A review of Berg, Ann Quin’s grimy oedipal comedy of horrors

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Ann Quin’s 1964 novel Berg begins with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

This opening line encapsulates the plot of Berg, its terminal ellipses pointing to the radical indecision that propels the novel’s central oedipal conflict—will Berg do it? Can he actually kill his father?

The “seaside town” mentioned in the opening line is presumably Brighton, where Quin was born and died. Quin’s Brighton is hardly a holiday-goer’s paradise though. Grimy and seedy, claustrophobic and cold, it’s populated by carousers and vagabonds. There’s a raucous, sinister energy to Quin’s seaside setting; her Brighton is a combative hamlet pinned against the monstrous swelling sea.

While we sometimes find ourselves in this seaside town’s drunken dancehalls, shadowy train stations, or under grubby piers, most of Berg takes place in a dilapidated boarding house. Here, Alistair Berg (going by Greb) has taken a room adjacent the room his father Nathaniel lives in with his younger mistress Judith. Nathan and Judith’s apartment is a strange horror of antiques and taxidermy beasts. Berg’s apartment is full of the wigs and hair tonics he ostensibly sells for a living. It’s all wonderfully nauseating.

Through the thin wall between these two spaces, Berg hears his father and mistress fight and fuck. He attends both animal grunting and human speech, an imaginative voyeur, and is soon entangled in their lives, as neatly summarized in a letter to his mother Edith, the fourth major character who is never-present yet always-present in the novel. Writing to thank Edith for a food parcel she’s mailed him (Berg is a mama’s boy), he reports:

How are you? Everything here is fine. I’ve seen my father, but so far haven’t revealed who I really am (how Dickensian can one get, and what can I really put—that he’s been fucking another woman next door, and probably a dozen others besides over the past fifteen years, is about to go on tour with some friend in a Vaudeville show, trailing a dummy around, that he’s in love with a budgie…?) Somehow I think you’re better off without him, he seems a bit the worse for wear, not at all like the photograph, or even like the ones you already have of him, and he still hasn’t any money, as far as I can make out he’s sponging left right and centre.

After promising to return home in time for Christmas, Berg signs off with this ambiguous and oedipal ending: “Meanwhile—meanwhile—well I’m going to fuck her too…”

As the novel progresses, the relationships tangle into a Freudian field day: Berg and his father Nathaniel; Berg and his mother; Berg and Judith; Judith and Nathaniel; Nathaniel and Edith. Desire is a funny floating thing in Berg, which plays at times like a horror story and at times like a demented closet farce. As the narrative voice tells us at one point, “no one is without a fetish or two.”

Berg’s desire to kill his father is explored, although his rationale is muddy. Certainly, Edith, whose voice ventriloquizes Berg’s memory, helps spur Berg’s oedipal impulse: “There you see that’s your father who left us both,” she tells him as a boy, pointing to a photograph, adding, “you’ll have to do a lot to overcome him Aly before I die.” So much is loaded into that word overcome. Quin’s novel is precise in its ambiguities, evoking a feeling of consciousness in turmoil.

Berg’s turmoil is indeed the central thrust of the novel. He can’t decide to patricide. Berg works through the justifications for murder, ultimately trying to root out the impetus of his desire to kill his father. “Of course it’s ridiculous to think the whole thing is simply a vehicle for revenge, or even resentment—hardly can it be called personal, not now, indeed I have never felt so objective,” he tells himself at one point, sounding like one of Poe’s maniacs. Quin’s narrative affords him several opportunities to go through with the murder, but, in the novel’s first half anyway, he stalls. “Yes, that’s what it amounts to, decide rather than desire,” he proclaims.

Like Prince Hamlet, Berg is terribly indecisive, spending much of the novel vacillating between action and inaction, letting his consciousness fly through every imaginative possibility. Indeed, the main setting of Berg is not really Brighton or the boarding house, but Alistair Berg’s mind. And yet consciousness is his biggest curse: “Definitely the supreme action is to dispose of the mind, bring reality into something vital, felt, seen, even smelt. A man of action conquering all.” Later, he tells us that “The conscience only sets in when one is static,” coaxing himself toward action. Berg aspires to more than Eliot’s Prufrock. He desires to be more than an attendant lord to swell a progress, start a scene or two.

Indeed, Berg is author, director, and star in this drama of his own creation—he just has to finally follow the call to action. When he finally does snap the mental clapperboard, he comes into the possession—or at least believes he comes into the possession—of his own agency: “How separated from it all he felt, how unique too, no longer the understudy, but the central character as it were, in a play of his own making.”

