Thursday, July 20th.–A drive yesterday afternoon to a pond in the vicinity of Augusta, about nine miles off, to fish for white perch. Remarkables: the steering of the boat through the crooked, labyrinthine brook, into the open pond,–the man who acted as pilot,–his talking with B—- about politics, the bank, the iron money of “a king who came to reign, in Greece, over a city called Sparta,”–his advice to B—- to come amongst the laborers on the mill-dam, because it stimulated them “to see a man grinning amongst them.” The man took hearty tugs at a bottle of good Scotch whiskey, and became pretty merry. The fish caught were the yellow perch, which are not esteemed for eating; the white perch, a beautiful, silvery, round-backed fish, which bites eagerly, runs about with the line while being pulled up, makes good sport for the angler, and an admirable dish; a great chub; and three horned pouts, which swallow the hook into their lowest entrails. Several dozen fish were taken in an hour or two, and then we returned to the shop where we had left our horse and wagon, the pilot very eccentric behind us. It was a small, dingy shop, dimly lighted by a single inch of candle, faintly disclosing various boxes, barrels standing on end, articles hanging from the ceiling; the proprietor at the counter, whereon appear gin and brandy, respectively contained in a tin pint-measure and an earthenware jug, with two or three tumblers beside them, out of which nearly all the party drank; some coming up to the counter frankly, others lingering in the background, waiting to be pressed, two paying for their own liquor and withdrawing. B—- treated them twice round. The pilot, after drinking his brandy, gave a history of our fishing expedition, and how many and how large fish we caught. B—- making acquaintances and renewing them, and gaining great credit for liberality and free-heartedness,–two or three boys looking on and listening to the talk,–the shopkeeper smiling behind his counter, with the tarnished tin scales beside him,–the inch of candle burning down almost to extinction. So we got into our wagon, with the fish, and drove to Robinson’s tavern, almost five miles off, where we supped and passed the night In the bar-room was a fat old countryman on a journey, and a quack doctor of the vicinity, and an Englishman with a peculiar accent. Seeing B—-‘s jointed and brass-mounted fishing-pole, he took it for a theodolite, and supposed that we had been on a surveying expedition. At supper, which consisted of bread, butter, cheese, cake, doughnuts and gooseberry-pie, we were waited upon by a tall, very tall woman, young and maiden-looking, yet with a strongly outlined and determined face. Afterwards we found her to be the wife of mine host. She poured out our tea, came in when we rang the table-bell to refill our cups, and again retired. While at supper, the fat old traveller was ushered through the room into a contiguous bedroom. My own chamber, apparently the best in the house, had its walls ornamented with a small, gilt-framed, foot-square looking-glass, with a hair-brush hanging beneath it; a record of the deaths of the family written on a black tomb, in an engraving, where a father, mother, and child were represented in a graveyard, weeping over said tomb; the mourners dressed in black, country-cut clothes; the engraving executed in Vermont. There was also a wood engraving of the Declaration of Independence, with fac-similes of the autographs; a portrait of the Empress Josephine, and another of Spring. In the two closets of this chamber were mine hostess’s cloak, best bonnet, and go-to-meeting apparel. There was a good bed, in which I slept tolerably well, and, rising betimes, ate breakfast, consisting of some of our own fish, and then started for Augusta. The fat old traveller had gone off with the harness of our wagon, which the hostler had put on to his horse by mistake. The tavern-keeper gave us his own harness, and started in pursuit of the old man, who was probably aware of the exchange, and well satisfied with it.
Our drive to Augusta, six or seven miles, was very pleasant, a heavy rain having fallen during the night, and laid the oppressive dust of the day before. The road lay parallel with the Kennebec, of which we occasionally had near glimpses. The country swells back from the river in hills and ridges, without any interval of level ground; and there were frequent woods, filling up the valleys or crowning the summits. The land is good, the farms look neat, and the houses comfortable. The latter are generally but of one story, but with large barns; and it was a good sign, that, while we saw no houses unfinished nor out of repair, one man at least had found it expedient to make an addition to his dwelling. At the distance of more than two miles, we had a view of white Augusta, with its steeples, and the State-House, at the farther end of the town. Observable matters along the road were the stage,–all the dust of yesterday brushed off, and no new dust contracted,–full of passengers, inside and out; among them some gentlemanly people and pretty girls, all looking fresh and unsullied, rosy, cheerful, and curious as to the face of the country, the faces of passing travellers, and the incidents of their journey; not yet damped, in the morning sunshine, by long miles of jolting over rough and hilly roads,–to compare this with their appearance at midday, and as they drive into Bangor at dusk; two women dashing along in a wagon, and with a child, rattling pretty speedily down hill;–people looking at us from the open doors and windows;–the children staring from the wayside;–the mowers stopping, for a moment, the sway of their scythes;–the matron of a family, indistinctly seen at some distance within the house her head and shoulders appearing through the window, drawing her handkerchief over her bosom, which had been uncovered to give the baby its breakfast,–the said baby, or its immediate predecessor, sitting at the door, turning round to creep away on all fours;–a man building a flat-bottomed boat by the roadside: he talked with B—- about the Boundary question, and swore fervently in favor of driving the British “into hell’s kitchen” by main force.
Colonel B—-, the engineer of the mill-dam, is now here, after about a fortnight’s absence. He is a plain country squire, with a good figure, but with rather a heavy brow; a rough complexion; a gait stiff, and a general rigidity of manner, something like that of a schoolmaster. He originated in a country town, and is a self-educated man. As he walked down the gravel-path to-day, after dinner, he took up a scythe, which one of the mowers had left on the sward, and began to mow, with quite a scientific swing. On the coming of the mower, he laid it down, perhaps a little ashamed of his amusement. I was interested in this; to see a man, after twenty-five years of scientific occupation, thus trying whether his arms retained their strength and skill for the labors of his youth,–mindful of the day when he wore striped trousers, and toiled in his shirt-sleeves,–and now tasting again, for pastime, this drudgery beneath a fervid sun. He stood awhile, looking at the workmen, and then went to oversee the laborers at the mill-dam.
