I recently re-read all of Jeff Smith’s massive comic Bone—this time to my son, and this time in the Scholastic color reprints. (I read Bone in full with my daughter years ago through the unwieldy 1,300 page single-volume single edition; I read bits and pieces of it earlier in the late nineties, when Dave Sim (of Cerebus fame/infamy) was an early champion of Smith’s cartooning charms).
Anyway, we enjoyed the read, and the fourth book, The Dragonslayer, seemed particularly timely.
In this volume, Phoncible P. Bone—aka Phoney Bone—manipulates the fears of the populace of Barrelhaven. A natural conman, Phoney instructs the townspeople to build a wall to keep “dragons” out. Only sensible Lucius Down (and Phoney’s cousins, who know he’s a scammer) realize that Phoney is driven by egomania and greed.
Perhaps the most infuriating moment in the story comes when Phoney—a gifted pitchman—cloaks his greed in the language of ethics and morality.
Of course Phoney doesn’t win in the end. And Bone is just a comic; it’s not real life. It’s not like a xenophobic conman could really take sway over the zeitgeist.
Settright Road by Jon Boilard is forthcoming from Dzanc Books. Their blurb:
Settright Road is a collection of 20 short stories and one longer piece of fiction, all set in and around a string of busted Massachusetts mill towns during the cocaine-fueled 1980s.
Its pages are colored by unforgettable characters: a teenage lothario whose plans to escape his one-horse town by hopping a train to California are monkey-wrenched when he impregnates a local girl from a prominent family; fresh-out-of-prison Sean Folan, who nearly kills a man in a bar fight just so he’ll get locked up again; underage Bill Buick, who sells dope to hard-up townies and seduces high school girls, when he’s not driving a wedge between his aunt and her new boyfriend; and Eskimo — trouble in a too-tight dress — a dancer and a poet whose unsavory relationship with a strip club owner comes to a tragic end when she falls in love with a notorious backwoods brawler.
Jon Boilard lets loose these conflicted characters against a backdrop of the abject poverty that sits in stark contrast to the lush New England scenery; then he challenges us to root for these desperados despite the weight of their human errors.
I love love love Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson (Flying Eye/Nobrow, 2016). My kids love it too. It’s the richest, funniest, and most heartwarming Hilda book to date.
Pearson manages to stuff The Stone Forest with miniature epics and minor gags, which he hangs on the central story of Hilda and her mother in an otherworldly (literally), uh, stone forest, where they encounter trolls and other dangers (including existential despair).
Jean-Luc Godard’s Phrases: Six Films is new in English translation by Stuart Kendall from Contra Mundum Press. Their blurb:
Phrases presents the spoken language from six films by Jean-Luc Godard: Germany Nine Zero, The Kids Play Russian, JLG / JLG, 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema, For Ever Mozart and In Praise of Love. Completed between 1991 and 2001, during what has been called Godard’s “years of memory,” these films and videos were made alongside and in the shadow of his major work from that time, his monumental Histoire(s) du cinema, complementing and extending its themes. LikeHistoire(s), they offer meditations on, among other things, the tides of history, the fate of nations, the work of memory, the power of cinema, and, ultimately, the nature of love.
Gathered here, in written form, they are words without images: not exactly screenplays, not exactly poetry, something else entirely. Godard himself described them enigmatically: “Not books. Rather recollections of films, without the photos or the uninteresting details… Only the spoken phrases. They offer a little prolongation. One even discovers things that aren’t in the films in them, which is rather powerful for a recollection. These books aren’t literature or cinema. Traces of a film…”
In our era of ubiquitous streaming video, ebooks, and social media, these traces of cinema raise compelling questions for the future of media, cinematic, literary, and otherwise.
I got to page 258 (of 801 pages, in the 2001 Vintage paperback edition).
On that page, the visiting poet (Visiting Poet?)—he’s visiting the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is I guess the central character of Dhalgren (I guess?)—on that page, Ernest Newboy (go ahead and groan at that name), declares:
There’s no reason why all art should appeal to all people.
I took that as a sign that I could go ahead and quit Dhalgren.
Delany’s cult novel initially appealed to me, but: No.
I’m trying, right now, to think of a novel I’ve wanted to like more but didn’t like than Dhalgren. (Thomas Disch’s 334, maybe, which Dhalgren resembles? Ballard’s Millenium People, which suggests that somewhere out there there’s a better Delany novel I need to read—like I read the wrong one, the famous one?).
