Thursday, July 13th.–Two small Canadian boys came to our house yesterday, with strawberries to sell. It sounds strangely to hear children bargaining in French on the borders of Yankee-land. Among other languages spoken hereabouts must be reckoned the wild Irish. Some of the laborers on the mill-dam can speak nothing else. The intermixture of foreigners sometimes gives rise to quarrels between them and the natives. As we were going to the village yesterday afternoon, we witnessed the beginning of a quarrel between a Canadian and a Yankee,–the latter accusing the former of striking his oxen. B—- thrust himself between and parted them; but they afterwards renewed their fray, and the Canadian, I believe, thrashed the Yankee soundly–for which he had to pay twelve dollars. Yet he was but a little fellow.
Coming to the Mansion House about supper-time, we found somewhat of a concourse of people, the Governor and Council being in session on the subject of the disputed territory. The British have lately imprisoned a man who was sent to take the census; and the Mainiacs are much excited on the subject. They wish the Governor to order out the militia at once and take possession of the territory with the strong hand. There was a British army-captain at the Mansion House; and an idea was thrown out that it would be as well to seize upon him as a hostage. I would, for the joke’s sake, that it had been done. Personages at the tavern: the Governor, somewhat stared after as he walked through the bar-room; Councillors seated about, sitting on benches near the bar, or on the stoop along the front of the house; the Adjutant-General of the State; two young Blue-Noses, from Canada or the Provinces; a gentleman “thumbing his hat” for liquor, or perhaps playing off the trick of the “honest landlord” on some stranger. The decanters and wine-bottles on the move, and the beer and soda founts pouring out continual streams, with a whiz. Stage-drivers, etc., asked to drink with the aristocracy, and my host treating and being treated. Rubicund faces; breaths odorous of brandy-and-water. Occasionally the pop of a champagne cork.
Returned home, and took a lesson in French of Mons. S—- . I like him very much, and have seldom met with a more honest, simple, and apparently so well-principled a man; which good qualities I impute to his being, by the father’s side, of German blood. He looks more like a German–or, as he says, like a Swiss–than a Frenchman, having very light hair and a light complexion, and not a French expression. He is a vivacious little fellow, and wonderfully excitable to mirth; and it is truly a sight to see him laugh;–every feature partakes of his movement, and even his whole body shares in it, as he rises and dances about the room. He has great variety of conversation, commensurate with his experiences in life, and sometimes will talk Spanish, ore rotundo,— sometimes imitate the Catholic priests, chanting Latin songs for the dead, in deep, gruff, awful tones, producing really a very strong impression,–then he will break out into a light, French song, perhaps of love, perhaps of war, acting it out, as if on the stage of a theatre: all this intermingled with continual fun, excited by the incidents of the passing moment. He has Frenchified all our names, calling B—- Monsieur Du Pont, myself M. de L’Aubépine, and himself M. le Berger, and all, Knights of the Round-Table. And we live in great harmony and brotherhood, as queer a life as anybody leads, and as queer a set as may be found anywhere. In his more serious intervals, he talks philosophy and deism, and preaches obedience to the law of reason and morality; which law he says (and I believe him) he has so well observed, that, notwithstanding his residence in dissolute countries, he has never yet been sinful. He wishes me, eight or nine weeks hence, to accompany him on foot to Quebec, and then to Niagara and New York. I should like it well, if my circumstances and other considerations would permit. What pleases much in Mons. S—- is the simple and childlike enjoyment he finds in trifles, and the joy with which he speaks of going back to his own country, away from the dull Yankees, who here misunderstand and despise him. Yet I have never heard him speak harshly of them. I rather think that B—- and I will be remembered by him with more pleasure than anybody else in the country; for we have sympathized with him, and treated him kindly, and like a gentleman and an equal; and he comes to us at night as to home and friends.
I went down to the river to-day to see B—- fish for salmon with a fly,–a hopeless business; for he says that only one instance has been known in the United States of salmon being taken otherwise than with a net. A few chubs were all the fruit of his piscatory efforts. But while looking at the rushing and rippling stream, I saw a great fish, some six feet long and thick in proportion, suddenly emerge at whole length, turn a somerset, and then vanish again beneath the water. It was of a glistening, yellowish brown, with its fins all spread, and looking very strange and startling, darting out so lifelike from the black water, throwing itself fully into the bright sunshine, and then lost to sight and to pursuit. I saw also a long, flat-bottomed boat go up the river, with a brisk wind, and against a strong stream. Its sails were of curious construction: a long mast, with two sails below, one on each side of the boat, and a broader one surmounting them. The sails were colored brown, and appeared like leather or skins, but were really cloth. At a distance, the vessel looked like, or at least I compared it to, a monstrous water-insect skimming along the river. If the sails had been crimson or yellow, the resemblance would have been much closer. There was a pretty spacious raised cabin in the after part of the boat. It moved along lightly, and disappeared between the woody banks. These boats have the two parallel sails attached to the same yard, and some have two sails, one surmounting the other. They trade to Waterville and thereabouts,–names, as “Paul Pry,” on their sails.
