An Interview with Novelist Brian Hall About His Contribution to Waywords and Meansigns, the Unabridged Musical Adaptation of Finnegans Wake

Brian Hall

Author Brian Hall is known for his diverse subject matter. His 2003 novel I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company is a fictionalized account of Lewis and Clark, and his 2008 novel The Fall of Frost re-imagines Robert Frost’s personal life and inner world. Hall’s writing has received significant praise over the years; his 1997 coming-of-age novel The Saskiad has been translated into twelve languages.

This year Hall collaborated with composer Mary Lorson for a rather unusual endeavor: setting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music. Part of the Waywords and Meansigns project, Hall and Lorson were tasked with creating an unabridged musical version of the Wake’s famous eighth chapter. The chapter presents a dialogue between two women, who are in turn juxtaposed with Dublin’s Liffey river and one of the book’s main characters, Anna Livia Plurabelle. (You can hear their chapter in the embedded audio player below.)

Derek Pyle, who runs Waywords and Meansigns, spoke with Brian Hall about a number of topics ranging from the experience of wrestling with Joyce’s text to the process of writing and researching novels.

Derek Pyle: You worked with Mary Lorson for the Waywords and Meansigns project. What was your collaborative process like?

Brian Hall: We decided that I would record the voice track first, before she did anything else. I’ve never recorded any reading before, so we practice recorded the thing twice, just to get me used to it. That way I could get used to just how thorny it is to read at a relatively quick pace, to manage to spit out all of these weird words one after another. You have to practice quite a lot so you can get through a sentence and make it sound somewhat natural.

I assured Mary right at the beginning that the final mix and music, all of that would be entirely up to her and I wasn’t going to interfere. I made some suggestions, just throwing out ideas — I know [classical music] pretty well, and she was interested in drawing on that, so I mentioned a few things that could be related.

Derek Pyle: At times your voice has a call and response feel — it was her tinkering that created this effect?

Brian Hall: The chapter is clearly some kind of a dialogue, but a lot of it is not really clear which voice is which. I was looking online and nobody really agrees on how the voices divide. I made my own version of the back and forth, just by highlighting the younger voice, and I gave Mary a copy of this marked up version of the text.

When I read it in the studio in Toronto, it was all on one track. As I read, every time I went to the younger voice I pitched my voice a little bit higher. So with the pitch between the two voices, and my printed version, which had highlighted the young woman’s lines, Mary could tell pretty easily which was which. She put the voices on two different tracks, one on the left speaker, one on the right speaker, and did everything that we hear. It really gives a much better feel.

Derek Pyle: It’s such a full landscape of sound, with the river running through the conversation. What were some of the other underlying conceptual elements guiding your reading?

Brian Hall: Because I tend to gather books, I already had the Tindall guide to Finnegans Wake and I also had the Roland McHugh Annotations to Finnegans Wake. I read through both the Tindall and the McHugh related to this chapter, to see whatever there was — things that I couldn’t figure out on my own.

Since Joyce uses — I can’t remember the figure — 140 different river names, McHugh notes pretty much every time there’s a river name. He doesn’t say which country it’s in, so I marked all of this up and then for all the river names I looked them up on Google Maps.

I wanted to find out what country the rivers are in, because you don’t really have a sense how to pronounce it unless you know what language it’s in. When you’re reading [the Wake] out loud you want to straddle, as much as possible, the different possible pronunciations of these multilingual words.
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Some of Brian’s notes.

But I don’t really know how Joyce pronounced some of those words. He may have had a Dublin-English version of it. A lot of it is total guesswork but it was really fun, although a fair amount of work — with a text like this you basically have stuff all over the page, with arrows trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing.

Derek Pyle: What was your engagement with Joyce prior to this undertaking?

Brian Hall: By the time I got out of college I had read most of Joyce except Finnegans Wake. I cheated a bit — I took a course on Ulysses and I ran out of time in the course, the way you do in college, and I ended up only reading about half of Ulysses. I wrote a paper on the part that I had read, to hide the fact that I hadn’t read the whole thing.

When I was forty, I went back and read the entire Ulysses, and like loads of writers I was pretty fascinated. Large parts of it are some of the most interesting stuff written in the 20th century, I think.

But it’s true for a lot of great work, one of the things that makes them so fascinating — as you approach them as a critical reader and as a writer yourself, it makes sense that there are things that you don’t entirely agree with. There are parts of Ulysses which I think go farther down the formalistic path than is really helpful. I never much liked the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter, the one that goes through the history of the English language.

I think a lot of Ulysses, as great as it is, it’s a little longer than ideal. But you know, it’s a fabulous monumental work. When people pick it as like, if you’re forced to choose the greatest novels of the 20th century, I’m certainly not surprised that a lot of people pick Ulysses.

Portrait of the Artist I’ve probably read three or four times. Dubliners you of course get in high school and I read it again in my forties. I read Stephen Hero at one point because I was curious to see the earlier version of Portrait of the Artist.

