Blog about the American Arcadia (or Arcadian America?) scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

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I am glad I reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel for many reasons. One of those reasons is because I had completely forgotten to remember a marvelous scene near the end of the novel, in Ch. XXV — “The Masqueraders.” This episode happens near the end of the chapter. Hawthorne’s stand-in Miles Coverdale has decided to return to Blithedale after spending some time out in, like, the world.

Coverdale’s return to the utopian project he half-heartedly abandoned is thoroughly coded in Hawthorne’s signature ambivalence: He notes “a sickness of the spirits kept alternating with my flights of causeless buoyancy” as he walks through the wood. Approaching the Blithedale farm, and feels an “invincible reluctance” in his return, which causes him to linger in the forest. By and by, as the lovely transitional phrase goes, Coverdale winds his way back to his “hermitage, in the heart of the white-pine tree.” (The white-pine reference strikes me as an oblique reference here to Hawthorne himself—or rather, a nod to a distinction between white pine and black hawthorn trees, alter egos).

Here in his hermitage he rests among grapes dangling in “abundant clusters of the deepest purple, deliciously sweet to the taste.” Coverdale’s hermitage is an idealized, natural—transcendental—version of Blithedale, the grapevines (a prefiguration of communication in the American parlance) a kind of perfectly polygamous knot of communal existence.

Taken up in solo-bacchanalia, Coverdale begins devouring the grapes. Always the loner, always the voyeur, he checks out the house from his arboreal perch and notes its emptiness. He decides, drunken on sweet grapes, to skulk through the woods, where he hears “Voices, male and feminine; laughter, not only of fresh young throats, but the bass of grown people.” He continues—

The wood, in this portion of it, seemed as full of jollity as if Comus and his crew were holding their revels in one of its usually lonesome glades. Stealing onward as far as I durst, without hazard of discovery, I saw a concourse of strange figures beneath the overshadowing branches. They appeared, and vanished, and came again, confusedly with the streaks of sunlight glimmering down upon them.

“Comus and his crew” — what a lovely evocation! Comus, cup-bearer and heir of Bacchus, is a figuration of erotic chaos. Hawthorne ushers his hero into a scene of pastoral American anarchy, a strange Arcadia that Walt Whitman would try to replicate in Leaves of Grass a few years later. Note the admixture of cultures here in Hawthorne’s transcendentalist Halloween:

Among them was an Indian chief, with blanket, feathers, and war-paint, and uplifted tomahawk; and near him, looking fit to be his woodland bride, the goddess Diana, with the crescent on her head, and attended by our big lazy dog, in lack of any fleeter hound. Drawing an arrow from her quiver, she let it fly at a venture, and hit the very tree behind which I happened to be lurking. Another group consisted of a Bavarian broom-girl, a negro of the Jim Crow order, one or two foresters of the Middle Ages, a Kentucky woodsman in his trimmed hunting-shirt and deerskin leggings, and a Shaker elder, quaint, demure, broad-brimmed, and square-skirted. Shepherds of Arcadia, and allegoric figures from the “Faerie Queen,” were oddly mixed up with these. Arm in arm, or otherwise huddled together in strange discrepancy, stood grim Puritans, gay Cavaliers, and Revolutionary officers with three-cornered cocked hats, and queues longer than their swords. A bright-complexioned, dark-haired, vivacious little gypsy, with a red shawl over her head, went from one group to another, telling fortunes by palmistry; and Moll Pitcher, the renowned old witch of Lynn, broomstick in hand, showed herself prominently in the midst, as if announcing all these apparitions to be the offspring of her necromantic art.

Again though, in classic Hawthorne fashion, our author hedges all bets, tempering his mythical romantic flight in skepticism, here embodied by Silas Foster, the only real farmer (real earthworker) of Blithedale:

But Silas Foster, who leaned against a tree near by, in his customary blue frock and smoking a short pipe, did more to disenchant the scene, with his look of shrewd, acrid, Yankee observation, than twenty witches and necromancers could have done in the way of rendering it weird and fantastic.

Our narrator Coverdale also spies some men “with portentously red noses…spreading a banquet on the leaf-strewn earth; while a horned and long-tailed gentleman” tuning up a fiddle. The end result:

So they joined hands in a circle, whirling round so swiftly, so madly, and so merrily, in time and tune with the Satanic music, that their separate incongruities were blended all together, and they became a kind of entanglement that went nigh to turn one’s brain with merely looking at it.

The entanglement here—which eventually explodes in riotous communal laughter—recalls the polygamous knot of grapevines that shrouded Coverdale’s hermitage.