[Ed. note: I finished Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show a few days ago. I read The Dick Gibson Show immediately after finishing Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser. I want to write something about these novels, which seem of a piece to me, but I also wanted to get a bit more context first, and the most basic of internet searches led me to Elkin’s 1974 interview in The Paris Review with Thomas LeClair.
What follows are selections from the interview in which Elkin kinda sorta analyzes The Dick Gibson Show, providing what I take to be a Very Good and Fascinating Review of the novel.
Look, I went to school for reading books, I learned about the goddamn intentional fallacy and la mort de l’auteur and all that jazz, and I know that the author isn’t supposed to be the goddamn authority on his own work, I know that what follows isn’t a proper review—but I don’t care. I like it.
My assumption is it’s likely that anyone interested enough in a review of The Dick Gibson Show has probably already read Elkin’s Paris Review interview, and would probably prefer, like, something new on the novel. Which I’ll attempt down the line. But for now: Elkin on Elkin—]
INTERVIEWER: I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?
ELKIN: It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:
What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .
Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:
to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs…
and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.
INTERVIEWER: But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?
ELKIN: Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.
INTERVIEWER: Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?
ELKIN: Yes, I think so.
Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.
INTERVIEWER: Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.
ELKIN: Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.
INTERVIEWER: s that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?
ELKIN: That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.
INTERVIEWER: Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?
ELKIN: That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.
INTERVIEWER: Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language…
ELKIN: No. Certainly not.
INTERVIEWER: He does say less and less as the novel moves along.
ELKIN: Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?
INTERVIEWER: In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?
ELKIN: I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.
From bottom to top:
I had to go hunt through the house for the trio of Hildafolk comics by Luke Pearson because my kids keep swapping them around. We’ve read them a bunch of times now and they are very good and sweet and charming and you can get them from Nobrow. Hilda is going to be a Netflix series, by the way, which I told my kids and they were psyched. (They ten went on Netflix and looked for it. I had to explain production schedules).
W.D. Clarke’s White Mythology (which may or may not take its title from Derrida’s essay of the same name) is actually two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. I finished the first novella before July 4th; Skinner Boxed is about psychiatrist Dr. Ed, who juggles a bunch of maguffins including a detached (and missing) wife, a returned bastard son, and a clinical anti-depressant trial. The novella begins with epigrams from Gravity’s Rainbow and A Christmas Carol, the latter of which it (somewhat perhaps ironically) follows. I finished the second novella Love’s Alchemy yesterday. Its tone is not as zany as that of Skinner Boxed, but both stories require the reader to put together seemingly disconnected events for the plot to “resolve” (if resolve is the right word). Good stuff.
I started the Howard translation of The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal. I’m in Chapter 3 right now. We’ll see how it goes this time. For now, I’ll continue to trust Italo Calvino. From his “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse“:
…many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognising it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life. (I’m talking particularly about the opening chapters; as you get into it, you will find that it is a different novel, or several novels each different from the other, all of which will require you to modify your involvement in the plot; whatever happens, the brilliance of the opening will continue to influence you.)
I finished Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser and then the novel that chronologically preceded it (and arguably birthed it), The Dick Gibson Show. I need to write a whole Thing on these two novels, but I enjoyed them, and can’t believe it took me so long to read Elkin (although I’m glad I read Pynchon, Gaddis, and Gass first). I preferred the riffing polyglossia of TDGS a bit more than The Franchiser, which occasionally seemed to let its satire tip over into a kind of bathetic melancholy. Both novels diagnose an obsession of nostalgia (or, more directly: an obsession of obsession) that continues to grip America.
Yesterday I picked up Vladislav Vančura’s novel Marketa Lazarova, new in a sharp English translation by Carleton Bulkin from Twisted Spoon Press. Twisted Spoon had sent me the book a few weeks ago, and I’d meant to read it over the week of July Fourth but drank too many beers instead. Anyway, I picked it up yesterday and read the first two chapters (50 pages—the first third, that is) gripped in wonder and laughter, and a bit of happy shock even. A strange and often violent tale of multiple kidnappings and medieval intrigues, Marketa Lazarova reminds me of Le Morte D’Arthur, Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan (both in its evocations of brutality and in its marvelous poetic prose), Aleksei German’s film Hard to Be a God, Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring, Bolaño’s sweetly ironic narrators, and yes, hell, Game of Thrones. I’d rather be reading this book right now than writing about it in this silly blog post, actually. And no, I haven’t seen the František Vláčil film adaptation—yet.
