On Doing Nothing (Book acquired, 12 June 2018)

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Roman Muradov’s On Doing Nothing is new from Chronicle Books. Instead of the blurb, here’s the intro:

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Robert Coover/Barry Hannah/Antoine Volodine (Books acquired, 7 June 2018)

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I had ordered Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels through my favorite bookstore, and it came in yesterday. It’s slim but expensive (ah! university presses!) and ate up all of my store credit, but still I picked up used copies of Robert Coover’s second novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and Barry Hannah’s Boomerang b/w Never Die (some of the only Hannah I’ve yet to read). I was tempted also by the title and cover of Daniel Hoffman’s 1971 Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe—but I was not tempted enough to acquire it.

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Mario Benedetti’s The Truce (Book acquired, 2 June 2018)

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I’m excited about this one! I’ll admit I haven’t heard of Mario Benedetti before. The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé (first published in Uruguay 1960) is in English translation from Penguin by Harry Morales. More to come, but for now, Penguin’s blurb–

Forty-nine, with a kind face, no serious ailments (apart from varicose veins on his ankles), a good salary and three moody children, widowed accountant Martín Santomé is about to retire. He assumes he’ll take up gardening, or the guitar, or whatever retired people do. What he least expects is to fall passionately in love with his shy young employee Laura Avellaneda. As they embark upon an affair, happy and irresponsible, Martín begins to feel the weight of his quiet existence lift – until, out of nowhere, their joy is cut short.

The intimate, heartbreaking diary of an ordinary man who is reborn when he falls in love one final time, this beloved Latin American novel has been translated into twenty languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, and is now published in Penguin Classics for the first time.

Antoine Volodine’s Naming the Jungle (Book acquired 26 May 2018)

I keep meaning to write about the second half of Antoine Volodine’s Writers, which is the best contemporary book I’ve read this year. (I wrote about the first half though).

I had to use the internet to buy Naming the Jungle, and the cover is awful, but I’m eager to read more Volodine.

Publisher’s blurb:

Antoine Volodine has been hailed as one of the most innovative and accomplished writers in France today. Compared by critics to Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll, Volodine weaves an unusual novel of political and psychological intrigue in a lush, exotic setting. The publication of Naming the Jungle marks his American debut and the first translation of his work into English.

Puesto Libertad could be any Latin American city torn by the strife of civil war. In this isolated capital buried in the jungle, the revolutionary secret police have started digging into Fabian Golpiez’s past. In order to avoid brutal torture and interrogation, he decides to feign madness. Led by a local shaman/psychiatrist in a bizarre talking cure, Golpiez must use indigenous names to prove both his innocence and his true Tupi Indian identity. To name is to conquer. He names the monkeys, the plants, and the insects all around him as he names his fear, his paranoia, and his pathologies.

A masterful storyteller, Volodine speaks to us about the slow and fatal agony of revolution in a haunting and intense novel, one of the most dazzling pieces of fiction to come out of France since the early novels of Robbe-Grillet and Duras.

Stanley Elkin/Flann O’Brien (Book acquired and book not acquired, 23 May 2018)

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I went to my favorite local bookstore today to pick up my daughter’s sixth-grade required reading list and to offload some books I’ll never read again. I have far too many tasteful trade paperbacks that I don’t need. I try to bring three or four in on each trip and only come out with one for me (books for the kids don’t count). I picked up a copy of Stanley Elkin’s Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966) entirely accidentally. The book was misshelved, stacked somehow on a pile of “Miscellaneous MU-” titles (I was looking for any book by Gerald Murnane, knowing that there were none there). I couldn’t pass it up—the cover, I guess, the cheap Pop appeal of its massmarketishness, and also the fact that I’m imbibing short stories like wine lately. (Murnane, Coover, Volodine).

I also came across this lovely edition of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, but did not buy it, because I already own it. I love the book. The copy I have has an ugly-assed cover, unlike this beauty, which I hope some kid picks up and loses her mind over—-

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Miklós Szentkuthy’s Black Renaissance (Book acquired 15 May 2018)

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Miklós Szentkuthy’s Black Renaissance is new from Contra Mundum in English translation by Tim Wilkinson. It showed up at the house today. I just read the Table of Contents, which is not a thing I usually read, but…they were compelling. Sample:

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You can read a sample of Black Renaissance at Contra Mundum’s website.

