Blog about a particular Gordon Lish sentence

A new literary magazine called Egress debuts in the UK this month and in the US next month. I have read an advance copy and it is Very Good. Egress features, for lack of a better term (although there are better terms; I’m just being lazy) experimental short fiction. It might be better just to list some of the authors featured in the inaugural issue: Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, David Hayden, Sam Lipsyte, Evan Lavender-Smith, and Gordon Lish (there are more).

There are two shorties by Lish in the collection. Both are Very Good and Very Funny. One of them, “Jawbone,” is about a narrator killing two bugs.

Have I spoiled Lish’s “Jawbone” by revealing its intricate plot (i.e., the murder (murders?) of a pair of (possibly copulating) bugs)? No, not really—for the story is really about language itself (which like so a lot of Lish’s fictions are ultimately about, yes?)

There’s a sentence in “Jawbone” that I could not leave alone. I kept reading it and rereading it, and then read it aloud almost rapturously:

Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.

The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky, elevated and base, smooth and harsh. The alliteration is at once sumptuous and unbearable–ells and kays fray into esses and zees; tittering alveolar touches stutter throughout the thirty-six syllables. The repetitions clip along, cleverer in the end than they at first seem: “was there in there on duty on the nightbeat” builds with a force that shuttles into not one but two “last nights,” a bit of redundant fun. Should a sentence of 27 words contain so many prepositions? I guess this one should. I would go on about the hyperbolic brilliance of the line but maybe that’s pinning it down a bit too much, which is not what one should really do with such a clean upstanding decent ugly sentence. (“Crapper”!).

Let’s close by connecting Lish’s ironic hyperbolic sentence to what I take to be the namesake of his short vengeful tale, an episode in the book of Judges. After tying together 300 fox tails and lighting them on fire, the great (and eventually-blinded) hero Samson kills a bunch of Philistines (Philistines!) with the jawbone of an ass. He then gets thirsty and God Provides Some Water from yon jawbone. Here is Judges 15:16, King James Version on this matter: “And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.

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Samson with the Jawbone, 1636 by Salomon de Bray (1597 – 1664)

And here—I mean, I hope I’m not being too tacky in revealing the last line but, Lish, but—

Well, fuck, bugs – I mean, what can anyone really do?

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“The New Thing,” short story by Robert Coover

“The New Thing”

by

Robert Coover


He attempted, he urging her on, the new thing. The old thing had served them well, but they were tired of it, more than tired. Had the old thing ever been new? Perhaps, but not in their experience of it. For them, it was always the old thing, sometimes the good old thing, other times just the old thing, there like air or stones, part (so to speak) of the furniture of the world into which they had moved and from which, sooner or later, they would move out. It was not at first obvious to them that this world had room for a new thing, it being the nature of old things to display themselves or to be displayed in timeless immutable patterns. Later, they would ask themselves why this was so, the question not occurring to them until she had attempted the new thing, but for now the only question that they asked (he asked it, actually), when she suggested it, was: why not? A fateful choice, though not so lightly taken as his reply may make it seem, for both had come to view the old thing as not merely old or even dead but as a kind of, alive or dead, ancestral curse, inhibitory and perverse and ripe for challenge, impossible or even unimaginable though the new thing seemed until she tried it. And then, when with such success she did, her novelty responding to his appetite for it, the new thing displaced the old thing overnight. Not literally, of course, the old thing remained, but cast now into shadow, as the furniture of the world, shifting without shifting, lost its familiar arrangements. The old thing was still the old thing, the world was still the world, its furniture its furniture, yet nothing was the same, nor would it ever be, they knew, again. It felt?though as in a dream so transformed was everything?like waking up. This was exhilarating (his word), liberating (hers), and greatly enhanced their delight? she whooped, he giggled, this was fun!? in the new thing, which they both enjoyed as much and as often as they could.

Read the rest of Robert Coover’s “The New Thing” at The Iowa Review

Blog about starting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog about Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

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

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

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

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

She decided not to give up her seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington

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“White Rabbits”

by

Leonora Carrington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any stinking meat? Decomposed flesh … meat?”

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

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

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

“Easter Eve” — Anton Chekhov

“Easter Eve”

by

Anton Chekhov


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll give you the five kopecks.”