Throughout Berg, Quin employs a free-indirect style that emphasizes her character’s shifting consciousness. Whatever “reality” Berg experiences is thoroughly mediated by memories of his mother’s voice and his own projections and fantasies. Consider the shift from “he” to “I” in these two sentences:

Half in the light he stood, a Pirandello hero in search of a scene that might project him from the shadow screen on to which he felt he had allowed himself to be thrown. If I could only discover whether cause and effect lie entirely in my power.

Perhaps his dramatic flair comes from his father, a vaudevillian ventriloquist whose most prized possession is a dummy. The dummy is the tragicomic symbol at the heart of Berg, a totem of the way that other voices might inhabit our mouths and drive our desires in bizarre directions. Berg, desirer of the power to cause and effect, often sees others around him as mere props. “She’s not unlike a display dummy really,” he thinks about Judith, who accuses him as someone who’s “always playing a part.” Hefting (what he believes to be) his father’s body, Berg, “aware of the rubbery texture of the flesh,” thinks, “ah well the old man had never been a flesh and blood character really.”

Berg is both victim and hero in a mental-play that he aspires to make real. Consider this wonderful passage that collapses Berg’s monomania, prefigurations of guilt, and dramatic impulses into a courtroom trial:

Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveller, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoiac paramour, do you plead guilty? Yes. Guilty of all things the human condition brings; guilty of being too committed; guilty of defending myself; of defrauding others; guilty of love; loving too much, or not enough; guilty of parochial actions, of universal wish-fulfilments; of conscious martyrdom; of unconscious masochism. Idle hours, fingers that meddle. Alistair Charles Humphrey Greb, alias Berg, you are condemned to life imprisonment until such time you may prove yourself worthy of death.

Berg’s guilt fantasies are bound up in a sense of persecution as well as his notion that he is the real hero of this (his) world, in his belief that he is above “the rest of the country’s cosy mice in their cages of respectability”:

A parasite living on an action I alone dared committing, how can they possibly convict, or even accuse one who’s faced reality, not only in myself, but the whole world, that world which had been rejected, denounced, leaving a space they hardly dared interpreting, let alone sentence.

Although Berg takes place primarily in Our Boy Berg’s consciousness, Quin leavens the fantasy with a hearty ballast of concrete reality. Consider this icky sexual encounter between Berg and Judith, which involves hair tonic and a nosy landlady:

Berg shrank back, bringing Judith with him, she taking the opportunity of pressing closer; sticky, the tonic now drying—gum from a tree—almost making it impossible for Berg to tear himself away. He felt Judith’s warmth, her soft wet tongue in his ear, soon she became intent on biting all available flesh between hairline and collar. But the landlady’s demanding voice made her stop. Berg sank back, while Judith squirmed above him. But as soon as the landlady seemed satisfied that no one was about and closed the door, Judith began licking his fingers. He pulled sharply away, until he lay flat on the floor, his head resting against something quite soft. Judith began wiping his clothes down with a large handkerchief that distinctly smelt of wet fur and hard-boiled sweets. He tried getting up, but she leaned over him, and in the half light he saw her lips curl almost—yes almost—he could swear in a sneer, a positive leer, or was he mistaken and it was only the lustful gaze of a frustrated woman? He jerked sideways. Judith fell right across the body.

Ah, yes — “the body” — well, does Berg carry out his patricide? Of course, in his imagination, a million times—but does his mental-play map onto reality? Do you need to know? Read the book.

Read the book. There’s nothing I can do in this review that approaches the feeling of reading Ann Quin’s Berg. I can make lame comparisons, saying that it reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses (in its evocations of loose consciousness), or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (in its oedipal voyeuristic griminess), or Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (for its surreal humor and dense claustrophobia). Or I can point out how ahead of her time Quin was, how Berg bridges modernism to postmodernism while simply not giving a fuck about silly terms like modernism and postmodernism. Or I can smuggle in big chunks of Quin’s prose, as I’ve sought to do, and which I’ll do again, like, here, in this big passage wherein our hero dreams:

Two white-foaming horses with female heads and hooves of fire, with strands of golden mane—honey cones—bore him across a silken screen of sky, over many islands that floated away, and became clouds, a landscape of snow stretching below, and above a canopy of gold. But a harsh voice needled him, pin-pricked his heart, and three drops of blood poured out, extended across the canopy. From this whirlpool a shape formed, then a massive head appeared, without eyes. He turned to the horses, but they were now toads, squat and squeaking, leaping into the hissing pool. The face grew, the mouth opened, swallowing everything, nearer and nearer, until he felt himself being sucked in, down, down and yet farther down, into quicksands of fire and blood, only the dark mass left, as though the very centre of the earth had been reached. The sun exploded between his eyes. He stood up, practically hurling the rug over his shoulder, and jogged towards the station.

