Section 1, “Life of Sade” — Roland Barthes’ Short Biography of The Marquis de Sade

From Roland Barthes’ “Life of Sade,” a short biography of The Marquis de Sade. Translated from the French by Richard Miller.  Read the entire essay at Supervert. (or here over the next few days, parceled out over 22 sections)—

1. Etymological chain: Sade, Sado, Sadone, Sazo, Sauza (village of Saze). Again, lost in this lineage, the evil letter. In attaining the accursed name, brilliantly formulated (it has engendered a common noun), the letter that, as we say in French, zebras, fustigates, the z, has given way to the softest of dentals.


New in Paperback: Ali Shaw Does Creepy Fables, Cathleen Schine Channels Jane Austen, and Joan Schenkar Plumbs Patricia Highsmith

The Girl with Glass Feet is the début novel from British author Ali Shaw. Set in the remote archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land and steeped in the traditions of English folklore, Shaw’s novel works in the idiom of magical realism. His titular girl Ida Maclaird suffers from a strange affliction: she’s slowly turning into glass. She returns to St. Hauda’s land in the winter (after a previous summer holiday there) in the hopes of finding a cure. There she meets Midas Crook (whose symbolically overdetermined name seems part and parcel of Shaw’s program), a photographer fascinated by his father’s ghost stories about the isolated archipelago who is trying to capture something of its haunted spirit in his pictures. Together (and with the help of some strange locals) the pair tries to find answers against a melancholy and magical backdrop of tiny winged cows, albino crows, and other grotesques. A sample ghost story, one of many in Glass Feet

His father had once told him a legend: lone travelers on overgrown paths would glimpse a humanoid glow that ghosted between trees or swam in a still lake. And something, some impulse from the guts, would make the traveler lurch off the path in pursuit, into the mazy trees or deep water. When they pinned it down it would take shape. Sometimes it would form a flower of phosphorescent petals. Sometimes it drew a bird of sparks whose tail feathers fizzled embers. Sometimes it became like a person and they’d think they saw, under a nimbus like a veil, the features of a loved one long lost. Always the light grew steadily brighter until–in a flash–they’d be blinded. Midas’s father hadn’t needed to elaborate on what happened to them after that. Lost and alone in the cold of the woods.

In The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Cathleen Schine transposes the Dashwoods of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to a dilapidated beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut. When 78 year old Joseph divorces his 75 year old wife Betty, and his mistress essentially forces her from their high-end NYC apartment, Betty rallies by moving to the beach cottage with her daughters, impulsive Miranda, a literary agent, and practical Annie, a library director. The premise may sound like the domain of that most maligned of genres, “chick lit,” a fact that many reviewers tackled when it debuted in hardback last year. Here’s Dominique Browning in The New York Times

Schine sets her novel squarely in the most appealing part of chick-lit territory — its light-hearted readability — and then thumbs her nose as she starts kicking up the dust. The strange thing about the Jane brigade is that most of its practitioners have raided only her plots, apparently not quite up to the task of honoring the essence of Austen. But Schine’s homage has it all: stinging social satire, mordant wit, delicate charm, lilting language and cosseting materialistic detail.

Before looking over Joan Schenkar’s exhaustive biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, I have to admit that I thought of the writer primarily as a practitioner of pulp fiction, the kind of lurid crime tales at home in airport bookshops. In recent years, I’ve come to reevaluate my stance on crime noir in particular (which I wrote about here), a genre whose conventions I find increasingly more apparent in the “literary fiction” that I enjoy. Anyway, Schenkar’s book places much stress on the Serious Art section of Highsmith’s biography. I knew Highsmith mainly from her Ripley novels, which I’ve never read, but gather to be smart and psychologically complex. I didn’t know that Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train, adapted by Hitchcock into a noir classic. I didn’t know that she wrote comic books for years — the weird crime ones that stirred up so much commotion in the fifties. I didn’t know that she worked homoerotic themes into her novels, and wrote one very openly lesbian novel that was published during her lifetime (albeit under a pseudonym), The Price of Salt. Schenkar makes a case for a Highsmith as an underappreciated novelist, a contemporary of Mailer and Capote who never got her due (even if her novels were bestsellers), a writer in the tradition of Kafka and Freud. Rounding out the biography is a complex investigation of Highsmith’s strange relationship with her mother, a look at her long list of lovers, and plenty of charts, diagrams, and photos (Schenkar even sneaks a topless pic in, if that piques your interest).

All three titles are new in trade paperback from Picador.

Hiding Man — Tracy Daugherty

Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty’s excellent and insightful biography of Donald Barthelme begins with a fascinating anecdote. Daugherty, a student of Bartheleme’s, is told to “Find a copy of John Ashbery’s Three Poems, read it, buy a bottle of wine, go home, sit in front of the typewriter, drink the wine, don’t sleep, and produce, by dawn, twelve pages of Ashbery imitation.” We’re not sure if that sounds like fun homework or not, but it does signal both Barthelme’s imaginative trajectory as well as Daugherty’s intimacy with his subject. Elsewhere in his introduction, he notes that “it’s wrong to think of Don as a victim of neglect. He was, rather, a connoisseur of it.” In short, Daugherty argues that Barthelme was a “Hiding Man,” an artist of structured subtlety who remains under-appreciated and misunderstood.

Daugherty’s book is at once a well-researched biography, a work of cultural and literary criticism, and a writerly affair–that is, its written with a novelist’s fine ear. He weaves Barthelme’s personal life with the man’s stories against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society, weighing Barthelme’s themes and methods along with a shift in literature, art, film, and culture. The book is most interesting when Daugherty situates Barthelme’s writing along/against other writers, particularly the other authors at the forefront of the so-called post-modernist movement. In one late episode, Barthelme organized what has come to be known as “The Postmodern Dinner,” inviting literary giants like William Gaddis, William Gass, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and Susan Sontag to a fancy SoHo restaurant (Thomas Pynchon politely declined the invite). By 1983, postmodernism had fallen out of favor in lieu of minimalism; Barthelme wasn’t the only writer at the dinner who we might–even now–see as a “victim of neglect.” Many of these writers were attacked (and continue to be attacked) as verbal tricksters, hacks playing at a literary shell game. But, as Daugherty makes very clear in Hiding Man, Barthelme was deeply concerned with matters of meaning and art and philosophy and life and love. He was, like most postmodernists (and Modernists, and post-postmodernists), simply willing to remove some of the strictures that bound distinctions of high and low culture, all as a means of getting closer to a core of truth and perception–not as a means of displacing or denying it. He was an artist.

Hiding Man both begins and ends with an assignment. Daugherty invites Barthelme to read at Oregon State University in early 1989, six months before his death. After the reading, in a moment of utter poignancy, Barthelme asks his former pupil, “Did I do okay for you?” As Barthelme gets in a taxi to leave he gives Daugherty one final assignment: “Write a story about a genius.” Daugherty gets more than a passing grade on this one. Recommended.

Hiding Man is new this month in trade paperback from Picador.