Dav (an altar-ego for Lerman?) and maybe walkin-talkin potato/maybe-mutant Roy, who spend their days and nights strolling the beaches, riffing on life, and extemporizing poems and songs. They take up with a dog and one point, and later encounter strange ducks. (I’m sure there’s more—I’ve been trying, like I said, to limit myself to a few strips a day.) It’s all a big anarchic kick.

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Snake Creek has an absurdist and occasionally nihilist bent, flavors I love. Never too bitter, the strip’s sweetness is anchored in the weird friendship betwixt Dav and Roy, who wander and wonder along a Miami Beach that Lerman turns into a kind of desert island running on Prospero’s magic.

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Snake Island’s chords and rhythms resonate with Walt Kelly’s Pogo, another Floridaish strip, as well as George Herriman’s zany strip Krazy Kat. Lerman seems like a willing descendant of Kelly and Herriman, but Snake Island is also wholly contemporary, a comic that begins with a discussion of old G-chats.

I’m really digging the collection, and I hope not to gobble it up too fast.

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The authentic American apocalyptic novel | Harold Bloom and Blood Meridian

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Harold Bloom’s esteem for Blood Meridian may have done much to advance the novel’s reputation since its publication, especially in pre-social media outlets, like Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. His essay on the book, first published in his 2000 collection How to Read and Why and later included as the preface to Random House’s Modern Library edition, makes a strong case for Blood Meridian’s canonical status. Bloom begins, in typical Bloomian fashion–the anxiety of influence is always at work–by situating McCarthy’s book against other heavies:

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian . . .

The Garden of Earthly Delights — Hell, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1504

Bloom goes  on to rate Blood Meridian over DeLillo’s Underworld, several books by Philip Roth, and even McCarthy’s own All the Pretty Horses. Indeed, Bloom proclaims Blood Meridian “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This doesn’t mean that Bloom is at home with the book’s violence; he confesses that it took him two attempts to read through its “overwhelming carnage.” Still, he makes a case for reading it in spite of its gore:

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence–its language, landscape, persons, conceptions–at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.

Bloom repeatedly invokes Melville and Faulkner in his essay, arguing that Blood Meridian’s “high style” is one of its key strengths (unlike fellow aesthetic critic James Wood, who seems to think that McCarthy is a windbag). The trajectory of Bloom’s essay follows Melville and Shakespeare, finding in Judge Holden both a white whale (and not so much an Ahab) and an Iago. He writes:

Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.

I think that Bloom’s great insight here is to read the book as a prose epic as opposed to a linear novel. Bloom intuits that Blood Meridian foregrounds a deeply tragic and ironic reworking of the great American myth of Manifest Destiny. While hardly a pastiche, the book is somehow a collage—a massive, deafening collage that numbs, stuns, and overwhelms with its layers of thick, bloody prose. The effect is akin to the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Dense and full of allusion, paintings like The Triumph of Death and The Garden of Earthly Delights surge over the senses, destabilizing narrative logic. Like Blood Meridian, these paintings employ a graphic grammar that disorients and then reorients. They are apocalyptic in all senses of the word: both revelatory and portentously conclusive. And like Blood Meridian, they showcase “a sinister aesthetic glory” (to use Bloom’s term), a terrible, awful, awesome ugliness that haunts us with repulsive beauty.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published a version of this post in September of 2010].

Three Books

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The Last Days of Louisiana Red by Ishmael Reed. 1974 first edition hardback from Random House. No designer credited, but the jacket flap indicates that the cover design was “suggested” by Ishmael Reed. I reviewed Louisiana Red earlier this year on this site.

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Blue Beard by Max Frisch. English translation by Geoffrey Skelton. 1983 first edition hardback from HBJ. Design by Amy Hill.

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Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits by Stanley Elkin. Foreword by Robert Coover. 1980 first edition hardback from E.P. Dutton. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

“Conversation with Job” — Alfred Döblin

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Conversation with Job, it’s up to you, Job, you don’t want to

After Job had lost everything, everything a man can possibly lose, not more and not less, he lay in the cabbage patch.

‘Job, you’re lying in the cabbage patch, just far enough away from the doghouse for the dog not to bite you. You hear him gnashing his teeth. The dog will bark if you take so much as a single step. If you turn round or make to get up, he will growl, rush at you, rattle his chain, jump out, drool and snap at you.

‘Job, there is your palace, and there are the gardens and fields that once were yours. This watchdog was not even known to you, and this cabbage patch where you have been thrown was not even known to you, any more than the goats they drove past you in the mornings that would take a mouthful of grass as they passed, and grind it between their teeth and fill their cheeks with it. They were yours.