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

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

A very short riff on a compelling Stephen Crane character (and six marvelous paragraphs of Crane’s prose)

I took a few paperback books with me when I went camping two weeks ago, but I didn’t actually read from them. Instead, I wound up reading (or rereading in some cases) a few of the tales in Stephen Crane’s collection The Open Boat and Other Stories, which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg onto my iPad thanks to a data connection from my phone. Rain was pouring down on my tent and for some reason, I want to reread “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” popped into my head, so I made it happen. I don’t know how these details are germane to anything I am trying to say here.

What I am trying to say here is that I didn’t read “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” right away. Instead, I read a story I’d never read before, “A Man and Some Others.” This tale contains some of the most fantastic sentences I’ve read in ages. (This is what I’m trying to say here: That “A Man and Some Others” contains some magical fucking prose).

Here is the opening paragraph:

Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dim, of the substance of a spectre’s veil, appeared in the south-west, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.

I confess that I might have had some beers and Bushmills that evening, but I read and reread the opening sentences of “A Man and Some Others” in a little loop, hypnotized by the way Crane’s prose collapses human agency into an overwhelming naturalism—a naturalism with just the slightest Romantic touch of “a spectre’s veil.” (In “The Open Boat,” Crane demonstrates a more masterful and more complete grappling of naturalism resisting (and perhaps ultimately synthesizing) the Romantic traces of his transcendentalist forebears. But that’s a topic for another riff).

“A Man and Some Others” is about a cowboy named Bill. Threatened off a range that he claims as his own by Mexican ranchers who see otherwise, Bill retaliates. Along the way he meets a stranger—a stand-in for Crane, perhaps—who bears witness to the whole fandango. As a story, “A Man and Some Others” is slight, a thin premise that exists primarily as a space for Bill to swagger around in for a few pages. Sure, there could be a critique of Manifest Destiny somewhere in there, but Crane’s tale never coheres into a fully realized allegory or satire (as the poet John Berryman pointed out in his study of Crane, “Crane‘s humor, finally, and his irony are felt as weird or incomprehensible.” Berryman was referring to War Is Kind, but the description fits here as well).

Crane’s humor and irony are on vivid display in the six paragraphs that make up the second short chapter of “A Man and Some Others.” In this section, we get the improbable and wild life story of Bill, which reads on the one hand as a hyperbolic archetype of American machoism, a kind of fabulous legend of Manifest Destiny. On the other hand, Bill’s bio strikes the reader as so thoroughly and lovingly true that it seems Crane must have wholly plagiarized the life of a real individual (or at least combined a few wild but true stories from a handful of folks).

I won’t comment any further, but instead offer those six paragraphs, which I simply could never improve upon:

Bill had been a mine-owner in Wyoming, a great man, an aristocrat, one who possessed unlimited credit in the saloons down the gulch. He had the social weight that could interrupt a lynching or advise a bad man of the particular merits of a remote geographical point. However, the fates exploded the toy balloon with which they had amused Bill, and on the evening of the same day he was a professional gambler with ill-fortune dealing him unspeakable irritation in the shape of three big cards whenever another fellow stood pat. It is well here to inform the world that Bill considered his calamities of life all dwarfs in comparison with the excitement of one particular evening, when three kings came to him with criminal regularity against a man who always filled a straight. Later he became a cow-boy, more weirdly abandoned than if he had never been an aristocrat. By this time all that remained of his former splendour was his pride, or his vanity, which was one thing which need not have remained. He killed the foreman of the ranch over an inconsequent matter as to which of them was a liar, and the midnight train carried him eastward. He became a brakeman on the Union Pacific, and really gained high honours in the hobo war that for many years has devastated the beautiful railroads of our country. A creature of ill-fortune himself, he practised all the ordinary cruelties upon these other creatures of ill-fortune. He was of so fierce a mien that tramps usually surrendered at once whatever coin or tobacco they had in their possession; and if afterward he kicked them from the train, it was only because this was a recognized treachery of the war upon the hoboes. In a famous battle fought in Nebraska in 1879, he would have achieved a lasting distinction if it had not been for a deserter from the United States army. He was at the head of a heroic and sweeping charge, which really broke the power of the hoboes in that country for three months; he had already worsted four tramps with his own coupling-stick, when a stone thrown by the ex-third baseman of F Troop’s nine laid him flat on the prairie, and later enforced a stay in the hospital in Omaha. After his recovery he engaged with other railroads, and shuffled cars in countless yards. An order to strike came upon him in Michigan, and afterward the vengeance of the railroad pursued him until he assumed a name. This mask is like the darkness in which the burglar chooses to move. It destroys many of the healthy fears. It is a small thing, but it eats that which we call our conscience. The conductor of No. 419 stood in the caboose within two feet of Bill’s nose, and called him a liar. Bill requested him to use a milder term. He had not bored the foreman of Tin Can Ranch with any such request, but had killed him with expedition. The conductor seemed to insist, and so Bill let the matter drop.

He became the bouncer of a saloon on the Bowery in New York. Here most of his fights were as successful as had been his brushes with the hoboes in the West. He gained the complete admiration of the four clean bar-tenders who stood behind the great and glittering bar. He was an honoured man. He nearly killed Bad Hennessy, who, as a matter of fact, had more reputation than ability, and his fame moved up the Bowery and down the Bowery.

But let a man adopt fighting as his business, and the thought grows constantly within him that it is his business to fight. These phrases became mixed in Bill’s mind precisely as they are here mixed; and let a man get this idea in his mind, and defeat begins to move toward him over the unknown ways of circumstances. One summer night three sailors from the U.S.S. Seattle sat in the saloon drinking and attending to other people’s affairs in an amiable fashion. Bill was a proud man since he had thrashed so many citizens, and it suddenly occurred to him that the loud talk of the sailors was very offensive. So he swaggered upon their attention, and warned them that the saloon was the flowery abode of peace and gentle silence. They glanced at him in surprise, and without a moment’s pause consigned him to a worse place than any stoker of them knew. Whereupon he flung one of them through the side door before the others could prevent it. On the sidewalk there was a short struggle, with many hoarse epithets in the air, and then Bill slid into the saloon again. A frown of false rage was upon his brow, and he strutted like a savage king. He took a long yellow night-stick from behind the lunch-counter, and started importantly toward the main doors to see that the incensed seamen did not again enter.

The ways of sailormen are without speech, and, together in the street, the three sailors exchanged no word, but they moved at once. Landsmen would have required two years of discussion to gain such unanimity. In silence, and immediately, they seized a long piece of scantling that lay handily. With one forward to guide the battering-ram, and with two behind him to furnish the power, they made a beautiful curve, and came down like the Assyrians on the front door of that saloon.

Mystic and still mystic are the laws of fate. Bill, with his kingly frown and his long night-stick, appeared at precisely that moment in the doorway. He stood like a statue of victory; his pride was at its zenith; and in the same second this atrocious piece of scantling punched him in the bulwarks of his stomach, and he vanished like a mist. Opinions differed as to where the end of the scantling landed him, but it was ultimately clear that it landed him in south-western Texas, where he became a sheep-herder.

The sailors charged three times upon the plate-glass front of the saloon, and when they had finished, it looked as if it had been the victim of a rural fire company’s success in saving it from the flames. As the proprietor of the place surveyed the ruins, he remarked that Bill was a very zealous guardian of property. As the ambulance surgeon surveyed Bill, he remarked that the wound was really an excavation.

“Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task”

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This week’s New York Times Magazine offers a compelling profile of Gerald Murnane. The profile, by Mark Binelli, is an expansive and engaging look at the Australian author, whose cult will undoubtedly grow larger after this exposure. From Binelli’s piece:

Murnane’s books are strange and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe in a sentence or two. After his third novel, “The Plains,” a fable-like story reminiscent of Italo Calvino published in 1982, Murnane largely turned away from what might be called conventional narrative pleasures. Dispensing almost entirely with plot and character, his later works are essayistic meditations on his own past, a personal mythology as attuned to the epic ordinariness of lost time as Proust, except with Murnane it’s horse races, a boyhood marble collection, Catholic sexual hang-ups and life as a househusband in the suburban Melbourne of the 1970s.

Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task. Even by the standards of the solitary writer, his eccentricities are manifest. He has never flown on an airplane; in fact, he has barely traveled outside of Victoria. In a 2001 speech that has become legend among Murnanophiles, he informed an audience at the University of Newcastle of his longstanding belief that “a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done.”

A lovely section from later in Binelli’s essay touches on Murnane’s archives:

Murnane began keeping the archives more than 50 years ago, both for posterity and to satisfy his own meticulous sense of order, and he has left strict instructions regarding their contents, which are not to be made public until after his own death and the death of his surviving siblings. (He has one brother, a Catholic priest, and a sister; another brother, who was born with an intellectual disability and was repeatedly hospitalized, died in 1985.) Nonetheless, Murnane opened the cabinets to give me a sense of their contents. His so-called Chronological Archive is stuffed with hanging files covering each period of his life and featuring headings like “I rebuff a wealthy widow,” “I fall out with an arrogant student of mine,” “Two women bother me,” “I decide that most books are crap,” “Hoaxes! How I love them!” and “Peter Carey exposed at last.” He also has multiple drafts of his 13 books; letters addressed, as in a time capsule, to a future Murnane scholar, whom he imagines as a young woman, and whom he addresses in the letters as “Fc,” for “future creature”; a notebook of 20,000 words titled “My Shame File”; a 40,000-word report on miraculous or unexplained events in his life; and a 75,000-word account of his dealings with everyone he has ever courted romantically or considered courting.

Read the profile at The New York Times Magazine.

You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate (Flannery O’Connor)

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories.” Collected in Mystery and Manners.

Like trying to read a hundred poems at once | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for March 24th, 1856

We first went into Wolsey’s great Hall, up a most spacious staircase, the walls and ceiling of which were covered with an allegorical fresco by Verrio, wonderfully bright and well preserved; and without caring about the design or execution, I greatly liked the brilliancy of the colors. The great Hall is a most noble and beautiful room, above a hundred feet long and sixty high and broad. Most of the windows are of stained or painted glass, with elaborate designs, whether modern or ancient I know not, but certainly brilliant in effect. The walls, from the floor to perhaps half their height, are covered with antique tapestry, which, though a good deal faded, still retains color enough to be a very effective adornment, and to give an idea of how rich a mode of decking a noble apartment this must have been. The subjects represented were from Scripture, and the figures seemed colossal. On looking closely at this tapestry, you could see that it was thickly interwoven with threads of gold, still glistening. The windows, except one or two that are long, do not descend below the top of this tapestry, and are therefore twenty or thirty feet above the floor; and this manner of lighting a great room seems to add much to the impressiveness of the enclosed space. The roof is very magnificent, of carved oak, intricately and elaborately arched, and still as perfect to all appearance as when it was first made. There are banners, so fresh in their hues, and so untattered, that I think they must be modern, suspended along beneath the cornice of the hall, and exhibiting Wolsey’s arms and badges. On the whole, this is a perfect sight in its way.

Next to the hall there is a withdrawing-room, more than seventy feet long, and twenty-five feet high. The walls of this apartment, too, are covered with ancient tapestry, of allegorical design, but more faded than that of the hall. There is also a stained-glass window; and a marble statue of Venus on a couch, very lean and not very beautiful; and some cartoons of Carlo Cignani, which have left no impression on my memory; likewise, a large model of a splendid palace of some East Indian nabob.

I am not sure, after all, that Verrio’s frescoed grand staircase was not in another part of the palace; for I remember that we went from it through an immensely long suite of apartments, beginning with the Guard-chamber. All these rooms are wainscoted with oak, which looks new, being, I believe, of the date of King William’s reign. Over many of the doorways, or around the panels, there are carvings in wood by Gibbons, representing wreaths of flowers, fruit, and foliage, the most perfectly beautiful that can be conceived; and the wood being of a light hue (lime-wood, I believe), it has a fine effect on the dark oak panelling. The apartments open one beyond another, in long, long, long succession,–rooms of state, and kings’ and queens’ bedchambers, and royal closets bigger than ordinary drawing-rooms, so that the whole suite must be half a mile, or it may be a mile, in extent. From the windows you get views of the palace-grounds, broad and stately walks, and groves of trees, and lawns, and fountains, and the Thames and adjacent country beyond. The walls of all these rooms are absolutely covered with pictures, including works of all the great masters, which would require long study before a new eye could enjoy them; and, seeing so many of them at once, and having such a nothing of time to look at them all, I did not even try to see any merit in them. Vandyke’s picture of Charles I., on a white horse beneath an arched gateway, made more impression on me than any other, and as I recall it now, it seems as if I could see the king’s noble, melancholy face, and armed form, remembered not in picture, but in reality. All Sir Peter Lely’s lewd women, and Kneller’s too, were in these rooms; and the jolly old stupidity of George III. and his family, many times repeated; and pictures by Titian, Rubens, and other famous hands, intermixed with many by West, which provokingly drew the eye away from their betters. It seems to me that a picture, of all other things, should be by itself; whereas people always congregate them in galleries. To endeavor really to see them, so arranged, is like trying to read a hundred poems at once,–a most absurd attempt. Of all these pictures, I hardly recollect any so well as a ridiculous old travesty of the Resurrection and Last Judgment, where the dead people are represented as coming to life at the sound of the trumpet,–the flesh reëstablishing itself on the bones,–one man picking up his skull, and putting it on his shoulders,–and all appearing greatly startled, only half awake, and at a loss what to do next. Some devils are dragging away the damned by the heels and on sledges, and above sits the Redeemer and some angelic and sainted people, looking complacently down upon the scene!

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for March 24th, 1856. From Passages from the English Note-Books.

The boldface emphasis on the sentences in the last paragraph is mine.

A passage from (and a short riff on) Iris Murdoch’s The Bell

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Dora got into the train. It was now very full indeed and people were sitting four a side. Before she sat down she inspected herself quickly in the mirror. In spite of all her awful experiences she looked good. She had a round well-formed face and a large mouth that liked to smile. Her eyes were a dark slaty blue and rather long and large. Art had darkened but not thinned her vigorous triangular eyebrows. Her hair was golden brown and grew in long flat strips down the side of her head, like ferns growing down a rock. This was attractive. Her figure was by no means what it had been.

She turned towards her seat. A large elderly lady shifted a little to make room. Feeling fat and hot in the smart featureless coat and skirt which she had not worn since the spring, Dora squeezed herself in. She hated the sensation of another human being wedged against her side. Her skirt was very tight. Her high-heeled shoes were tight too. She could feel her own perspiration and was beginning to smell that of others. It was a devilish hot day. She reflected all the same that she was lucky to have a seat, and with a certain satisfaction watched the corridor fill up with people who had no seats.

Another elderly lady, struggling through the crush, reached the door of Dora’s carriage and addressed her neighbour. ‘Ah, there you are, dear, I thought you were nearer the front.’ They looked at each other rather gloomily, the standing lady leaning at an angle through the doorway, her feet trapped in a heap of luggage. They began a conversation about how they had never seen the train so full. Dora stopped listening because a dreadful thought had struck her. She ought to give up her seat. She rejected the thought, but it came back. There was no doubt about it. The elderly lady who was standing looked very frail indeed, and it was only proper that Dora, who was young and healthy should give her seat to the lady who could then sit next to her friend. Dora felt the blood rushing to her face. She sat still and considered the matter. There was no point in being hasty. It was possible of course that while clearly admitting that she ought to give up her seat she might nevertheless simply not do so out of pure selfishness. This would in some ways be a better situation than what would have been the case if it had simply not occurred to her at all that she ought to give up her seat. On the other side of the seated lady a man was sitting. He was reading his newspaper and did not seem to be thinking about his duty. Perhaps if Dora waited it would occur to the man to give up his seat to the other lady? Unlikely. Dora examined the other inhabitants of the carriage. None of them looked in the least uneasy. Their faces, if not already buried in books, reflected the selfish glee which had probably been on her own a moment since as she watched the crowd in the corridor. There was another aspect to the matter. She had taken the trouble to arrive early, and surely ought to be rewarded for this. Though perhaps the two ladies had arrived as early as they could? There was no knowing. But in any case there was an elementary justice in the first comers having the seats. The old lady would be perfectly all right in the corridor. The corridor was full of old ladies anyway, and no one else seemed bothered by this, least of all the old ladies themselves! Dora hated pointless sacrifices. She was tired after her recent emotions and deserved a rest. Besides, it would never do to arrive at her destination exhausted. She regarded her state of distress as completely neurotic. She decided not to give up her seat.

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

‘How very kind of you!’ said the standing lady. ‘Now I can sit next to my friend. I have a seat of my own further down you know. Perhaps we can just exchange seats? Do let me help you to move your luggage.’

Dora glowed with delight. What is sweeter than the unhoped-for reward for the virtuous act?

From Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell.

Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell hooked me with its astonishing opening sentences: “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”

Those two simple, precise sentences foreground one of the major conflicts of The Bell, and also point towards the novel’s anxiety/comedy axis. There’s a comic beat to Murdoch’s rhythm that, paradoxically, simultaneously belies and highlights the terror under those two sentences. The rest of The Bell’s first chapter fills in the gaps between sentence one and sentence two, detailing the relationship between young Dora and her older husband Paul. The details of their troubled marriage reverberate with the same radical ambiguity we see in the first two sentences, a constant push-pull of desire and repulsion.

What’s most compelling for me here is Murdoch’s command of irony and free indirect speech. Murdoch inhabits Dora’s consciousness in a way that shows how the conflict between thought and emotion germinates, mutates, terminates, and often blooms into actions quite divorced from initial intention or desire. When Paul decides to send his departed wife an “allowance,” we get a wonderful syntactic example of how Murdoch captures the ambiguous disjunctions of thought and action: “Dora decided to refuse the money but accepted it.” Murdoch gives us one complete thought here, tacking on the key idea (“but accepted it”) in a dependent clause.

The long passage I’ve excerpted above (part of Chapter One, by the way) shows the same disjunction of thought and action, but at greater length. Not only did it make me laugh aloud, it also made me recognize part of myself in Dora—the extreme social anxiety, the narcissistic sense that others do not see what is happening within a social setting, the sense of selfish entitlement, etc.

The punchline in the episode is worth repeating: “She decided not to give up her seat. She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.'” But that punchline is followed by a second punchline—the woman already has a seat. The episode culminates in a kind of callow but sincere moral victory.

I’m about half way through The Bell right now and loving it. As Murdoch layers the novel with perspective characters other than Dora, the overall picture gains depth, breadth, and complexity. Her sentences convey a psychological complexity that seems both raw and truthful, and yet those sentences are polished, refined, and quite funny. More thoughts to come.

“A Haunted House,” a very short story by Virginia Woolf

“A Haunted House”

by

Virginia Woolf


 

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.

“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.

But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room …” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?

A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the  trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”

The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.

“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”

Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.

“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”

St. Patrick and the Druid, an episode from Finnegans Wake (with explication from Joseph Campbell)

On pages 611-613 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, St. Patrick meets the archdruid Balkelly:

Tunc. Bymeby, bullocky vampas tappany bobs topside joss pidgin fella Balkelly, archdruid of islish chinchinjoss in the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan mantle finish he show along the his mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime all the his cassock groaner fellas of greysfriaryfamily he fast all time what time all him monkafellas with Same Patholic, quoniam, speeching, yeh not speeching noh man liberty is, he drink up words, scilicet, tomorrow till recover will not, all too many much illusiones through photoprismic velamina of hueful panepiphanal world spectacurum of Lord Joss, the of which zoantholitic furniture, from mineral through vegetal to animal, not appear to full up to-gether fallen man than under but one photoreflection of the several iridals gradationes of solar light, that one which that part of it (furnit of heupanepi world) had shown itself (part of fur of huepanwor) unable to absorbere, whereas for numpa one pura —— duxed seer in seventh degree of wisdom of Entis–Onton he savvy inside true inwardness of reality, the Ding hvad in idself id est, all objects (of panepiwor) allside showed themselves in trues coloribus resplendent with sextuple gloria of light actually re-tained, untisintus, inside them (obs of epiwo). Rumnant Patholic, stareotypopticus, no catch all that preachybook, utpiam, tomorrow recover thing even is not, bymeby vampsybobsy tap — panasbullocks topside joss pidginfella Bilkilly–Belkelly say pat — fella, ontesantes, twotime hemhaltshealing, with other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng while his comprehen-durient, with diminishing claractinism, augumentationed himself in caloripeia to vision so throughsighty, you anxioust melan-cholic, High Thats Hight Uberking Leary his fiery grassbelong- head all show colour of sorrelwood herbgreen, again, nigger- blonker, of the his essixcoloured holmgrewnworsteds costume the his fellow saffron pettikilt look same hue of boiled spinasses,other thing, voluntary mutismuser, he not compyhandy the his golden twobreasttorc look justsamelike curlicabbis, moreafter, to pace negativisticists, verdant readyrainroof belongahim Exuber High Ober King Leary very dead, what he wish to say, spit of superexuberabundancy plenty laurel leaves, after that com-mander bulopent eyes of Most Highest Ardreetsar King same thing like thyme choppy upon parsley, alongsidethat, if please-sir, nos displace tauttung, sowlofabishospastored, enamel Indian gem in maledictive fingerfondler of High High Siresultan Em-peror all same like one fellow olive lentil, onthelongsidethat, by undesendas, kirikirikiring, violaceous warwon contusiones of facebuts of Highup Big Cockywocky Sublissimime Autocrat, for that with pure hueglut intensely saturated one, tinged uniformly, allaroundside upinandoutdown, very like you seecut chowchow of plentymuch sennacassia Hump cumps Ebblybally! Sukkot?