But Finnegans Wake was the big thing that I had never gotten around to. I actually have you to thank — it really was an opportunity for me to do something I’d wanted to do, which is to take a closer look at one part of the Wake. I always wondered how to what extent I would appreciate what his goals are in Finnegans Wake.

Derek Pyle: How would you articulate Joyce’s goals?

I can only speak of the Liffey chapter, but I think he goes further down the path of playing with language, to the point where it starts to become a question of diminishing returns. I want to stress how much I enjoyed reading it out loud — it is a fascinating word fest he’s done.

But he has the idea that [the chapter] is going to be about rivers — about a river, the Liffey. He has what I think are loads of great ideas about how to do this, where Liffey and Livia are basically the same. The way he describes the places where the Liffey runs and the kinds of landscape it runs through — he does it in such a way that pretty much every moment is both about the river but also about this sort of mythical female figure, Livia. I think a lot of that is really great.

Then there’s this other side of Joyce — and this is the part where I as an artist part ways with him — since he’s doing a thing about the river, he decides to incorporate into the chapter the names of like 140 rivers from around the world. I think that layer just gets in the way; I can’t see that it adds much.

Who am I, of course — I’m just me and he’s James Joyce. If I were his childhood friend and he took any advice from me, I would say “hey Jim, maybe that one layer…”

Derek Pyle: As a writer reading Joyce, is there any way his works have influenced your own craft in terms of techniques to use, or even to avoid?

The generally broad idea of stream of consciousness narration, which of course takes many forms, but he was obviously one of the big fat originators of it. That’s had a big effect on the way I write. I believe very strongly that prose should take whatever form it needs to take, to properly convey the way a person is thinking.

All of my writing, except for my first novel, is in close third person. But I think the writer whose style of stream of consciousness influenced me somewhat more than Joyce — but of course she herself was influenced by Joyce and vice versa — was Virginia Woolf. Her approach in Mrs. Dalloway is the way I tend to write when I’m trying to convey the moment of thought in one of my character’s minds.

I think a big problem with a lot of literary writing today is that a lot of writers consistently stick to a polished lyrical style. I guess it’s out of the idea that beautiful writing is always beautiful, so why not write beautifully. My temperament or whatever, my reading of that, it’s not psychologically acute writing because it doesn’t reflect emotional turmoil.

If you’re describing a character who is very upset or angry or confused, or if the character is not very literate — I think the prose should always try to reflect the content, and that means loads of good prose is not beautiful.

You know Joyce, a lot of his stuff is of course beautiful in its own way, but you get to the “Sirens” chapter in Ulysses and you have this overture section at the beginning. It’s just totally fractured. He’s not trying something beautiful there, he’s trying something much more interesting.

Derek Pyle: Whether it’s Woolf or Joyce, did you take a research approach into looking at technique, breaking down how and why does this work?

Brian Hall: I haven’t sat down and analyzed it. Stuff that I read that really excites me, I just assume it’s working its way into how I think about writing. I do lots of research for my novels, but it’s not related to stylistic stuff.

The novel I’m working on right now, the main character is an astronomer. My sense is, if you’re going to write a novel where the main character is an astronomer, you really should know a lot about astronomy. It’s not like you need lectures in there about astronomy, but just in the background of your mind, you should know a lot because that’s how your character will look at the world.

It helps if you like to do research for its own sake, because then you don’t have the temptation to try to shoehorn too much into the novel. It doesn’t feel like a waste to me if I have twenty times more material than I actually put into the book. I love research, so I don’t regret that at all.

Derek Pyle: Anything else you want to add? Biblioklept interviews usually end with the question ‘have you ever stolen a book?’

Brian Hall: I’ll say this. I really detest copyright law in general and in the U.S. in particular and these organizations like creative commons — what you’re doing with this whole project, where stuff is put online for people to freely download, I just think it’s great.

My understanding of the original idea of copyright law, for one thing it only lasted for sixteen years when it was first proposed by Jefferson. The idea was to keep people from competing in the market with the original thing.

But when you take something, and you change it dramatically by adding things — I ran into this with my Frost book. I ended up not being able to quote certain Frost poems because of supposed copyright problems. That’s a real perversion of the original idea of copyright protection. What I was doing in the Frost book would in no conceivable way cut into the sales of volumes of poetry by Frost.

I personally sympathize with people who are alive and remember Frost and are uncomfortable with the idea of a novelist like me coming along and writing a very personal novel about Frost. I don’t think it’s ridiculous that they don’t like it. But if it weren’t for the ridiculously extended copyright laws in this country, there wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be allowed to do what I do, they could be unhappy about it the way that I’m unhappy about lots of things, and you know, we would just move on.

Oh, and to answer your question, I’ve never stolen a book.

The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?

Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times

Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.

So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.

The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.

Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—

Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .

“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”

“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”

David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—

He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”


“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.

The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.

In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—

They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.

David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.

The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]

A short report from The Charterhouse of Parma


Have you read Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet?