The great laughter prompts Coverdale to explode in his own laughter, whereupon the Bacchic party sets out after him with comic-murderous intent:

“Some profane intruder!” said the goddess Diana. “I shall send an arrow through his heart, or change him into a stag, as I did Actaeon, if he peeps from behind the trees!”

Coverdale flees.

He eventually happens upon an old rotting woodpile covered in moss, where he daydreams about “the long-dead woodman, and his long-dead wife and children, coming out of their chill graves, and essaying to make a fire with this heap of mossy fuel!” — this before finally giving himself up to the Blithedale crew.

The episode strikes me very much as a sequel or reboot of Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown,” in which a Puritan naif wonders into the woods dark and deep and witnesses all the horrors of his young country made real—he sees the dark heart of his community beating naked and bloody and raw and Satanic—and it changes him forever, essentially dulling his soul unto a living death. The American Arcadia episode of Blithedale though is a bit richer in its mythos, its paganism more complex and inclusive, its perspective character more attuned to the vibrant possibilities of a transcendental community, even as he stands on its outside—and what is an outsider but the most vital secret ingredient of any community?

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Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System”

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The title of this blog post is Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System, but I admit that I wanted to put the word story under a bit of suspicion—rein it in with quotation marks, call it a “story.”

See, “Stream System” isn’t really a “story” — except that it is — “Stream System” is, like, a kind of biographical excerpt, less fictionalized (Yeah but how do you know that?) than the other pieces I’ve thus far read in the 2018 collection of Gerald Murnane’s fiction (“fiction”?) Stream System.

In Stream System the story “Stream System” gets a little asterisk next to its title. The initial asterisk’s twin in the footnote informs the reader:

“‘Stream System’ was written to be be read aloud at a gathering in the Department of English at La Trobe University in 1988.”

(The original campus of La Trobe University is in Melbourne, Australia, a city I visited three times as a boy between 1987 and 1991; during this time my family lived in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand (but never Australia). The city of Melbourne, Florida is 177 miles south of where I currently live, and although I have driven past it, I have never visited it).

So “Stream System” is not a fiction but a speech, a written speech, but really a “story,” I guess—a story (sort of) about Murnane’s boyhood in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria.

In any case, in titling this blog post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” I found myself wanting to put quotation marks around “story,” but realizing that those quotation marks would butt up against the quotation marks of “Stream System” (quotation marks indicating, This is the title of a short work—perfectly logical quotation marks in a shared punctuation system). And well yeah so I realized that the two sets of quotation marks did not belong to the same logical system. One set of quotation marks are so-called “scare quotes”; the other set of quotation marks are simply the basic English punctuation for indicating the title of a short work—whether the work is an essay, speech, poem, or short story. Even more importantly, putting the two sets of quotation marks together looked ugly as hell.

I started with the title for the post and seem to not have gotten past it. This has been a bad start, but I’ll keep blogging.

I’m not going to summarize “Stream System” — unpacking it would be too much, like drawing a diagram of an intricate memory map. I mean, really it’s better to just read it. I’ll just say that it condenses memory into the concrete reality of place, and makes those memories bristle with sharp, strange meaning.

I just said I’ll just say, but I’ll also just say — “Stream System” is deeply unsettling: Its repetitive tics are addictive; its compulsions compel the reader along into the speaker’s reflective labyrinth. And yet for all its coercive power, Murnane’s anamnesis is also extraordinarily discomforting. Murnane’s prose never editorializes, yet its concrete prowess, its evocation of surfaces, contours, true and real details—all of this leads the reader towards an emotional epiphany that the narrator refuses to name, directly invoke, or otherwise dramatize.

And yet so but well really “Stream System” does dramatize its epiphany, or one of its epiphanies, but in this really oblique and elliptical way that walks and talks through the story’s central trauma, walks through it in such a way that it seems like the narrator has kept going, leaving the reader a bit winded and left behind, holding a stitch in his side, saying, Hey, wait, what about this, what about this really really devastating thing you just evoked?

I realize that I titled this post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” but I admit that I’m not really going to write about that devastating passage—not really. Maybe I should have titled it Blog leading up to a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System” — I mean, that’s what I should have titled this post, and I could easily go back and rewrite the title and revise this whole thing. But I won’t. Here are those four paragraphs that so very much got to me:

My brother spoke to nobody but he often looked into the face of a person and made strange sounds. My mother said that the strange sounds were my brother’s way of learning to speak and that she understood the meaning of the sounds. But no one else understood that my brother’s strange sounds had a meaning. Two years after my parents and my brother and I had left the house of red bricks my brother began to speak, but his speech sounded strange.