I wanted to like Dhalgren because it’s weird and messy and post-apocalyptic and discursive and shambling and tripping and plotless and vibe vibe vibe…but mostly I found it boring. And the prose was often, uh, bad.
(I just read William Gibson’s foreword to the thing, in which he declares it a “prose-city…a literary singularity…executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.” Nah. (Gibson’s intro has this real awful Baby Boomer you-had-to-be-there-man tone to it too)).
There are bits and pieces of Dhalgren that were interesting enough to make me keep wading through the rubbish: tree sex, hologram gangs, the unnamed apocalypse, the specter of violence, the drugs, the weapons…but to give you an idea of this novel’s rhythm, the central protagonist, Kid, spends a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter moving furniture from one apartment to another.
The Kid also wants to be a poet, and Delany spends a lot of time dipping into our boy’s notebook. It’s bad stuff, cringeworthy, and not in an Isn’t-he-a-bad-writer? way. Delany’s own prose veers hippy dippy too—a mirror. (Mirrors and lenses and prisms and recursion images twist through the 250 pages I read. Reality’s an illusion, man. Or not. Or memory. Or something).
I’ve had every kind of warning that Delany’s novel is plotless and will refuse to cohere (Gibson: “Dhalgren does not answer”). I fucking love those kinds of novels. But they have to have something else: Good sentences, one after another. Humor that’s actually, uh, funny. A point of feeling or message beyond the kind of apocalypse vibe I absorbed by reading comics (and comix) when I was 11, 12, 13. Less furniture moving.
Anyway, I’m unconvinced that anything wonderful’s going to pop out in the next 550 or so pages. And I’m fine, at this point, of being wrong, and ready to move on to something else.
After a few years of false starts, I finally read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard this August. Then I read it again, immediately (It’s one of only two novels I can recall rereading right away—the other two were Blood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). The Leopard tells the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily, who witnesses the end of his era during the Risorgimento, the Italian reunification. Fabrizio is an enchanting character—by turns fiery and lascivious, intellectual and stoic—The Leopard takes us through his mind and through his times. He’s thoroughly complex, unknown even to himself, perhaps. The novel is impossibly rich, sad, electric, a meditation on death, sex, sensuality—pleasure and loss. More mood than plot, The Leopard glides on vibe, its action framed in rich set pieces—fancy balls and sumptuous dinners and games of pleasure in summer estates. But of course there is a plot—several strong plots, indeed (marriage plots and death plots, religious plots and political plots). Yet the narrative’s viewpoint characters keep the plots at bay, or mediate them, rather than propel them forward. Simply one of the better novels I’ve read in years, its final devastating images inked into my memory for as long as I have memory. (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, by the way).
Dhalgren, Samuel Delany
I think The Leopard initially landed on my radar a few years ago after someone somewhere (where?) described it as a cult novel. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) really is a cult novel. I’m about 200 pages into its 800 pages, and I’m ready to abandon the thing. Delany often evokes a fascinating vibe here, conjuring the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is isolated from the rest of America after some unnamed (and perhaps unknown) disaster—there are “scorpions,” gangs who hide in holographic projections of dragons and insects; there is a daily newspaper that comes out dated with a different year each day; there are two moons (maybe). And yet Delany spends more time dwelling on the mundane—I’ve just endured page after page of the novel’s central protagonist, Kid, clearing furniture out of an apartment. I’m not kidding—a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter deals with moving furniture. (Perhaps Delany’s nodding obliquely to Poe here?). Dhalgren strives toward metafiction, with the Kid’s attempts to become a poet, but his poetry is so bad, and Delany’s prose is, well, often very, very bad too. Like embarrassingly bad in that early seventies hippy dippy way. If ever a novel were screaming to have every third or second sentence cut, it’s Dhalgren. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out.