Punc. Bigseer, refrects the petty padre, whackling it out, a tumble to take, tripeness to call thing and to call if say is good while, you pore shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger, by thiswis aposterioprismically apatstrophied and paralogically periparo-lysed, celestial from principalest of Iro’s Irismans ruinboon pot before, (for beingtime monkblinkers timeblinged completamen-tarily murkblankered in their neutrolysis between the possible viriditude of the sager and the probable eruberuption of the saint), as My tappropinquish to Me wipenmeselps gnosegates a handcaughtscheaf of synthetic shammyrag to hims hers, seeming-such four three two agreement cause heart to be might, saving to Balenoarch (he kneeleths), to Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down) to Greatest Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down quite-somely), the sound salse sympol in a weedwayedwold of the firethere the sun in his halo cast. Onmen.

That was thing, bygotter, the thing, bogcotton, the very thing, begad! Even to uptoputty Bilkilly–Belkelly-Balkally. Who was for shouting down the shatton on the lamp of Jeeshees. Sweating on to stonker and throw his seven. As he shuck his thumping fore features apt the hoyhop of His Ards.

Thud.

Good safe firelamp! hailed the heliots. Goldselforelump! Halled they. Awed. Where thereon the skyfold high, trampa-trampatramp. Adie. Per ye comdoom doominoom noonstroom. Yeasome priestomes. Fullyhum toowhoom.

 

Continue reading “St. Patrick and the Druid, an episode from Finnegans Wake (with explication from Joseph Campbell)”

Read Eudora Welty’s short story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman”

“The Death of a Traveling Salesman”

by

Eudora Welty


R. J. Bowman, who for fourteen years had traveled for a shoe company through Mississippi, drove his Ford along a rutted dirt path. It was a long day! The time did not seem to clear the noon hurdle and settle into soft afternoon. The sun, keeping its strength here even in winter, stayed at the top of the sky, and every time Bowman stuck his head out of the dusty car to stare up the road, it seemed to reach a long arm down and push against the top of his head, right through his hat-like the practical joke of an old drummer, long on the road. It made him feel all the more angry and helpless. He was feverish, and he was not quite sure of the way.

This was his first day back on the road after a long siege of influenza. He had had very high fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, and he could not think clearly. . . . All afternoon, in the midst of his anger, and for no reason, he had thought of his dead grandmother. She had been a comfortable soul. Once more Bowman wished he could fall into the big feather bed that had been in her room. . . . Then he forgot her again.

This desolate hill country! And he seemed to be going the wrong way -it was as if he were going back, far back. There was not a house in sight . . . . There was no use wishing he were back in bed, though. By paying the hotel doctor his bill he had proved his recovery. He had not even been sorry when the pretty trained nurse said good-bye. He did not like illness, he distrusted it, as he distrusted the road without signposts. It angered him. He had given the nurse a really expensive bracelet, just because she was packing up her bag and leaving. Continue reading “Read Eudora Welty’s short story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman””

They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar (William Gaddis)

His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.

If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.

From William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions.

 

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics

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“The main difficulty with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz,” writes Soren Gauger in his translator’s note for Narcotics, “is that no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he were writing something else.” Witkiewicz’s playful (and occasionally frustrating) discursive style is on vivid display in the six essays that comprise most of Narcotics (new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press)Witkiewicz’s stylistic twists are one of the joys of Narcotics. A moralizing diatribe might veer into medical discourse; private anecdotes might shift into a rant on class theory or a patchy precis of a book about physiognomy. (All delivered in a semi-ironic-yet-wholly-sincere tone). In the case of Witkiewicz’s essay “Peyote,” we go from “Elves on a seesaw. (Comedic number)” to “A battle of centaurs turned into a battle between fantastical genitalia.” This last note is preceded by the observation that “Goya must have known about peyote.”