Here is the publisher’s blurb:

Black Renaissance, the second volume of the St. Orpheus Breviary, is the continuation of Miklós Szentkuthy’s synthesis of 2,000 years of European culture. St. Orpheus is Szentkuthy’s Virgil, an omniscient poet who guides us not through hell, but through all of recorded history, myth, religion, and literature, albeit reimagined as St. Orpheus metamorphosizes himself into kings, popes, saints, tyrants, and artists. At once pagan and Christian, Greek and Hebrew, Asian and European, St. Orpheus is a mosaic of history and mankind in one supra-person and veil, an endless series of masks and personae, humanity in its protean, futural shape, an always changing function of discourse, text, myth, & mentalité.

Through St. Orpheus’ method, disparate moments of history become synchronic, are juggled to reveal, paradoxically, their mutual difference and essential similarity. “Orpheus wandering in the infernal regions,” says Szentkuthy, “is the perennial symbol of the mind lost amid the enigmas of reality. The aim of the work is, on the one hand, to represent the reality of history with the utmost possible precision, and on the other, to show, through the mutations of the European spirit, all the uncertainties of contemplative man, the transiency of emotions and the sterility of philosophical systems.”

In Black Renaissance, the dramatic scenes and philosophical passages (never a fog of abstractions, more the world and tone of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra) parade before the reader ostensibly as three characters, by way of three Orphean masks: Renaissance and baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi, architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, and a tutor to the young Elizabeth Tudor. From Monteverdi’s impassioned search for an opera subject in the works of Tacitus to his meditations on divinities, to Brunelleschi’s diving into the works of Herodotus so as to illustrate Greek history, Szentkuthy veers through the Renaissance, sounding a pessimistic ‘basso continuo’ on psychology, sin, metaphysics, truth and relativism.

Through Orpheus’ final mask, that of the tutor of Elizabeth, it is eros and theology, two of Szentkuthy’s fundamental concerns, that receive yet another complex and engrossing dramatization. Metaphysics, Rationalism, and existentialist despair all spin through the author-narrator’s kaleidoscope as he closes his Black Renaissance by discoursing on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. A thousand attempts at defining physical and spiritual, heavenly and earthly love all fail.

Antoine Volodine’s Writers (Book acquired, 5 May 2018)

I picked up Antoine Volodine’s Writers today.

I also looked at some pictures, including these–

Hob Broun’s Cardinal Numbers (Book acquired, 30 April 2018)

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I first heard of Hob Broun a few years ago from the literary critic David Winters, who is a fan of Broun’s work. I’ve had Broun on a list of writers I mean to read for a long time now (an actual physical list, by the way, which I keep in my wallet). However, I’ve yet to come across one of his books in a bookstore. Anyway so well—

The inaugural issue of the new literary magazine Egress has a feature on Broun, which reignited my interest in him. I’ve been emailing the editors of Egress, David Winters and Andrew Latimer, for an interview about Egress (which will post sometime in the next day or two), and David basically talked me into breaking down and buying the book online (I got it for five bucks). A snippet of our upcoming interview:

Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?

David Winters: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.

Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?

DWCardinal Numbers, without a doubtOpen Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.

Rough Animals (Book acquired, 21 April 2018)

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A copy of Rae DelBianco’s novel, Rough Animals, arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters yesterday. I read the first chapter, which has the protagonist getting shot on like, the second page. This is a fast-paced book so far, its plot propelled by prose clearly influenced by Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson.

Here is the blurb:

​Ever since their father’s untimely death five years before, Wyatt Smith and his inseparably close twin sister, Lucy, have scraped by alone on their family’s isolated ranch in Box Elder County, Utah. That is until one morning when, just after spotting one of their bulls lying dead in the field, Wyatt is hit in the arm by a hail of gunfire that takes four more cattle with it. The shooter: a fever-eyed, fearsome girl-child with a TEC-9 in her left hand and a worn shotgun in her right. They hold the girl captive, but she breaks loose overnight and heads south into the desert. With the dawning realization that the loss of cattle will mean the certain loss of the ranch, Wyatt feels he has no choice but to go after her and somehow find restitution for what’s been lost.

Wyatt’s decision sets him on an epic twelve-day odyssey through a nightmarish underworld he only half understands; a world that pitches him not only against the primordial ways of men and the beautiful yet brutally unforgiving landscape, but also against himself. As he winds his way down from the mountains of Box Elder to the mesas of Monument Valley and back, Wyatt is forced to look for the first time at who he is and what he’s capable of, and how those hard truths set him irrevocably apart from the one person he’s ever really known and loved. Steeped in a mythic, wildly alive language of its own, and gripping from the first gunshot to the last, Rough Animals is a tour de force from a powerful new voice.

