This is the blurb for Ian Svenonius’s book Censorship Now!!:
The non-blurb is of course a blurb.
If you think that that move is brilliant, or even funny, you might dig Censorship Now!!
Publisher Akashic Books has the good sense to offer a description of the book:
In this outrageous and hilarious new essay collection, underground music icon Ian F. Svenonius tackles such diverse subjects as IKEA, Apple, the weather, the gentrification of punk by indie rock, Marion Barry, the film Heathers, Christian pornography, vampires, hoarding, the role of sugar in empire-building, how to properly tip at restaurants, the return of the hat in men’s fashion, and other highly topical matters. No one is left unscathed, and more than a few will be left scratching their heads even as they laugh.
In high school, I dug Svenonius’s first band Nation of Ulysses—more as a concept than for the music, really (I much preferred Dischord label mates Fugazi). The goofy-seriousiousness of Nation of Ulysses was entertaining and confusing, but like later musical projects The Make-Up and Weird War, Svenonius’s band never struck me as quite as dangerous as they wanted to be.
My best friend was always a bigger fan of Svenonius than I was—enough to have read the dude’s first book, The Psychic Soviet. I texted him when I first started reading Censorship Now!!, complaining that I couldn’t tell if Svenonius was serious or if the book was all a schtick, an ageing scenester’s put-on. My pal replied that Svenonius was “a professional sloganeer,” and that every sentence of The Psychic Soviet was a “pull quote.”
Every line a pull quote, every sentence a slogan is how Censorship Now!! reads (if those two exclamation marks didn’t tip you off). The book’s essays read like the rants of someone’s older brother trying to hip you to the truth, man. But after you grow up you wonder why the brother’s still living in his parents’ basement. Okay. That sounds a bit too, I don’t know, rude of me (?) — but I can’t find anything particularly profound in Svenonius’s raging against Apple and Wikipedia and the bourgeoisie. (His riff on Ikea (“Ikea wants couples to break up”) reeks of a bad comedy routine).
Censorship Now!! (which always reads like a talk book, and never as prose) is simultaneously reactionary and nostalgic. Svenonius hates all the things you’d expect him to (NPR, Urban Outfitters, Arcade Fire, gentrification) and even some things you might not expect (tipping). Loose opinion and easy reference are employed instead of facts (sample slogan: “Destroy All Facts” How revolutionary!).
Does it matter? It doesn’t matter. The fourteen year-old me would’ve loved this shit. There’s a fourteen year-old out there that would love it now.
I recently had the chance to interview the marvelous David Shook about the equally marvelous Like a New Sun, a book of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry, which he edited and co-translated. You can read the interview over at Asymptote’s blog.
I first read about Asymptote here on Biblioklept a few years ago. I’m happy to share that I have joined their ranks as Interview Features Editor, and that this is my first interview with them. Check back often for more interviews with translators, poets, novelists, and more.
With the bad taste of a recentish YAish post-apocalyptish novel in my brain, I riffled through some old sci-fi titles, hoping to find something to hit “reset.” J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise—which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager—wrapped me up immediately with its opening sentence:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
(If the promise of that first line doesn’t intrigue you, High-Rise isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll enjoy all the old High-Rise covers I couldn’t help but to scatter through this riff).
Depravity. Debauchery. Degeneration. The boiling pot of late-20th century consciousness.
So, what is High-Rise about? Like, the plot, man? Class-war in a high-rise condo: A self-contained society that fails, its id overspilling into sex and violence: The veneer dissolved in piss and spite. And the best part? Ballard dispenses with any sort of explanation whatsoever. We begin at critical mass. He counted on his late-20th-century reader to intuit the whole damn deal (or throw down the book in defensive disgust).
Ballard structures the book around three anti-heroes, who represent, probably, id, ego, and superego—or rather, what I mean to say is ironic send-ups of id, ego, and superego—with the high-rise itself a kind of consciousness in crisis.
From the middle-class (and perhaps ego)—the 25th floor—there’s Dr. Robert Laing—not really a practicing doctor, no, but he works at a teaching hospital. Ballard tricks us into thinking he’s the protagonist—which I guess he is!—by which I mean audience surrogate, and also typical Ballardian hero (divorced; mama issues; a drinker). His name may recall to you the (anti-)psychiatrist R.D. Laing (as well as, perhaps, Language).