James Hill’s illustration for “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968.
“The Happy Prince”
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
He was very much admired indeed. “He is as beautiful as a weathercock,” remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; “only not quite so useful,” he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.
“Why can’t you be like the Happy Prince?” asked a sensible mother of her little boy who was crying for the moon. “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.”
“I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy,” muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.
“He looks just like an angel,” said the Charity Children as they came out of the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks and their clean white pinafores.
“How do you know?” said the Mathematical Master, “you have never seen one.”
“Ah! but we have, in our dreams,” answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.
One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.
Continue reading “Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” — James Hill”
He could not depend upon his listeners; he had no notion of them. They were as faceless to him as he to them. (They didn’t even have a voice.) His panels, his Special Guests were more real. As for his listeners, he guessed they were insomniacs, cabbies, enlisted men signed out on leave at midnight driving home on turnpikes, countermen in restaurants by highways, people in tollbooths. Or he saw them in bed—they lived in the dark—lumps under covers, profiles on pillows, their skulls beside the clock radio (the clock radio had done more to change programming than even TV) while the dialogue floated above their heads like balloon talk aloft in comic strips. Half asleep, they would not follow it too closely. No, he knew little about his listeners. They were not even mysterious; they were there, but distant as the Sioux.
He knew more about the passionate extremists who used his microphones in the groundless hope of stirring those sleepers, and winning over the keepers of the booths—the wild visionaries, opponents of fluoride, palmists, astrologers, the far right and far left and far center, the dianeticians, scientologists, beatniks, homosexuals from the Mattachine Society, the handwriting analysts, addicts, nudists, psychic phenomenologists, all those who believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy; men beyond the beyond, black separatists who would take over Idaho and thrive by cornering the potato, pretenders to a half-dozen thrones, Krebiozonists, people from MENSA, health-food people, eaters of weed and soups of bark, cholesterolists, poly-unsaturationalists, treasure hunters, a woman who believed she held a valid Spanish land grant to all of downtown San Francisco, the Cassandras warning of poison in the white bread and cola and barbecued potato chip, conservationists jittery about the disappearing forests and the diminishing water table (and one man who claimed that the tides were a strain on the moon), would-be reformers of a dozen industries and institutions and a woman so fastidious about the separation of church and state that she would take the vote away from nuns and clergymen, capital punishers, atheists, people who wanted the abortion laws changed and a man who thought all surgery was a sin and ought to carry the same sentence as any other assault with a knife, housewives spooked by lax Food and Drug regulations, Maoists, Esperantoists, American Nazis, neo-Jaegerists, Reichians, juvenile delinquents, crionics buffs, anti-vivisectionists, witches, wizards, chief rabbis of no less than three of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, and a fellow who claimed he died the same year Columbus discovered America.
From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.
The report has come back. It’s official. HIC SUNT DODOS!
The dodo is an extinct species of ungainly, flightless bird of the genus Raphus or Didus. Its incubation ground and later its world was the island of Mauritius. It was closely related in habit and aspect to a smaller bird, the solitaire, also extinct but once indigenous to the island of Réunion. It has long been held by ornithologists that the dodo—both the dodo proper and the solitaire henceforward will be subsumed under the pseudo-generic term ‘dodo’—was related to the pigeon, but this is only an hypothesis since the bird has not been available for study since 1680, the year that the last known dodo died. Although the dodo was sent to European museums, no complete specimen exists, and today only the foot and leg of one specimen are preserved at Oxford. The representations one sees, even in the Mauritius Museum of Art itself, are merely restorations, little more than cunning dolls constructed on skeletal frames. Nevertheless, the skeletons, the scattered bones of which are to be found abundantly even today in the Mauritian fens and swamps, have been painstakingly reassembled by Mauritian dodo artisans—the best in the world—and give an accurate picture of what the bird was like.
He was large, slightly bigger than the American turkey whom he in no mean way resembles. In silhouette the dodo is not unlike a great scrunched question mark. For detail we may refer to the paintings from life that have been made of the bird, many of the best of which are still here in the Mauritius Museum of Art and Dodo Reconstruction. Most of the artists seem to be in agreement that the animal possessed an enormous blackish bill which, together with the huge horny hook in which it terminates, constituted the shepherd’s crook of the question mark. Its cheeks, partially bare, seem oddly weather- beaten and muscular, like the toothless cheeks of old men who have worked out in the open all their lives. Black except for some whitish plumage on his breast and tail and some yellowish white the tint of old piano keys on his tail, the dodo was somewhat formal in appearance, if a trifle stupid looking. This formal aspect is attributable also to his wing, foreshortened as a birth defect, which in repose flops out and down from his body like an unstarched pocket handkerchief.