Gerald Murnane’s Stream System (Book acquired, 5 April 2018)

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Four stories into Gerald Murnane’s Stream System and digging it a lot. I’ll do some kind of post about some of the stuff in here soon. For now, here’s FS&G’s blurb:

Never before available to readers in this hemisphere, these stories―originally published from 1985 to 2012―offer an irresistible compendium of the work of one of contemporary fiction’s greatest magicians.

While the Australian master Gerald Murnane’s reputation rests largely on his longer works of fiction, his short stories stand among the most brilliant and idiosyncratic uses of the form since Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov. Brutal, comic, obscene, and crystalline, Stream System runs from the haunting “Land Deal,” which imagines the colonization of Australia and the ultimate vengeance of its indigenous people as a series of nested dreams; to “Finger Web,” which tells a quietly terrifying, fractal tale of the scars of war and the roots of misogyny; to “The Interior of Gaaldine,” which finds its anxious protagonist stranded beyond the limits of fiction itself.

No one else writes like Murnane, and there are few other authors alive still capable of changing how―and why―we read.

Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles (Book acquired, 14 March 2018)

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A copy of Fran Leadon’s Broadway: A History of New York in Thirteen Miles arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters last month, reminding me that I don’t read enough nonfiction. The book is out this month in hardback from W.W. Norton. Their blurb:

In the early seventeenth century, in a backwater Dutch colony, there was a wide, muddy cow path that the settlers called the Brede Wegh. As the street grew longer, houses and taverns began to spring up alongside it. What was once New Amsterdam became New York, and farmlands gradually gave way to department stores, theaters, hotels, and, finally, the perpetual traffic of the twentieth century’s Great White Way. From Bowling Green all the way up to Marble Hill, Broadway takes us on a mile-by-mile journey up America’s most vibrant and complex thoroughfare, through the history at the heart of Manhattan.

Today, Broadway almost feels inevitable, but over the past four hundred years there have been thousands who have tried to draw and erase its path. Following their footsteps, we learn why one side of the street was once considered more fashionable than the other; witness the construction of Trinity Church, the Flatiron Building, and the Ansonia Hotel; the burning of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum; and discover that Columbia University was built on the site of an insane asylum. Along the way we meet Alexander Hamilton, Emma Goldman, Edgar Allan Poe, John James Audubon, “Bill the Butcher” Poole, and the assorted real-estate speculators, impresarios, and politicians who helped turn Broadway into New York’s commercial and cultural spine.

Broadway traces the physical and social transformation of an avenue that has been both the “Path of Progress” and a “street of broken dreams,” home to both parades and riots, startling wealth and appalling destitution. Glamorous, complex, and sometimes troubling, the evolution of an oft-flooded dead end to a canyon of steel and glass is the story of American progress.

Dave Cooper’s Mudbite (Book acquired, 28 March 2018)

 

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Dave Cooper’s Mudbite is new in glorious full-color hardback from Fantagraphics. Here is the front cover:

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And here is the other front cover (Mudbite is a tête-bêche):

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I hope to post a review of Mudbite at The Comics Journal soon, but for now, here’s Fantagraphics’ blurb:

Eddy Table, the star of Mudbite, first appeared the early ’90s in Cooper’s award-winning underground comics series, Weasel. His stories were based on baffling dreams and reveled in a unique sort of logical nonsense. Mudbitecompiles two all-new Eddy Table stories, “Mud River” and “Bug Bite,” in which Eddy returns to his roots, acting as Dave’s alter ego in these dreamlike narratives.

In “Mud River,” Eddy makes a foolish mistake, causing a sweet, innocent Amazon to bonk her head, turning her into a very impressionable automaton. Of course, Eddy can’t resist taking advantage of this unexpected development, even as a river of mud approaches. In “Bug Bite,” Eddy has brought his family on a vacation to Europe, but he’s soon distracted by a series of manifestations of his own obsessions  — voluptuous women, mysterious and collectible “microdevices,”  and a strange, impromptu jam session. When he loses his family entirely, he’s led into a dark, slimy corridor inhabited by shiny black eels. What is their connection to the microdevices? And how will all this impact his family?

Mudbite marks the first new graphic novel by fan favorite Dave Cooper in more than 15 years, marking a welcome return to the medium that he made his name in before focusing on fine art and television, where he has focused most of his creative energy since.

(Another) Moby-Dick (Book acquired, 26 March 2018)

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While I wasn’t thrilled to return to work after a pleasant Spring Break, I was very happy to find a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in the campus mail today. A Norton book rep visited our campus before the break and asked what my favorite book was. It was kind of her to send me their new critical edition.

I wrote a post almost five years ago about the various versions of Moby-Dick that I’ve accumulated (including a Norton Critical Edition). Since that post, I’ve picked up two more illustrated children’s versions, another comic book version, as well as an edition illustrated by Barry Moser. I will almost certainly reread the book this year.