This is Part 2 of my post on Adorno and Sebald’s Austerlitz. In Part 1, I talked about Sebald and Adorno’s (negative) aesthetics, and challenges the latter presents to the former. Here, I discuss quotational technique as a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.
It may seem like an obvious observation, but Sebald must disguise and compensate for authorial arbitration. The goal of liberating content from such arbitration, Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, is a necessary & impossible fictional standpoint the philosopher must take for the sake of resistant thought (MM 247). Both he and Adorno share the desire to reclaim for their subjects the capacity for experience, but an Adornian mode risks segregating Austerlitz from the present and thereby fixing him into the past and hence foreclosing that very capacity. We will return to the “Finale” of Minima Moralia shortly, but I would first like to talk about the emergence of history as coincidence in the opening passages of Austerlitz.
Coincidences, the unplanned contact between two mutually exclusive objects which does not promise meaning, are enigma’s second cousin, and enable the emergence of history to appear natural because they are especially adept at disguising arbitrary decision. Coincidences don’t occur in literature, but they are engineered to happen.
This is part of a conference paper I presented in the spring. I’m dividing it up into two posts. I’ll post the next part tomorrow.
This section establishes the connection of Sebald’s Austerlitz to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. It proceeds to argue that the text’s Adornian valences, both aesthetic and ethical, present problems for Sebald. It also introduces Patrick Greaney’s work on quotational technique, and sets up Part 2 as an analysis of it as Sebald’s clever workaround for Adorno’s impossible demand to witness but not to rehearse.
In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, W.G. Sebald describes the need to represent the Holocaust as a practically impossible necessity. Sebald’s investment in first-generation Frankfurt School aesthetics, especially Adorno’s and Benjamin’s, is well-documented in his early work across his myriad reviews and essays. How do we square this interest with Sebald’s creative pursuits when Adorno’s aesthetics are so forthrightly opposed to positivist representation? Located between a narrative art and a document of witness, this Adornian mode in Austerlitz reveals an irreconcilable conflict between concealment and the difficulty of representation. This conflict forces Sebald to find means of convincing the reader that the novel is defined by, yet not confined to, the Holocaust. Using techniques of dislocated narration that find their strongest effect in the mode of quotation, Sebald pursues a method of simultaneously presenting and re-presenting events that renegotiate the negative terrain set out by Adorno. Ultimately, what is drawn out by Sebald is not the Holocaust, nor simply the poverty of representing it, but the inability to represent and reclaim experience in a narrative that draws its significance from that poverty.
Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory that the “real possibility of utopia converges with the possibility of total catastrophe.” The material possibilities of utopia are everywhere in popular media, and underneath our fingers – possibilities which are still repressed under the culture industries. Such apocalyptic images (and technological means), Sebald says in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, “militate against” the capacity for “discursive thinking,” and enable the unconscious subject to abet the continual destruction of her environment. Sebald’s project of approaching the verboten past is an ethico-aesthetic attempt to return to the reader a capacity for a specific aesthetic experience that unchains her from the machinations of destruction, what Ranciere might call a redistribution of the sensible. Though, in that same interview, Sebald contends “it’s practically impossible to do this,” a notion that James Wood echoes in his introduction to the English edition of Austerlitz. The novel’s attempt to restore to the eponymous character the individuality of his name and experience is foreclosed, argues Wood, and the challenge Sebald sets himself with the practical impossibility of the literary witness of European historical trauma is to be ethical, to refuse the sentimental commitment of mere witness, mere reproduction, and model in literature what actual experience might be for Austerlitz in the ecology of absent-minded media.
Sebald’s technique of dislocated narration collapses the moments of presentation and representation through quotational coincidence, a means of re-presenting that, in the same moment of destroying original context, presents the phenomenon of that moment of destruction. In Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art, Patrick Greaney argues that
[Quotational texts] indicate the repeatability of the moment of emergence of the original, the moment of the original’s origination … Quotation repeats this authoritative, authorial act and thereby indicates the possibility that this coming-into-being could have been different and could be altered in its repetition (6).
Quotational ethics are impelled by Adorno, but underwritten by Benjaminian technique – moments of the past are wrenched and re-placed in the present in order to dialectically realize untapped potential in the former, endowing it with new meaning in the present. Thus quotational power is allegorical; Benjamin writes in the German Tragic Drama that allegories present precisely that which is not there, and mean precisely what they do not present to us (296). If the ethical demand is to witness but not to rehearse, Sebald’s Adornian aesthetics hit a brick wall, as he must perform precisely that which is impossible. He is forced to contend with an inescapable authorial sovereignty and its complicity with forgetting. Faced with the impasse of Adornian aesthetics, Sebald then leans on the messianism of Benjamin to suggest that the emergence of history in the midst of an apocalypse of experience is one of realizing the extent of one’s loss of experience in a history of humanity that has still not happened yet.
The goal to liberate content from arbitration betrays a desire to maintain the critic’s sovereignty. It is this irreconcilability that plagues Adorno’s concept of the enigma and his thesis of the negative artwork in Aesthetic Theory. Enigmas invite yet defy interpretation, or at least obfuscate their enunciation. An enigma could have some, none, or all of the meanings the viewer is struggling to project onto it. When Adorno writes that enigmatic artworks are picture puzzles to be solved (AT 121), he privileges the form of the enigma over its ostensible content. Composition of content is largely irrelevant to a puzzle – the interpreter (or the one who completes the puzzle) doesn’t need to know how the original was composed in order to complete her task.