‘Job, you have lost everything. You are allowed to shelter in the barn at night. Everyone is afraid of your contagion. You once rode in splendour over your estates, and people used to flock around you. Now you’ve got the wooden fence in front of you, and you can watch the snails creep up it. You can make a study of the earthworms. Those are the only creatures that aren’t afraid of you.

You hardly ever open your crusty eyes, you bundle of misery, you human swamp.

‘What is the worst torment, Job? The fact that you lost your sons and daughters, that you own nothing, that you’re cold at night, the boils on your throat, on your nose? Tell, Job.’

‘Who’s asking?’

‘I’m just a voice.’

A voice comes out of a throat.’

‘You mean I must be a human being.’

‘Yes, and therefore I don’t want to see you. Go away.’

‘I’m just a voice, Job, open your eyes as far as you can, and then you’ll see me.’

‘I’m raving. My head, my brains, now I’m being driven mad, now they’re taking my thoughts away from me.’

‘And if they were, would that matter?’

‘I don’t want them to.’

‘Even though you’re suffering so much, and suffering so much by your thoughts, you still don’t want to lose them?’

‘Don’t ask. Go away.’

‘But I’m not taking anything. I just want to know which torment is the worst.’

‘That’s nobody’s business.’

‘You mean, nobody but you?’

‘Yes. Yes. Certainly not yours!”

The dog barks, growls, snaps at the air. The voice returns after a while:

‘Is it your sons you are lamenting over?’

‘No one need pray for me when I’m dead. I’m poison to the earth. When I am gone, just spit. Forget Job.’

‘And your daughters?’

‘My daughters. Ah. They’re dead too. They’re fine. They were pictures of women. They would have given me grandchildren, and they were dashed from me. One after the other was dashed to the ground, as though God had taken her by the hair, and lifted her up and thrown her to the ground, broken.’

‘Job, you can’t open your eyes, they are gummed shut. You are lamenting because you are in the cabbage patch, and the doghouse is the least thing that is yours, that and your disease.’

‘The voice, you voice, whosesoever voice you are, and wherever you are hiding.’

‘I don’t know why you’re lamenting.’

‘Oh. Oh.’

‘You groan, and you don’t know either, Job.’

‘No, I have—’

‘You have?’

‘I have no strength. That’s it.’

‘So you’d like strength.’

‘No strength with which to hope or wish. I have no teeth. I am soft, I feel ashamed.’

‘So you say’

‘Yes, you must know. That’s the worst.’

‘So it’s already written on my brow. That’s what a rag I am.’

‘That’s what is causing you the most suffering, Job. You would like not to be weak, you would like to resist, or to be wholly riddled, your brains gone, your thoughts gone, just an animal. Make a wish.’

‘You’ve asked me so many things, voice, I think you must be allowed to ask. Heal me. If you can. Whether your name is Satan or God or angel or man, heal me.’

‘Will you accept healing from anyone?’

‘Heal me.’

‘Job, think carefully. You can’t see me. If you open your eyes, perhaps you will be shocked to see me. Perhaps I will charge a great and terrible price.’

‘All will be seen. You speak like someone who is serious.’

‘What if I am Satan or the Evil One?’

‘Heal me.’

‘I am Satan.’

‘Heal me.’

The voice withdrew, became weaker and ever weaker. The dog barked. Job listened fearfully: he is gone, I must be healed, or I must die. He squawked. A terrible night broke in. The voice came back once more:

“And if I am Satan, how will you deal with me?’

Job screamed: ‘You will not heal me. No one will help me, not God, not Satan, and no angel, and no human.’

‘And you yourself?’

‘What about me?’

‘You won’t.’

‘What.’

‘Who can help you when you don’t want to help yourself?’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job.

The voice in front of him: ‘God and Satan, angels and humans, all want to help you, but you will not help yourself – God out of love, Satan so as to control you later, the angels and men because they are helpers of God and Satan, but you don’t want to.’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job, and screamed, and flung himself to the ground.

He screamed all night long. The voice called uninterruptedly: ‘God and Satan, angels and men, all will help you, but you will not help yourself.’ Job uninterruptedly: ‘No, no.’ He tried to stifle the voice, it grew louder and ever louder, it was always a degree ahead of him. All night long. Towards morning, Job fell on his face.

Job lay there silent.

That day the first of his boils healed.