The Big Love (Book acquired, 13 March 2018)

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Uh….

This one looks like a fascinating case of memoir-as-fiction. Florence Aadland’s The Big Love is new from Spurl. Here’s the back cover:

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And here’s Spurl’s blurb:

The Big Love is a Hollywood nightmare. It tells the story of Errol Flynn – a fading, alcoholic movie star – and the underage dancer-actress Beverly Aadland. The narrator? Beverly Aadland’s fame-worshiping mother Mrs. Florence Aadland, who spurs the relationship on. There is nothing subtle or sympathetic about this memoir: It is outrageous, grotesque, surreal, notorious – an intimate look at Hollywood exploitation and decay.

On the one hand, The Big Love depicts the deterioration of Errol Flynn, an actor who is quickly losing relevance after years of playing irresistible swashbucklers in films such as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He is riddled with medical problems, drinking himself to death. On the other hand, there is Mrs. Florence Aadland, also an alcoholic, an uncultured stage mother psychotically pushing her daughter Beverly forward even at the cost of her own marriage.

A bizarre, seedy time capsule of the 1950s, The Big Love is the long-lost literary sister of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed. After languishing out of print for years, it is ready to shock brand new audiences with its absurd humor, villainous characters, and sickly dissipation.

Mrs. Florence Aadland was born on September 21, 1909, in Van Zandt County, Texas. She moved to Southern California and subsequently lost her right foot in a car accident. She married bartender Herbert Aadland and gave birth to her daughter Beverly on September 16, 1942, in Los Angeles. The affair between her adolescent daughter and actor Errol Flynn became tabloid news with his death from a heart attack on October 14, 1959. Her account of the relationship between her daughter and Errol Flynn, The Big Love, was “told to” writer Tedd Thomey and originally published in 1961. Mrs. Aadland died from alcohol-related causes in a Los Angeles hospital on May 10, 1965, at the age of fifty-five.

Max Frisch’s Bluebeard (Book acquired, 3 March 2018)

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When I saw a hardback copy of Max Frisch’s 1982 novel Bluebeard (in English translation by Geoffrey Skeleton) the other week at my favorite used bookstore, I picked it up and started reading. I loved the cover and was attracted by its slimness—under 150 pages and written almost entirely in Beckettian dialog—but more than anything it was the title. Is it creepy to admit that I have a slight obsession with the Bluebeard narrative? Yes? Chalk it up to a formative memory: When I was around five, a cousin, ten years older than I am, read an illustrated book of Charles Perrault fairy tales to me to tuck me in one night. He read read a few before getting to “Bluebeard,” a story both he and I were unfamiliar with. I know he didn’t know the story because I can vividly recall the shock it produced in him as it progressed, the sense of horror. I remember that he kept going through the story even after the awful violent secret at its core was revealed, simply in the hope that some kind of justice might happen. I remember him telling me, “That wasn’t a children’s story.” He’s right, of course—sample a few paragraphs from Andrew Lang’s translation of Perrault’s version:

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Blue Beard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

It wasn’t so much the story but an older person’s reaction to the story that impacted me so much. I’m not sure if the book included an illustration that pertains to the images above, but I know that I remember an image of the scene, perhaps one I conjured all by myself—of a closet full of corpses.

The Bluebeard story seems to have largely fallen out of the canon of children’s “fairy tales”; it’s one of those stories that I remember trying to bring up to others as a reference point when I was young. The reference never seemed to land. My students have no knowledge of it. And yet it’s still soaked into the culture—the recent film Ex Machina was a take on Bluebeard, and elements of HBO’s Westworld also allude to the tale. Over the years I’ve read plenty of versions of the story: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, Donald Barthelme’s “Bluebeard,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Bluebeard,” Anne Sexton’s “The Golden Key,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” — but I’d never heard of Max Frisch’s until I saw it in the store the other day. I didn’t pick it up then—I was committed to getting and reading Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, and I didn’t want to pile up too many books—but the blue cover wormed around in the back of my brain and I gave in the other day. Plus, dig this author photo:

Instead of the blurb, here are a few paragraphs from Richard Gilman’s contemporary review in The New York Times:

“Bluebeard” is an extremely short “tale,” as Mr. Frisch calls it, even shorter than “Man in the Holocene.” Like Samuel Beckett, Mr. Frisch seems to be paring away his stock of expressiveness, moving toward a purer means as he nears his mid-70’s. The book is made up in large part of remembered excerpts from the transcript of a fictional murder trial, interspersed with remarks, comments and reflections by the accused man.

He is a 54-year old Zurich physician named Felix Schaad, who was charged with strangling one of his former wives with a necktie. She had been the sixth of his seven wives, and after their divorce, she had become a high-priced call girl whom he would sometimes visit, although apparently not for sexual purposes. At the time of her murder, Schaad had been married for a year to his seventh wife, and it was she who gave him the nickname Bluebeard, as a term of endearment. “He once said that he already had six wives in the cellar,” she said on the witness stand.

The press had siezed on this bit of testimony. The doctor remembers the headlines – “NO ALIBI FOR SCHAAD/BLUEBEARD IN COURT/DOCTOR’S SEVEN MARRIAGES” – and recalls how “I looked it up in the library: the tale of the knight who had killed his seven wives and concealed their corpses in the cellar was written by a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, in the seventeenth century.”

Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (Book acquired, 23 Feb. 2018)

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I picked up Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell the other day. I’d put it on my 2018 Good Intentions Reading List, but somehow failed to find it at the big used bookstore I frequent. I found six copies there on Friday, all in different editions—it turns out there was another shelf of Murdoch, but higher up and to the right of where I was looking. Anyway.

How is my progress on that 2018 list, you ask? Not great. I stalled out on William Gass’s The Tunnel after about 60 pages. I usually have fun reading Gass and I wasn’t having fun; in fact, I started approaching the book as a chore, which is not what I want to be doing with my spare time. I got sidetracked with Stanisław Witkiewicz’s Narcotics (not on The List—I hope to have a review up this week), and then picked up Don DeLillo’s The Names (on The List) instead of The Tunnel. I sank into the DeLillo, which feels a bit like a smart beach read after tangling with The Tunnel’s difficult defensive barriers. I plan to dip into The Bell next, and then approach the bigger books on The List—MiddlemarchWar & Peace, uh, The Tunnel—this summer when my teaching load is a lot lighter.

 

Stanisław I. Witkiewicz’s Narcotics (Book acquired, 5 Feb. 2018)

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Stanisław I. Witkiewicz’s Narcotics is forthcoming in full-color hardback from Twisted Spoon PressSubtitled “Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine, Ether + Appendices,” the volume consists of Witkiewicz’s musings on his intake of these substances, both in his creative and personal life, as well as the various portraits he composed while taking those substances. Narcotics is translated by Soren Gauger, who also authors a helpful afterword that contextualizes Witkiewicz’s volume. Narcotics was written and published in Poland in the 1930s, and was apparently quite a big hit. I read Witkiewicz’s foreword last night (as well as the section on, um, peyote). In its strange moralizing, the foreword—an apologia really–reminded me a bit of Henri Michaux’s similar exercise, Miserable Miracle, which also strikes a defensive tone at the outset.

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The book, like Witkiewicz’s portraits, is gorgeous. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb; full review forthcoming—

For his “portrait painting firm,” 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. Type C were created under the influence of alcohol and “narcotics of a superior grade” to produce abstract compositions he called “Pure Form.” A variety of drugs and their combinations were taken to produce a variety of distortions and effects, and often this would be the portrait subject’s choice. And in some instances a given portrait might be marked with symbols denoting how many days he had gone without smoking or without drinking (and type D were executed to achieve the same results without any artificial means). Different substances resulted in different color combinations or brought out different aspects of the subject’s features or psyche. One stunning series of self-portraits, for example, was executed while on a combination of moderate amounts of beer and cocaine.

In the vein of the well-known drug writings of De Quincey and Baudelaire from a century earlier and those of his contemporaries Walter Benjamin and Jean Cocteau – and foreshadowing the later writings of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda on psychoactive drugs – Witkacy composed Narcotics in 1930 to discuss and document not only his own experimentation with different substances but the nature of addiction itself and the prevailing social attitude toward drugs, particularly those that were considered “acceptable.” As life became increasingly mechanized, Witkacy felt that a sense of the metaphysical could only be achieved by artificial means, and like Henri Michaux, he produced an extensive oeuvre of singular visual art while under the influence of a variety of substances.

Meandering, acerbic, and burlesque, rife with neologisms and expressions from German, French, English, and Russian, Witkacy dissects Polish society and the art world as well as himself via the hypocrisy surrounding drug use. Since it was first published in the 1930s, Narcotics has achieved a cult status in Poland where it is considered both a modernist classic and a paragon of Witkiewiczian madness. This edition, the first complete translation in English, includes a second appendix written later, passages from the novel Farewell to Autumn, and 34 color reproductions of a cross section of portraits to show how various substances impacted Witkacy’s art.

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