Yet so much of Aesthetic Theory is seemingly dependent on a hyper-deliberate content – I’m arguing that it’s a hyper-deliberate arrangement of content, the situation of content (The section “Situation” in Aesthetic Theory focuses on the socio-cultural contingencies of modern art). The form of an enigma, on which the crux of Adorno’s argument stands, is posed as an irreconcilability as a means of disguising the positivism of negative artworks, something they are supposed to resist. Enigmatic form delays positivity and obscures Adorno’s logic. A metaphor is used to symptomatically define the undefinable metaphor “enigma.” Too, Greaney’s book on quotational technique focuses on arrangement and context in contemporary trends in conceptual poetics and visual art. Both Adorno and Greaney, however, seek to critique the contingencies inherent in the tethering of content to a linear-progressive idiom of history.
Maintaining this ambivalence is necessary for Adorno, for not only does the enigma help stall the dialectical synthesis of Enlightenment, it also preserves the negative relationship to the social, a crucial condition of Adorno’s thesis. The ideal Adornian artwork presents a negative yet refrains the social meaning from ever being naturalistically represented in the artwork; the form must re-route the viewer or reader outside into the Social. There is, then, a stark delimitation between Art and the Social via the cracked mirror of the enigma.
This enigmatical separation—between subject and object, form and content, the past and present—has ethical consequences for Sebald. If we remember Adorno’s infamous claim about poetry, the enigmaticalized referent of the Shoah must remain firmly in the past, lending itself too easily to the maintenance of a melancholic haunting that precludes any form of resolution, ethically negative or not. The Adornian goal is always to expose the violence inherent in the social formation via the negative, and Adorno’s thesis is the key. Someone must decide on the irreconcilable conflict, and his argument ends up preserving the sovereignty of Adorno’s decision more than the autonomy of the artwork. It allows Adorno to have his cake and eat it too, and greatly challenges those who are influenced by his thought.
This is perhaps more of a failure of Adorno’s aesthetics than Sebald’s, and I am aware that the jury is still out on whether or not Sebald should be read more as an Adornian (recall that Adorno was not receptive to Sebald’s scholarly work) or a Foucauldian. Despite this seeming irreconcilability, I think it is still worth thinking about Sebald’s work as deeply tied to the legacy of the Frankfurt School. Both Foucault and Adorno offer little to no practical remedies for the social disorders they analyze and diagnose. To me, favoring a discursive analysis ignores Sebald’s dialectical style, and his debt to Benjamin’s style.
In Part 2, I discuss how quotational technique is a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.
The following are lines from Henry David Thoreau’s (then) unpublished manuscripts, compiled by Ralph Waldo Emerson and subjoined to the end of Emerson’s “Biographical Sketch” that introduces Thoreau’s Excursions.
Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.
The chub is a soft fish, and tastes like boiled brown paper salted.
The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to built a wood-shed with them.
The locust z-ing.
Devil’s-needles zigzagging along the Nut-Meadow brook.
Sugar is not so sweet to the palate as sound to the healthy ear.
I put on some hemlock-boughs, and the rich salt crackling of their leaves was like mustard to the ear, the crackling of uncountable regiments. Dead trees love the fire.
The bluebird carries the sky on his back.
The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.
If I wish for a horse-hair for my compass-sight, I must go to the stable; but the hair-bird, with her sharp eyes, goes to the road.
Immortal water, alive even to the superficies.
Fire is the most tolerable third party.
Nature made ferns for pure leaves, to show what she could do in that line.
No tree has so fair a bole and so handsome an instep as the beech.
How did these beautiful rainbow-tints get into the shell of the fresh-water clam, buried in the mud at the bottom of our dark river?
Hard are the times when the infant’s shoes are second-foot.
We are strictly confined to our men to whom we give liberty.
Nothing is so much to be feared as fear. Atheism may comparatively be popular with God himself.
Of what significance the things you can forget? A little thought is sexton to all the world.
How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed-time of character?
Only he can be trusted with gifts who can present a face of bronze to expectations.
I ask to be melted. You can only ask of the metals that they be tender to the fire that melts them. To nought else can they be tender.
Rainer J. Hanshe’s new book Shattering the Muses is comprised of citations, short histories, poems, complaints and lamentations, anecdotes, essays, etchings, manipulated photographs, photographs of old documents, ink and enamel drawings, coal and ash pictures, and other media. His co-conspirator on the project is Federico Gori who provides original art for Shattering the Muses. Here are two of nine depictions by Gori of muses that open (in a sense) the narrative:
The books is ten inches tall, seven inches wide, and one inch thick. It contains 370 pages, many of them illustrated, several blank, and five that are completely black. There are at least four fonts (and more languages than that, although the book is primarily in English).
Have I lingered over form too long here? It’s difficult to describe the content of Shattering the Muses (which often foregrounds the “narrative’s” form).
Or maybe description isn’t so difficult—perhaps we can rely on the book to name its own central problem. The question that threads through Shattering the Muses is “Beware the Book?”
Let’s look at a few examples:
Above, we read an account—with its own embedded quotation—of The First Emperor of Qin’s ordering, two hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, a grand burning of a great many books. The account ends with the question: “Beware the book?”
(Some historians remark that Quin Shi Huang caused to be buried alive 460 Confucian scholars).
On the opposing/facing page, a 1493 German woodcut depicts Jews being buried and burned alive, scapegoats for the Black Death plague. The woodcut provides an answer to the question: “Beware the book?”: No, beware the burners. The space between the two pages is a gap for the reader to cross. Put the pieces together.
Indeed, it is the reader’s task (task is not quite the right word) to put the pieces of Shattering together. Take the pages above, for example. A passage from Areopagitica, Milton’s defense of free speech, contends that books are “not absolutely dead things,” but rather extractions of the soul’s intellect. He compares them to “those fabulous dragon’s teeth” that Cadmus scattered by Athena’s command. Milton warns that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of Life.”
The next page reproduces Johan Liss’s painting Apollo and Marsyas (c. 1627). The satyr Marsyas found and mastered the first aulos, an double-reed wind instrument cast away by Athena. (She didn’t like the shape her invention brought to her virgin cheeks). Marsyas challenged Apollo to an aulos contest and lost, natch. (Apollo’s daughters the Muses were the judges). Marsyas was subsequently flayed alive, his hide nailed to a tree. Victim for art’s sake.
(The first page of Shattering the Muses is a quote from Ovid’s Fasti. The lines describe Athena discarding her aulos: “Art is not worth this to me,” she says, seeing her reflected face deformed in the river as she produces the “sublime” music).
One more set of two pages, then. (It’s easier to show the book than to properly describe it in words. This is not a review). Above: Tadeusz Różewicz was a Polish poet who fought in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. He survived the war. His brother Janusz, also a poet, did not. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.
The facing page is a photograph of a scrap of one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri manuscripts (specifically, P.Oxy. 67.4633). This scrap contains commentary on Homer’s Iliad, but is mostly famous because someone used it to wipe their ass. (A literary critic?)
However, Shattering the Muses is not entirely composed of loosely arranged but discontinuous fragments. Several narratives strand through the book. The most straightforward of these is the story of Renato Naso, who is the closest thing to a main character we’ll find here. When we’re introduced to him, we’re told that he’s “unknowingly putting his life in suspension…living in an eternal between.” He’s a hero (?) ripe for “rupture, fracture, and shattering.” (Perhaps if we take Shattering the Muses as a “novel” we could imagine that the events within take place in Naso’s stretched consciousness—a more secure place for such horrors than, uh, historical reality). When we first meet him, he’s leaving New York for Berlin, forced to abandon most of his books and store them in his brother’s garage. His brother’s house and garage are flooded by Hurricane Sandy, but his library miraculously survives. And yet the historical accounts of book burnings (and human burnings) cataloged in Shattering the Music attest that no library is ever safe. As Milton suggests, libricide and homicide are intertwined.
Hence, other background “characters” emerge more prominently than others in Shattering the Muses: Hitler, Mussolini, the Gestapo. The specter of the Nazis and the Holocaust weigh heavily here, heavier than the (many) other libriciders documented. Against this evil Hanshe gives us a resistance—a wonderful chapter lingers on Samuel Beckett, who’s escaped Occupied Paris to hide in the small village of Roussillon. There, “separated from his library…literary freedom erupts” for Beckett. Absence is a generative power.
Other figures resist through art, even if they perish in the horror, like Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered by the Nazis near Győr and tossed into a mass grave. In a poetic turn, Hanshe notes “it is a daring Marsyas that he becomes, risking his flesh doubly before a merciless & savage Apollo, for he will not cast his aulos to the turf of the riverbank.” Deft touches like these link this “novel’s” motifs of beauty and destruction, art and murder.
A narrative forms too from more oblique strategies—a plague of mutating billboards, for instance, or spiderwebs of poetry. Handbills, demands, stray bits of philosophy. But maybe I’m back where I started—go all the way back to the title here: This is not a review of Shattering the Muses. I can’t properly parse it, really. It’s overwhelming—linguistically, philosophically, typographically, aesthetically. Intellectually is a word to use here. Hell. It’s a lot to digest all at once. Let me admit that I’m more interested in picking at it slowly. Hanshe’s put a lot of material on the table. It’s a rich meal.
Who is Shattering the Muses for? I hope that I’ve shared enough snippets to give you a sense of what (might be) happening here. I enjoyed it, and enjoy it more in the sense of a text to return to. At the same time, this book is clearly Not For Everyone. Shattering the Muses is an encyclopedic poem, a Choose Your Own Adventure story of aesthetic horror and loss. It’s not likely to cohere for you quickly and neatly, but it’s a weird joy to think (and feel) through.
Last word goes to the Text:
Beware the Book?
Beware the Purifiers!
For years after, there were tales told in Colorado of the amazing, world-reversing night of Fourth of July Eve 1899. Next day’d be full of rodeos, marching bands, and dynamite explosions—but that night there was man-made lightning, horses gone crazy for miles out into the prairie, electricity flooding up through the iron of their shoes, shoes that when they finally came off and got saved to use for cowboy quoits, including important picnic tourneys from Fruita to Cheyenne Wells, why they would fly directly and stick on to the spike in the ground, or to anything else nearby made of iron or steel, that’s when they weren’t collecting souvenirs on their way through the air—gunmen’s guns came right up out of their holsters and buck knives out from under pants legs, keys to traveling ladies’ hotel rooms and office safes, miners’ tags, fencenails, hairpins, all seeking the magnetic memory of that long-ago visit. Veterans of the Rebellion fixing to march in parades were unable to get to sleep, metallic elements had so got to humming through their bloodmaps. Children who drank the milk from the dairy cows who grazed nearby were found leaning against telegraph poles listening to the traffic speeding by through the wires above their heads, or going off to work in stockbrokers’ offices where, unsymmetrically intimate with the daily flow of prices, they were able to amass fortunes before anyone noticed. .
A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.
One way to measure how great a work of literature is might be to ask how true (or “True,” if one is feeling particularly romantic) the writing is. We can find facts anywhere, but details and data are not the same as art. Great literature happens in the arrangement of that data, by presenting details with the right ear and eye for truth—and also, the good sense to know what to withhold from the audience, who, after all, are a part of the equation. The stories collected in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, both inspiriting and crushing, are some of the most psychologically true pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.
First Love collects nine stories, all composed and published in the 1950s; all but one was originally published in The New Yorker. Although discrete entities, the stories function together. First Love is very much a novel-in-stories, with recurring characters, themes, and motifs. Brodkey’s stories document the strange little bubble of time between WWII and the turmoil of the sixties, and his writing, a kind of late modernism, reflects this period, when the ideal of the American Dream began to be redefined in terms of new modes of class and education.
The first few stories in the collection are told from the first-person perspective of an adolescent, likely an iteration of Brodkey himself. Opener “State of Grace” serves as an overture to the collection, introducing a family that will be transposed throughout the tales. There’s the narrator, a sensitive, awkward boy, beginning to feel strains of alienation from his older sister and his mother. Dad is out of the picture, and with him, the family’s fortunes have fallen: big sis is expected to marry the right man for money—and for class.
These themes are explored in greater length in the very-long short story “First Love and Other Sorrows,” a compact little novella, really, that everyone should read at some point. The narrator, likely the same boy from the first story, describes his life at the end of his high school career in St. Louis, as he prepares to move on to college soon. Again, the major explicit conflict of the story revolves around his sister’s romances, as their mother pressures her to marry the right man. The real conflict though is the boy’s emerging realization of his own dramatic detachment from his family; or, more accurately, the young man is coming to realize the underlying instability that adults tend to hide from children. The boy observes his older sister, whom he reveres—
It occurred to me that she didn’t really know what she was doing; she was not really as sure of everything as she seemed. It was a painfully difficult thought to arrive at, and it clung to me. Why hadn’t I realized it before? Also, she sort of hated me, it seemed to me. I had never noticed that before, either. How could I have been so wrong, I wondered. Knowing how wrong I had been about this, I felt that no idea I had ever had was safe. For instance, we were not necessarily a happy family, with the most wonderful destinies for my sister and me. We might make mistakes and choose wrong. Unhappiness was real. It was even likely…
The narrator’s epiphany is articulate and crushing and wholly real: it documents the ugly realization that the fantasies of a middle class childhood — “happily ever after” — are, indeed, mere fantasies. Brodkey twins this moment in another epiphany at the end of the story that I would love to discuss but fear spoiling; suffice to say that the final line of the story, forever etched in my brain, is simply one of the finest and most fitting moments I’ve ever read.
The next story, “The Quarrel,” finds our young hero, a bit more jaded, off to Harvard, where he falls in with a bitter rich kid named Duncan; they quickly make it their business to despise everything, adopting (unearned) world-weary poses and contrarian natures. Against the advice of their families, the two take a semester off college to tour Europe, spending much of their time bicycling across France. The story documents the kind of friendships that many young people emerging from adolescence engage in: fierce, passionate, identity-defining relationships that always buckle under their own weight. Hence—
Duncan enjoyed Pernod. It made me sick. Duncan hated talking to people. I talked to everyone. My French vocabulary was better than Duncan’s. His pronunciation was better than mine. I became terribly adept at not irritating Duncan before breakfast. I couldn’t see that he appreciated any of this, or that he responded with any similar awareness. For the fiftieth time, I thought him unfair. The moment came when I could no longer stand the sound of his voice, or his ideas. After traveling with him day and night, without a break, for fifty-three days, I felt my senses suffocating in an awareness of Duncan.
“The Quarrel” perfectly captures the strange paradoxes of youthful, immature friendships that can’t survive; reading it forced me to remember myself at eighteen, and to recall a friendship similar to that between the narrator and Duncan, an intense friendship that burned out bitterly and quickly, yet nevertheless helped me to define myself.
“The Quarrel” is the last story in the collection written in first-person perspective; indeed, Brodkey’s narrative shift signals a shift in development; as his characters age (as they do through the collection), he allows himself to step outside of them a bit, as if the psychological pain he explores is almost too much to bear. “Sentimental Education” tells the story of an intense first love (the male lead seems like another iteration of the narrator from the first three stories). In a free indirect style, Brodkey glamorizes, valorizes, and satirizes the young lovers, all at once, exploring the passion and shame and confusion of early adulthood. Here, he describes what happens when the pair begin a sexual relationship—
Their first dip in sensual waters left them nonplussed. They didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to persuade themselves that something had really happened, but the minute it was over, they couldn’t believe they had ever done such a thing. They rushed into further experiences; they broke off in the middle of embraces and looked at each other, stunned and delighted. “Is this really happening?” they both asked at different times, and each time the other said, “No,” and they would laugh. They knew that nothing they did was real, was actual. They had received a blow on the head and were prey to erotic imaginings, that was all. But at the same time they half realized it was true, they were doing these things, and then the fact that they, Caroline and Elgin, shared such intimacy dazed and fascinated them; and when they were together, they tried to conceal it, but this indescribable attraction they felt for each other kept making itself known and draining all the strength from their bodies.
“Sentimental Education” retraces the fallout explored in “The Quarrel,” as the young lovers inevitably fall apart.
After this love story, Brodkey shifts his attention to a character named Laura (or, in one version, “Laurie”), who seems to be a version of the narrator’s sister from the first few stories. The five Laura stories are much shorter than the other narratives. These tightly detailed miniature portraits trace the development of Laura as she chooses the man her mother didn’t approve of; this plot is very much in the background of the stories, though, an implicit detail that nevertheless hangs over Laura’s psychological development. The Laura stories seem to trace what it means to grow old but not mature. They recall the narrator in “First Love and Other Stories” epiphany that adulthood might be a murky or unhappy place. “Laura” documents postpartum depression and “Trio for Three Gentle Voices” subtly explores the ways in which parents seek to avoid repeating their own parents’ mistakes. “Piping Down the Valley’s Wild” is a simple, elegant story about Laura’s husband’s college roommate coming over for dinner. Reading it, I experienced an uncanny transposition, as if I were observing a reinterpretation of something I experienced a few weekends ago. The story ends with another sad epiphany—
She just wanted this day to go on forever and ever, unending, with all its joys intact, and no one changing, nothing new happening, just these same things occurring over and over. Because how did you know happiness would come back? Or if it came back, that it would be as good as this? Laura sighed and wiped her eyes surreptitiously. The trouble with being happy was that it made you frightened.
This realization again encodes the paradox of adulthood, pointing toward its radical instability. To grow up, in Brodkey’s terms (terms I again point out strike me as utterly true) is to face irretrievable loss at every single moment, even as you gain new friends, new lovers, or new children. The joys of life are predicated on the necessary loss of these joys: existence costs.
First Love and Other Sorrows is a book that deserves more attention. In its spirit and art, it matches (and surpasses) other mid-century American narratives like The Catcher in the Rye or The Glass Menagerie, and in its spare, precise, minimal style, it points toward the later fiction of writers like Raymond Carver. This is a beautiful, sad book, the kind that leaves a deep impression. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this review in April of 2011].
Patricide: Patricide is a bad idea, first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide! — member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere. Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving toward a golden age of decency, quiet, and calmed fevers. Your contribution will not be a small one, but “small” is one of the concepts that you should shoot for. If your father was a captain in Battery D, then content yourself with a corporalship in the same battery. Do not attend the annual reunions. Do not drink beer or sing songs at the reunions. Begin by whispering, in front of a mirror, for thirty minutes a day. Then tie your hands behind your back for thirty minutes a day, or get someone else to do this for you. Then, choose one of your most deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that your honors and awards have something to do with you, and abjure it. Friends will help you abjure it, and can be telephoned if you begin to backslide. You see the pattern, put it into practice. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least “turned down” in this generation — by the combined efforts of all of us together.
From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.
Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.
I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.
Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.
In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—
It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.
Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.
The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—
That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.
Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].
English translation by Constance Garnett
IN the course of the maneuvres the N—— cavalry regiment halted for a night at the district town of K——. Such an event as the visit of officers always has the most exciting and inspiring effect on the inhabitants of provincial towns. The shopkeepers dream of getting rid of the rusty sausages and “best brand” sardines that have been lying for ten years on their shelves; the inns and restaurants keep open all night; the Military Commandant, his secretary, and the local garrison put on their best uniforms; the police flit to and fro like mad, while the effect on the ladies is beyond all description.
The ladies of K——, hearing the regiment approaching, forsook their pans of boiling jam and ran into the street. Forgetting their morning deshabille and general untidiness, they rushed breathless with excitement to meet the regiment, and listened greedily to the band playing the march. Looking at their pale, ecstatic faces, one might have thought those strains came from some heavenly choir rather than from a military brass band.
“The regiment!” they cried joyfully. “The regiment is coming!”
What could this unknown regiment that came by chance to-day and would depart at dawn to-morrow mean to them?
Afterwards, when the officers were standing in the middle of the square, and, with their hands behind them, discussing the question of billets, all the ladies were gathered together at the examining magistrate’s and vying with one another in their criticisms of the regiment. They already knew, goodness knows how, that the colonel was married, but not living with his wife; that the senior officer’s wife had a baby born dead every year; that the adjutant was hopelessly in love with some countess, and had even once attempted suicide. They knew everything. When a pock-marked soldier in a red shirt darted past the windows, they knew for certain that it was Lieutenant Rymzov’s orderly running about the town, trying to get some English bitter ale on tick for his master. They had only caught a passing glimpse of the officers’ backs, but had already decided that there was not one handsome or interesting man among them…. Having talked to their hearts’ content, they sent for the Military Commandant and the committee of the club, and instructed them at all costs to make arrangements for a dance.
Their wishes were carried out. At nine o’clock in the evening the military band was playing in the street before the club, while in the club itself the officers were dancing with the ladies of K——. The ladies felt as though they were on wings. Intoxicated by the dancing, the music, and the clank of spurs, they threw themselves heart and soul into making the acquaintance of their new partners, and quite forgot their old civilian friends. Their fathers and husbands, forced temporarily into the background, crowded round the meagre refreshment table in the entrance hall. All these government cashiers, secretaries, clerks, and superintendents—stale, sickly-looking, clumsy figures—were perfectly well aware of their inferiority. They did not even enter the ball-room, but contented themselves with watching their wives and daughters in the distance dancing with the accomplished and graceful officers.
Among the husbands was Shalikov, the tax-collector—a narrow, spiteful soul, given to drink, with a big, closely cropped head, and thick, protruding lips. He had had a university education; there had been a time when he used to read progressive literature and sing students’ songs, but now, as he said of himself, he was a tax-collector and nothing more.
He stood leaning against the doorpost, his eyes fixed on his wife, Anna Pavlovna, a little brunette of thirty, with a long nose and a pointed chin. Tightly laced, with her face carefully powdered, she danced without pausing for breath—danced till she was ready to drop exhausted. But though she was exhausted in body, her spirit was inexhaustible…. One could see as she danced that her thoughts were with the past, that faraway past when she used to dance at the “College for Young Ladies,” dreaming of a life of luxury and gaiety, and never doubting that her husband was to be a prince or, at the worst, a baron.
The tax-collector watched, scowling with spite….
It was not jealousy he was feeling. He was ill-humoured—first, because the room was taken up with dancing and there was nowhere he could play a game of cards; secondly, because he could not endure the sound of wind instruments; and, thirdly, because he fancied the officers treated the civilians somewhat too casually and disdainfully. But what above everything revolted him and moved him to indignation was the expression of happiness on his wife’s face.
“It makes me sick to look at her!” he muttered. “Going on for forty, and nothing to boast of at any time, and she must powder her face and lace herself up! And frizzing her hair! Flirting and making faces, and fancying she’s doing the thing in style! Ugh! you’re a pretty figure, upon my soul!”
Anna Pavlovna was so lost in the dance that she did not once glance at her husband.
“Of course not! Where do we poor country bumpkins come in!” sneered the tax-collector.
“We are at a discount now…. We’re clumsy seals, unpolished provincial bears, and she’s the queen of the ball! She has kept enough of her looks to please even officers … They’d not object to making love to her, I dare say!”
During the mazurka the tax-collector’s face twitched with spite. A black-haired officer with prominent eyes and Tartar cheekbones danced the mazurka with Anna Pavlovna. Assuming a stern expression, he worked his legs with gravity and feeling, and so crooked his knees that he looked like a jack-a-dandy pulled by strings, while Anna Pavlovna, pale and thrilled, bending her figure languidly and turning her eyes up, tried to look as though she scarcely touched the floor, and evidently felt herself that she was not on earth, not at the local club, but somewhere far, far away—in the clouds. Not only her face but her whole figure was expressive of beatitude…. The tax-collector could endure it no longer; he felt a desire to jeer at that beatitude, to make Anna Pavlovna feel that she had forgotten herself, that life was by no means so delightful as she fancied now in her excitement….
“You wait; I’ll teach you to smile so blissfully,” he muttered. “You are not a boarding-school miss, you are not a girl. An old fright ought to realise she is a fright!”
Petty feelings of envy, vexation, wounded vanity, of that small, provincial misanthropy engendered in petty officials by vodka and a sedentary life, swarmed in his heart like mice. Waiting for the end of the mazurka, he went into the hall and walked up to his wife. Anna Pavlovna was sitting with her partner, and, flirting her fan and coquettishly dropping her eyelids, was describing how she used to dance in Petersburg (her lips were pursed up like a rosebud, and she pronounced “at home in Pütürsburg”).
“Anyuta, let us go home,” croaked the tax-collector.
Seeing her husband standing before her, Anna Pavlovna started as though recalling the fact that she had a husband; then she flushed all over: she felt ashamed that she had such a sickly-looking, ill-humoured, ordinary husband.
“Let us go home,” repeated the tax-collector.
“Why? It’s quite early!”
“I beg you to come home!” said the tax-collector deliberately, with a spiteful expression.
“Why? Has anything happened?” Anna Pavlovna asked in a flutter.
“Nothing has happened, but I wish you to go home at once…. I wish it; that’s enough, and without further talk, please.”
Anna Pavlovna was not afraid of her husband, but she felt ashamed on account of her partner, who was looking at her husband with surprise and amusement. She got up and moved a little apart with her husband.
“What notion is this?” she began. “Why go home? Why, it’s not eleven o’clock.”
“I wish it, and that’s enough. Come along, and that’s all about it.”
“Don’t be silly! Go home alone if you want to.”
“All right; then I shall make a scene.”
The tax-collector saw the look of beatitude gradually vanish from his wife’s face, saw how ashamed and miserable she was—and he felt a little happier.
“Why do you want me at once?” asked his wife.
“I don’t want you, but I wish you to be at home. I wish it, that’s all.”
At first Anna Pavlovna refused to hear of it, then she began entreating her husband to let her stay just another half-hour; then, without knowing why, she began to apologise, to protest—and all in a whisper, with a smile, that the spectators might not suspect that she was having a tiff with her husband. She began assuring him she would not stay long, only another ten minutes, only five minutes; but the tax-collector stuck obstinately to his point.
“Stay if you like,” he said, “but I’ll make a scene if you do.”
And as she talked to her husband Anna Pavlovna looked thinner, older, plainer. Pale, biting her lips, and almost crying, she went out to the entry and began putting on her things.
“You are not going?” asked the ladies in surprise. “Anna Pavlovna, you are not going, dear?”
“Her head aches,” said the tax-collector for his wife.
Coming out of the club, the husband and wife walked all the way home in silence. The tax-collector walked behind his wife, and watching her downcast, sorrowful, humiliated little figure, he recalled the look of beatitude which had so irritated him at the club, and the consciousness that the beatitude was gone filled his soul with triumph. He was pleased and satisfied, and at the same time he felt the lack of something; he would have liked to go back to the club and make every one feel dreary and miserable, so that all might know how stale and worthless life is when you walk along the streets in the dark and hear the slush of the mud under your feet, and when you know that you will wake up next morning with nothing to look forward to but vodka and cards. Oh, how awful it is!
And Anna Pavlovna could scarcely walk…. She was still under the influence of the dancing, the music, the talk, the lights, and the noise; she asked herself as she walked along why God had thus afflicted her. She felt miserable, insulted, and choking with hate as she listened to her husband’s heavy footsteps. She was silent, trying to think of the most offensive, biting, and venomous word she could hurl at her husband, and at the same time she was fully aware that no word could penetrate her tax-collector’s hide. What did he care for words? Her bitterest enemy could not have contrived for her a more helpless position.
And meanwhile the band was playing and the darkness was full of the most rousing, intoxicating dance-tunes.
“The Wrong Direction”
Translated by Richard Howard
Rain water has accumulated in the bottom of a shallow depression, forming among the trees a great pool roughly circular in shape and about thirty feet across. The soil is black around the edges of the pool, without showing the slightest trace of vegetation between the straight, tall trunks. In this part of the forest there are no thickets, no underbrush of any kind. The ground is covered instead by an even layer of felt, composed of twigs and leaves crumbled to veiny skeletons upon which, here and there, a few patches of half-rotten moss are barely discernible. High above the boles the bare branches
stand out sharply against the sky.
The water is quite tranparent, although brownish in color. Tiny fragments that have fallen from the trees—twigs, empty pods, strips of bark—accumulate at the bottom and steep there all winter long. But nothing is floating on the water, nothing breaks the uniformly polished surface. There is not the slightest breath of wind to disturb its perfection.
The weather has cleared. The day is drawing to its close. The sun is low on the left, behind the tree trunks. Its weakly slanting rays describe a few narrow, luminous stripes across the surface of the pool, alternating with wider bands of shadow.
Parallel to these stripes, a row of huge trees stands at the edge of the water on the opposite bank; perfectly cylindrical, without any low branches, they extend themselves downward to meet their reflections which are far more vivid than the trunks themselves; by contrast the trees seem almost indistinct, perhaps even blurred. In the black water the symmetrical boles gleam as if they were varnished, and on the sides facing the setting sun a last touch of light confirms their contours.
However, this admirable landscape is not only upside down, but discontinuous as well. The rays of the sun that crosshatch the mirror-like surface interrupt the reflection at regular intervals perpendicular to the trunks; one’s vision is obscured by the very intensity of the light which reveals innumerable particles suspended in the upper layer of the water. It is only in the zones of shadow, where these tiny particles are invisible, that the brilliance of the reflection can now be remarked. Thus each trunk is interrupted at apparently equal intervals by a series of uncertain rings (something like the rings on the trees themselves), so that this whole forest “in depth” has the appearance of a checkerboard.
Within reach of one’s hand, near the southern bank, the branches of the reflection overlap some old, sunken leaves, rust-colored but still whole, whose perfect outlines contrast sharply with the background of mud—they are oak leaves.
Someone walking noiselessly on this carpet of humus has appeared at the right, heading for the water. He walks to the edge and stops. The sun is in his eyes and he has to step to
one side to be able to make out anything at all.
Then he sees the striped surface of the pool. But from where he is standing the reflection of the trunks coincides with their shadows—partially at least, for the trees in front of him are not perfectly straight. The light in his eyes keeps him from seeing anything clearly, and there are certainly no oak leaves at his feet.
This was the place toward which he was walking. Or has he just discovered that he came the wrong way? Afer a few uncertain glances around him, he turns back toward the east, walking through the woods as silently as before along the path by which he had come.
The place is deserted again. The sun is still at the same height on the left; the light has not changed. Across the pool, the sleek, straight boles are reflected in the unrippled water, perpendicular to the rays of the setting sun.
At the bottom of the bands of darkness gleam the truncated reflections of the columns upside down and black, miraculously washed.
At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled a frog, wishing for more, and—presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.
The prince was adorable—all the girls at the bridge club, squirming with envy, said so—though you could still see the effects his previous residence had had on him. He had heavy-lidded eyes and a wide mouth like a hand puppet’s, his complexion was a bit off, and his loose-fitting skin was thin and clammy. His semen had a muddy taste, like the pond he came from, and his little apparatus was disappointing, but his tongue was amazing. It could reach the deepest recesses, triggering sensations she’d never known before. His crown was not worn like a hat—it grew out of his head like horns and sometimes got in the way—but his tongue was long enough for detours and tickled other parts on the path in. It gave him not so much a lisp as a consonantal slurp, making gibberish out of his sweet nothings, but talking was never the main thing between them.
Denis Johnson, one of the greatest American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, has died at the age of 67.
In books including Jesus’ Son, Angels, Tree of Smoke, and Fiskadoro, Johnson created vibrant, intense worlds, simultaneously tragic and hilarious, peopled with weirdos and druggies, criminals and soldiers, those who harm and those who cure. Describing Johnson’s prose style requires employing paradox: His prose seems spare, but it’s also incredibly rich; his narratives dwell in rough realism, but this description belies the refined magic of his writing. Johnson painted a damned and fallen world again and again in his novels, but made a space for his characters to earn redemption. His characters, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come off as cartoonish grotesques, but Johnson’s realism extended into their psyches. The man could create souls.
I cannot understate the impact Johnson’s writing made on my development as a reader. I think I first read Johnson’s story “Emergency” in a collection of stories edited by Tobias Wolff; it was on the reading list for a creative writing class I was taking my first semester of college, and I learned more from analyzing the way Johnson put sentences together than I did from anything else. I made a friend read the story; told another friend about it and he said, “Of course,” and made the mistake of loaning me his first edition hardback copy of Jesus’ Son, which had been out for maybe four or five years at the time. I never gave it back, and it remains one of the books I’ve read the most times over the past 20 years.
Johnson’s novel-in-stories Jesus’ Son is the perfect gateway drug to hook 18-year olds on a particular kind of American literature forever. Those interested in Johnson should also check out his debut 1983 novel Angels, his perfect novella Train Dreams, or his Vietnam War opus, Tree of Smoke: All make excellent starting places.
I’ll close with one of my favorite paragraphs, the last lines of “Beverly Home,” the last story in Jesus’ Son. The lines encapsulate Johnson’s vision of his world, his characters’ place in that world, and the redemptive spirit that might guide us to create a place for people like us:
All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.
I’ll be reposting some of the stuff I’ve written on this blog about Johnson’s books all day today, but for anyone interested, here a bunch of links:
Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson (second review)
Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson (first review)
Claudio and Isabella, 1850 by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)
From William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1:
Yes. Has he affections in him,
That thus can make him bite the law by the nose,
When he would force it? Sure, it is no sin,
Or of the deadly seven, it is the least.
Which is the least?
If it were damnable, he being so wise,
Why would he for the momentary trick
Be perdurably fined? O Isabel!
What says my brother?
Death is a fearful thing.
And shamed life a hateful.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.