From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

A review of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights,

being a book of diversions, of anything but the straight and narrow; a book bound by water, in that it is fluid, unfixed, and preoccupied with the very stuff, and the whales within; an interminable book, in which numerous stories never finish (for what is an ending but a wall to be destroyed or circumnavigated by time and other stories), but also a terminal book, in that it is “situated at the extremity of something” (New Oxford American Dictionary), like a book set on the eve of an important day, the day we leave, the day we make our move, the day we attack; and speaking of extremities, it is a book obsessed with fingers and toes and the blood vessels within, and all of the body’s parts, muscles in particular, and their preservation, long after the soul has left the body, submerged in anything from booze to Kaiserling III and held in a jar, transported across the world via horse and buggy or Russian galleon, to be placed on full display before students, kings, curious onlookers, and a grieving daughter, whose letters challenge the dubious practice of plastination; a book in which letters cross paths with lists, travelogues, tall tales, myths, ruminations on plastic bags and sanitary pads, dark matter and swastikas, stories that traverse the ruins of Athens, a boiler room in Moscow, the olive groves of Croatia, not to mention places without names, impossible to find on a map, without coordinates, all of it jumping from past to present and back again, if linear time is to be believed; a book of wandering women, who disappear and reappear on their own accord, slipping into the divine rhythms of circular time; a book about the temptation to make meaning out of any assortment of objects; a book made of 116 sections in all, which is the number of years the Hundred Years’ War actually lasted, and is the prefix for several European telephone helplines such as 116000, the hotline for missing children, or 116123, the emotional support helpline, according to Wikipedia, a site which may be, says Tokarczuk, “mankind’s most honest cognitive project,” except that it cannot index “its inverse, its inner lining, everything we don’t know”; a book populated by characters who either do not know, can’t figure it out, are lost, are trying to figure out what happened in that span of time that slipped their grasp, or those who know it all, who know the map like the back of their hand, or so they think; a book that anticipates the sovereignty of airports, those modern portals that make us time travelers, where you and I might collide, and if we do, will we talk to each other, tell our stories, move beyond the Three Travel Questions (where are you from, where are you coming from, where are you going) and into our ideas, those dangerous, viscous things, or will we simply utter apologies and head to our gates; a book that floods, that breaks at the seams and spills out into the world, so that fact and fiction get scrambled and mix in the deluge, becoming indistinguishable; a book with no answers, only arrows pointing in other directions, toward books yet to be written, histories to be retold, cities at the ends of the earth, or to the person nearest you; a book oriented, most importantly, toward other pilgrims…

…is masterfully translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, available from your English publisher of choice, and a magnificent read, one that travelled with me across Poland, Ireland, and the UK, and has convinced me, once and for all, that it is a crime never to read Moby-Dick.

(Image above, a map of Novaya Zemlya, via. Read an excerpt over at Asymptote, in their January 2016 issue.)

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran Ryan Mihaly’s review of Flights in the summer of 2018. We run it again in recognition of Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. The 2018 award was initially canceled after a sexual assault scandal. Noted genocide-apologist Peter Handke won the 2019 award.] 

Faulkner/Gass (Two Williams acquired, 4 Oct. 2019)

 

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Friday is a day in which I have a few rare spare hours to myself after lunch, and I often like to browse my beloved labyrinthine used bookstore in one of those hours. Last week, I managed to leave without picking anything up, but today I couldn’t resist these two Williams.

Wiliam H. Gass’s last collection of fiction Eyes jumped out at me. I struggled with his bigass opus The Tunnel last year, hardly making a dent, but I loved Middle C as well as the novellas in Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellasso maybe Eyes will be more manageable.

I wasn’t actually browsing the Faulkner section, simply walking past it, but the orange spine of a 1960 Penguin edition of Go Down, Moses jumped out at me. I’m a sucker for these Penguin editions, and Go Down, Moses is my favorite Faulkner (I haven’t read everything Faulkner wrote but I doubt he wrote anything as great as “The Bear”). This edition makes a nice partner with the copy of Intruder in the Dust I picked up a few years ago, too. img_4014

Intruder is a really underrated Faulkner novel in my estimation, and Clarence Brown’s 1949 film adaptation is pretty strong as well.

I was attracted to another orange book, an English-language Japanese publication of Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry, but I had to pass on it—the print was tiny and my forty-year-old eyes aren’t as strong as they used to be. The cover is gorgeous though:

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Blog about the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (even though it’s been done before)

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Nearing the end of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 American Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, and not having blogged that much in September of 2019, I thought that I’d write something about its perfect opening sentences, which I’ve returned to a few times (and used in my classroom).

Here are those opening lines:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I shared the opening on twitter when I first read it the other week and one of the replies to the tweet linked to Random House copy editor (and author of Dreyer’s EnglishBenjamin Dreyer’s annotations of the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House. I didn’t read Dreyer’s annotations at the time, but as I sat down to write this blog, the memory that someone had already written about the opening of Hill House wormed its way into my soft brain. I read Dreyer’s appreciation twenty minutes ago, and then decided Not to Write this blog.

And then I decided to write anyway.