I haven’t, but I’ve read the Wikipedia summary.

I’ve also read, several times, Donald Barthelme’s 1968 parody, “Eugénie Grandet,” which is very very funny.

Have you read  Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma?

After repeated false starts, I seem to be finishing it up (I’m on Chapter 19 of 28 of Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I brought up Eugénie Grandet (Balzac’s) to bring up “Eugénie Grandet” (Barthelme’s). Stendhal’s (1830’s French) novel Charterhouse keeps reminding me of Barthelme’s (1960’s American) short story “Eugénie Grandet,” which is, as I’ve said, a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s (1830’s French) novel Eugénie Grandet. Balzac and Stendhal are pre-Modernists (which is to say they were modernists, I suppose). Donald Barthelme wanted to be a big em Modernist; his postmodernism was inadvertent. By which I mean— “postmodernism” is just a description (a description of a description really, but let me not navelgaze).

Well and so: I find myself often bored with The Charterhouse of Parma and wishing for a condensation, for a Donald Barthelme number that will magically boil down all its best bits into a loving parody that retains its themes and storylines (while simultaneously critiquing them)—a parody served with an au jus of the novel’s rich flavor.

My frequent boredom with the novel—and, let me insert here, betwixt beloved dashes, that one of my (many) favorite things about Charterhouse is that it is about boredom! that phrases like “boredom,” boring,” and “bored” repeat repeatedly throughout it! I fucking love that! And Stendhal, the pre-Modernist (which is to say “modernist”), wants the reader to feel some of the boredom of court intrigue (which is not always intriguing). The marvelous ironic earnest narrator so frequently frequents phrases like, “The reader will no doubt tire of this conversation, which went on for like two fucking hours” (not a direct quote, although the word “fuck” shows up a few times in Howard’s translation. How fucking Modern!)—okay—

My frequent boredom with the novel is actually not so frequent. It’s more like a chapter to chapter affair. I love pretty much every moment that Stendhal keeps the lens on his naive hero, the intrepid nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo. In love with (the idea of) Napoleon (and his aunt, sorta), a revolutionist (not really), a big ell Liberal (nope), Fabrizio is a charismatic (and callow) hero, and his chapters shuttle along with marvelous quixotic ironic energy. It’s picaresque stuff. (Fabrizio reminds me of another hero I love, Candide). Fabrizio runs away from home to join Napoleon’s army! Fabrizio is threatened with arrest! Fabrizio is sorta exiled! Fabrizio fucks around in Naples! Fabrizio joins the priesthood! Fabrizio might love love his aunt! Fabrizio fights a duel! Fabrizio kills a man! (Not the duel dude). Fabrizio is on the run (again)! Fabrizio goes to jail! Fabrizio falls in love!

When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.

The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)

I disagree with Calvino here. Mosca is an interesting character (at times), but hardly the only one with any psychological complexity. Stendhal is always showing us the gears ticking clicking wheeling churning in his characters’ minds—Fabrizio’s Auntie Gina in particular. (Ahem. Excuse me–The Duchessa).

But Duchess Aunt Gina is a big character, perhaps the secret star of Charterhouse, really, and I’m getting read to wrap this thing up. So I’ll offer a brief example rather from (what I assume is ultimately) a minor character, sweet Clélia Conti. Here she is, in the chapter I finished today, puzzling through the puzzle of fickle Fabrizio, who’s imprisoned in her dad’s tower and has fallen for her:

Fabrizio was fickle; in Naples, he had had the reputation of charming mistresses quite readily. Despite all the reserve imposed upon the role of a young lady, ever since she had become a Canoness and had gone to court, Clélia, without ever asking questions but by listening attentively, had managed to learn the reputations of the young men who had, one after the next, sought her hand in marriage; well then, Fabrizio, compared to all the others, was the one who was least trustworthy in affairs of the heart. He was in prison, he was bored, he paid court to the one woman he could speak to—what could be simpler? What, indeed, more common? And this is what plunged Clélia into despair.

Clélia’s despair is earned; her introspection is adroit (even as it is tender). Perhaps the wonderful trick of Charterhouse is that Stendhal shows us a Fabrizio who cannot see (that he cannot see) that he is fickle, that Clélia’s take on his character is probably accurate—he’s just bored! (Again, I’ve not read to the end). Yes: What, indeed, could be more common? And one of my favorite things about Charterhouse is not just that our dear narrator renders that (common) despair in real and emotional and psychological (which is to say, um Modern) terms for us—but also that our narrator takes a sweetly ironic tone about the whole business.

Or maybe it’s not sweetly ironic—but I wouldn’t know. I have to read it post-Barthelme, through a post-postmodern lens. I’m not otherwise equipped.

Bored of Hell


I am bored of Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism.

Maybe I should blame the 1966 English translation (from the French) by Robert Baldick, which often feels stuffily stuffy for a book about “childbirth, first love, marriage, adultery, lesbianism, illness, religion and death” (as our dear translator puts it in his brief preface). Maybe I should blame it on Baldick, but that seems rash and wrong, and I have no basis of comparison, do I?