Dodos are said to have inhabited the Mauritian forests—this is the style of information, of certain kinds of fact; I find it relaxing—and to have laid a single large white egg which they mounted high in a setting of piled grass. Hogs, brought in by the settlers, fed on the dodo eggs and on the dodo young, and in one or two generations the birds were extinct.
From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.
In Chapter 4 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway recounts the names of the rich, shallow, parasitic guests who attended Gatsby’s parties. Nick tells us the list comes from “an old time-table” of names he originally recorded in July 5th—significantly, the day after Independence Day: the day after the hopes and dreams of a new country. From the chapter—-
Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.
From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember. He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden. From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells. Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand. The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga’s girls.
From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the state senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another. And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut.”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly — they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.
A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as “the boarder.”— I doubt if he had any other home. Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O’donavan and Lester Meyer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull. Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square.
Benny McClenahan arrived always with four girls. They were never quite the same ones in physical person, but they were so identical one with another that it inevitably seemed they had been there before. I have forgotten their names — Jaqueline, I think, or else Consuela, or Gloria or Judy or June, and their last names were either the melodious names of flowers and months or the sterner ones of the great American capitalists whose cousins, if pressed, they would confess themselves to be.
In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O’brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancee, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.
All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.
July 4th.–A very hot, bright, sunny day; town much thronged; booths on the Common, selling gingerbread, sugar-plums, and confectionery, spruce beer, lemonade. Spirits forbidden, but probably sold stealthily. On the top of one of the booths a monkey, with a tail two or three feet long. He is fastened by a cord, which, getting tangled with the flag over the booth, he takes hold and tries to free it. He is the object of much attention from the crowd, and played with by the boys, who toss up gingerbread to him, while he nibbles and throws it down again. He reciprocates notice, of some kind or other, with all who notice him. There is a sort of gravity about him. A boy pulls his long tail, whereat he gives a slight squeak, and for the future elevates it as much as possible. Looking at the same booth by and by, I find that the poor monkey has been obliged to betake himself to the top of one of the wooden joists that stick up high above. There are boys going about with molasses candy, almost melted down in the sun. Shows: A mammoth rat; a collection of pirates, murderers, and the like, in wax. Constables in considerable number, parading about with their staves, sometimes conversing with each other, producing an effect by their presence, without having to interfere actively. One or two old salts, rather the worse for liquor: in general the people are very temperate. At evening the effect of things rather more picturesque; some of the booth-keepers knocking down the temporary structures, and putting the materials in wagons to carry away; other booths lighted up, and the lights gleaming through rents in the sail-cloth tops. The customers are rather riotous, calling loudly and whimsically for what they want; a young fellow and a girl coming arm in arm; two girls approaching the booth, and getting into conversation with the folks thereabout. Perchance a knock-down between two half-sober fellows in the crowd: a knock-down without a heavy blow, the receiver being scarcely able to keep his footing at any rate. Shoutings and hallooings, laughter, oaths,–generally a good-natured tumult; and the constables use no severity, but interfere, if at all, in a friendly sort of way. I talk with one about the way in which the day has passed, and he bears testimony to the orderliness of the crowd, but suspects one booth of selling liquor, and relates one scuffle. There is a talkative and witty seller of gingerbread holding forth to the people from his cart, making himself quite a noted character by his readiness of remark and humor, and disposing of all his wares. Late in the evening, during the fire-works, people are consulting how they are to get home,–many having long miles to walk: a father, with wife and children, saying it will be twelve o’clock before they reach home, the children being already tired to death. The moon beautifully dark-bright, not giving so white a light as sometimes. The girls all look beautiful and fairy-like in it, not exactly distinct, nor yet dim. The different characters of female countenances during the day,–mirthful and mischievous, slyly humorous, stupid, looking genteel generally, but when they speak often betraying plebeianism by the tones of their voices. Two girls are very tired,–one a pale, thin, languid-looking creature; the other plump, rosy, rather overburdened with her own little body. Gingerbread figures, in the shape of Jim Crow and other popularities.
