Private Worlds — Edward Melcarth

Private Worlds, 1961 by Edward Melcarth (1914–1973)

June — Alex Colville

june-1979.jpg!Large

June, 1979 by Alex Colville (1920-2013)

 Merz Picture with Rainbow — Kurt Schwitters

Merz Picture with Rainbow, 1920–39, by Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948)

Six Studies for Gassed — John Singer

Six studies for Gassed, 1919 by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

John Barth’s brief description of Donald Barthelme’s so-called postmodernist dinners

1fa8c7cbf8dc977653f7750905725da4
Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner,” 1983 by Jill Krementz (b. 1940)

In John Barth’s 1989 New York Times eulogy for Donald Barthelme, Barth gives a brief description of two so-called postmodernist dinners, both of which I’ve written on this blog before.

…though [Barthelme] tsked at the critical tendency to group certain writers against certain others ”as if we were football teams” – praising these as the true ”post-contemporaries” or whatever, and consigning those to some outer darkness of the passe – he freely acknowledged his admiration for such of his ”teammates,” in those critics’ view, as Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. A few springs ago, he and his wife, Marion, presided over a memorable Greenwich Village dinner party for most of these and their companions (together with his agent, Lynn Nesbit, whom Donald called ”the mother of postmodernism”). In 1988, on the occasion of John Hawkes’s academic retirement, Robert Coover impresarioed a more formal reunion of that team, complete with readings and symposia, at Brown University. Donald’s throat cancer had by then already announced itself – another, elsewhere, would be the death of him – but he gave one more of his perfectly antitheatrical virtuoso readings.

More on the first dinner here.

More on the second dinner here.

George Milburn’s odd novel Catalogue (Book acquired, 28 May 2021)

The beige spine of Davenport’s 1987 reprint of George Milburn’s 1936 novel Catalogue was so wonderfully-nondescript that I picked it up yesterday and flicked through it some. The novel is about the events that happen in a small Oklahoma town after the arrival of two catalogs on the same summer day: Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. The novel’s short chapters are written around catalog entries (e.g., “33F8244 RUBBER COLLARS,” “281D820 SEPTIC TANK,” “33D340 FANCY SHIRT”), and something about its energy, form, and blurb (“More than 70 characters are portrayed in this work which is considered to be the best of the three novels by Milburn”) made me think of William Gaddis’s novel J R.

“Mutations,” a very short tale from Jorge Luis Borges

“Mutations”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


In a hallway I saw a sign with an arrow pointing the way, and I was struck by the thought that that inoffensive symbol had once been a thing of iron, an inexorable, mortal projectile that had penetrated the flesh of men and lions and clouded the sun of Thermopylae and bequeathed to Harald Sigurdson, for all time, six feet of English earth.

Several days later, someone showed me a photograph of a Magyar horseman; a coil of rope hung about his mount’s chest. I learned that the rope, which had once flown through the air and lassoed bulls in the pasture, was now just an insolent decoration on a rider’s Sunday riding gear.

In the cemetery on the Westside I saw a runic cross carved out of red marble; its arms splayed and widened toward the ends and it was bounded by a circle. That circumscribed and limited cross was a figure of the cross with unbound arms that is in turn the symbol of the gallows on which a god was tortured—that “vile machine” decried by Lucían of Samosata.

Cross, rope, and arrow: ancient implements of mankind, today reduced, or elevated, to symbols. I do not know why I marvel at them so, when there is nothing on earth that forgetfulness does not fade, memory alter, and when no one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.

The Line — Aron Wiesenfeld 

The Line, 2020 by Aron Wiesenfeld (b. 1972)

Five books Donald Barthelme recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers

I have heard Donald referred to as essentially a writer of the American 1960’s. It may be true that his alloy of irrealism and its opposite is more evocative of that fermentatious decade, when European formalism had its belated flowering in North American writing, than of the relatively conservative decades since. But his literary precursors antedate the century, not to mention its 60’s, and are mostly non-American. ”How come you write the way you do?” a Johns Hopkins apprentice writer once asked him. ”Because Samuel Beckett already wrote the way he did,” Barthelme replied. He then produced for the seminar his ”short list”: five books he recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers. No doubt the list changed from time to time; just then it consisted of Rabelais’s ”Gargantua and Pantagruel,” Laurence Sterne’s ”Tristram Shandy,” the stories of Heinrich von Kleist, Flaubert’s ”Bouvard and Pecuchet” and Flann O’Brien’s ”At Swim-Two-Birds” – a fair sample of the kind of nonlinear narration, sportive form and cohabitation of radical fantasy with quotidian detail that mark his own fiction. He readily admired other, more ”traditional” writers, but it is from the likes of these that he felt his genealogical descent.

From John Barth’s 1989 eulogy for Donald Barthelme, first published in The New York Times.