We might find a tidy—as in sanitary–summary of High-Rise in this brief excerpt, where our ego hero Laing packs away his tools and totems of the old world in anticipation of the new one to come:
In this suitcase-sized cavity he hid away his cheque book and insurance policies, tax returns and share certificates. Lastly, he forced in his medical case with vials of morphine, antibiotics and cardiac stimulants. When he nailed the floorboards back into place he felt that he was sealing away for ever the last residues of his previous life, and preparing himself without reservation for the new one to come.
The phrase “to come” — as in a future to come — repeats throughout High-Rise—a kind of irony, ultimately, that I shouldn’t step all over here. I’ll get back to that momentarily, but—
Ballard soon trips us up by shifting his free-indirect style from Laing to Richard Wilder of the 2nd floor. A bestial brawny brawly dude (and the only father in this trio of anti-heroes) Wilder (c’mon with that name man!) is id id id all the way down (up). Wilder’s also a filmmaker, a camera in his hand, a sensing thing all the way down (up). He causes some problems.
(The idea that a middle-class man like Wilder might represent the proletariat here is addressed in more (although oblique) depth in Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People).
And then the super-ego/upper crust: Anthony Royal (O!c’mon with that name dammit!) of the penthouse. He’s the literal architect of the high-rise, which makes him possibly maybe probably responsible for its many, many design flaws, which boil down to intake, outtake, and power, but look like parking, garbage, and electricity.
And so Ballard shuttles us between these three consciousnesses, like the elevators that symbolically anchor this novel. (Anchor is a terrible verb for these mobile metaphors. Or maybe it’s the precise verb).
Like I said in point 5, Ballard doesn’t really bother to foreground the causes for the high-rises’s society’s degenerate descent (ascent?)—instead, he offers concrete contours and psychological descriptions. Like this one, when a psychiatrist (yep) offers this analysis to Laing (and the reader, of course):
I had a bucket of urine thrown over me this afternoon. Much more of that and I may take up a cudgel myself. It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism. The model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection — obviously a more dangerous mix than anything our Victorian forebears had to cope with. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry. Perhaps they resent never having had a chance to become perverse . . .
(“Perverse” is a term that repeats throughout High-Rise, and I had to leave in those bucket of urine and cudgel details).
The concrete contours, the description, the late-20th century analysis—that’s the reason to boil along with High-Rise. The book is fucking fun in its thrilling awful decadence—it’s Lord of the Flies for adults, with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo replaced with psychiatric mumbo-jumbo. Or Salò.
Back to that future to come thing, here’s another citation, at some length (enjoy those concrete contours), but with my emphasis in boldface if you’re in some big fucking hurry:
Still uncertain how long he had been awake, or what he had been doing half an hour earlier, Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor. He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins. He found it hard to remember what their original function had been. To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand. Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this — sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.
Ballard’s describing the late 20th century there, but perhaps he intuits the beginning of the 21st as well.
—Or maybe those are the same thing, I suppose—I mean, High-Rise was published in 1975, four decades ago, but doesn’t feel that old. For some perspective, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts was published in 1936, almost forty years before High-Rise, and that novel doesn’t feel horribly dated either, a tribute to its sharp satire.
—Which is my way of transitioning to the probably completely non-controversial idea that High-Rise is wonderful dark satire. Ballard ushers our consciousness to the high-rise’s summit through surrogate Laing, the limited concrete prose focused on the failed doctor’s misperception of transcendence. Laing perceives himself as the conquering brute, alpha male par excellence, inheritor not only of the falling high-rise, but also its female cohort, his harem in a future to come, his genealogical generativity restored. Laing can’t see that he’s been x’ed out of this equation, the failed phallic figure jutting impotently into mother sky.
So you know that High-Rise is going to be a movie? A Major Motion Picture? Starring Tom Hiddleston? As cynical as I am, I think the book should make a fine film—it’s adaptable, yes. It could even be a great video game. A video game where you eat a dog. A video game where you think you win, but you don’t.
A. Let’s start with this: I need to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice again. Like, I’m compelled.
B. But maybe a quick sketch before, no? Like, here in my office hours, before an afternoon class, when I should be shuffling through a few early papers—and, like away from the novel, which I’ve been rereading bits of? With the intention of re: point A seeing it again this weekend.
C. A claim, bold or otherwise: PTA’s film is better than Pynchon’s novel.
D. (Apples and oranges, bro, thou protest).
E. Okay so point C: What do I mean by better? I’m not really sure.
F. Maybe what I mean is: PTA slows down Pynchon’s novel. Expands the tension, the euphoria, the weirdness under the lines of dialogue.
G. (The film’s dialogue seems composed entirely from the text of the novel. Verbatim).
H. (But verbatim—how verbatim?: There are those gaps, those wonderful gaps that PTA fills—with color and smoke and sound and legs legs legs).
I. PTA also underlines plot connections for the reader, limning the paranoid contours that connect conspiracy-theory paranoia to vertically-integrated capitalism.
J. Okay, so point I: I’m not saying that clarifying the plot for the viewer (in a way that Pynchon arguably does not) makes the film, better—what I’m saying is that critics who contend the film fails to cohere are maybe missing the point.
K. Here’s a point: Inherent Vice offers the most coherent and balanced conclusion of any of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. The final act performs the spirit behind Pynchon’s letters, offering a vision of fraternal love, or of caritas, if not love—of partnerships, of how to feed the hungry, the famished. (Poor famished Bigfoot). Of resistance to the pavement.
L. Or, another way to flesh out point C, or revise point C:
PTA gives us—and by us let’s be clear I mean me—a new reading of the novel. (And of course not just PTA, but his marvelous ensemble, too marvelous to remark on at length here). PTA’s reading of Doc’s reunion with Shasta—surely one of the film’s most intense moments—is entirely different than my own reading, and rereading that scene after viewing, I feel like Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston read the scene right, or read the scene, depict the scene, perform the scene in a way that illustrates the darkest strands of sunny smoky searing Inherent Vice.
M. The aforementioned scene—Doc reunited with one (sort of) partner—is balanced neatly against two other key scenes: The final scene between Doc and (sort of) partner Bigfoot, and the scene in which Doc restores Coy to his family. Brother’s keeper.
N. (Parenthetically: I fell in love with the movie in its opening minutes. In those opening drumbeats of Can’s “Vitamin C”).
O. So I have to rush to class and discuss Kate Chopin and not PTA’s Inherent Vice, which is what I’d rather riff on. Not really a world of inconvenience, but…(oh, and I love how that Pynchonian byword echoed through the film).
P. End on P for Pynchon and Paul TA and Promise: Promise to rewatch, reread, rewrite.
Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep a Secret is, the press materials assure me, the 24th in a series of Joe Gunther mysteries. Holy cow! Publisher Macmillan/Tor’s blurb:
Joe Gunther and his team—the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI)—are usually called in on major cases by local Vermont enforcement whenever they need expertise and back-up. But after the state is devastated by Hurricane Irene, the police from one end of the state are taxed to their limits, leaving Joe Gunther involved in an odd, seemingly unrelated series of cases. In the wake of the hurricane, a seventeen year old gravesite is exposed, revealing a coffin that had been filled with rocks instead of the expected remains.
At the same time, an old, retired state politician turns up dead at his high-end nursing home, in circumstances that leave investigators unsure that he wasn’t murdered. And a patient who calls herself The Governor has walked away from a state mental facility during the post-hurricane flood. It turns out that she was indeed once “Governor for a Day,” over forty years ago, but that she might have also been falsely committed and drugged to keep her from revealing something that she saw all those years ago. Amidst the turmoil and the disaster relief, it’s up to Joe Gunther and his team to learn what really happened with the two corpses—one missing—and what secret “The Governor” might have still locked in her brain that links them all.
“Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” by Donald Barthelme
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we’d have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn’t begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he’d always been fond of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a “delaying tactic” and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. “Be reasonable,” he said to Colby. Colby said he’d try to think of something a little less exacting.
Hugh was worried about the wording of the invitations. What if one of them fell into the hands of the authorities? Hanging Colby was doubtless against the law, and if the authorities learned in advance what the plan was they would very likely come in and try to mess everything up. I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moralright to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far. We agreed that the invitations would be worded in such a way that the person invited could not know for sure what he was being invited to. We decided to refer to the event as “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams.” A handsome script was selected from a catalogue and we picked a cream-colored paper. Magnus said he’d see to having the invitations printed, and wondered whether we should serve drinks. Colby said he thought drinks would be nice but was worried about the expense. We told him kindly that the expense didn’t matter, that we were after all his dear friends and if a group of his dear friends couldn’t get together and do the thing with a little bit of eclat, why, what was the world coming to? Colbv asked if he would be able to have drinks, too, before the event. We said,”Certainly.”
The next item of business was the gibbet. None of us knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans. The important thing, as far as he recollected, was that the trapdoor function perfectly. He said that just roughly, counting labor and materials, it shouldn’t run us more than four hundred dollars. “Good God !” Howard said. He said what was Tomas figuring on, rosewood? No, just a good grade of pine, Tomas said. Victor asked if unpainted pine wouldn’t look kind of “raw,” and Tomas replied that he thought it could be stained a dark walnut without too much trouble.
Luis de Miranda:Haute Culture is a new venture in luxury publishing with a mission to bring masterpieces of global literature to English-speaking readers around the world. Since your site is called “Biblioklept,” I’ll start by saying that we are a new kind of Robin Hood: we give to both the “poor” and the “rich.” We offer free e-books to the modern global reader interested in discovering hidden gems of classic European literature and, simultaneously, we offer individuals of greater means the opportunity to become mini-Medici’s, actively supporting culture while enjoying a luxurious limited edition book that will increase in value year after year.
This model is summed up in our slogan: Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free. The sales of our limited luxury editions—each a distinctive art object—support the distribution of free e-books for each of our titles. Buyers of our limited editions, in effect, become benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as we call them. I believe this model will satisfy collectors and book lovers.
Furthermore, as e-books become cheaper and cheaper, I want to create a model that does not depend on the diminishing revenues of e-book sales and allows us to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger readers. If we want younger generations to read quality literature, and not just the latest bestsellers, free e-books are the way to go.
Biblioklept: Is the possible disconnect between electronic books and “luxury” an issue? Does this new publishing model privilege the book as an aesthetic object?
LdM: This model privileges the free distribution of quality literature and it reinvents the physical book as a cult object. I aim to create unique objects that make the poetry of texts tangible. As we all spend more time in front of screens, I believe that the experiential aspect of the printed book will become more important, with readers looking for a higher quality object. I foresee the return of the “gentleman’s library” (or “gentlewoman’s library”), with fine leather volumes and limited editions—the polar opposite of e-books. Our limited editions will embody my great respect for the ritual of reading and for the craftsmanship of book making, while at the same time subsidizing the free distribution of our e-books and building a new global audience for iconic European literary masters.
Biblioklept: Is Haute Culture the first group to employ this model, to your knowledge?
LdM: Yes. We are innovating and experimenting. I don’t know if ours will be an economically viable model in the end, but it is definitely a desirable one. Since we are exploring uncharted territory, we have to take things step by step. We are avoiding the established highways over artificial ponds, and attempting to build our own bridge. We might fail or we might create a new path that the others will soon follow.
Biblioklept: Why did you choose A.H. Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice as the first book in this series?
LdM: Our first publication is actually a new translation and an ultra-limited bilingual edition of the Flaubert novella, Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart. In December 2013, it will be on sale at Assouline Boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Volume I of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice is planned for publication in 2014. It is a fine example of an untranslated classic. Tammsaare himself is an icon of 20th century Estonian literature. Two museums, a monument, and a park in the center of Tallinn are all dedicated to him. Unlike some traditional classics, which are widely referred to but rarely read, his masterpiece, Truth and Justice, still retains its place at the front of Estonian bookshelves and yet this epic work has never been translated into English. I also have some personal reasons for launching the press with an Estonian icon like Tammsaare. I wrote my last novel in Estonia three years ago and I wanted to pay homage to the land that inspired me.
Biblioklept: What is Tammasaare’s book about? Why is it important?
LdM: Truth and Justice is considered Tammsaare’s most important work. It was written during the rise of dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—and it captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Though it’s deeply rooted in Estonian peasant life, the first volume deals with timeless literary and philosophical issues, developing a vigorous, straightforward narrative that addresses the dual nature of the human psyche.
The book’s characters, storylines, and language continue to inform Estonia’s culture today. References to Truth and Justice are pervasive, and one hears its echoes in contemporary Estonian literature, as well as other art forms. One need only call two men “Andres and Pearu” for any Estonian to understand the nature of their relationship.
Volume I presents life in an Estonian village, as farmers battle against nature during the last quarter of the 19th century. The two main characters, both unique and powerful men, represent the essential conflicts of human nature: not only good vs. evil, but also hope vs. conservatism, conquest vs. pettiness. The saga explores how human impulses compete with each other and complete the characters.
Although the first volume seems entirely dedicated to peasant life in rural Estonia at the threshold of modernity, the book deals with fundamental issues that are quite relevant today. You might say this book reflects what we are trying to do at Haute Culture. Truth and Justice is a story of simple people who work the land endlessly, striving to build a world were truth and justice prevail, where good is fostered and protected, not killed by conformity or lack of courage. Beautiful things grow slowly like plants. Perhaps this is a lesson for all the capitalists of the world.
Biblioklept: What future plans do you have for Haute Culture? What other books would you like to publish?
LdM: We are currently translating a Russian book by the cult novelist Yuri Mamleyev, called Shatuny. We are working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. Shatuny is a mind-blowing, hallucinatory story about the quest for absolute truth. Maybe we are obsessed by truth?
Bringing untranslated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to culture. I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I’ve noticed not only that many great European works have not been translated to English, but also that the mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate only genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.
English is now the international language and I believe it’s possible, and indeed essential to bring to the international psyche works that aren’t standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint. I plan to build a catalogue that only includes masterpieces. Publishers who rely on the old publishing model must often publish potential bestsellers they secretly despise, yet there are so many excellent contemporary classics waiting to be discovered and translated into English. With Haute Culture, I refuse to compromise. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LdM: When I was 18, I had a summer job at a bookshop in the Pompidou Center in Paris. At the end of my first day, I took about 20 books home with me, feeling that I had found Ali Baba’s cave, but a few days later I felt guilty and replaced all the books on their shelves.
My daughter, six, brought home some books from the library a few weeks ago. “These are good,” she reported, showing them to me. “They have medals on them.”
In the last weeks of last month, I got behind three bemedaled or bestickered books (okay, these aren’t really stickers anymore, but I don’t know what to call the stickers—blazons? Emblems? Medals?)—here they are:
Jim Crace’s Harvest, beblazoned with a Man Booker Finalist blazon. From The New York Times’s review earlier this year:
In its poetry of the precarious hereafter, “Harvest” calls to mind J. M. Coetzee’s finest and most allegorical novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Like Coetzee, Crace asks large questions: How will ordinary people behave when ripped from their mundane routines, cut adrift from comforting old verities? What suppressed capacity for cruelty may surface? What untested gift for improvised survival?
Next: Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, bemedaled with an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 medal. I don’t know what 2.0 means here, but the sticker I’ll admit is immediately off-putting. I also originally read the title as The Twelve Tribes of Hottie, also off-putting. The actual premise of the book seems really good though. From The New York Times again:
When the country was too distracted to notice, caught up as it was with two world wars and the Depression, a great movement of people, of some six million African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, was upending the social geography of the country itself. The Great Migration would figure into much of the literature and music of 20th-century urban life — Wright, Ellison, Baldwin and Coltrane — and, decades after it ended, it still lives in myth and shadow, casting a spell upon race relations to this day and captivating the lives and imaginations of its descendants.
Still, there has been no novel like “The Grapes of Wrath” that looks squarely at this migration, which might have been the promise and yet not the purpose of so raw and intimate a book as “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” the debut novel of Ayana Mathis. The story it tells works at the rough edges of history, residing not so much within the migration itself as within a brutal and poetic allegory of a family beset by tribulations. The narrative opens in 1925, as Hattie Shepherd, a 17-year-old wife and mother newly arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia, administers mustard poultices and droplets of ipecac to save her infant twins from the pneumonia that has crept into their limp bodies. Because of her desperate circumstances in the cold of the North, she loses her twins “in the order in which they were born.”
Finally, Olen Steinhauer’s An American Spy, bestickered with A New York Times Notable Book sticker. You know what? Im just gonna go ahead and borrow from The New York Times review again:
Not since John le Carré has a writer so vividly evoked the multilayered, multifaceted, deeply paranoid world of espionage, in which identities and allegiances are malleable and ever shifting, the mirrors of loyalty and betrayal reflecting one another to infinity. In this intensely clever, sometimes baffling book, it’s never quite clear who is manipulating whom, and which side is up.
So three books, all from major houses, all garnering accolades (in the form of stickers!), and all prominently and favorably reviewed by The New York Times. I’m sure there’s nothing troubling in this at all.
IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.
Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.
In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded occasionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.
Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo. Continue reading “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald”→
I was looking for an image to accompany a riff I wrote on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. The riff circles around the skyship adventurers The Chums of Chance, characters who are both “real” in the novel and also “literary” — that is, they are the stars of dime novels that other characters in the novel read. I was hoping that maybe some creative soul had created a Chums of Chance book cover that I could use with the post. Through a few basic searches and a Metafilter board, I found my way to something far more intriguing—the strange watercolor and collage pieces of Charles August Albert Dellschau.
It turns out that the drawings/watercolors were the work of one Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830 – 1923). Dellschau was a butcher for most of his life and only after his retirement in 1899 did he begin his incredible career as a self-taught artist. He began with three books entitled Recollections which purported to describe a secret organization called the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau described his duties in the club as that of the draftsman. Within his collaged watercolors were newspaper clippings (he called them “press blooms”) of early attempts at flight overlapped with his own fantastic drawings of airships of all kind. Powered by a secret formula he cryptically referred to as “NB Gas” or “Suppa” — the “aeros” (as Dellscahu called them) were steampunk like contraptions with multiple propellers, wheels, viewing decks and secret compartments. Though highly personal, autobiographical (perhaps!), and idiosyncratic, these artworks could cross-pollinate with the fiction of Jules Verne, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz. The works were completed in a furiously creative period from 1899 to 1923, when air travel was still looked at by most people as almost magical. Newspapers of that period were full of stories about air travel feats and the acrobatic aerial dogfights of WWI were legend.
Verne, Oz, and steampunk are all clear comparisons. I’d add to them the manic spirit of Kurt Schwitters’s collages, the buzzing claustrophobia of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and the cartoony contours of turn-of-the-century comics.It also reminds me of Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus. And of course, Dellschau’s work resonates strongly with Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, more ludic than lunatic. His work shows an obsession fueled by science and science fiction alike, as well as a frankly adolescent sense of line, proportion and color. I love it. See more here and here.
The following is the complete text of an email someone sent me today:
I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?
It seems that I have stolen many books. Let me elaborate on these and the occasions on which I thieved.
Although packs of baseball cards such as I used to steal from gas stations as a young boy are not books per se, this is how my thieving began. Perhaps. Or perhaps my thieving began further in my past than my memory now reaches.
I stole from a university library Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass–an earnest accident that I did not seek to right after I noticed I had escaped with it and that the magnetic gate had not reacted with its electronic screeching to alert the responsibles.
From the same erudite friend I stole The Captive Mind by Milosz, and also Le Parti pris by Francis Ponge. Perhaps Grass’s The Tin Drum too.
From an institute in France I stole an edition of selections from Apollinaire’s Alcools, as well as a Surrealist anthology. And both of André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos. From my host family I stole a book of Blaise Cendrars’s poetry.
Accidentally from a bookstore I stole Washington Square by Henry James. Honest.
From a library I stole Nicholas Mosley’s Serpent, as well as a book called The Art of Not Working, or some such title.
I have probably stolen ten or so other books. Titles escape me. That’s not too bad, I suppose.
Oh yes, I also stole that book Marilyn Manson wrote in the 1990s, and I gave it as a gift to a romantic interest. How unromantic this seems now.
I think I stole many books as an adolescent. Some of these I placed in my pants, held against my abdomen by the pressure of my pants waistline or belt. I think I stole numerous books related to sex when I was young.
I don’t think I’ve hardly ever borrowed a book and not returned it.
I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?
You know, I don’t normally do that (i.e. this), but I guess I could start.
If anyone else feels like anonymously confessing to book theft, email me.
There’s something gently elegiac about Marshall Brooks’s Paperback Island, which collects over a dozen essays on reading. While Brooks’s essays on books, libraries, publishers, and the friendships that hold all of them together are never dour, they nevertheless evoke a world now shifting into the realm of memory alone.
It’s fitting then that the starting point for the book is beat legend Tuli Kupferberg’s funeral. Here, Brooks runs into Susanna Cuyler, who lends him her apartment in New York just so he can read her book Not Just Another Voice there: “There was no overlooking the fact that her apartment and her book are virtually one,” writes Brooks. This early detail hooked me, encapsulating so much of the themes of time, place, and friendship that Paperback Island emphasizes.
The lead essay in the collection is “Paperback Island.” Here, Brooks relates an adolescent friendship codified in books: “Besides symbolizing the excitement of what books can mean to people, especially young people who are in the process of formulating their own world, these books are all that remain to me of this once close friendship.” Brooks renders the transformative power that this bookswapping friendship had on him, set against the backdrop of the culture shift of the late sixties and early seventies:
Informationally, and in other ways as well, the early 1970s prefigured the Internet. Vast amounts of information, heretofore beyond the reach of the masses, became available. The visually compartmentalized newsprint portions of Harper’s Magazine and the encyclopedic paperbound Whole Earth Catalog come immediately to mind, as does the collectively-produced—via the Boston Women’s Health Collective—1970 paperback, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Design-wise, they all accelerated the absorption of information from off the printed page in completely innovative ways, which today’s web pages perforce echo. In conjunction with FM radio, foreign films, Super 8 film, Swinger cameras, stereo records, tape cassettes , early video, offset printing, the 1976 Freedom of Information Act, and such empowering movements as Women’s Lib, etc. , they revolutionized the lives of everyone, and youth culture in particular.
It would perhaps be easy for Brooks to have crammed his book with anecdotes illustrating the effects of these changes, but instead Paperback Island focuses on something much more personal, following the tone of its eponymous essay. There are memory-essays for Tuli Kupferberg, James T. Farrell, and Sidney Bernard, whose rogue journalism collection This Way to the Apocalypse I am now on the lookout for. In the background of all of this looms Harry Smith, the poet-publisher and founder of The Smith, where Brooks cut his teeth in the seventies. Smith’s influence on Brooks resonates in loving passages like this one:
A legendary figure in the American small press movement, Harry more than fulfilled the role of patron-protector for countless contributors to his press. He impressively looked the role, too, nowhere more so than when he grandly made the circuit at small press fair . . . The Smith published scores of unknown and neglected writers . . . The press resembled nothing else in the publishing world large or small partly for this reason. I had always assumed that a place exactly like it existed, somewhere. That it had to. (Why else write, really?) A place where poetry counted for everything. Fate, in its greatness, encouragingly provided for its existence, and Harry Smith supplied that place.
It’s that sense of place that comes through so strongly in Paperback Island, whether Brooks is describing the offices of The Smith or the hotels that James T. Farrell adored. Brooks also captures the strange ways that microlibraries evolve from place, time, and friendship (he inherited many of Farrell’s paperbacks). I think most bibliophiles will instantly understand Brooks’s impulse to collect, catalog, keep the tomes.
And of course there are the bookshops, the wanderings, the meanderings, the notes on books and how we find them. A late riff on visiting a Boston Barnes & Noble finds Brooks picking up a Nook and reading a passage from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice—his first time with an e-reader. The moment is not couched in resentment or alienation but simply experience—encountering an old book in a new way.
I should point out that Brooks has illustrated Paperback Island with photographs—of people, places, books—the things that make the book. (Books are made out of other books, some writer said). The photos are printed in rich color and add a documentary dimension to the book. Here’s a striking image of the closing of the Upper West Side branch of Shakespeare & Company—an image that perhaps captures more of the elegiac underpinnings of Paperback Island than I can do in words:
Paperback Island is shot-through with bibliophilia, a love of books that encompasses writers, readers, libraries, and publishers, yes—but also the mechanics of the book, the physical properties. It’s a love letter to books and the people who make them—and not just the writers and publishers, but the readers who make them, preserve them—and the friends who pass them on, make sure that others read them.
In a latter essay, “Physical Allure of the Book,” Brooks writes, “My friend Roger Skillings became a writer on account of picking up a Penguin edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners in a train station in Rome.” I’ll end this write-up in what I take to be the spirit of Brooks’s book, sharing a little anecdote of my own about a book I can’t part with.
In 2002 I was wandering Jimbocho, an area of Tokyo crammed with nearly 200 bookshops. I found, lying in the gutter but unsullied, a paperback Penguin Book — The Essential James Joyce, edited by Harry Levin. I glanced around, trying to see if the book was somehow connected to a nearby vendor, but it didn’t seem to be for sale. In any case, I surreptitiously slipped the book into my bag and walked on. I read “The Dead” on the train ride home. I’ve kept the book to this day, even though I have no need of a Joyce digest. I can’t help it. I love it.