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“Peyote” is the most vivid and surreal of the essays in Narcotics. Unlike the other sections, this chapter most closely resembles a conventional drug diary. “Peyote” begins with Witkiewicz taking his first of seven (!) peyote doses at six in the evening and culminating around eight the following morning with “Straggling visions of iridescent wires.” In increments of about 15 minutes, Witkiewicz notes each of his surreal visions. The wild hallucinations are rendered in equally surreal language: “Mundane disumbilicalment on a cone to the barking of flying canine dragons” here, “The birth of a diamond goldfinch” there. Gauger’s translation conveys not just the wild imagery, but also the wild linguistic spirit of Witkiewicz’s prose.

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The prose in “Peyote” most closely approximates the spirit of Witkiewicz’s wonderful paintings. Narcotics includes 34 full-color reproductions of Witkiewicz’s art, which is reason enough to pick up this volume. According to Narcotics’ blurb, Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he is commonly known) “established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time.”

For example, we see that Witkiewicz has noted that he had ingested cocaine and eucodal (a semi-synthetic opioid) in order to paint the Portrait of Michal Jagodowski (below). Narcotics includes a helpful “List of Symbols” as a glossary for the shorthand Witkiewicz used both in the text of his writings and in his paintings. (Although “her (herbata): tea” is included in the gloss, this vice regretfully does not merit its own essay).

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In addition to peyote, we get essays on nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and ether (a list that may remind you of a certain Queens of the Stone Age jam). In “Nicotine,” Witkiewicz despairs that “A person deadened by tobacco and alcohol…seeks even more mind-numbing entertainment to relax,” whether that be the “utterly depraved cinema with its vacuous attempts at artistry,” or the “sensory narcotization through music” achieved by “station surfing” on the radio. (Even worse is “chronic and brainless dancing, that most monstrous of modern society’s unacknowledged plagues”).

In “Alcohol,” Witkiewicz concedes that “alcohol lets you perform actions at a particular moment that otherwise would not have been possible right then,” before launching into a sustained attack on alcohol as a creative crutch. His most convincing (and depressing) line here is “alcohol is boring. Anyone who has abused it even mildly knows this to be true.” (If this were a different sort of review, I might riff here a bit on the fact that I drank no fewer than three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon while writing about Narcotics).

Witkiewicz, despite his exorbitant indulgences, is a bit of a snob—a modernist snob though. From frenzied, enthusiastic experience he warns us that “cocaine is one of the worst kinds of filth,” before plugging his cocaine novel Farewell to Autumn and offering a synopsis of one of the novel’s chapters, a so-called “cocaine orgy.” (The editors of Narcotics graciously include a brief selection from Farewell to Autumn, as well as additional essays by Witkiewicz on hygiene and other matters).

In the last two essays, Wietkiewicz hands the reins over to friends (designated drivers?). In “Morphine,” Bohdan Filipowski warns that, “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable, you must first travel through all manner of hell and suffering in life, only then to find yourself in addled stupefaction, which ultimately is all there is.” The essay “Ether” — a drug that packs a “powerful metaphysical wallop” is attributed to “Dr. Dezydery Prokopowicz,” a pseudonym for Wietkiewicz’s friend, poet Stefan Glass.

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The admonition that “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable” is pretty much the thesis for Narcotics, a book that simultaneously celebrates and reviles drug use. Misery is the byword here, a word we find repeated in in Henri Michaux’s 1956 collection Miserable Miracle. Published a quarter century after Narcotics, the two volumes share much in common. Too, Narcotics picks up some of the threads that we find in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater(1821)–that foregrounding of suffering, even if it also anticipates the (exhaustive) drug literature of the 1960s, which wasn’t nearly so reticent about banging the narcotic gong. And yet Witkiewicz seems to wink at us through all the moralizing and apologia, suggesting that, yes, narcotics, are, like, bad—they are a crutch, a shortcut, a substitute for true artistic inspiration—but he also shows how utterly modern the process of consuming mind-and-body-altering substances is. Witkiewicz comprehends the dangers of narcotics. He’s out there on the ledge, dancing around a bit, his foot wagging over the precipice, while he grins and says, “Hey, don’t try this at home.”

Try this at home. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics, translated from the Polish by Soren Guager is new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press. Just Say Yes.

“I wished, all the mild days of middle March” — John Berryman

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