Barthelme had a longer list too, of course:

Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Book acquired, 25 May 2021)

My friend texted me yesterday to tell me that Dawnie Walton was on the NPR program Fresh Air. Walton was two years ahead of us in high school, and although I missed the interview, I was psyched when I read the description of her new novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. I picked up a copy today and read the first fifty pages.

Walton’s debut novel takes the form of an oral history of the titular fictional interracial 1970s psych duo. The controlling voice is the editor of the oral history, “S. Sunny Shelton” (a pseudonym). She’s the daughter of the duo’s deceased drummer—murdered by a “racist gang”—who was also carrying on an affair with Opal (these facts are laid out in the novel’s opening paragraph, so this isn’t a spoiler–I’m guessing that the climax of the novel (or conclusion?) gets to the murder).

I’m digging The Final Revival of Opal & Nev so far. It has a buzzy, propulsive style—genial and largehearted, even as its episodes deliver a chilling shorthand pop history of the Civil Rights Movement. The non-narrator S. Sunny Shelton is the most intriguing aspect here—what is she emphasizing or omitting in her assemblage of “facts”? (I’m reminded of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine just a bit.)

Here’s publisher Simon & Schuster’s blurb:

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

Homer and the Ancient Poets — William Blake

Homer and the Ancient Poets, 1827 by William Blake (1757-1827)

“Black Box” — Randall Mann

“Black Box”

by

Randall Mann


I was someone’s
honor’s student once,
a sticker, a star.
I aced Home Ec and Geometry;
I learned to stab a fork,
steer my mother’s car.
Old enough to work,
I refreshed the salad bar
at Steak & Ale,
scarcity a line
I couldn’t fail.
The summers between university,
interned at AT&T,
in the minority
outreach they called Inroads.
My boss, Vicki, had two
roommates, whom she
called, simply, The Gays,
crashing on her floor.
That was before
I was gay, I won’t try to say
with a straight face.
Like anyone really cares,
I care. What I’m trying to say:
all this prepared
me for these squat blinking
office accessories.
The dry drinking
after the accidental reply-all.
By now there’s a lot to lose.
Little by little, I have become
so careful, no talk
of politics, or orientation:
I let them say, he’s “a homosexual,”
without an arch correction.
At a fondue buffet
in Zurich, our dumb-
founded senior group
director—when I let slip,
damn it, my trip
with a twenty-year-old—inquired,
They’re always over seventeen,
right? I told her of course,
god yes, and, seething, smiled,
which I’m famous for.
I didn’t want to scare
her. But I tell you,
I’m keeping score.
E-mail is no more
than a suicide
I’d like to please recall.
Note my suicide.
I’m paid to multitask,
scramble the life
out of fun:
Monday I will ask—
every dash a loaded gun,
every comma, a knife—
you to bury the black-box file.

Corronach — Jonathan Leaman

Corronach, 1999 by Jonathan Leaman (b. 1954)

“Proverbs” — Grace Paley

By the time this cigarette is finished, a rusted elegance will emerge

Anna Seghers’s short story collection, The Dead Girls’ Class Trip (Book acquired, 14 May 2021)

NYRB have a collection of Anna Seghers’s short stories coming out next month. The Dead Girls’ Class Trip is both translated and edited by Margot Bettauer Dembo and includes an introduction by German author Ingo Schulze. There are sixteen stories in the collection, some quite long and others quite short. Many have ominous titles, like “Jan Is Going to Die,” “Shelter,” “The End,” “A Man Becomes a Nazi,” and the title story, of course. I read a shorter tale the other day, “The Square,” and it was a depressing little ominous microfiction. I also read “The Three Trees,” three micros arboreally bound. The first piece, “The Knight’s Tree,” condenses history, humor, and despair into a few sentences:

The Dead Girls’ Class Trip drops mid June from NYRB. Their blurb:

Best known for the anti-fascist novel The Seventh Cross and the existential thriller Transit, Anna Seghers was also a gifted writer of short fiction. The stories she wrote throughout her life reflect her political activism as well as her deep engagement with myth; they are also some of her most formally experimental work. This selection of Seghers’s best stories, written between 1925 and 1965, displays the range of her creativity over the years. It includes her most famous short fiction, such as the autobiographical “The Dead Girls’ Class Trip,” and others, like “Jans Is Going to Die,” that have been translated into English here for the first time. There are psychologically penetrating stories about young men corrupted by desperation and women bound by circumstance, as well as enigmatic tales of bewilderment and enchantment based on myths and legends, like “The Best Tales of Woynok, the Thief,” “The Three Trees,” and “Tales of Artemis.” In her stories, Seghers used the German language in especially unconventional and challenging ways, and Margot Bettauer Dembo’s sensitive and skilled translation preserves this distinction.

The Crab — Oskar Kokoschka

The Crab, 1940 by Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)