So I blame it on myself, this boredom of Hell.

Why write then? Why not write it off, rather, which is to say, do not write—I don’t know.

I’m bored with Hell and there are half a dozen novels I’ve recently  read (or am reading) that I should commend, recommend, attempt to write about—but here I am bored of Hell, and writing about it. Maybe it’s—and the it here refers to writing about Hell, a book I confesss a boredom of—maybe it’s because I’ve allowed myself over the last few days to good lord skim the goddamned infernal thing, not skimming for a replenishing sustenance, but rather looking for the juicy fat bits, the best bits, in the same way a teenaged version of myself skimmed Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in a powerful sweat.

(I was a teenage cliché).

Maybe it’s that the best bits of Hell weren’t juicy enough. (In this novel, an unnamed narrator espies all sorts of sensual (and nonsensual) shenanigans through a small hole in his hotel room). Or maybe the juicy bits were juicy, but the translation dried them out. So many of the sentences made me want to close the book. But it’s unfair for me to write this, I suppose, without offering a sample. Here, from early in the novel, is an excerpt that did make me want to keep going:

The mouth is something naked in the naked face. The mouth, which is red with blood, which is forever bleeding, is comparable to the heart: it is a wound, and it is almost a wound to see a woman’s mouth.

And I begin trembling before this woman who is opening a little and bleeding from a smile. The divan yields warmly to the embrace of her broad hips; her finely-made knees are close together, and the whole of the centre of her body is in the shape of a heart.

…Half-lying on the divan, she stretches out her feet towards the fire, lifting her skirt slightly with both hands, and this movement uncovers her black-stockinged legs.

And my flesh cries out…

Those last ellipses were mine. Did you want more? I did, I admit. And yet after 50 pages, I grew bored. The voyeurism was boring—sprawling. Perhaps I’m lazy. Perhaps I want my voyeurism condensed. Maybe…weirder. I don’t know. Reader, I skimmed. I skimmed, like I said, for morsels—but also to the end, the the final chapter, to the final exquisite not boring paragraph, which I’ll share with you now before “I have done,” as the narrator states in this final section. Promised paragraph:

I believe that confronting the human heart and the human mind, which are composed of imperishable longings, there is only the mirage of what they long for. I believe that around us there is only one word on all sides, one immense word which reveals our solitude and extinguishes our radiance: Nothing! I believe that the word does not point to our insignificance or our unhappiness, but on the contrary to our fulfillment and our divinity, since everything is in ourselves.

The empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be (Elena Ferrante)

Evidently, in a world where philological education has almost completely disappeared, where critics are no longer attentive to style, the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story. Only the label of the name or a rigorous philological examination allows us to take for granted that the author of Dubliners is the same person who wrote Ulysses andFinnegans Wake. The cultural education of any high school student should include the idea that a writer adapts depending on what he or she needs to express. Instead, most people think anyone literate can write a story. They don’t understand that a writer works hard to be flexible, to face many different trials, and without ever knowing what the outcome will be.

Elena Ferrante in her Paris Review interview, 2015.

The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun | Yuri Herrera interviewed at 3:AM Magazine


Yuri Herrera was interviewed by Tristan Foster at 3:AM Magazine a few weeks ago. Herrera’s new novella (or “new” in English translation by Lisa Dilman, anyway) is The Transmigration of Bodies and it’s really, really good. I read most of it in one sitting a few months back, and I owe it a proper review. Herrera’s previous novella, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was one of my favorite books published last year.

From the interview:

3:AM: Despite both the seriousness of its themes and the apocalyptic backdrop, Transmigration is full of an absurd kind of fun. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the scene at the strip club; the strippers have taken off everything except for their facemasks, but they use the allure of removing the masks to excite the men watching. Is this writing fun? Is fun crucial to this kind of writing?

YH: The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun. To create your own paths in a room without light. Of course, this sometimes is also frustrating, when you just keep bumping into things, most commonly into my own very clumsy self. Eventually you discover that you have not been walking completely in the dark but with some sort of intuitive sense of direction, some creative spine. But until you discover that, you alternate between the joy and the anxiety and puzzling with words.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 13th, 1837

Thursday, July 13th.–Two small Canadian boys came to our house yesterday, with strawberries to sell. It sounds strangely to hear children bargaining in French on the borders of Yankee-land. Among other languages spoken hereabouts must be reckoned the wild Irish. Some of the laborers on the mill-dam can speak nothing else. The intermixture of foreigners sometimes gives rise to quarrels between them and the natives. As we were going to the village yesterday afternoon, we witnessed the beginning of a quarrel between a Canadian and a Yankee,–the latter accusing the former of striking his oxen. B—- thrust himself between and parted them; but they afterwards renewed their fray, and the Canadian, I believe, thrashed the Yankee soundly–for which he had to pay twelve dollars. Yet he was but a little fellow.