My fascination with the opening paragraph of Hill House has only increased as I’ve read the novel (the first I’ve read by Jackson, admittedly). When I first read the opening I was struck by Jackson’s forceful use of semicolons. There are three semicolons (and three periods) in the series of sentences, creating a strange stilted tilting rhythm.

Let’s consider the first sentence, comprised of two independent clauses:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

Our novel begins with that magic word No. Phrases like “exist sanely” and “absolute reality” begin to sketch the novel’s themes. Jackson then pivots from the abstract to the concrete with her “larks and katydids”; in his annotations, Dreyer wonders “how many combinations of fauna Jackson experimented with before she landed on ‘larks and katydid.” I suspect those five wonderful syllables had lolled around her brain before the novel’s gestation.

And now our middle sentence, again two independent clauses tentatively joined by a semicolon:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.

“Hill House, not sane” is a genius of four syllables, expressing again the theme of Jackson’s novel in terse curt prose. Dreyer finds fault with “the Hill/hills repetition right here,” writing that “it just doesn’t sing to me,” and suggesting that if he were the novel’s editor, he’d have “asked her whether she’d consider deleting ‘against the hills.'” That deletion would be a rhetorical mistake, I think, because the doubling of “hills” formalizes another of the novel’s tropes—twins and doubles, cousins and doppelgänger. Jackson’s punctuation instantiates this doubling in the first two sentences, both in the repetition of the semicolons and in the twinning of the phrases “by some” and “not sane.” (The repetition of “eighty years” serves as kind of syntactic echo, reverberating the ghostly theme from lifetime past to a generation beyond one’s own death.)

Here is the third and final line of the opening paragraph of Hill House, in which we get a rush of independent clauses—and another semicolon:

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The descriptions and events in the novel ultimately ironize this description: Hill House is hardly “upright,” nothing meets “neatly,” and the doors don’t seem to be “sensibly shut,” at least to the quartet of visitors who come to stay at Hill House. This quartet is led by and includes Dr. Montague a committed yet somewhat embarrassed paranormalist, who recruits three others: Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House, wild Theodora (no last name), and Eleanor Vance, the viewpoint character who, cracked before the events of the novel begin, cracks even more.

(There is a part of me that would love to argue that the three opening sentences, sundered in strange twos by semicolons, represent Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke—but no, that’s ridiculous. Right?)

The final phrase of the last sentence, “walked alone,” set off by a comma (which Dreyer points out is unnecessary and perhaps ungrammatical) balances the other two-word nonessential elements (“by some” and “not sane”), highlighting its rhetorical importance. Hills is a novel of loneliness and companionship, of alienation and belonging. Our viewpoint character Eleanor navigates a walk alone in a world that may or may not be sane. And yet Eleanor doesn’t walk fully alone in this twisted house, with its infirm floors and unneat bricks and crooked walls. Hills vacillates between gloomy lethargy and kinetic ebullience, manically ping-ponging, thriving strangely, radiating a larky katydidiad dream of absolute unreality.

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Three Books

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The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. 2019 trade paperback from NRYB. Cover design by Kathy Homans featuring an image titled Ruins of Castle Acre Priory Church, c. 1780-1820 (artist uncredited).

Ironic, mordant, energetic, and packed with life, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fifth novel The Corner That Held Them (1948) tells the story of a backwater convent over the course of a few hundred years. Warner’s story weaves her nuns’ mundane world into something grander and funnier than might be expected of such a premise.

 

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Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. 2019 first edition hardback from Pantheon. No cover designer or artist credited, but the work is unquestionably Ware’s.

Rusty Brown is ostensibly the first part of Ware’s third novel. It ends, after 350 pages, with the word “INTERMISSION” vibrating across two pages, promising us a second part. I hope that that second part will not take Ware as long to produce as this first part, which took the better part of two decades. Like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), Rusty Brown is crushingly sad and aesthetically brilliant; like Building Stories (2012), Rusty Brown adds up to more than the sum of its parts—its fragments come together to tell the story of sad lives intersecting. It’s moving, it’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s challenging, and I hope that we don’t have to wait too long for the next installment.

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The Doomed City by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. 2017 trade paperback from Gollancz. English. Cover illustration by Eamon O’Donoghue; no designer credited. English translation by Andrew Bromfield.

“The Experiment is the Experiment” repeat the citizens of the titular doomed city in the Strugatskys Kakfaesque dystopian novel, which was written in the early 1970s but wasn’t published until 1989. The Experiment, purportedly run by the Mentors, seemingly begins as an egalitarian project, but soon devolves into civil war against baboons, and eventually a dictatorship. There’s a late act expedition across the desert to infiltrate the fabled Anticity. Baggy and abject, The Doomed City was not the best Strugatsky novel I’ve read, but I enjoyed its weirder moments very much.