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground. I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech. I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then to ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother. If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine. If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy, but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

 

Blog about Blog about 2

Two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday/April Fools’ Day, I wrote a blog post I titled “Blog about Blog about” declaring a goal to blog — like, to write words about something  — every day in the month of April 2018. The basic idea was to free myself from some of the anxiety that has built up into a genuine fear of writing over the past few years, which has led to me simply not to write as much as I used to.

It is now half way through the month of April and I have written fourteen (including this one) of my intended thirty posts. I failed to write on Friday the 13th.

Here are the things I’ve written about so far and my reflections on forcing myself to write about them in a fast and loose spirit:

April 2, on Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell: I finished The Bell the day after I started the Blog about project. Had I not been doing the project, I probably would have sketched a few notes toward a review that I’d never end up actually finishing. It would hang out in the blog’s drafts folder forever. I’m strangely and probably unduly happy with what I ended up writing.

April 3, on starting a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance: Still reading Blithedale; the reread was inspired by The Bell (they share a kinda-similar setting). Writing about starting a book that you’ve already read is not hard.

April 4, on a particular Gordon Lish sentence: Reflecting on this one makes me realize that this is the kind of post I should be doing more of—looking closely at something small.

April 5, on Goya’s painting The Straw Man: I was very tired and did not want to write. I pulled down Robert Hughes’ biography Goya and thumbed through it, landing on a page I’d dogeared. Then I wrote the post. This method—grabbing a book somewhat at random—-also seems like a good way to write a post.

April 6, on the etymology of the word “blog”: I don’t even remember writing this one. I guess that’s why we write, to remember. I think that’s one of Socrates’ observations (or at least I think Plato wrote it down that Socrates observed this).

April 7, on Don DeLillo’s novel The Names: I often feel a bizarre and unnecessary guilt when I do not write about a novel I’ve read. I read The Names earlier this year and had intended to write about it and then didn’t. Or rather, I did write a bit about it, but I got bogged down in a kind of silly accounting of the novel’s approach to linguistics, which isn’t really what interested me about it that much anyway. The Blog about approach freed me to the extent that I didn’t even bother to quote from the novel, which is like, a bad approach to writing reviews—but a blog isn’t a review.

April 8, on Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”: I think we read in my class that day or maybe the day before. I turned my notes into the post, sort of. Maybe that’s cheating.

April 9, on an image from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance: Don’t recall writing it at all, although I recall the image, which, I don’t know. Maybe these reflections aren’t as valuable to me as I thought they would be.

April 10, on the“ The Silvery Veil” tale that’s embedded in The Blithedale Romance : I also made some connections here to Madame Psychosis, a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’m sure someone’s already made those connections and written about them somewhere, but most of my Google searches led me back to, like, my own blog, which says more about my search strategies than anything else I guess.

April 11, on William Carlos Williams’ ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” (a poem about a Brueghel painting): My favorite thing in writing this was realizing how frequently Williams’ poem “The Dance” (about a Brueghel painting) is mistakenly cited as having been published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962). There is a poem called “The Dance” in Brueghel but it is not about a Brueghel painting. That “Dance” was published in The Wedge in 1944.

April 12, on Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment”: Again, I think the takeaway here is: Go smaller.

April 13: Didn’t write. Couldn’t get it out. Make up post? How about this picture I took of a stack of books I’m reading that I thought I might write about it and then thought, Nah…

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April 14, on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal of April 14, 1841—which happens to correlate with Hawthorne’s time on Brook Farm, the basis of his novel The Blithedale Romance which I’m still reading: I actually really enjoyed writing this one, although I don’t think anyone really read it. I researched mid-19th century farm equipment for almost an hour.

April 15 is today. I saw Wes Anderson’s film Isle of Dogs with my wife and kids and thought I would write about it, but then I didn’t. I wrote this post instead.

Blog about “a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” (in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance)

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I hit Chapter XII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon and was delighted by some lines from its first paragraph, wherein Our Narrator Coverdale retreats to a little fort he’s made in the woods:

Long since, in this part of our circumjacent wood, I had found out for myself a little hermitage. It was a kind of leafy cave, high upward into the air, among the midmost branches of a white-pine tree. A wild grapevine, of unusual size and luxuriance, had twined and twisted itself up into the tree, and, after wreathing the entanglement of its tendrils around almost every bough, had caught hold of three or four neighboring trees, and married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy.

I was deeply disappointed that the version of myself who had read this same physical copy of The Blithedale Romance almost 15 years earlier had failed to muster a single annotation on the passage (despite having left like 10,000 other scratches and loops on the yellow pages).

Hawthorne’s naturalism is fantastically naturalistically fantastical. The wild grapevine he conjures here that “married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” is simultaneously a physical entity “wreathing” itself around the surrounding trees and at the same time a metonymy for the Bacchic spirit that pulls the souls of Blithedale into a weird marriage, an “inextricable knot of polygamy.” Hawthorne’s image points to exuberant and wild joy on one hand, but also to the thick bonds that tightly tie desire down in any moral system. The grapevine image serves as shorthand for the entire novel, underlining the push-pull tension of the narrator’s (and author’s!) conflict between Puritanism and Transcendentalism. The “inextricable knot of polygamy” is wonderfully pure in its impurity, in its radical transcendence.

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.

Blog about Don DeLillo’s novel The Names, which I read a few weeks ago and now only half remember

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A physical copy of Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names is on a shelf a few steps away from me. Normally I’d pick it up and thumb through it before writing about it—or better yet, reread it before writing about it—or even better, simply not write about it at all. But none of that would be in the spirit of these Blog about posts.

The plot of The Names, such as I remember it, is something like this: the novel’s protagonist and narrator (whose name may or may not be named Nick—I don’t really remember) is an American operative of some kind who basically works for the CIA. This specific job description is never really clear to the American protagonist or anyone else in the novel. He moves to Greece to be closer to his wife, who has left him, and his son, a budding novelist of sorts (despite being like nine or ten), whom DeLillo based on Atticus Lish (son of Gordon Lish and now a superb novelist in his own right)  The protagonist’s estranged wife works an archaeological dig headed by an older dude named Owen (the protagonist’s son’s novel is Owen’s fictional biography). Owen, and later (or is it before—I can’t remember?!) the protagonist, encounter a weird language cult that performs ritualistic linguistic murders.

The Names’ great appeal is DeLillo’s riffs on language and meaning in a postmodern era. The language cult isn’t some socioculturally-realistic entity that draws the reader in, but rather an occasion for monologue. The novel is very much a monologue, no matter who is speaking. This may sound like a criticism as I now type it out (it does to me, anyway), but DeLillo’s monologue has a fun force to it. It’s sort of like a Derridean teledrama in novelistic form, all its pollyglossic intentions subsumed into a low dry clipped clever voice: DeLillo waxes on film; DeLillo waxes on pleasure; DeLillo waxes on Americanism; DeLillo waxes on expatriation; DeLillo waxes on globalism; DeLillo waxes on airports; DeLillo waxes on terrorism. A big takeaway from the novel for me was that DeLillo wrote his 9/11 novel two decades before the fact. No wonder he wrote Falling Man so quickly; he’d already thought through the problems.

I can’t really remember the linguistic system or philosophy or language critique in The Names, but I do remember the repetitions—the word name threads throughout, usually pointing toward a symbol, a referent, a landing strip. DeLillo also repeats the word recognition—which I take to simply be the power of name(s) (why would I use the adverb “simply” there?!). But the keyword isn’t name—I think the keyword of The Names is the world, a term that seems to refer to the absolute set of possibility (linguistic or otherwise) that Exist—a shifting, unstable, but nevertheless complete set that everyone must play within.

While its expatriation visions ring true, DeLillo doesn’t fully conjure the world in The Names, although that’s never his intention, I think. The whole affair is more oblique. Clipped is the word I used before—the novel is dry, witty, but resists being pegged as glib through its strangeness and humor.  I laughed a lot in The Names. What I think I like most though is the ending, which I still remember—I haven’t read everything by DeLillo, but I’ve read a lot, and I can’t think of another of his that sticks the ending so well. And he does it by borrowing. DeLillo cribs from the protagonist’s son’s novel—which is to say from a child’s novel—which is to say from a real child’s work, Atticus Lish’s stuff—and that cribbing is somehow the magic ingredient that makes the rest of his novel rise up. It’s a second voice (or hey, the idea of a second voice) in a monologue, and it makes a huge difference.

Blog about Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

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I have just finished Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. This is the first novel I have read by Murdoch and I now want to read more novels by Murdoch, which I suppose is the best praise I can offer the novel.

The Bell is set primarily in Imber House, a large old mansion in the English countryside. Imber House adjoins a Benedictine abbey; this nunnery is essentially closed off to the outside world. The residents of Imber House form a “brotherhood,” a laity of would-be acolytes who strive to find spiritual meaning in the commercial and often venal world of the postwar era. Various conflicts between these characters drive the plot of The Bell.