There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest
I had never heard of Forrest until a Twitter pal corrected that. I started Tree (1973) this weekend; its first chapter “The Lives” is a rush of time, memory, color, texture…religion and violence, history, blood…I’m not sure what’s happening and I don’t care (like Faulkner, it is—I mean, each sentence makes me want to go to the next sentence, into the big weird tangle of it all). Maybe let Ralph Ellison describe it. From his foreword:
As I began to get my bearings in the reeling world of There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, I thought, What a tortured, history-wracked, anguished, Hound-of-Heaven-pursued, Ham-and-Oedipus-cursed, Blake-visioned, apocalypse-prone projection of the human predicament! Yet, simultaneously, I was thinking, Yes, but how furiously eloquent is this man Forrest’s prose, how zestful his jazz-like invention, his parody, his reference to the classics and commonplaces of literature, folklore, tall-tale and slum-street jive! How admirable the manner in which the great themes of life and literature are revealed in the black-white Americanness of his characters as dramatized in the cathedral-high and cloaca-low limits of his imaginative ranging.
Typing this out, I realize that I’m bound to put away Dhalgren and continue on into Forrest.
The Combinations, Louis Armand
I read the “Overture” to Armand’s enormous so-called “anti-novel” The Combinations (2016)…the rush of prose reminded me of any number of post-postmodern prose rushers—this isn’t a negative criticism, but I’ll admit a certain wariness with the book’s formal postmodernism—it looks (looks) like Vollmann—discursive, lots of different fonts and forms. I’ll leap in later.
Louis Armand’s novel (or anti-novel, or whatever) is new from Equus Press.
It’s bigger than a brick.
Lots of footnotes, end notes, different fonts, maps, images, etc. The “text proper” (whatever that means) refuses to begin—epigraphs, notes, an “Overture,” etc.
Here’s the blurb from Equus:
Fiction. Drama. Art. The “European anti-novel” in all its unrepentant glory is here in THE COMBINATIONS, following in the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes, Joyce, Perec.
In 8 octaves, 64 chapters and 888 pages, Louis Armand’s THE COMBINATIONS is an unprecedented “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after. Golem City, the ship of fools boarded by the famed D’s (e.g. John) and K’s (e.g. Edward) of the 16th/17th centuries (who attempted and failed to turn lead into gold), and the infamous H’s (e.g. Adolf, e.g. Reinhard) of the 20th (who attempted and succeeded in turning flesh into soap). Armand’s prose weaves together the City’s thousand-and- one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s’ awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. THE COMBINATIONS is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.
Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader by William T. Vollmann. Edited by Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson. 2004 trade paperback from Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon Publishing. Cover design by David Riedy; cover art by Moira Brown.
This book features an illustration of its author on the cover. It is also a book I can dip into at any time.
Diaries by Franz Kafka. English translation by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (with Hannah Arendt). Trade paperback by Schocken, 1988. Cover design by Louise Fili. Cover illustration by Anthony Russo.
This book features an illustration of its author on the cover. It is also a book I can dip into at any time.
Hawthorne’s Short Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edited by Newton Arvin. Mass market paperback by Vintage. No designer/artist credited, and I can’t make out the signature over Hawthorne’s left shoulder. But this blog’s readers are smart and have good taste and identified the artist as Ben Shanh (I should’ve recognized the signature, after posting Shanh’s painting Peter and the Wolf on this blog a few years ago). This book is close to falling apart.
This book features an illustration of its author on the cover. It is also a book I can dip into at any time.
Here’s translator Fulya Peker’s introductory note to the volume:
Written between 1964 and 1974, between Paris and Hakkari, Ferit Edgü’s Noone approaches politics from a poetic standpoint and transforms a social-realist setting into a metaphor for a self that is in search of a subject for a sentence, or rather, that is subjected to a sentence.
As a record of history that is both personal and universal, Edgü depicts in Noone the severity of alienation, the difficulty of communication, the importance of memory, and the hidden rhyme of ‘existential’ and ‘survival,’ two grand words pronounced by pronouns suffering oppression and isolation. Noone compels us to consider the politically imposed idea of “the other” and how this “other” is not somewhere outside, external to us, but within. It prompts us to reflect on questions concerning the failure, or inability, to communicate, not only with others, but with one’s self due to man-made borders, whether lingual or geopolitical. Edgü’s acute and subtle observations about adverse living conditions that reduce humans to creatures of mere subsistence echo not only the current political climate in eastern Turkey, but also the general climate of despotism in many parts of the world.
While people are constantly forced to be ‘noone,’ the traces of history are buried (or frozen) under snow, and memory is dismantled, Noone reminds us of tomorrow, by re-momenting the past and keeping a record of the moment.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño. English translation by Natasha Wimmer. First edition three-volume slip case edition from FS&G. Design by Charlotte Strick. The image on volume one is a detail from Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele; on volume two, Academy by Cy Twombly; on three, a detail of a page on sea sponges from Albert Seba’s Cabinet of Curiousities. I’ve posted the images below for reference.
As I come near the end of this year-long Three Books thing, I find that I can’t not include Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, which is probably my favorite novel of the last twenty years. I initially resisted including it in one of these Three Books posts simply because it is, sort of, one book—and this particular edition is in a more readable three-volume set. But it’s also, maybe, five books—five “parts” anyway, which work together intertextually to tell a grand epic of love murder terror war reading writing etc. Too big to pin down in this puny post. I seem to be always reading the thing, or always wanting to read it. In any case, I’m almost positive it’s the book I’ve written the most review for on this site. A lazy edit from the Biblioklept “Reviews” page:
(The intertextuality is probably the least bad of those reviews, maybe).
Normally I just scan the covers for these Three Books posts, but when I unshelved and unslipcased 2666, I found that it was more…fun? natural? (those aren’t the right words)…it seemed better to put the books next to each other. Intertextuality by osmosis.
I have a vivid memory of buying this book at Green Apple Books in San Francisco in December of 2008 and then starting it on the plane ride home and then just sort of, I don’t know, consuming it, sucking it down like candy poison wine (these are bad metaphors). I’ve read it in full a few times since and it’s like an infection, it’s under my skin. I want to read it again, of course.
The two young people moved away, other couples passed, less handsome, just as moving, each submerged in their transitory blindness. Don Fabrizio felt his heart thaw; his disgust gave way to compassion for all these ephemeral beings out to enjoy the tiny ray of light granted them between two shades, before the cradle, after the last spasms. How could one inveigh against those sure to die? It would be as vile as those fish-vendors insulting the condemned in the Piazza del Mercato sixty years before. Even the female monkeys on the poufs, even those old baboons of friends were poor wretches, condemned and touching as the cattle lowing through the city streets at night on the way to the slaughterhouse; to the ears of each of them would one day come that tinkle he had heard three hours earlier behind San Domenico. Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.
And then these people filling the rooms, all these faded women, all these stupid men, these two vainglorious sexes were part of his blood, part of himself; only they could really understand him, only with them could he be at his ease. “I may be more intelligent, I’m certainly more cultivated, but I come from the same stock as they, with them I must make common cause.”
He noticed Don Calogero talking to Giovanni Finale about a possible rise in the price of cheese and how in the hope of this beatific event his eyes had gone liquid and gentle. Don Fabrizio could slip away without remorse.
Till that moment accumulated irritation had given him energy; now with relaxed nerves he was overcome by tiredness; it was already two o’clock. He looked around for a place where he could sit down quietly, far from men, lovers and brothers, all right in their way, but always tiresome. He soon found it: the library, small, silent, lit, and empty. He sat down, then got up to drink some water which he found on a side table. “Only water is really good,” he thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips. He sat down again; he liked the library and soon felt at his ease there; it put up no opposition to him because it was impersonal, as are rooms which are little used; Ponteleone was not a type to waste time in there. He began looking at a picture opposite him, a good copy of Greuze’s Death of the Just Man; the old man was expiring on his bed, amid welters of clean linen, surrounded by afflicted grandsons and granddaughters raising arms toward the ceiling. The girls were pretty, provoking, and the disorder of their clothes suggested sex more than sorrow; they, it was obvious at once, were the real subject of the picture, Even so, Don Fabrizio was surprised for a second at Diego always having this melancholy scene before his eyes; then he reassured himself by thinking that the other probably entered that room only once or twice a year.
Immediately afterward he asked himself if his own death would be like that; probably it would, apart from the sheets being less impeccable (he knew that the sheets of those in their death agony are always dirty with spittle, discharges, marks of medicine), and it was to be hoped that Concetta, Carolina, and his other womenfolk would be more decently clad. But the same, more or less. As always, the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him; was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?
….Then silence would fall again, except for the scuffle of rats in the ceilings above, or the rustle of some centuries-old and forgotten letter sent wandering by the wind over the floor: excuses for pleasant frights, for the reassuring contact of flesh with flesh. And with them always was Eros, malicious and tenacious, drawing the young couple into a game full of risk and fun. Both of them were still very near childhood, and they enjoyed the game in itself, enjoyed being followed, being lost, being found again; but when they touched each other their sharpened senses would overwhelm them, and his five fingers entwined in hers with that gesture dear to uncertain sensualists, the gentle rub of fingertips on the pale veins of the back of the hand, confusing their whole being, preluding more insinuating caresses.
Once she had hidden behind an enormous picture propped on the floor, and for a short time Arturo Corbera at the Siege of Antioch formed a protection for the girl’s hopeful anxiety; but when she was found, with her smile veined in cobwebs and her hands veiled in dust, she was clasped tight, and though she kept on saying again and again, “No, Tancredi, no,” her denial was in fact an invitation, for all he was doing was staring with his blue eyes into her green ones. One luminous cold morning she was trembling in a dress that was still summery; he squeezed her to him, to warm her, on a sofa covered in tattered silk, her odorous breath moved the hair on his forehead; they were moments ecstatic and painful, during which desire became torment, restraints upon it a delight.
The rooms in the abandoned apartments had neither a definite layout nor a name, and like the explorers of the New World, they would baptize the rooms they crossed with the names of their joint discoveries. A vast bedroom in whose alcove stood the ghost of a bed adorned with a canopy hung with skeleton ostrich feathers was remembered afterward as “the feather room”; a staircase with steps of smooth crumbling slate was called by Tancredi “the staircase of the lucky slip.” A number of times they really did not know where they were; all this twisting and turning, backing and following, and pauses full of murmuring contact, made them lose their way so that they had to lean out of some paneless window to gather from an angle of the courtyard or a view of the garden which wing of the palace they were in. But sometimes they could not find their way even so, as the window did not give on to one of the great courts but on to some inner yard, anonymous itself and never entered, marked only by the corpse of some cat or the usual little heap of spaghetti and tomato sauce either vomited or flung there; and from another window they would find themselves looking into the eyes of some pensioned-off old maidservant. One afternoon inside a cupboard they found four chimes, that music which delighted the affected simplicity of the eighteenth century. Three of these, buried in dust and cobwebs, remained mute; but the last, which was more recent and shut tighter into its dark wooden box, started up its cylinder of bristling copper and the little tongues of raised steel suddenly produced a delicate tune, all in clear, silvery tones: the famous Carnival of Venice; they rhymed their kisses with those notes of disillusioned gaiety; and when their embrace loosened they were surprised to notice that the notes had ceased for some time and that their action had left no other trace than a memory of ghostly music.
Once the surprise was of a different kind. In one of the rooms in the old guest wing they noticed a door hidden by a cupboard; the centuries-old lock soon gave way to fingers pleasantly entwined in forcing it: behind it a long narrow staircase wound up in gentle curves of pink marble steps. At the top was another door, open, and covered with thick but tattered padding; then came a charming but odd little apartment, of six small rooms gathered around a medium-sized drawing room, all, including the drawing room, with floors of whitest marble, sloping away slightly toward a small lateral gutter. On the low ceilings were some very unusual reliefs in colored stucco, fortunately made almost indecipherable by damp; on the walls were big surprised-looking mirrors, hung too low, one shattered by a blow almost in the middle, and each fitted with contorted rococo candle brackets. The windows gave on to a segregated court, a kind of blind and deaf well, which let in a gray light and had no other openings. In every room and even in the drawing room were wide, too wide sofas, showing nails with traces of silk that had been torn away; spotty armrests; on the fireplaces were delicate intricate little marble intaglios, naked figures in paroxysms but mutilated by so’ me furious hammer. The damp had marked the walls high up and also low down at a man’s height, where it had assumed strange shapes, an odd thickness, dark tints. Tancredi, disturbed, would not let Angelica touch a cupboard on the wall of the drawing room, which he shut up himself. It was deep but empty, except for a roll of dirty stuff standing upright in a corner; inside was a bundle of small whips, switches of bull’s muscle, some with silver handles, others wrapped halfway up in a charming old silk, white with little blue stripes, on which could be seen three rows of blackish marks, and metal instruments for inexplicable purposes. Tancredi was afraid of himself too. “Let’s go, my dear, there’s nothing interesting here.” They shut the door carefully, went down the stairs again in silence, and put the cupboard back where it was before; and all the rest of that day Tancredi’s kisses were very light, as if given in a dream and in expiation.
From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.
I read a lot of great books over the past few months and failed to write proper reviews for some of them, including two by Stanley Elkin—The Franchiser and The Dick Gibson Show—a double feature of two novellas by W.D. Clarke called White Mythology, and Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vančura. But I did riff on other books.
The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.
Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.
Frequent answers (both on the blog, on Twitter, and via email) included lots of “big” books, especially Gravity’s Rainbow, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, and Infinite Jest. I was also surprised at how many readers cited Dostoevksy’s novel The Idiot, a book I’ve started at least four times without success.
Readers also told me that I needed to stick it out with The Charterhouse of Parma, which I did. I wrote about French Stendhal’s “Italian” novel here and here. Short version: Parts were great but the novel was often exhausting—Charterhouse is a novel about boredom that is frequently boring. But the fault is mine.
Another French novel I got bored with was Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism (I read (and often just skimmed, to be honest) 1966 English translation by Robert Baldick. (As an aside, I think my boredom and comprehension of the novel made it easy to write about—whereas I sometimes have difficulty writing about a novel that I find perplexing and which I feel a passion for, like Vančura’s Marketa Lazarova).
From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.
But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).
A Test of Poetry by Louis Zukofsky. Trade paperback (cardstock cover) by Jargon/Corinth, 1964. A Test of Poetry is a fun companion piece to Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading.
I don’t usually post the back covers when I do these Three Books posts, but:
The cover design is by Jargon Society poet/publisher Jonathan Williams. The book includes this note:
Symbols of Transformation: Volume 1–An Analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia by C.G. Jung. English translation by Beatrice M. Hinkle. Harper Torchbook, cardstock, 1962. Cover design by Anita Walker. I read this book in 2004 or 2005. It is not really a book about psychoanalysis; it’s about interpretive mythology, I suppose. Or better yet, a poem with pictures.
Composers of Tomorrow’s Music by David Ewen. Dodd, Mead & Company/Apollo Editions, 1971. No designer/illustrator credited. I bought this maybe 15 years ago from a guy selling books off a card table somewhere in the Garden District in New Orleans. Chapters on the usual suspects—Cage, Xenakis, Boulez, etc. Charles Ives.
July 31st.–Nothing remarkable to record. A child asleep in a young lady’s arms,–a little baby, two or three months old. Whenever anything partially disturbed the child, as, for instance, when the young lady or a by-stander patted its cheek or rubbed its chin, the child would smile; then all its dreams seemed to be of pleasure and happiness. At first the smile was so faint, that I doubted whether it were really a smile or no; but, on further efforts, it brightened forth very decidedly. This, without opening its eyes.–A constable, a homely, good-natured, business-looking man, with a warrant against anIrishman’s wife for throwing a brick-bat at a fellow. He gave good advice to the Irishman about the best method of coming easiest through the affair. Finally settled,–the justice agreeing to relinquish his fees, on condition that the Irishman would pay for the mending of his old boots!
I went with Monsieur S—- yesterday to pick raspberries. He fell through an old log bridge thrown over a hollow; looking back, only his head and shoulders appeared through the rotten logs and among the bushes.–A shower coming on, the rapid running of a little barefooted boy, coming up unheard, and dashing swiftly past us, and showing the soles of his naked feet as he ran adown the path, and up the opposite rise.
After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma. (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).
I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.
The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).
And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).
Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.
Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.
Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).
Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.
Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.
I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet.
How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!
This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.
The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.
I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:
The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau. Translated from the French by Rosamond Lehman. Trade paperback by New Directions (ninth printing). Illustrations throughout by Cocteau. The cover design by David Ford adapts one of Cocteau’s original illustrations. I wish I had read this book when I was much younger than when I did read this book.
The Hospital Ship by Martin Bax. First edition trade paperback from New Directions. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman, cover design by Gertrude Huston. The Hospital Ship is a cult novel with a cult so small that I’m not sure it exists, exactly. I wrote about the novel here a few years back.
The Lime Twig by John Hawkes. Trade paperback by New Directions (sixteenth printing). Cover by Rudolph de Harak. I still haven’t read The Lime Twig so I picked it up the other day. If I had read it I could say, “These books are black and white and read all over.” (Forgive me forgive me forgive me…).