In the old burial ground, Charter Street, a slate gravestone, carved round the borders, to the memory of “Colonel John Hathorne, Esq.,” who died in 1717. This was the witch-judge. The stone is sunk deep into the earth, and leans forward, and the grass grows very long around it; and, on account of the moss, it was rather difficult to make out the date. Other Hathornes lie buried in a range with him on either side. In a corner of the burial-ground, close under Dr. P—-‘s garden fence, are the most ancient stones remaining in the graveyard; moss-grown, deeply sunken. One to “Dr. John Swinnerton, Physician,” in 1688; another to his wife. There, too, is the grave of Nathaniel Mather, the younger brother of Cotton, and mentioned in the Magnalia as a hard student, and of great promise. “An aged man at nineteen years,” saith the gravestone. It affected me deeply, when I had cleared away the grass from the half-buried stone, and read the name. An apple-tree or two hang over these old graves, and throw down the blighted fruit on Nathaniel Mather’s grave,–he blighted too. It gives strange ideas, to think how convenient to Dr. P—-‘s family this burial-ground is,–the monuments standing almost within arm’s reach of the side windows of the parlor,–and there being a little gate from the back yard through which we step forth upon those old graves aforesaid. And the tomb of the P. family is right in front, and close to the gate. It is now filled, the last being the refugee Tory, Colonel P—-, and his wife. M. P—- has trained flowers over this tomb, on account of her friendly relations with Colonel P—-.
It is not, I think, the most ancient families that have tombs,–their ancestry for two or three generations having been reposited in the earth before such a luxury as a tomb was thought of. Men who founded families, and grew rich, a century or so ago, were probably the first.
There is a tomb of the Lyndes, with a slab of slate affixed to the brick masonry on one side, and carved with a coat of arms.
July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.
Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”
If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.
Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page.
I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.
(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever).
The BFG does not have an especially complex plot: Young Sophie, up late at night, is snatched away to a strange country by a giant whom she spies blowing dreams into a room of sleeping children (she does not of course know at the time that he is blowing dreams into the room). Luckily, this is the Big Friendly Giant. Unluckily, she’s stuck in his cave, where he must hide her from nine awful giants (including the Fleshlumpeater, the Meatdripper, and the aptly named Childchewer), who set off into the world each night to guzzle “human beans” (they especially love to eat children). The BFG, smaller than the other giants, refuses to partake in their infanticidal, anthropophagic practices, dining instead on stinky snozzcumbers. While the other giants are out gobbling up humans, the BFG is in Dream Country collecting dream blobs, which he mixes into wonderful visions and blows into children’s homes at night. Sophie and the BFG concoct a special dream for the Queen of England and through this scheme manage to capture the nine terrible giants. Sophie and The BFG live happily ever after.
Dahl’s command of language in The BFG marks the book as one of his strongest achievements. The most obvious and endearing aspect of the book’s language is the voice of the BFG, who invents, inverts, and generally twists up nouns, verbs, and adjectives into a fine mess. He tells Sophie:
Words . . . is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.
That squiff-squiddling though is what gives the giant’s voice such power. The tinges of nonsense actually reify and amplify what the BFG intends to say. There’s a sing-songy, burbling, bubbling rhythm to the BFG’s speech, which I took great joy in performing aloud for my daughter. Dahl clearly understood that his prose would be read aloud.
The BFG’s trouble with “correct” language derives from the fact that he never got to go to school. In fact, he’s learned everything he knows from one book: Nicholas Nickleby, “By Dahl’s Chickens,” the BFG tells Sophie. The underlying problem that governs the plot of Nicholas Nickleby is the unexpected death of Nicholas’s father. Dahl might have picked any of Charles Dickens’s novels here, but I believe he chose this one to thematically answer to The BFG’s secret plot: A missing father to match a missing daughter.
Dahl also not-so-subtly inserts his own name into the authorial position in this scene, which occurs about half way into the novel. This insertion happens again in the novel’s final chapter, which is appropriately titled “Author.” The book ends with the nine awful giants captured and held in a pit deep in the earth (shades of the Titans), their infanticidal violence contained and suspended, but still alive, still potential. The Queen has an enormous house built for the BFG right by her own palace, with a small cottage for Sophie in-between. The vision, rendered in Quentin Blake’s marvelous wobbly inks, suggests a fairy tale ending, as Sophie finds an ersatz family in the Queen (more of a fairy godmother) and the BFG, her new father.
And yet Sophie too takes on something of a parental role, teaching the BFG to read and write. He soon “started to write essays about his own past life.” Sophie reads these and urges him to become “a real writer … Why don’t you start by writing a book about you and me?”
Reading this chapter the other night devastated me and delighted my daughter. She cackled in glee and I found myself unable to perform the BFG’s voice through my tears. I finished the novel in my own, regular voice, doing my best not to let the sharp cracks of the emotion I felt break into those final lines, where we learn that the BFG, too modest to put his own name on his book (published by the Queen to bring joy to children), has chosen a pseudonym—the one on the spine of the book, Roald Dahl.