Coming to the Mansion House about supper-time, we found somewhat of a concourse of people, the Governor and Council being in session on the subject of the disputed territory. The British have lately imprisoned a man who was sent to take the census; and the Mainiacs are much excited on the subject. They wish the Governor to order out the militia at once and take possession of the territory with the strong hand. There was a British army-captain at the Mansion House; and an idea was thrown out that it would be as well to seize upon him as a hostage. I would, for the joke’s sake, that it had been done. Personages at the tavern: the Governor, somewhat stared after as he walked through the bar-room; Councillors seated about, sitting on benches near the bar, or on the stoop along the front of the house; the Adjutant-General of the State; two young Blue-Noses, from Canada or the Provinces; a gentleman “thumbing his hat” for liquor, or perhaps playing off the trick of the “honest landlord” on some stranger. The decanters and wine-bottles on the move, and the beer and soda founts pouring out continual streams, with a whiz. Stage-drivers, etc., asked to drink with the aristocracy, and my host treating and being treated. Rubicund faces; breaths odorous of brandy-and-water. Occasionally the pop of a champagne cork.

Returned home, and took a lesson in French of Mons. S—- . I like him very much, and have seldom met with a more honest, simple, and apparently so well-principled a man; which good qualities I impute to his being, by the father’s side, of German blood. He looks more like a German–or, as he says, like a Swiss–than a Frenchman, having very light hair and a light complexion, and not a French expression. He is a vivacious little fellow, and wonderfully excitable to mirth; and it is truly a sight to see him laugh;–every feature partakes of his movement, and even his whole body shares in it, as he rises and dances about the room. He has great variety of conversation, commensurate with his experiences in life, and sometimes will talk Spanish, ore rotundo, sometimes imitate the Catholic priests, chanting Latin songs for the dead, in deep, gruff, awful tones, producing really a very strong impression,–then he will break out into a light, French song, perhaps of love, perhaps of war, acting it out, as if on the stage of a theatre: all this intermingled with continual fun, excited by the incidents of the passing moment. He has Frenchified all our names, calling B—- Monsieur Du Pont, myself M. de L’Aubépine, and himself M. le Berger, and all, Knights of the Round-Table. And we live in great harmony and brotherhood, as queer a life as anybody leads, and as queer a set as may be found anywhere. In his more serious intervals, he talks philosophy and deism, and preaches obedience to the law of reason and morality; which law he says (and I believe him) he has so well observed, that, notwithstanding his residence in dissolute countries, he has never yet been sinful. He wishes me, eight or nine weeks hence, to accompany him on foot to Quebec, and then to Niagara and New York. I should like it well, if my circumstances and other considerations would permit. What pleases much in Mons. S—- is the simple and childlike enjoyment he finds in trifles, and the joy with which he speaks of going back to his own country, away from the dull Yankees, who here misunderstand and despise him. Yet I have never heard him speak harshly of them. I rather think that B—- and I will be remembered by him with more pleasure than anybody else in the country; for we have sympathized with him, and treated him kindly, and like a gentleman and an equal; and he comes to us at night as to home and friends.

I went down to the river to-day to see B—- fish for salmon with a fly,–a hopeless business; for he says that only one instance has been known in the United States of salmon being taken otherwise than with a net. A few chubs were all the fruit of his piscatory efforts. But while looking at the rushing and rippling stream, I saw a great fish, some six feet long and thick in proportion, suddenly emerge at whole length, turn a somerset, and then vanish again beneath the water. It was of a glistening, yellowish brown, with its fins all spread, and looking very strange and startling, darting out so lifelike from the black water, throwing itself fully into the bright sunshine, and then lost to sight and to pursuit. I saw also a long, flat-bottomed boat go up the river, with a brisk wind, and against a strong stream. Its sails were of curious construction: a long mast, with two sails below, one on each side of the boat, and a broader one surmounting them. The sails were colored brown, and appeared like leather or skins, but were really cloth. At a distance, the vessel looked like, or at least I compared it to, a monstrous water-insect skimming along the river. If the sails had been crimson or yellow, the resemblance would have been much closer. There was a pretty spacious raised cabin in the after part of the boat. It moved along lightly, and disappeared between the woody banks. These boats have the two parallel sails attached to the same yard, and some have two sails, one surmounting the other. They trade to Waterville and thereabouts,–names, as “Paul Pry,” on their sails.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 13th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Stanley Elkin reviews Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show (kinda sorta)

[Ed. note: I finished Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show a few days ago. I read The Dick Gibson Show immediately after finishing Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser. I want to write something about these novels, which seem of a piece to me, but I also wanted to get a bit more context first, and the most basic of internet searches led me to Elkin’s 1974 interview in The Paris Review with Thomas LeClair.

What follows are selections from the interview in which Elkin kinda sorta analyzes The Dick Gibson Show, providing what I take to be a Very Good and Fascinating Review of the novel.

Look, I went to school for reading books, I learned about the goddamn intentional fallacy and la mort de l’auteur and all that jazz, and I know that the author isn’t supposed to be the goddamn authority on his own work, I know that what follows isn’t a proper review—but I don’t care. I like it.

My assumption is it’s likely that anyone interested enough in a review of The Dick Gibson Show has probably already read Elkin’s Paris Review interview, and would probably prefer, like, something new on the novel. Which I’ll attempt down the line. But for now: Elkin on Elkin—]


INTERVIEWER: I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?

ELKIN: It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:

What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .

Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:

to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs…

and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.

INTERVIEWER: But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?

ELKIN: Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.

INTERVIEWER: Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?

ELKIN: Yes, I think so.

Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.

INTERVIEWER: Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.

ELKIN: Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.

INTERVIEWER: s that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?

ELKIN: That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.

INTERVIEWER: Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?

ELKIN: That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.

INTERVIEWER: Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language…

ELKIN: No. Certainly not.

INTERVIEWER: He does say less and less as the novel moves along.

ELKIN: Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?

INTERVIEWER: In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?

ELKIN: I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About


From bottom to top:

I had to go hunt through the house for the trio of Hildafolk comics by Luke Pearson because my kids keep swapping them around. We’ve read them a bunch of times now and they are very good and sweet and charming and you can get them from NobrowHilda is going to be a Netflix series, by the way, which I told my kids and they were psyched. (They ten went on Netflix and looked for it. I had to explain production schedules).

W.D. Clarke’s White Mythology (which may or may not take its title from Derrida’s essay of the same name) is actually two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. I finished the first novella before July 4th; Skinner Boxed is about psychiatrist Dr. Ed, who juggles a bunch of maguffins including a detached (and missing) wife, a returned bastard son, and a clinical anti-depressant trial. The novella begins with epigrams from Gravity’s Rainbow and A Christmas Carol, the latter of which it (somewhat perhaps ironically) follows. I finished the second novella Love’s Alchemy yesterday. Its tone is not as zany as that of Skinner Boxed, but both stories require the reader to put together seemingly disconnected events for the plot to “resolve” (if resolve is the right word). Good stuff.

I started the Howard translation of The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal. I’m in Chapter 3 right now. We’ll see how it goes this time. For now, I’ll continue to trust Italo Calvino. From his “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

…many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognising it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life. (I’m talking particularly about the opening chapters; as you get into it, you will find that it is a different novel, or several novels each different from the other, all of which will require you to modify your involvement in the plot; whatever happens, the brilliance of the opening will continue to influence you.)

I finished Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser and then the novel that chronologically preceded it (and arguably birthed it), The Dick Gibson Show. I need to write a whole Thing on these two novels, but I enjoyed them, and can’t believe it took me so long to read Elkin (although I’m glad I read Pynchon, Gaddis, and Gass first). I preferred the riffing polyglossia of TDGS a bit more than The Franchiser, which occasionally seemed to let its satire tip over into a kind of bathetic melancholy. Both novels diagnose an obsession of nostalgia (or, more directly: an obsession of obsession) that continues to grip America.

Yesterday I picked up Vladislav Vančura’s novel Marketa Lazarova, new in a sharp English translation by Carleton Bulkin from Twisted Spoon Press. Twisted Spoon had sent me the book a few weeks ago, and I’d meant to read it over the week of July Fourth but drank too many beers instead. Anyway, I picked it up yesterday and read the first two chapters (50 pages—the first third, that is) gripped in wonder and laughter, and a bit of happy shock even. A strange and often violent tale of multiple kidnappings and medieval intrigues, Marketa Lazarova reminds me of Le Morte D’Arthur, Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan (both in its evocations of brutality and in its marvelous poetic prose), Aleksei German’s film Hard to Be a God, Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring, Bolaño’s sweetly ironic narrators, and yes, hell, Game of Thrones. I’d rather be reading this book right now than writing about it in this silly blog post, actually. And no, I haven’t seen the František Vláčil film adaptation—yet.

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” — James Hill

The Happy Prince

James Hill’s illustration for “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968.

“The Happy Prince”


Oscar Wilde

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

He was very much admired indeed. “He is as beautiful as a weathercock,” remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; “only not quite so useful,” he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.

“Why can’t you be like the Happy Prince?” asked a sensible mother of her little boy who was crying for the moon. “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.”

“I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy,” muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.

“He looks just like an angel,” said the Charity Children as they came out of the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks and their clean white pinafores.

“How do you know?” said the Mathematical Master, “you have never seen one.”

“Ah! but we have, in our dreams,” answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.

One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.
Continue reading “Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” — James Hill”

Passionate extremists (From Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show)

He could not depend upon his listeners; he had no notion of them. They were as faceless to him as he to them. (They didn’t even have a voice.) His panels, his Special Guests were more real. As for his listeners, he guessed they were insomniacs, cabbies, enlisted men signed out on leave at midnight driving home on turnpikes, countermen in restaurants by highways, people in tollbooths. Or he saw them in bed—they lived in the dark—lumps under covers, profiles on pillows, their skulls beside the clock radio (the clock radio had done more to change programming than even TV) while the dialogue floated above their heads like balloon talk aloft in comic strips. Half asleep, they would not follow it too closely. No, he knew little about his listeners. They were not even mysterious; they were there, but distant as the Sioux.

He knew more about the passionate extremists who used his microphones in the groundless hope of stirring those sleepers, and winning over the keepers of the booths—the wild visionaries, opponents of fluoride, palmists, astrologers, the far right and far left and far center, the dianeticians, scientologists, beatniks, homosexuals from the Mattachine Society, the handwriting analysts, addicts, nudists, psychic phenomenologists, all those who believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy; men beyond the beyond, black separatists who would take over Idaho and thrive by cornering the potato, pretenders to a half-dozen thrones, Krebiozonists, people from MENSA, health-food people, eaters of weed and soups of bark, cholesterolists, poly-unsaturationalists, treasure hunters, a woman who believed she held a valid Spanish land grant to all of downtown San Francisco, the Cassandras warning of poison in the white bread and cola and barbecued potato chip, conservationists jittery about the disappearing forests and the diminishing water table (and one man who claimed that the tides were a strain on the moon), would-be reformers of a dozen industries and institutions and a woman so fastidious about the separation of church and state that she would take the vote away from nuns and clergymen, capital punishers, atheists, people who wanted the abortion laws changed and a man who thought all surgery was a sin and ought to carry the same sentence as any other assault with a knife, housewives spooked by lax Food and Drug regulations, Maoists, Esperantoists, American Nazis, neo-Jaegerists, Reichians, juvenile delinquents, crionics buffs, anti-vivisectionists, witches, wizards, chief rabbis of no less than three of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, and a fellow who claimed he died the same year Columbus discovered America.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.

HIC SUNT DODOS! (From Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show)

The report has come back. It’s official. HIC SUNT DODOS!

The dodo is an extinct species of ungainly, flightless bird of the genus Raphus or Didus. Its incubation ground and later its world was the island of Mauritius. It was closely related in habit and aspect to a smaller bird, the solitaire, also extinct but once indigenous to the island of Réunion. It has long been held by ornithologists that the dodo—both the dodo proper and the solitaire henceforward will be subsumed under the pseudo-generic term ‘dodo’—was related to the pigeon, but this is only an hypothesis since the bird has not been available for study since 1680, the year that the last known dodo died. Although the dodo was sent to European museums, no complete specimen exists, and today only the foot and leg of one specimen are preserved at Oxford. The representations one sees, even in the Mauritius Museum of Art itself, are merely restorations, little more than cunning dolls constructed on skeletal frames. Nevertheless, the skeletons, the scattered bones of which are to be found abundantly even today in the Mauritian fens and swamps, have been painstakingly reassembled by Mauritian dodo artisans—the best in the world—and give an accurate picture of what the bird was like.

He was large, slightly bigger than the American turkey whom he in no mean way resembles. In silhouette the dodo is not unlike a great scrunched question mark. For detail we may refer to the paintings from life that have been made of the bird, many of the best of which are still here in the Mauritius Museum of Art and Dodo Reconstruction. Most of the artists seem to be in agreement that the animal possessed an enormous blackish bill which, together with the huge horny hook in which it terminates, constituted the shepherd’s crook of the question mark. Its cheeks, partially bare, seem oddly weather- beaten and muscular, like the toothless cheeks of old men who have worked out in the open all their lives. Black except for some whitish plumage on his breast and tail and some yellowish white the tint of old piano keys on his tail, the dodo was somewhat formal in appearance, if a trifle stupid looking. This formal aspect is attributable also to his wing, foreshortened as a birth defect, which in repose flops out and down from his body like an unstarched pocket handkerchief.

Dodos are said to have inhabited the Mauritian forests—this is the style of information, of certain kinds of fact; I find it relaxing—and to have laid a single large white egg which they mounted high in a setting of piled grass. Hogs, brought in by the settlers, fed on the dodo eggs and on the dodo young, and in one or two generations the birds were extinct.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.

“This Schedule In Effect July 5th, 1922” — The Great Gatsby’s House Guests

In Chapter 4 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway recounts the names of the rich, shallow, parasitic guests who attended Gatsby’s parties. Nick tells us the list comes from “an old time-table” of names he originally recorded in July 5th—significantly, the day after Independence Day: the day after the hopes and dreams of a new country. From the chapter—-

Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.

Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember. He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden. From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells. Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand. The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga’s girls.

From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the state senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another. And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut.”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly — they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.

A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as “the boarder.”— I doubt if he had any other home. Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O’donavan and Lester Meyer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull. Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square.

Benny McClenahan arrived always with four girls. They were never quite the same ones in physical person, but they were so identical one with another that it inevitably seemed they had been there before. I have forgotten their names — Jaqueline, I think, or else Consuela, or Gloria or Judy or June, and their last names were either the melodious names of flowers and months or the sterner ones of the great American capitalists whose cousins, if pressed, they would confess themselves to be.

In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O’brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancee, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.

All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 4th, 1838

July 4th.–A very hot, bright, sunny day; town much thronged; booths on the Common, selling gingerbread, sugar-plums, and confectionery, spruce beer, lemonade. Spirits forbidden, but probably sold stealthily. On the top of one of the booths a monkey, with a tail two or three feet long. He is fastened by a cord, which, getting tangled with the flag over the booth, he takes hold and tries to free it. He is the object of much attention from the crowd, and played with by the boys, who toss up gingerbread to him, while he nibbles and throws it down again. He reciprocates notice, of some kind or other, with all who notice him. There is a sort of gravity about him. A boy pulls his long tail, whereat he gives a slight squeak, and for the future elevates it as much as possible. Looking at the same booth by and by, I find that the poor monkey has been obliged to betake himself to the top of one of the wooden joists that stick up high above. There are boys going about with molasses candy, almost melted down in the sun. Shows: A mammoth rat; a collection of pirates, murderers, and the like, in wax. Constables in considerable number, parading about with their staves, sometimes conversing with each other, producing an effect by their presence, without having to interfere actively. One or two old salts, rather the worse for liquor: in general the people are very temperate. At evening the effect of things rather more picturesque; some of the booth-keepers knocking down the temporary structures, and putting the materials in wagons to carry away; other booths lighted up, and the lights gleaming through rents in the sail-cloth tops. The customers are rather riotous, calling loudly and whimsically for what they want; a young fellow and a girl coming arm in arm; two girls approaching the booth, and getting into conversation with the folks thereabout. Perchance a knock-down between two half-sober fellows in the crowd: a knock-down without a heavy blow, the receiver being scarcely able to keep his footing at any rate. Shoutings and hallooings, laughter, oaths,–generally a good-natured tumult; and the constables use no severity, but interfere, if at all, in a friendly sort of way. I talk with one about the way in which the day has passed, and he bears testimony to the orderliness of the crowd, but suspects one booth of selling liquor, and relates one scuffle. There is a talkative and witty seller of gingerbread holding forth to the people from his cart, making himself quite a noted character by his readiness of remark and humor, and disposing of all his wares. Late in the evening, during the fire-works, people are consulting how they are to get home,–many having long miles to walk: a father, with wife and children, saying it will be twelve o’clock before they reach home, the children being already tired to death. The moon beautifully dark-bright, not giving so white a light as sometimes. The girls all look beautiful and fairy-like in it, not exactly distinct, nor yet dim. The different characters of female countenances during the day,–mirthful and mischievous, slyly humorous, stupid, looking genteel generally, but when they speak often betraying plebeianism by the tones of their voices. Two girls are very tired,–one a pale, thin, languid-looking creature; the other plump, rosy, rather overburdened with her own little body. Gingerbread figures, in the shape of Jim Crow and other popularities.

In the old burial ground, Charter Street, a slate gravestone, carved round the borders, to the memory of “Colonel John Hathorne, Esq.,” who died in 1717. This was the witch-judge. The stone is sunk deep into the earth, and leans forward, and the grass grows very long around it; and, on account of the moss, it was rather difficult to make out the date. Other Hathornes lie buried in a range with him on either side. In a corner of the burial-ground, close under Dr. P—-‘s garden fence, are the most ancient stones remaining in the graveyard; moss-grown, deeply sunken. One to “Dr. John Swinnerton, Physician,” in 1688; another to his wife. There, too, is the grave of Nathaniel Mather, the younger brother of Cotton, and mentioned in the Magnalia as a hard student, and of great promise. “An aged man at nineteen years,” saith the gravestone. It affected me deeply, when I had cleared away the grass from the half-buried stone, and read the name. An apple-tree or two hang over these old graves, and throw down the blighted fruit on Nathaniel Mather’s grave,–he blighted too. It gives strange ideas, to think how convenient to Dr. P—-‘s family this burial-ground is,–the monuments standing almost within arm’s reach of the side windows of the parlor,–and there being a little gate from the back yard through which we step forth upon those old graves aforesaid. And the tomb of the P. family is right in front, and close to the gate. It is now filled, the last being the refugee Tory, Colonel P—-, and his wife. M. P—- has trained flowers over this tomb, on account of her friendly relations with Colonel P—-.

It is not, I think, the most ancient families that have tombs,–their ancestry for two or three generations having been reposited in the earth before such a luxury as a tomb was thought of. Men who founded families, and grew rich, a century or so ago, were probably the first.

There is a tomb of the Lyndes, with a slab of slate affixed to the brick masonry on one side, and carved with a coat of arms.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 4th, 1838. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

“July Stories” — Roberto Bolaño

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.

From Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003.

The BFG, Roald Dahl’s love letter to his lost daughter


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].


Dissolving boundaries | Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

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.

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli