July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.
Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”
If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.
Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page.
I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.
(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever).
The BFG does not have an especially complex plot: Young Sophie, up late at night, is snatched away to a strange country by a giant whom she spies blowing dreams into a room of sleeping children (she does not of course know at the time that he is blowing dreams into the room). Luckily, this is the Big Friendly Giant. Unluckily, she’s stuck in his cave, where he must hide her from nine awful giants (including the Fleshlumpeater, the Meatdripper, and the aptly named Childchewer), who set off into the world each night to guzzle “human beans” (they especially love to eat children). The BFG, smaller than the other giants, refuses to partake in their infanticidal, anthropophagic practices, dining instead on stinky snozzcumbers. While the other giants are out gobbling up humans, the BFG is in Dream Country collecting dream blobs, which he mixes into wonderful visions and blows into children’s homes at night. Sophie and the BFG concoct a special dream for the Queen of England and through this scheme manage to capture the nine terrible giants. Sophie and The BFG live happily ever after.
Dahl’s command of language in The BFG marks the book as one of his strongest achievements. The most obvious and endearing aspect of the book’s language is the voice of the BFG, who invents, inverts, and generally twists up nouns, verbs, and adjectives into a fine mess. He tells Sophie:
Words . . . is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.
That squiff-squiddling though is what gives the giant’s voice such power. The tinges of nonsense actually reify and amplify what the BFG intends to say. There’s a sing-songy, burbling, bubbling rhythm to the BFG’s speech, which I took great joy in performing aloud for my daughter. Dahl clearly understood that his prose would be read aloud.
The BFG’s trouble with “correct” language derives from the fact that he never got to go to school. In fact, he’s learned everything he knows from one book: Nicholas Nickleby, “By Dahl’s Chickens,” the BFG tells Sophie. The underlying problem that governs the plot of Nicholas Nickleby is the unexpected death of Nicholas’s father. Dahl might have picked any of Charles Dickens’s novels here, but I believe he chose this one to thematically answer to The BFG’s secret plot: A missing father to match a missing daughter.
Dahl also not-so-subtly inserts his own name into the authorial position in this scene, which occurs about half way into the novel. This insertion happens again in the novel’s final chapter, which is appropriately titled “Author.” The book ends with the nine awful giants captured and held in a pit deep in the earth (shades of the Titans), their infanticidal violence contained and suspended, but still alive, still potential. The Queen has an enormous house built for the BFG right by her own palace, with a small cottage for Sophie in-between. The vision, rendered in Quentin Blake’s marvelous wobbly inks, suggests a fairy tale ending, as Sophie finds an ersatz family in the Queen (more of a fairy godmother) and the BFG, her new father.
And yet Sophie too takes on something of a parental role, teaching the BFG to read and write. He soon “started to write essays about his own past life.” Sophie reads these and urges him to become “a real writer … Why don’t you start by writing a book about you and me?”
Reading this chapter the other night devastated me and delighted my daughter. She cackled in glee and I found myself unable to perform the BFG’s voice through my tears. I finished the novel in my own, regular voice, doing my best not to let the sharp cracks of the emotion I felt break into those final lines, where we learn that the BFG, too modest to put his own name on his book (published by the Queen to bring joy to children), has chosen a pseudonym—the one on the spine of the book, Roald Dahl.
The BFG was of course always an author, even before he was literate; his medium was the dream, and he used dreams to tell stories to bring joy to children. He gave these dreams as protest, resistance, and counterattack to the consuming violence of his nine awful brothers.
Dahl’s rhetorical trick at the end of The BFG—claiming his own name as the pseudonym for the book’s real author, the Big Friendly Giant—is far less whimsical than a surface glance suggests. Rather, I find in it something sad, dark, and sincere, a moment of deep love and deep pain. The transposition—the squiff-squiddling, if you will—of the two names signals Dahl’s recasting of himself as the eternal BFG, bringing joy to children all over the world. The BFG gets to live happily ever after with his dream-daughter Sophie (the recast Olivia), their home and family sanctioned and provided for by the land’s highest authority.
But even before the Queen grants the father-daughter pair their own homestead, Sophie has already found her place by the giant—behind his ear, where she whispers to him. Is this not the fantasy of a consciousness that communicates beyond time, beyond death, directly and without the intermediary of a physical body?
Did Dahl hear Olivia’s voice in his own ear decades after her death? Did her spirit speak to him? Speculation of that sort is not my place or intention, and as I type it out, the suggestion appears far more lurid than I wish. I do know that the image was inescapable for me as I finished The BFG with my own daughter.
Our love and care for our children is shaded and intensified by an understanding of their fragility, their mortality, their susceptibility to disease, accident, chaos, the carelessness of others…factors easily metaphorized into child-eating giants. Our love for our own children precludes an equal love for children who are not our own, despite whatever ethical systems we claim to practice and subscribe to.
And this is what I find so moving about The BFG: Dahl converts the personal (and infinite) loss of his own daughter into a loving gift he seeks to share with all children. He shared that gift with me when I was a child, when I never imagined that I would grow up to be an adult with a child of my own to whom I would read that gift again, in a new, strange, sad, dark, joyous way.
Maybe all I am trying to say here, in this long, long-winded way, is Thank you.
[Ed. Note. Biblioklept ran a version of this review in July of 2014. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of The BFG is in wide release this week].
The kind people at Nobrow sent along three gorgeous Hilda graphic novels by Luke Pearson ten days ago, and we’ve (my family, I mean) read each of them repeatedly since then—we’ve read them independently and to each other (my daughter started her own Hilda comic). I’ll have a proper essay-review thing up down the line, but for now, the short review: These are excellent, gorgeous books—funny, richly-detailed, sweet, and just a little scary (when they need to be).
A week or so ago, I wrote about the books (specifically novels) that I can’t seem to finish despite beginning them five, six, seven plus times. In that post, I noted that there “are certain books I’ll probably never ‘finish,’ that I have no aim of finishing,” and hence didn’t include in my silly little list. Such titles seemed to need their own post.
“Finish” is probably the wrong verb to use to denote the act of reading, in traditional sequence, all the words on all the pages of a grand great novel. I have never really “finished” the books that I’ve read the most times from cover to cover—books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Blood Meridian, 2666. Something about such books remains somewhere inside of me, unfinished (in contrast to the many, many novels—most often contemporary “literary” fictions—that I truly finish by reading and then jettisoning from memory). The great books that I’ve finished are unfinished. Something of the really great novels wriggles around in the background of consciousness, whispering, howling.
Putting together a little list of books I’m always reading but will likely never finish was not difficult, although I should clarify that I’ve intentionally left off a good number of critical texts—stuff like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.—as well as the letters, notebooks, and journals of writers that I return to again and again. I tried to stick to novels. But are the works pictured/listed here—Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Don Quixote, Finnegans Wake, and 1982, Janine—are these actually novels? The question is complex and productive, but I’ll answer it with the simple, “Yes, but– ”
(And yet, parenthetically: That the novelness of these novels is suspect is perhaps a key to why these are the works that fascinate me, that these unnovelly novels make me stumble; I resort to shelving them, grab for critical interpretations, guides, commentaries, etc.—in the hopes of…of what?)
Joyce’s Finnnegans Wake is a nice starting place for this little list. The novel’s famous opening line (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) actually completes the novel’s “final” (non-)sentence (“A lone a last a loved a long the”). So Finnegans Wake is a loop, an infinite jest. Over the past decade, I’ve dipped into the book again and again, using Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key as a friendly guide. I’ve learned to have fun with Finnegans Wake, taking something from its language, its connections, its syntheses, while abandoning the pretense that I’ve anything to gain by trucking through it at full speed just to “finish” it.
I pick up Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman less often than I used to, having recovered from trying to understand it. The novel seems to me proof that the term “postmodern” is simply a description of a way of seeing, and not a set of aesthetic conditions. Also, I love that Sterne loves the dash—
It’s perhaps a great moral failing on my part that I’ve never made it past the first few chapters of the Second Part of Don Quixote. I’m familiar with it, largely by way of Nabokov’s lectures and summaries. Anyway, I fail to understand Don Quixote; I fail to read it rightly.
Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine doesn’t have the same reputation as the other novels I’ve listed here; its inclusion wasn’t so much an afterthought but a realization—I bought it four years ago and have yet to shelve it. It’s always on a coffee table, the edge of a sofa, next to my bed, cooing, Start again. I start reading it and then I skip ahead to its weird black heart, then I read from the end, then I go back to the beginning. Then I put it aside, having made no “progress.”
I don’t know what Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is. Is it a novel? (Wait. I think we went through this above). I first encountered it as a bewildered undergrad, checking out an old huge hardback edition from the library. I made a small dent (aided by Ritalin). All that Latin is Greek to me. In his preface to the NYRB edition, William H. Gass advises, “Be prepared to proceed slowly and you will soon go swiftly enough. Read a member a day; it will chase gloom away.” I have not read a member a day, but I do like to pull Melancholy from the shelf late at night, after a few glasses of wine, and dip into it somewhere. I will never finish it.
And yet I’ve retained more from these unfinished novels than most of the contemporary fiction novels I’ve read. Anna Livia Plurabelle. The priest burning poor Quixote’s beautiful books. The marbled pages, the blacked out pages, the squiggles of Tristram Shandy. The typographic explosions in 1982, Janine. The dirty bits. The lists. The force of language, above all.
In a sense, not “finishing” these grand weird novels keeps them vital to me, present somehow, promising in their possibility, taunting and tantalizing in their pregnant unfinishabilty.
The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin. 1983 trade paperback by E.P. Dutton/Obelisk. Cover design by Janet Halverson.
I finished Elkin’s The Franchiser this week and started this one this week.
The Names by Don DeLillo. 1989 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries (God I love Vintage Contemporaries wonderful awful covers)God I love Vintage Contemporaries wonderful awful covers). COver design by Lorraine Louie employing an illustration by Marc Tauss.
I tried starting The Names after finishing The Franchiser, but took a pause…maybe I still have the bad taste of this recent DeLillo interview in my ears.
The Feud by Thomas Berger. First edition hardback by Delacorte Press, 1983. Jacket design and illustration by Fred Marcellino.
A colleague gave me this a few years ago, and I love the cover; Marcellino’s actually been featured in these Three Books posts a few times now—he did covers for Pynchon and Russell Hoban that I adore.
A few weeks ago I finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels, and now perhaps have enough distance to comment on them briefly.
The novels have been much-hyped, which initially put me off (nearly as much as their awful kitschy covers), but the same friend who urged me to give Bolaño’s 2666 a go (after I misfired with The Savage Detectives) insisted I read Ferrante.
I’m glad I did. From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.
But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).
It’s this horrific abjection that fascinates me most about the novels. I’ll offer two longish passages from the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, to showcase Ferrante’s prowess with (what I take to be her dominant) theme and tone.
The first passage comes fairly early in the long novel, when our (now mature) heroine Lenù encounters a suicide’s corpse:
No answer. I knocked harder, I opened the door cautiously, the room was dark. I called him, silence, I turned on the light.
There was blood on the pillow and on the sheet, a large blackish stain that extended to his feet. Death is so repellent. Here I will say only that when I saw that body deprived of life, that body which I knew intimately, which had been happy and active, which had read so many books and had been exposed to so many experiences, I felt both repulsion and pity. [He] had been a living material saturated with political culture, with generous purposes and hopes, with good manners. Now he offered a horrible spectacle of himself. He had rid himself so fiercely of memory, language, the capacity to find meaning that it seemed obvious the hatred he had for himself, for his own skin, for his moods, for his thoughts and words, for the brutal corner of the world that had enveloped him.
Ferrante’s passage here strongly echoes Julia Kristeva’s 1980 essay “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva writes (emphasis mine):
The corpse…upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance….as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border…the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel — “I” is expelled.
In my reading, Ferrante’s heroines Lenù and Lila are detectives of the abject, of the (literally) unnamable forces of culture (and oh-what-a-culture patriarchal Naples is!) that threaten subjectivity. They each seek to assert an I in a world that would devastate such an assertion.
Lenù and Lila claim their assertion through creative agency—through art. And Ferrante’s greatest strength, perhaps, in the Neapolitan Novels is that she harnesses this art, she conveys the brilliance of these brilliant friends, and does not merely “tell” the reader of their brilliance (like so many contemporary “literary” novels do). Ferrante shows authorship (and genius) as a shared, collaborative process, not an isolation, but a synthesis.
If these novels concern synthesis, they also show fracture, fragmentation, and dissolution. Observe Lenù and Lila in a key moment from The Story of the Lost Child , during a calamitous earthquake (again, emphasis mine):
She exclaimed: Oh Madonna, an expression I had never heard her use. What’s wrong, I asked. Gasping for breath, she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.
It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.
Kristeva’s abjection is again strongly embodied in those last few lines—the dissolution, the unspeakable and repressed forces, the trauma. The rivers of abject bodily filth. Here’s Kristeva, again from “Approaching Abjection” (my emphasis):
A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.
Lila and Lenù face abjection, the primer of their culture. They trace its contours, aim at ways of speaking the unspeakable—through friendship and the fruits of that friendship: storytelling. The storytelling offers a literal form to handle the abject violence of the culture in its many, many forms (corrupt politicians, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, predatory rapists, predatory lenders, Cammorist gangsters, systemic class inequality, religion…).
The storytelling confronts abjection without seeking a transcendence, an exit, an out. Ferrante recognizes that humans are violent animals, and doesn’t want to comfort us. In an interview, she said:
I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us…I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have no interest in consoling their readers. Yet they do evoke an essential power of storytelling, a power not to transcend abjection, but rather to endure a subjectivity through abjection: Love. “Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it,” writes Kristeva in another essay, “Throes of Love: The Field of the Metaphor.” In the Neapolitan Novels, Lenù speaks her love to her brilliant lost friend Lila. The result is moving and exhausting, an epic of fragments, a saga as discontinuous and unexpected as a real and full life. And if not all those fragments will stick in my memory, what comes through in the end is a sense of love, an author’s love her characters that persuades the readers to love them too.
What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?
I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.
I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Infinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).
Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.
I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Don Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).
Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.
Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).
By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…
I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).
I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.
Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.
My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.
I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.
I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.
By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.
And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).
The Dead Father by Donald Barthleme. Penguin paperback, 1986. Cover design by Todd Radom; cover illustration by Lonnie Sue Johnson.
Saturn, Orpheus, Lear, Nobodaddy. A sleeping undead giant, a quest. Good angry fun. I’ll say it’s my favorite Barthelme today (answers will change in the future).
Fathers and Crows by William T. Vollmann. Penguin paperback, 1992. (An enormous paperback—990 pages—it flops slightly on the scanner, refuses to square up neatly). Cover design by Daniel Rembert employing a detail from a painting titled Le Martyrs des missionaires Jesuites (credited to “Anonymous”).
Different fathers, maybe, than the ones celebrated today, Father’s Day, the conceit I’ve lazily tied my Three Books post to…Jesuits. Or maybe they are the fathers. How many times have I tried all of this novel? If you’re interested in Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series, start with The Ice-Shirt or The Rifles instead.
King Lear by William Shakespeare. Edited by R.A. Foakes. Arden, 1997. Cover design by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell; illustration by the Douglas Brothers.
Lear is maybe my favorite fictional father. I don’t know why. The man is a fool, but a pitiable one. Maybe I just love the play that much—its abjection, its darkness, its insanity. Out vile jelly, etc. Happy Father’s Day!
To find a lost father: The first problem in finding a lost father is to lose him, decisively. Often he will wander away from home and lose himself. Often he will remain at home but still be “lost” in every true sense, locked away in an upper room, or in a workshop, or in the contemplation of beauty, or in the contemplation of a secret life. He may, every evening, pick up his gold-headed cane, wrap himself in his cloak, and depart, leaving behind, on the coffee table, a sealed laundry bag in which there is an address at which he may be reached, in case of war. War, as is well known, is a place at which many fathers are lost, sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever. Fathers are frequently lost on expeditions of various kinds (the journey to the interior). The five best places to seek this kind of lost father are Nepal, Rupert’s Land, Mount Elbrus, Paris, and the agora. The five kinds of vegetation in which fathers most often lose themselves are needle-leaved forest, broad-leaved forest mainly evergreen, broad-leaved forest mainly deciduous, mixed needle-leaved and broad-leaved forest, and tundra. The five kinds of things fathers were wearing when last seen are caftans, bush jackets, parkas, Confederate gray, and ordinary business suits. Armed with these clues then, you may place an advertisement in the newspaper: Lost, in Paris, on or about February 24, a broad-leaf-loving father, 6’ 2”, wearing a blue caftan, may be armed and dangerous, we don’t know, answers to the name Old Hickory. Reward. Having completed this futile exercise, you are then free to think about what is really important. Do you really want to find this father? What if, when you find him, he speaks to you in the same tone he used before he lost himself? Will he again place nails in your mother, in her elbows and back of the knee? Remember the javelin. Have you any reason to believe that it will not, once again, flash through the seven-o’clock-in-the-evening air? What we are attempting to determine is simple: Under what conditions do you wish to live? Yes, he “nervously twiddles the stem of his wineglass.” Do you wish to watch him do so on into the last quarter of the present century? I don’t think so. Let him take those mannerisms, and what they portend, to Borneo, they will be new to Borneo. Perhaps in Borneo he will also nervously twiddle the stem of, etc., but he will not be brave enough to manufacture, there the explosion of which this is a sign. Throwing the roast through the mirror. Thrusting a belch big as an opened umbrella into the middle of something someone else is trying to say. Beating you, either with a wet, knotted rawhide, or with an ordinary belt. Ignore that empty chair at the head of the table. Give thanks.
From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.
It’s summer so maybe you need some books to read. Indie presses are the bestest.
Extinction by Ashley Dawson from OR Books. This is a devastating little big book about, a sustained attack on “capitalism’s global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants, and creatures that has been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.” We won’t be able to shop our way out of the apocalypse. (I wrote about it in more depth here).
American Candide by Mahendra Singh from Rosarium. I reviewed American Candide earlier this year on Biblioklept, writing:
Singh’s update-reboot-translation of Candide fittingly answers Voltaire’s pessimistic prescience with not just bitter affirmations of contemporary predation and evil, but also with an eye toward entertainment—to the affirmations of laughter.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh from Dorothy. The stories here hum and hang together, evoking consciousness—consciousness’s anxieties, desires, its imaginative consolations. Vertigo is simultaneously disorienting and familiar, often quite funny, and sometimes a bit sad.
Postal Child by Joey Truman from Whisk(e)y Tit. Not a “bit sad” but “sad sad.” Abject and cruel and terrifying. But also…funny? Maybe?
Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer with photographs by Stanislav Krupar; (English translation by Sarah Prybus). From And Other Stories. Brutal and moving reportage.
Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell (English translation by Charlotte Mandell). From Verso. Three weeks reporting from hell—terse, precise, and raw. Littell functions as eyes and ears and a body, a concrete sensing thing, an immediate thing, a thing that doesn’t try to synthesize or process or otherwise mediate what is happening to him.
Since I have grown older I have often gone back and tried to analyze the change that came into my life after that fateful day in school. There did come a radical change, and, young as I was, I felt fully conscious of it, though I did not fully comprehend it. Like my first spanking, it is one of the few incidents in my life that I can remember clearly. In the life of everyone there is a limited number of unhappy experiences which are not written upon the memory, but stamped there with a die; and in long years after, they can be called up in detail, and every emotion that was stirred by them can be lived through anew; these are the tragedies of life. We may grow to include some of them among the trivial incidents of childhood—a broken toy, a promise made to us which was not kept, a harsh, heart-piercing word—but these, too, as well as the bitter experiences and disappointments of mature years, are the tragedies of life.
And so I have often lived through that hour, that day, that week, in which was wrought the miracle of my transition from one world into another; for I did indeed pass into another world. From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until I finally realized in it a great, tangible fact.
And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every colored man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man. It is wonderful to me that the race has progressed so broadly as it has, since most of its thought and all of its activity must run through the narrow neck of this one funnel.
And it is this, too, which makes the colored people of this country, in reality, a mystery to the whites. It is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a colored man really thinks; because, generally, with the latter an additional and different light must be brought to bear on what he thinks; and his thoughts are often influenced by considerations so delicate and subtle that it would be impossible for him to confess or explain them to one of the opposite race. This gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race. I have often watched with interest and sometimes with amazement even ignorant colored men under cover of broad grins and minstrel antics maintain this dualism in the presence of white men.
I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.
From Ch. 2 of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. First published anonymously in 1912, and later reissued in 1927 under Johnson’s (now famous) name, Autobiography is an under-read classic, a fascinating and complex condensation of racism, colorism, and class in early twentieth-century America. Johnson was born on this day in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther is new from Crown (Penguin-Random House). Their blurb:
Eastern Europe, August 1942. The Khazar kaganate, an isolated nation of Turkic warrior Jews, lies between the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) and the Khazar Sea (the Caspian). It also happens to lie between a belligerent nation to the west that the Khazars call Germania—and a city the rest of the world calls Stalingrad.
After witnessing the first foray of Germani warplanes into sovereign Khazar territory, Esther bat Josephus, daughter of Khazaria’s chief policy adviser, knows she must fight for her country. Germania is gaining ground and if they are successful, the Khazar kaganate will be wiped out. Only Esther sees the ominous implications of Germania’s disregard for Jewish lives. But as a woman she is prohibited from joining the war effort. Her one chance is to set out on her mechanical horse, Seleme, accompanied by Itakh, her adopted brother, to seek a fabled village of kabbalists. They may hold the key to her destiny: their rumored ability to change her into a man so that she may convince her entire nation to join in the fight for its very existence against an enemy like none Khazaria has faced before.
THE BOOK OF ESTHER is a genre-bending novel by a writer who invents worlds “out of Calvino or Borges” (The New Yorker). Reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, readers will delight in this tour de force novel which blends rich steampunk fantasy, powerful feminism, and Jewish mysticism into a singular piece of fiction.
Barbara Taylor Bradford’s novel The Cavendon Luck is new from St. Martin’s. Their blurb:
It is 1938 in England, and Miles and Cecily Ingham have lead the family in bringing the Cavendon estate back from the brink of disaster. But now, with the arrival of World War II, Cavendon Hall will face its biggest challenge yet. It is a challenge that will push the Inghams and Swanns to protect each other and the villagers, and reveal their true capacity for survival and rebirth.
Told with Bradford’s deft, evocative prose and featuring a beloved cast of characters, The Cavendon Luck is a story of intrigue, romance, sorrow, and joy that readers won’t soon forget.
Queer by William S. Burroughs. Trade paperback by Penguin; copyrighted 1987 but no year of the actual printing, which I’m sure is sometime in the mid-nineties. Cover design by Daniel Rembert from a painting by Burroughs.
I bought Queer and Junkie at the Barnes & Noble where I spent too many Friday nights of my high school years. I was sophomore in high school, I think. My parents were concerned about the books, I recall, but in a vague, troubled way—a wrinkling of the temples, a look that I now know means, What does this mean? What are we supposed to do here? They asked me what the books were about and then told me not to do heroin.
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Hardback and cloth by Houghtin Mifflin, 31st printing, 1961. No designer is credited; the book may have had a dust jacket at one point.
The dark marks are from a librarian’s tape job. She gave me this book, and dozens others, which were being remaindered. I reread the novel a few years ago, noting some of its themes, “including the divide between the New World and the Old, alienation, and the ways in which conformity and routine are antithetical to the pioneer spirit that Americans like to trick themselves into believing they are heir to.”
My Sister’s Hand in Mine by Jane Bowles. Trade paperback by the Ecco Press, 7th printing, 1988. Cover design by Anna Demchick.
The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.
Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner is new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press.
The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.
Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.
So…what’s it about?
For summary, I’ll lazily cite the back of the book:
…Quiet Creature on the Corner throws us into a strange world without rational cause and effect, where everyone always seems to lack just a few necessary facts. The narrator is an unemployed poet who is thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But then he’s abruptly taken to a countryside manor where all that’s required of him is to write poetry. What do his captors really want from him?
There’s a lot more going on than that.
So…what’s it about? What’s the “a lot more”?
Maybe let’s use body metaphors. Maybe that will work here.
We are constantly leaking. Blood, sweat, tears. Piss, shit, decay. Cells sloughing off. Snot trickling. Vomit spewing. Shuffling of this mortal etc.
(—Are we off to a bad start? Have I alienated you, reader, from my request that you read Noll’s novella?—)
What I want to say is:
We are abject: there are parts of us that are not us but are us, parts that we would disallow, discard, flush away. We are discontinuous, rotten affairs. Bodies are porous. We leak.
We plug up the leaks with metaphors, symbols, tricks, gambits, recollections, reminiscences. We convert shame into ritual and ritual into history. We give ourselves a story, a continuity. An out from all that abjection. An organization to all those organs. We call it an identity, we frame it in memory.
What has this to do with Noll’s novella?, you may ask, gentle reader. Well. We expect a narrative to be organized, to represent a body of work. And Quiet Creature on the Corner is organized, it is a body—but one in which much of the connective tissue has been extricated from the viscera.
We never come to understand our first-person narrator, a would-be poet in the midst of a Kafkaesque anti-quest. And our narrator never comes to understand himself (thank goodness). He’s missing the connective tissue, the causes for all the effects. Quiet Corner exposes identity as an abject thing, porous, fractured, unprotected by stabilizing memory. What’s left is the body, a violent mass of leaking gases liquids solids, shuttling its messy consciousness from one damn place to the next.
Perhaps as a way to become more than just a body, to stabilize his identity, and to transcend his poverty, the narrator writes poems. However, apart from occasional brusque summaries, we don’t get much of his poetry. (The previous sentence is untrue. The entirety of Quiet Creature on the Corner is the narrator’s poem. But let’s move on). He shares only a few lines of what he claims is the last poem he ever writes: “A shot in the yard out front / A hardened fingernail scraping the tepid earth.” Perhaps Quiet Creature is condensed in these two lines: A violent, mysterious milieu and the artist who wishes to record, describe, and analyze it—yet, lacking the necessary tools, he resorts to implementing a finger for a crude pencil. Marks in the dirt. An abject effort. A way of saying, “I was here.” A way of saying I.
Poetry perhaps offers our narrator—and the perhaps here is a big perhaps—a temporary transcendence from the nightmarish (un)reality of his environs. In an early episode, he’s taken from jail to a clinic where he is given a nice clean bed and decides to sleep, finally:
I dreamed I was writing a poem in which two horses were whinnying. When I woke up, there they were, still whinnying, only this time outside the poem, a few steps a way, and I could mount them if I wanted to.