The BFG was of course always an author, even before he was literate; his medium was the dream, and he used dreams to tell stories to bring joy to children. He gave these dreams as protest, resistance, and counterattack to the consuming violence of his nine awful brothers.
Dahl’s rhetorical trick at the end of The BFG—claiming his own name as the pseudonym for the book’s real author, the Big Friendly Giant—is far less whimsical than a surface glance suggests. Rather, I find in it something sad, dark, and sincere, a moment of deep love and deep pain. The transposition—the squiff-squiddling, if you will—of the two names signals Dahl’s recasting of himself as the eternal BFG, bringing joy to children all over the world. The BFG gets to live happily ever after with his dream-daughter Sophie (the recast Olivia), their home and family sanctioned and provided for by the land’s highest authority.
But even before the Queen grants the father-daughter pair their own homestead, Sophie has already found her place by the giant—behind his ear, where she whispers to him. Is this not the fantasy of a consciousness that communicates beyond time, beyond death, directly and without the intermediary of a physical body?
Did Dahl hear Olivia’s voice in his own ear decades after her death? Did her spirit speak to him? Speculation of that sort is not my place or intention, and as I type it out, the suggestion appears far more lurid than I wish. I do know that the image was inescapable for me as I finished The BFG with my own daughter.
Our love and care for our children is shaded and intensified by an understanding of their fragility, their mortality, their susceptibility to disease, accident, chaos, the carelessness of others…factors easily metaphorized into child-eating giants. Our love for our own children precludes an equal love for children who are not our own, despite whatever ethical systems we claim to practice and subscribe to.
And this is what I find so moving about The BFG: Dahl converts the personal (and infinite) loss of his own daughter into a loving gift he seeks to share with all children. He shared that gift with me when I was a child, when I never imagined that I would grow up to be an adult with a child of my own to whom I would read that gift again, in a new, strange, sad, dark, joyous way.
Maybe all I am trying to say here, in this long, long-winded way, is Thank you.
[Ed. Note. Biblioklept ran a version of this review in July of 2014. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of The BFG is in wide release this week].
A few weeks ago I finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels, and now perhaps have enough distance to comment on them briefly.
The novels have been much-hyped, which initially put me off (nearly as much as their awful kitschy covers), but the same friend who urged me to give Bolaño’s 2666 a go (after I misfired with The Savage Detectives) insisted I read Ferrante.
I’m glad I did. From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.
But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).
It’s this horrific abjection that fascinates me most about the novels. I’ll offer two longish passages from the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, to showcase Ferrante’s prowess with (what I take to be her dominant) theme and tone.
The first passage comes fairly early in the long novel, when our (now mature) heroine Lenù encounters a suicide’s corpse:
No answer. I knocked harder, I opened the door cautiously, the room was dark. I called him, silence, I turned on the light.
There was blood on the pillow and on the sheet, a large blackish stain that extended to his feet. Death is so repellent. Here I will say only that when I saw that body deprived of life, that body which I knew intimately, which had been happy and active, which had read so many books and had been exposed to so many experiences, I felt both repulsion and pity. [He] had been a living material saturated with political culture, with generous purposes and hopes, with good manners. Now he offered a horrible spectacle of himself. He had rid himself so fiercely of memory, language, the capacity to find meaning that it seemed obvious the hatred he had for himself, for his own skin, for his moods, for his thoughts and words, for the brutal corner of the world that had enveloped him.
Ferrante’s passage here strongly echoes Julia Kristeva’s 1980 essay “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva writes (emphasis mine):
The corpse…upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance….as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border…the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel — “I” is expelled.
In my reading, Ferrante’s heroines Lenù and Lila are detectives of the abject, of the (literally) unnamable forces of culture (and oh-what-a-culture patriarchal Naples is!) that threaten subjectivity. They each seek to assert an I in a world that would devastate such an assertion.
Lenù and Lila claim their assertion through creative agency—through art. And Ferrante’s greatest strength, perhaps, in the Neapolitan Novels is that she harnesses this art, she conveys the brilliance of these brilliant friends, and does not merely “tell” the reader of their brilliance (like so many contemporary “literary” novels do). Ferrante shows authorship (and genius) as a shared, collaborative process, not an isolation, but a synthesis.
If these novels concern synthesis, they also show fracture, fragmentation, and dissolution. Observe Lenù and Lila in a key moment from The Story of the Lost Child , during a calamitous earthquake (again, emphasis mine):
She exclaimed: Oh Madonna, an expression I had never heard her use. What’s wrong, I asked. Gasping for breath, she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.
It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.
Kristeva’s abjection is again strongly embodied in those last few lines—the dissolution, the unspeakable and repressed forces, the trauma. The rivers of abject bodily filth. Here’s Kristeva, again from “Approaching Abjection” (my emphasis):
A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.
Lila and Lenù face abjection, the primer of their culture. They trace its contours, aim at ways of speaking the unspeakable—through friendship and the fruits of that friendship: storytelling. The storytelling offers a literal form to handle the abject violence of the culture in its many, many forms (corrupt politicians, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, predatory rapists, predatory lenders, Cammorist gangsters, systemic class inequality, religion…).
The storytelling confronts abjection without seeking a transcendence, an exit, an out. Ferrante recognizes that humans are violent animals, and doesn’t want to comfort us. In an interview, she said:
I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us…I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have no interest in consoling their readers. Yet they do evoke an essential power of storytelling, a power not to transcend abjection, but rather to endure a subjectivity through abjection: Love. “Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it,” writes Kristeva in another essay, “Throes of Love: The Field of the Metaphor.” In the Neapolitan Novels, Lenù speaks her love to her brilliant lost friend Lila. The result is moving and exhausting, an epic of fragments, a saga as discontinuous and unexpected as a real and full life. And if not all those fragments will stick in my memory, what comes through in the end is a sense of love, an author’s love her characters that persuades the readers to love them too.
What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?
I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.
I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Infinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).
Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.
I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Don Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).
Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.
Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).
By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…
I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).
I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.
Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.
My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.
I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.
I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.
By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.
And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).
“The Demon Lover”
Toward the end of her day in London Mrs. Drover went round to her shut-up house to look for several things she wanted to take away. Some belonged to herself, some to her family, who were by now used to their country life. It was late August; it had been a steamy, showery day: At the moment the trees down the pavement glittered in an escape of humid yellow afternoon sun. Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out. In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.
The staircase window having been boarded up, no light came down into the hall. But one door, she could just see, stood ajar, so she went quickly through into the room and unshuttered the big window in there. Now the prosaic woman, looking about her, was more perplexed than she knew by everything that she saw, by traces of her long former habit of life—the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall. The piano, having gone away to be stored, had left what looked like claw marks on its part of the parquet. Though not much dust had seeped in, each object wore a film of another kind; and, the only ventilation being the chimney, the whole drawing room smelled of the cold hearth. Mrs. Drover put down her parcels on the escritoire and left the room to proceed upstairs; the things she wanted were in a bedroom chest. Continue reading “Read “The Demon Lover,” a short story by Elizabeth Bowen”
To find a lost father: The first problem in finding a lost father is to lose him, decisively. Often he will wander away from home and lose himself. Often he will remain at home but still be “lost” in every true sense, locked away in an upper room, or in a workshop, or in the contemplation of beauty, or in the contemplation of a secret life. He may, every evening, pick up his gold-headed cane, wrap himself in his cloak, and depart, leaving behind, on the coffee table, a sealed laundry bag in which there is an address at which he may be reached, in case of war. War, as is well known, is a place at which many fathers are lost, sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever. Fathers are frequently lost on expeditions of various kinds (the journey to the interior). The five best places to seek this kind of lost father are Nepal, Rupert’s Land, Mount Elbrus, Paris, and the agora. The five kinds of vegetation in which fathers most often lose themselves are needle-leaved forest, broad-leaved forest mainly evergreen, broad-leaved forest mainly deciduous, mixed needle-leaved and broad-leaved forest, and tundra. The five kinds of things fathers were wearing when last seen are caftans, bush jackets, parkas, Confederate gray, and ordinary business suits. Armed with these clues then, you may place an advertisement in the newspaper: Lost, in Paris, on or about February 24, a broad-leaf-loving father, 6’ 2”, wearing a blue caftan, may be armed and dangerous, we don’t know, answers to the name Old Hickory. Reward. Having completed this futile exercise, you are then free to think about what is really important. Do you really want to find this father? What if, when you find him, he speaks to you in the same tone he used before he lost himself? Will he again place nails in your mother, in her elbows and back of the knee? Remember the javelin. Have you any reason to believe that it will not, once again, flash through the seven-o’clock-in-the-evening air? What we are attempting to determine is simple: Under what conditions do you wish to live? Yes, he “nervously twiddles the stem of his wineglass.” Do you wish to watch him do so on into the last quarter of the present century? I don’t think so. Let him take those mannerisms, and what they portend, to Borneo, they will be new to Borneo. Perhaps in Borneo he will also nervously twiddle the stem of, etc., but he will not be brave enough to manufacture, there the explosion of which this is a sign. Throwing the roast through the mirror. Thrusting a belch big as an opened umbrella into the middle of something someone else is trying to say. Beating you, either with a wet, knotted rawhide, or with an ordinary belt. Ignore that empty chair at the head of the table. Give thanks.
From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.
June 18th.–A walk in North Salem in the decline of yesterday afternoon,–beautiful weather, bright, sunny, with a western or northwestern wind just cool enough, and a slight superfluity of heat. The verdure, both of trees and grass, is now in its prime, the leaves elastic, all life. The grass-fields are plenteously bestrewn with white-weed, large spaces looking as white as a sheet of snow, at a distance, yet with an indescribably warmer tinge than snow,–living white, intermixed with living green. The hills and hollows beyond the Cold Spring copiously shaded, principally with oaks of good growth, and some walnut-trees, with the rich sun brightening in the midst of the open spaces, and mellowing and fading into the shade,–and single trees, with their cool spot of shade, in the waste of sun: quite a picture of beauty, gently picturesque. The surface of the land is so varied, with woodland mingled, that the eye cannot reach far away, except now and then in vistas perhaps across the river, showing houses, or a church and surrounding village, in Upper Beverly. In one of the sunny bits of pasture, walled irregularly in with oak-shade, I saw a gray mare feeding, and, as I drew near, a colt sprang up from amid the grass,–a very small colt. He looked me in the face, and I tried to startle him, so as to make him gallop; but he stretched his long legs, one after another, walked quietly to his mother, and began to suck,–just wetting his lips, not being very hungry. Then he rubbed his head, alternately, with each hind leg. He was a graceful little beast.
I bathed in the cove, overhung with maples and walnuts, the water cool and thrilling. At a distance it sparkled bright and blue in the breeze and sun. There were jelly-fish swimming about, and several left to melt away on the shore. On the shore, sprouting amongst the sand and gravel, I found samphire, growing somewhat like asparagus. It is an excellent salad at this season, salt, yet with an herb-like vivacity, and very tender. I strolled slowly through the pastures, watching my long shadow making grave, fantastic gestures in the sun. It is a pretty sight to see the sunshine brightening the entrance of a road which shortly becomes deeply overshadowed by trees on both sides. At the Cold Spring, three little girls, from six to nine, were seated on the stones in which the fountain is set, and paddling in the water. It was a pretty picture, and would have been prettier, if they had shown bare little legs, instead of pantalets. Very large trees overhung them, and the sun was so nearly gone down that a pleasant gloom made the spot sombre, in contrast with these light and laughing little figures. On perceiving me, they rose up, tittering among themselves. It seemed that there was a sort of playful malice in those who first saw me; for they allowed the other to keep on paddling, without warning her of my approach. I passed along, and heard them come chattering behind.
Since I have grown older I have often gone back and tried to analyze the change that came into my life after that fateful day in school. There did come a radical change, and, young as I was, I felt fully conscious of it, though I did not fully comprehend it. Like my first spanking, it is one of the few incidents in my life that I can remember clearly. In the life of everyone there is a limited number of unhappy experiences which are not written upon the memory, but stamped there with a die; and in long years after, they can be called up in detail, and every emotion that was stirred by them can be lived through anew; these are the tragedies of life. We may grow to include some of them among the trivial incidents of childhood—a broken toy, a promise made to us which was not kept, a harsh, heart-piercing word—but these, too, as well as the bitter experiences and disappointments of mature years, are the tragedies of life.
And so I have often lived through that hour, that day, that week, in which was wrought the miracle of my transition from one world into another; for I did indeed pass into another world. From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until I finally realized in it a great, tangible fact.
And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every colored man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man. It is wonderful to me that the race has progressed so broadly as it has, since most of its thought and all of its activity must run through the narrow neck of this one funnel.
And it is this, too, which makes the colored people of this country, in reality, a mystery to the whites. It is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a colored man really thinks; because, generally, with the latter an additional and different light must be brought to bear on what he thinks; and his thoughts are often influenced by considerations so delicate and subtle that it would be impossible for him to confess or explain them to one of the opposite race. This gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race. I have often watched with interest and sometimes with amazement even ignorant colored men under cover of broad grins and minstrel antics maintain this dualism in the presence of white men.
I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.
From Ch. 2 of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. First published anonymously in 1912, and later reissued in 1927 under Johnson’s (now famous) name, Autobiography is an under-read classic, a fascinating and complex condensation of racism, colorism, and class in early twentieth-century America. Johnson was born on this day in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida.