Three Books

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ferit Edgü’s Noone (Book acquired, 8.17.2016)

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Ferit Edgü’s Noone is newish in English translation from Contra Mundum Press.

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.

Read a sample of Noone.

(Not really) Three Books (2666 Books)

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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:

True Detective, Bolaño’s 2666, Werewolves, Etc

Wherein I Suggest Dracula Is a Character in Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

Intertexuality and Structure in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

Roberto Bolaño’s Powers of Horror

Bolaño’s Werewolves

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 Revisited

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

(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.

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Jupiter and Semele, Gustave Moreau
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Academy, Cy Twombly
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Sea Sponges, Albertus Seba

Nothing could be decently hated except eternity

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?

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.
 The Jean-Baptiste Greuze painting that Don Fabrizio refers to as Death of the Just Man is actually titled The Son Punished or The Father’s Curse and the Punished Son.

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Hide-and-seek; whips (From Lampedusa’s The Leopard)

….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.

Reviews, riffs, etc. of June-July, 2016 (and an unrelated pig)

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 Showa 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.


One of the best books I’ve read in ages is Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner (new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press). I reviewed the book, but also noted

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.


 

I also wrote about the books I’ve started the most times without ever finishing, asking readers in turn what books they’ve started the most times without finishing. 

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Frequent answers (both on the blog, on Twitter, and via email) included lots of “big” books, especially Gravity’s RainbowWar and PeaceMoby-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).


I was very passionate about an Italian “Italian” novel (or set of novels, I suppose), Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels. I wrote about Ferrante’s powers of abjection, stating—

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).

I’m glad I finished the quartet.


As a sort of sequel or answer or rejoinder or whatever to my question posing post about books I’ve attempted the most without ever finishing, I wrote about the novels I’m always dipping into without ever hoping to really finish.

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I also recycled two older posts: A thing I wrote about The BFG as a love letter Dahl wrote to his deceased daughter (recycled for the Spielberg film) and a review of Hemingway’s overlooked novel of doomed polyamory, The Garden of Eden (recycled for the man’s birthday).


I also spent a fun Friday afternoon browsing old sci-fi covers.


Also: Derek Pyle, of Waywords and Meansigns,  interviewed novelist Brian Hall about a bunch of stuff, including his work adapting Finnegans Wake, a novel on my “I probably will never really read this all the way through, but…” list.


Promised pig: Jamie Wyeth’s Winter Pig, 1975–

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Three Books

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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:

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The cover design is by Jargon Society poet/publisher Jonathan Williams. The book includes this note:

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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.

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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.

Nothing remarkable to record | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 31st, 1837

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 an Irishman’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.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 31st, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Another short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 4 of The Charterhouse of Parma

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.

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Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 11 of The Charterhouse of Parma

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. 

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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:

TO THE HAPPY FEW

 

Three Books

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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.

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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.

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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…).

Two Brazilian sci-fi books (Books acquired, 7.21.2016)

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Yesterday, I spent over an hour browsing old sci-fi paperbacks at my favorite book store. I posted some pics of ones I didn’t pick up.

I couldn’t resist these two though, books by Brazilian authors I’d never heard of—The Order of the Day, a novel by Marcio Souza, and Murilo Rubiao’s collection The Ex-Magician and Other Stories.

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Three Books

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Crash by J.G. Ballard. 1994 trade paperback by Noonday (FS&G). Cover design by Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden.

I had a redneckish college roommate who was way into cars, so I encouraged him to watch Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash with me, which he did. He was a nice guy. He watched all of it with me and our other roommate. The rest of the year he would joke, “Hey, let’s go crash this car and have sex!”

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Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vančura. (First) English translation by Carleton Bulkin. First edition hardback by Twisted Spoon Press, 2016. Cover by Dan Mayer. A strange and often violent tale of multiple kidnappings and medieval intrigues, Marketa Lazarova reminds me of Le Morte D’Arthur, Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan (both in its evocations of brutality and in its marvelous poetic prose), Aleksei German’s film Hard to Be a God, Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring, Bolaño’s sweetly ironic narrators, and, uh, Game of Thrones.

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Masquerade by Kit Wiliams. Eighth edition hardback from Shocken, 1981. While no designer is credited, the cover is obviously one of Williams’s lovely paintings. A puzzle book, a treasure hunt.

The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun | Yuri Herrera interviewed at 3:AM Magazine

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Yuri Herrera was interviewed by Tristan Foster at 3:AM Magazine a few weeks ago. Herrera’s new novella (or “new” in English translation by Lisa Dilman, anyway) is The Transmigration of Bodies and it’s really, really good. I read most of it in one sitting a few months back, and I owe it a proper review. Herrera’s previous novella, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was one of my favorite books published last year.

From the interview:

3:AM: Despite both the seriousness of its themes and the apocalyptic backdrop, Transmigration is full of an absurd kind of fun. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the scene at the strip club; the strippers have taken off everything except for their facemasks, but they use the allure of removing the masks to excite the men watching. Is this writing fun? Is fun crucial to this kind of writing?

YH: The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun. To create your own paths in a room without light. Of course, this sometimes is also frustrating, when you just keep bumping into things, most commonly into my own very clumsy self. Eventually you discover that you have not been walking completely in the dark but with some sort of intuitive sense of direction, some creative spine. But until you discover that, you alternate between the joy and the anxiety and puzzling with words.

Books acquired, 7.13.2016

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Four review copies in yesterday’s mail (solicited and unsolicited). I get behind on these books acquired posts, so I’ll lump the books in all at once and quickly.

First and foremost: Lucia Berlin’s collection A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. The book got a ton of buzz last year when it came out in hardback last year, and I didn’t read it then, but I did read the Black Sparrow-published collection HomesickMany of the stories in Manual were first published in Homesick. They are very good stories—funny and gritty and elegant and sad and real. Full review forthcoming; in the meantime here’s Lydia Davis, who wrote the intro to Manual:

I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well-known as they should be-their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologized. Perhaps, with the present collection, Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves.

Continue reading “Books acquired, 7.13.2016”

Stanley Elkin reviews Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show (kinda sorta)

[Ed. note: I finished Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show a few days ago. I read The Dick Gibson Show immediately after finishing Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser. I want to write something about these novels, which seem of a piece to me, but I also wanted to get a bit more context first, and the most basic of internet searches led me to Elkin’s 1974 interview in The Paris Review with Thomas LeClair.

What follows are selections from the interview in which Elkin kinda sorta analyzes The Dick Gibson Show, providing what I take to be a Very Good and Fascinating Review of the novel.

Look, I went to school for reading books, I learned about the goddamn intentional fallacy and la mort de l’auteur and all that jazz, and I know that the author isn’t supposed to be the goddamn authority on his own work, I know that what follows isn’t a proper review—but I don’t care. I like it.

My assumption is it’s likely that anyone interested enough in a review of The Dick Gibson Show has probably already read Elkin’s Paris Review interview, and would probably prefer, like, something new on the novel. Which I’ll attempt down the line. But for now: Elkin on Elkin—]


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INTERVIEWER: I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?

ELKIN: It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:

What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .

Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:

to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs…

and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.

INTERVIEWER: But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?

ELKIN: Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.

INTERVIEWER: Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?

ELKIN: Yes, I think so.

Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.

INTERVIEWER: Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.

ELKIN: Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.

INTERVIEWER: s that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?

ELKIN: That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.

INTERVIEWER: Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?

ELKIN: That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.

INTERVIEWER: Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language…

ELKIN: No. Certainly not.

INTERVIEWER: He does say less and less as the novel moves along.

ELKIN: Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?

INTERVIEWER: In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?

ELKIN: I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.

Three Books

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Grendel by John Gardner. First edition hardback by Knopf (Borzoi imprint), 1971. No designer credited, but the jacket illustration is almost certainly by Emil Antonucci, whose line drawings head each chapter. The blurb on the back, by the way, is from a William H. Gass review of Gardner’s second novel The Wreckage of Agathon, which I have not read.

I usually only do scans of the fronts of books in these Three Books posts, but the clothbound book under the jacket of this edition of Grendel is too lovely not to share (it could also have fit into my three purple books post a while back):

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Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston. 1978 trade paperback by Indiana University Press. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is almost certainly by Miguel Covarrubias, whose illustrations accompany the text. Mules & Men is not stuffy catalog of folklore, but rather Hurston’s own synthesis of the tales she collected (and improved upon, if not outright invented in some cases) primarily in Florida in the early 1930s. A sample tale: How the snake got poison:

Well, when God made de snake he put him in de bushes to ornament de ground. But things didn’t suit de snake so one day he got on de ladder and went up to see God. “Good mawnin’, God.” “How do you do, Snake?” “Ah ain’t so many, God, you put me down there on my belly in de dust and everything trods upon me and kills off my generations. Ah ain’t got no kind of protection at all.”

God looked off towards immensity and thought about de subject for awhile, then he said, “Ah didn’t mean for nothin’ to be stompin’ you snakes lak dat. You got to have some kind of a protection. Here, take dis poison and put it in yo’ mouf and when they tromps on you, protect yo’ self. “

So de snake took de poison in his mouf and went on back.

So after awhile all de other varmints went up to God.

“Good evenin’, God.”

“How you makin’ it, varmints?”

“God, please do somethin’ ’bout dat snake. He’ layin’ in de bushes there wid poison in his mouf and he’s strikin’ everything dat shakes de bush. He’s killin’ up our generations. Wese skeered to walk de earth.”

So God sent for de snake and tole him:

“Snake, when Ah give you dat poison, Ah didn’t mean for you to be hittin’ and killin’ everything dat shake de bush. I give you dat poison and tole you to protect yo’self when they tromples on you. But you killin’ everything dat moves. Ah didn’t mean for you to do dat.”

De snake say, “Lawd, you know Ah’m down here in de dust. Ah ain’t got no claws to fight wid, and Ah ain’t got no feets to git me out de way. All Ah kin see is feets comin’ to tromple me. Ah can’t tell who my enemy is and who is my friend. You gimme dis protection in my mouf and Ah uses it.”

God thought it over for a while then he says:

“Well, snake, I don’t want yo’ generations all stomped out and I don’t want you killin’ everything else dat moves. Here take dis bell and tie it to yo’ tail. When you hear feets comin’ you ring yo’ bell and if it’s yo’ friend, he’ll be keerful. If it’s yo’ enemy, it’s you and him.”

So dat’s how de snake got his poison and dat’s how come he got rattles.

Biddy, biddy, bend my story is end.

Turn loose de rooster and hold de hen.

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By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. English translation by Chris Andrews. Trade paperback by New Directions, 2003. Cover design by Semadar Megged, who adapted a photograph by Kurt Beals. The orange in the cover doesn’t seem so vibrant in the scan I did. It’s as orange as the other two books. Oh well. The prose is vibrant, electric orange.

I wrote about By Night in Chile here.

Passionate extremists (From Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show)

He could not depend upon his listeners; he had no notion of them. They were as faceless to him as he to them. (They didn’t even have a voice.) His panels, his Special Guests were more real. As for his listeners, he guessed they were insomniacs, cabbies, enlisted men signed out on leave at midnight driving home on turnpikes, countermen in restaurants by highways, people in tollbooths. Or he saw them in bed—they lived in the dark—lumps under covers, profiles on pillows, their skulls beside the clock radio (the clock radio had done more to change programming than even TV) while the dialogue floated above their heads like balloon talk aloft in comic strips. Half asleep, they would not follow it too closely. No, he knew little about his listeners. They were not even mysterious; they were there, but distant as the Sioux.

He knew more about the passionate extremists who used his microphones in the groundless hope of stirring those sleepers, and winning over the keepers of the booths—the wild visionaries, opponents of fluoride, palmists, astrologers, the far right and far left and far center, the dianeticians, scientologists, beatniks, homosexuals from the Mattachine Society, the handwriting analysts, addicts, nudists, psychic phenomenologists, all those who believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy; men beyond the beyond, black separatists who would take over Idaho and thrive by cornering the potato, pretenders to a half-dozen thrones, Krebiozonists, people from MENSA, health-food people, eaters of weed and soups of bark, cholesterolists, poly-unsaturationalists, treasure hunters, a woman who believed she held a valid Spanish land grant to all of downtown San Francisco, the Cassandras warning of poison in the white bread and cola and barbecued potato chip, conservationists jittery about the disappearing forests and the diminishing water table (and one man who claimed that the tides were a strain on the moon), would-be reformers of a dozen industries and institutions and a woman so fastidious about the separation of church and state that she would take the vote away from nuns and clergymen, capital punishers, atheists, people who wanted the abortion laws changed and a man who thought all surgery was a sin and ought to carry the same sentence as any other assault with a knife, housewives spooked by lax Food and Drug regulations, Maoists, Esperantoists, American Nazis, neo-Jaegerists, Reichians, juvenile delinquents, crionics buffs, anti-vivisectionists, witches, wizards, chief rabbis of no less than three of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, and a fellow who claimed he died the same year Columbus discovered America.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.