Rest, dream, create. Our hero moves from a Porto Alegre slum to a hellish jail to a quiet clinic and into a dream, which he converts into a pastoral semi-paradise. The narrator lives a full second life here with his horses, his farm, a wife and kids. (He even enjoys a roll in the hay). And yet sinister vibes reverberate under every line, puncturing the narrator’s bucolic reverie. Our poet doesn’t so much wake up from his dream; rather, he’s pulled from it into yet another nightmare by a man named Kurt.
Kurt and his wife Gerda are the so-called “captors” of the poet, who is happy, or happyish, in his clean, catered captivity. He’s able to write and read, and if the country manor is a sinister, bizarre place, he fits right in. Kurt and Gerda become strange parent figures to the poet. Various Oedipal dramas play out—always with the connective tissue removed and disposed of, the causes absent from their effects. We get illnesses, rapes, corpses. We get the specter of Brazil’s taboo past—are Germans Kurt and Gerda Nazis émigrés? Quiet Creature evokes allegorical contours only to collapse them a few images later.
What inheres is the novella’s nightmare tone and rhythm, its picaresque energy, its tingling dread. Our poet-hero finds himself in every sort of awful predicament, yet he often revels in it. If he’s not equipped with a memory, he’s also unencumbered by one.
And without memory the body must do its best. A representative passage from the book’s midway point:
Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.
Here, we see the body as its own theater, with consciousness not a commander but a bewildered prisoner, abject, awakened into reality by a puddle of piss and threatened by external authorities, those who call themselves cops. Here, a theatrical seizure conveys meaning in a way that supersedes language.
Indeed our poet doesn’t harness and command language with purpose—rather, he emits it:
No, I repeated without knowing why. Sometimes a word slips out of me like that, before I have time to formalize an intention in my head. Sometimes on such occasions it comes to me with relief, as though I’ve felt myself distilling something that only once finished and outside me, I’ll be able to know.
And so, if we are constantly leaking, we leak language too.
It’s the language that propels Noll’s novella. Each sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Adam Morris’s translation rockets along, employing comma splice after comma splice. The run-on sentences rhetorically double the narrative’s lack of connecting tissue. Subordinating and coordinating conjunctions are rare here. Em dashes are not.
The imagery too compels the reader (this reader, I mean)—strange, surreal. Another passage:
Our arrival at the manor.
The power was out. We lit lanterns.
I found a horrible bug underneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman. I was on my knees and I smashed it with the base of my lantern. The moon was full. The low sky, clotted with stars, was coming in the kitchen window. December, but the night couldn’t be called warm—because it was windy. I was crawling along the kitchen tiles with lantern in hand, looking for something that Kurt couldn’t find. I was crawling across the kitchen without much hope for my search: he didn’t the faintest idea of where I could find it.
What was the thing Kurt and the narrator searched for? I never found it, but maybe it’s somewhere there in the narrative.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is like a puzzle, but a puzzle without a reference picture, a puzzle with pieces missing. The publishers have compared the novella to the films of David Lynch, and the connection is not inaccurate. Too, Quiet Creature evokes other sinister Lynchian puzzlers, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (or Nazi Literature in the Americas, which it is perhaps a twin text to). It’s easy to compare much of postmodern literature to Kafka, but Quiet Creature is truly Kafkaesque. It also recalled to me another Kafkaesque novel, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark—both are soaked in a dark dream logic. Other reference points abound—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s etchings, etc. But Noll’s narrative is its own thing, wholly.
I reach the end of this “review” and realize there are so many little details I left out that I should have talked about–a doppelgänger and street preachers, an election and umbanda, Bach and flatulence, milking and mothers…the wonderful crunch of the title in its English translation—read it out loud! Also, as I reach the end of this (leaky) review, I realize that I seem to understand Quiet Creature less than I did before writing about it. Always a good sign.
João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and look forward to future English translations—Two Lines plans to publish his 1989 novel Atlantic Hotel in the spring of next year. I’ll probably read Quiet Creature again before then. Hopefully I’ll find it even weirder.