One of these conflicts, especially notable for a novel published in 1958, involves Michael, the leader of the Imber House community. A former schoolmaster who dreamed of joining the clergy, Michael lost his job in a small scandal for “seducing” one of his students, Nick, a teenage boy at the time. Over a decade later, circumstance brings Nick to Imber House, where his twin sister Katherine is staying. Katherine plans to join Imber Abbey; in the meantime, her family hopes that the religious solitude at Imber House will help Nick recover from his alcoholism. The conflict between Michael and Nick becomes further charged when the youngest member of Imber House, a teenager named Toby, befriends both of them.

I could go on about Michael and Nick and Toby and Katherine and etc., but the real star of The Bell is Dora Greenfield, a wonderfully complicatedly simple unassuming unpretentious flighty former art student who has recently left her demanding husband Paul. Through Murdoch’s precise free indirect style, we get to inhabit Dora’s constantly vacillating mind. Like many people, Dora does not know what she is going to do, and even when she thinks through a plan, she often ends up doing the opposite of what she had intended to do. There is a hilarious passage in the novel’s first chapter when Dora goes through a lengthy imaginative exercise about giving up her train seat to an elderly woman. Dora’s thought experiment ends like this:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

The blank space between those sentences highlights a radical gap between contemplation and action.

The train-seat passage is one of many humorous episodes in The Bell, but Murdoch’s humor is underwritten by a deeper menacing anxiety, which can be neatly summed up in the novel’s opening sentences:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

Those opening lines basically summarize the big thematic plot of The Bell—the conflict between controlling and ultimately abusive Paul and his much younger wife. (“She married him a little for his money,” Murdoch writes just a few paragraphs in, wedging the detail between more positive aspects of Paul’s character–the “a little” is just genius there, the slightest omission from Dora’s consciousness slipping into the third-person narrator for the briefest of moments). The opening lines of The Bell also showcase Murdoch’s rhetorical powers. Her comic precision here reverberates with a hazardous undertone.

Will Dora really return to her husband? Or will she become her own person—whatever that means? The Bell satisfies these questions with complex answers. The novel has every opportunity to veer toward pat conclusions. Murdoch fills her novel with images that suggest a conventional tragic conclusions, and then surpasses these conventions, turning them into something else. A death by drowning might be foreshadowed, but someone will learn to swim; an epiphany achieved in an art museum might not meet its achievement outside of aesthetic response; the Blakean contraries of innocence and experience might be synthesized into a new, original viewpoint. There’s something real about The Bell—it offers a realism that points outside of its own literary contours. The English novelist A.S. Byatt puts it far better than I can in her essay “Shakespearean Plot in the Novels of Irish Murdoch”:

 …The Bell seems to me arguably Miss Murdoch‘s most successful attempt at realism, emotional and social—the tones of voice of the members of the religious community are beautifully caught, the sexual, aesthetic and religious passions and confusions of the three main characters, Dora, Michael, and, to a lesser extent, Toby, are delicately analysed with the combination of intellectual grasp and sensuous immediacy of George Eliot.

Byatt’s comparison to Eliot reminds me that I had intended to read Middlemarch some time this year—but to be fair to myself, I put The Bell on the same list. I won’t be reading Middlemarch next though; The Bell, with its story of a would-be utopian community, strongly reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, which I haven’t read in ages. And after I read that, I’d like to read another one by Iris Murdoch. Any recommendations?

“White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington

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“White Rabbits”

by

Leonora Carrington

THE TIME has come that I must tell the events which began in 40 Pest St. The houses which were reddish-black looked as if they had survived mysteriously from the fire of London. The house in front of my window, covered with an occasional wisp of creeper, was as blank and empty looking as any plague-ridden residence subsequently licked by flames and saliv’d with smoke. This is not the way that I had imagined New York.

It was so hot that I got palpitations when I ventured out into the streets—so I sat and considered the house opposite and occasionally bathed my sweating face.

The light was never very strong in Pest Street. There was always a reminiscence of smoke which made visibility troubled and hazy—still it was possible to study the house opposite carefully, even precisely; besides my eyes have always been excellent.

I spent several days watching for some sort of movement opposite but there was none and I finally took to undressing quite freely before my open window and doing breathing exercises optimistically in the thick Pest Street air. This must have blackened my lungs as dark as the houses. One afternoon I washed my hair and sat out on the diminuitive stone crescent which served as a balcony to dry it. I hung my head between my knees ¡and watched a blue-bottle suck the dry corpse of a spider between my feet. I looked up through my lank hair and saw something black in the sky, ominously quiet for an airplane. Parting my hair I was in time to see a large raven alight on the balcony of the house opposite. It sat on the balustrade and seemed to peer into the empty window, then poked its head under its wing apparently searching for lice. A few minutes later I was not unduly surprised to see the double windows open and and admit a woman onto the balcony—she carried a large dish full of bones which she emptied onto the floor. With a short appreciative squawk, the raven hopped down and picked about amongst its unpleasant repast.

The woman, who had hemp-long black hair, wiped out the dish, using her hair for this purpose.

Then she looked straight at me and smiled in a friendly fashion. I smiled back and waved a towel. This seemed to encourage her for she tossed her head coquettishly and gave me a very elegant salute after the fashion of a queen.

“Do you happen to have any bad meat over there that you don’t need?” she called.

“Any what?” I called back, wondering if my ears had deceived me.

“Any stinking meat? Decomposed flesh … meat?”

“Not at the moment,” I replied, wondering if she was trying to be funny.

“Won’t you have any towards the end of the week? If so, I would be very grateful if you would bring it over.”

Then she stepped back into the empty window and disappeared. The raven flew away. Continue reading ““White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington”

Illustration for Frankenstein — Bernie Wrightson

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(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.

You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate (Flannery O’Connor)

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories.” Collected in Mystery and Manners.

Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour | From Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

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The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, c. 1756, Thomas Gainsborough

Dora had been in the National Gallery a thousand times and the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face. Passing between them now, as through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending on her. She wandered a little, watching with compassion the poor visitors armed with guide books who were peering anxiously at the masterpieces. Dora did not need to peer. She could look, as one can at last when one knows a great thing very well, confronting it with a dignity which it has itself conferred. She felt that the pictures belonged to her, and reflected ruefully that they were about the only thing that did. Vaguely, consoled by the presence of something welcoming and responding in the place, her footsteps took her to various shrines at which she had worshipped so often before: the great light spaces of Italian pictures, more vast and southern than any real South, the angels of Botticelli, radiant as birds, delighted as gods, and curling like the tendrils of a vine, the glorious carnal presence of Susanna Fourment, the tragic presence of Margarethe Trip, the solemn world of Piero della Francesca with its early-morning colours, the enclosed and gilded world of Crivelli. Dora stopped at last in front of Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters. These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike.

Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. Even Paul, she thought, only existed now as someone she dreamt about; or else as a vague external menace never really encountered and understood. But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all.

These thoughts, not clearly articulated, flitted through Dora’s mind. She had never thought about the pictures in this way before; nor did she draw now any very explicit moral. Yet she felt that she had had a revelation. She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.

From Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell.

Books acquired, 15 March 2018

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Our campus library had a few tables piled down with books—mostly ones that came through donations, but also some discards. I tried not to be too greedy and snapped up these five. Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary was the one I was probably most interested in, as well as John Gardner’s , which I’ve read parts of before. Colette has always struck me as one of those authors whose prolific output is daunting, and I’m not sure if her Claudine novels are the best place to start…but…free book. Hellman’s memoir of her HUAC testimony, Scoundrel Time, interested me with its simple, dynamic cover. And I’ve wanted to read more Lessing since The Golden Notebook. I’m not sure if I’ll get to any of these soon, but again…free books. 

A passage from (and a short riff on) Iris Murdoch’s The Bell

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Dora got into the train. It was now very full indeed and people were sitting four a side. Before she sat down she inspected herself quickly in the mirror. In spite of all her awful experiences she looked good. She had a round well-formed face and a large mouth that liked to smile. Her eyes were a dark slaty blue and rather long and large. Art had darkened but not thinned her vigorous triangular eyebrows. Her hair was golden brown and grew in long flat strips down the side of her head, like ferns growing down a rock. This was attractive. Her figure was by no means what it had been.

She turned towards her seat. A large elderly lady shifted a little to make room. Feeling fat and hot in the smart featureless coat and skirt which she had not worn since the spring, Dora squeezed herself in. She hated the sensation of another human being wedged against her side. Her skirt was very tight. Her high-heeled shoes were tight too. She could feel her own perspiration and was beginning to smell that of others. It was a devilish hot day. She reflected all the same that she was lucky to have a seat, and with a certain satisfaction watched the corridor fill up with people who had no seats.

Another elderly lady, struggling through the crush, reached the door of Dora’s carriage and addressed her neighbour. ‘Ah, there you are, dear, I thought you were nearer the front.’ They looked at each other rather gloomily, the standing lady leaning at an angle through the doorway, her feet trapped in a heap of luggage. They began a conversation about how they had never seen the train so full. Dora stopped listening because a dreadful thought had struck her. She ought to give up her seat. She rejected the thought, but it came back. There was no doubt about it. The elderly lady who was standing looked very frail indeed, and it was only proper that Dora, who was young and healthy should give her seat to the lady who could then sit next to her friend. Dora felt the blood rushing to her face. She sat still and considered the matter. There was no point in being hasty. It was possible of course that while clearly admitting that she ought to give up her seat she might nevertheless simply not do so out of pure selfishness. This would in some ways be a better situation than what would have been the case if it had simply not occurred to her at all that she ought to give up her seat. On the other side of the seated lady a man was sitting. He was reading his newspaper and did not seem to be thinking about his duty. Perhaps if Dora waited it would occur to the man to give up his seat to the other lady? Unlikely. Dora examined the other inhabitants of the carriage. None of them looked in the least uneasy. Their faces, if not already buried in books, reflected the selfish glee which had probably been on her own a moment since as she watched the crowd in the corridor. There was another aspect to the matter. She had taken the trouble to arrive early, and surely ought to be rewarded for this. Though perhaps the two ladies had arrived as early as they could? There was no knowing. But in any case there was an elementary justice in the first comers having the seats. The old lady would be perfectly all right in the corridor. The corridor was full of old ladies anyway, and no one else seemed bothered by this, least of all the old ladies themselves! Dora hated pointless sacrifices. She was tired after her recent emotions and deserved a rest. Besides, it would never do to arrive at her destination exhausted. She regarded her state of distress as completely neurotic. She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

‘How very kind of you!’ said the standing lady. ‘Now I can sit next to my friend. I have a seat of my own further down you know. Perhaps we can just exchange seats? Do let me help you to move your luggage.’

Dora glowed with delight. What is sweeter than the unhoped-for reward for the virtuous act?

From Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell.

Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell hooked me with its astonishing opening sentences: “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”

Those two simple, precise sentences foreground one of the major conflicts of The Bell, and also point towards the novel’s anxiety/comedy axis. There’s a comic beat to Murdoch’s rhythm that, paradoxically, simultaneously belies and highlights the terror under those two sentences. The rest of The Bell’s first chapter fills in the gaps between sentence one and sentence two, detailing the relationship between young Dora and her older husband Paul. The details of their troubled marriage reverberate with the same radical ambiguity we see in the first two sentences, a constant push-pull of desire and repulsion.

What’s most compelling for me here is Murdoch’s command of irony and free indirect speech. Murdoch inhabits Dora’s consciousness in a way that shows how the conflict between thought and emotion germinates, mutates, terminates, and often blooms into actions quite divorced from initial intention or desire. When Paul decides to send his departed wife an “allowance,” we get a wonderful syntactic example of how Murdoch captures the ambiguous disjunctions of thought and action: “Dora decided to refuse the money but accepted it.” Murdoch gives us one complete thought here, tacking on the key idea (“but accepted it”) in a dependent clause.

The long passage I’ve excerpted above (part of Chapter One, by the way) shows the same disjunction of thought and action, but at greater length. Not only did it make me laugh aloud, it also made me recognize part of myself in Dora—the extreme social anxiety, the narcissistic sense that others do not see what is happening within a social setting, the sense of selfish entitlement, etc.

The punchline in the episode is worth repeating: “She decided not to give up her seat. She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.'” But that punchline is followed by a second punchline—the woman already has a seat. The episode culminates in a kind of callow but sincere moral victory.

I’m about half way through The Bell right now and loving it. As Murdoch layers the novel with perspective characters other than Dora, the overall picture gains depth, breadth, and complexity. Her sentences convey a psychological complexity that seems both raw and truthful, and yet those sentences are polished, refined, and quite funny. More thoughts to come.

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.

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics

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“The main difficulty with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz,” writes Soren Gauger in his translator’s note for Narcotics, “is that no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he were writing something else.” Witkiewicz’s playful (and occasionally frustrating) discursive style is on vivid display in the six essays that comprise most of Narcotics (new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press)Witkiewicz’s stylistic twists are one of the joys of Narcotics. A moralizing diatribe might veer into medical discourse; private anecdotes might shift into a rant on class theory or a patchy precis of a book about physiognomy. (All delivered in a semi-ironic-yet-wholly-sincere tone). In the case of Witkiewicz’s essay “Peyote,” we go from “Elves on a seesaw. (Comedic number)” to “A battle of centaurs turned into a battle between fantastical genitalia.” This last note is preceded by the observation that “Goya must have known about peyote.”

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“Peyote” is the most vivid and surreal of the essays in Narcotics. Unlike the other sections, this chapter most closely resembles a conventional drug diary. “Peyote” begins with Witkiewicz taking his first of seven (!) peyote doses at six in the evening and culminating around eight the following morning with “Straggling visions of iridescent wires.” In increments of about 15 minutes, Witkiewicz notes each of his surreal visions. The wild hallucinations are rendered in equally surreal language: “Mundane disumbilicalment on a cone to the barking of flying canine dragons” here, “The birth of a diamond goldfinch” there. Gauger’s translation conveys not just the wild imagery, but also the wild linguistic spirit of Witkiewicz’s prose.

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The prose in “Peyote” most closely approximates the spirit of Witkiewicz’s wonderful paintings. Narcotics includes 34 full-color reproductions of Witkiewicz’s art, which is reason enough to pick up this volume. According to Narcotics’ blurb, Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he is commonly known) “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.”

For example, we see that Witkiewicz has noted that he had ingested cocaine and eucodal (a semi-synthetic opioid) in order to paint the Portrait of Michal Jagodowski (below). Narcotics includes a helpful “List of Symbols” as a glossary for the shorthand Witkiewicz used both in the text of his writings and in his paintings. (Although “her (herbata): tea” is included in the gloss, this vice regretfully does not merit its own essay).

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In addition to peyote, we get essays on nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and ether (a list that may remind you of a certain Queens of the Stone Age jam). In “Nicotine,” Witkiewicz despairs that “A person deadened by tobacco and alcohol…seeks even more mind-numbing entertainment to relax,” whether that be the “utterly depraved cinema with its vacuous attempts at artistry,” or the “sensory narcotization through music” achieved by “station surfing” on the radio. (Even worse is “chronic and brainless dancing, that most monstrous of modern society’s unacknowledged plagues”).

In “Alcohol,” Witkiewicz concedes that “alcohol lets you perform actions at a particular moment that otherwise would not have been possible right then,” before launching into a sustained attack on alcohol as a creative crutch. His most convincing (and depressing) line here is “alcohol is boring. Anyone who has abused it even mildly knows this to be true.” (If this were a different sort of review, I might riff here a bit on the fact that I drank no fewer than three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon while writing about Narcotics).

Witkiewicz, despite his exorbitant indulgences, is a bit of a snob—a modernist snob though. From frenzied, enthusiastic experience he warns us that “cocaine is one of the worst kinds of filth,” before plugging his cocaine novel Farewell to Autumn and offering a synopsis of one of the novel’s chapters, a so-called “cocaine orgy.” (The editors of Narcotics graciously include a brief selection from Farewell to Autumn, as well as additional essays by Witkiewicz on hygiene and other matters).

In the last two essays, Wietkiewicz hands the reins over to friends (designated drivers?). In “Morphine,” Bohdan Filipowski warns that, “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable, you must first travel through all manner of hell and suffering in life, only then to find yourself in addled stupefaction, which ultimately is all there is.” The essay “Ether” — a drug that packs a “powerful metaphysical wallop” is attributed to “Dr. Dezydery Prokopowicz,” a pseudonym for Wietkiewicz’s friend, poet Stefan Glass.

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The admonition that “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable” is pretty much the thesis for Narcotics, a book that simultaneously celebrates and reviles drug use. Misery is the byword here, a word we find repeated in in Henri Michaux’s 1956 collection Miserable Miracle. Published a quarter century after Narcotics, the two volumes share much in common. Too, Narcotics picks up some of the threads that we find in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater(1821)–that foregrounding of suffering, even if it also anticipates the (exhaustive) drug literature of the 1960s, which wasn’t nearly so reticent about banging the narcotic gong. And yet Witkiewicz seems to wink at us through all the moralizing and apologia, suggesting that, yes, narcotics, are, like, bad—they are a crutch, a shortcut, a substitute for true artistic inspiration—but he also shows how utterly modern the process of consuming mind-and-body-altering substances is. Witkiewicz comprehends the dangers of narcotics. He’s out there on the ledge, dancing around a bit, his foot wagging over the precipice, while he grins and says, “Hey, don’t try this at home.”

Try this at home. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics, translated from the Polish by Soren Guager is new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press. Just Say Yes.

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.”