Or I can repeat: Read the book.

Of course Berg is Not for Everyone. Its savage humor might get lost on a first read, which might make the intense pain that underwrites the novel difficult to bear. Its ambiguities necessitate that readers launch themselves into a place of radical unknowing—the same space Berg himself enters when he comes to a seaside town, intending to kill his father.

But I loved reading Berg; I loved its sticky, grimy sentences, its wriggly worms of consciousness. I wanted more, and I sought it out, picking up The Unmapped Country, a collection of unpublished Quin stuff edited by Jennifer Hodgson and published by And Other Stories, the indie press that reissued BergHodgson is also a guest on the Blacklisted Podcast episode that focuses on Berg. That episode offers a rallying ringing endorsement, if you need voices besides mine. The Blacklisted episode also features a reading of most of novelist Lee Rourke’s 2010 appreciation for Ann Quin’s Berg. (Rourke had championed online as early as 2007.) Rourke should be commended for being ahead of the curve on resurfacing a writer who feels wholly vital in our own time. He concludes his 2010 piece, “Berg should be read by everyone, if only to give us a glimpse of what the contemporary British novel could be like.” Read the book. 

Quin wrote three other novels before walking into the sea in 1973 and never coming back. Those novels are Three (1966), Passages (1969), and Tripticks (1972). I really hope that And Other Stories will reissue these in the near future. Until then: Read the book. 

 

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no/Yes.

no thats no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage thats what you get for not keeping them in their proper place pulling off his shoes and trousers there on the chair before me so barefaced without even asking permission and standing out that vulgar way in the half of a shirt they wear to be admired like a priest or a butcher or those old hypocrites in the time of Julius Caesar of course hes right enough in his way to pass the time as a joke sure you might as well be in bed with what with a lion God Im sure hed have something better to say for himself an old Lion would O well I suppose its because they were so plump and tempting in my short petticoat he couldnt resist they excite myself sometimes its well for men all the amount of pleasure they get off a womans body were so round and white for them always I wished I was one myself for a change just to try with that thing they have swelling up on you so hard and at the same time so soft when you touch it my uncle John has a thing long I heard those cornerboys saying passing the comer of Marrowbone lane my aunt Mary has a thing hairy because it was dark and they knew a girl was passing it didnt make me blush why should it either its only nature and he puts his thing long into my aunt Marys hairy etcetera and turns out to be you put the handle in a sweepingbrush men again all over they can pick and choose what they please a married woman or a fast widow or a girl for their different tastes like those houses round behind Irish street no but were to be always chained up theyre not going to be chaining me up no damn fear once I start I tell you for their stupid husbands jealousy why cant we all remain friends over it instead of quarrelling her husband found it out what they did together well naturally and if he did can he undo it hes coronado anyway whatever he does and then he going to the other mad extreme about the wife in Fair Tyrants of course the man never even casts a 2nd thought on the husband or wife either its the woman he wants and he gets her what else were we given all those desires for Id like to know I cant help it if Im young still can I its a wonder Im not an old shrivelled hag before my time living with him so cold never embracing me except sometimes when hes asleep the wrong end of me not knowing I suppose who he has any man thatd kiss a womans bottom Id throw my hat at him after that hed kiss anything unnatural where we havent 1 atom of any kind of expression in us all of us the same 2 lumps of lard before ever Id do that to a man pfooh the dirty brutes the mere thought is enough I kiss the feet of you senorita theres some sense in that didnt he kiss our halldoor yes he did what a madman nobody understands his cracked ideas but me still of course a woman wants to be embraced 20 times a day almost to make her look young no matter by who so long as to be in love or loved by somebody if the fellow you want isnt there sometimes by the Lord God I was thinking would I go around by the quays there some dark evening where nobodyd know me and pick up a sailor off the sea thatd be hot on for it and not care a pin whose I was only do it off up in a gate somewhere or one of those wildlooking gipsies in Rathfarnham had their camp pitched near the Bloomfield laundry to try and steal our things if they could I only sent mine there a few times for the name model laundry sending me back over and over some old ones odd stockings that blackguardlooking fellow with the fine eyes peeling a switch attack me in the dark and ride me up against the wall without a word or a murderer anybody what they do themselves the fine gentlemen in their silk hats that K C lives up somewhere this way coming out of Hardwicke lane the night he gave us the fish supper on account of winning over the boxing match of course it was for me he gave it I knew him by his gaiters and the walk and when I turned round a minute after just to see there was a woman after coming out of it too some filthy prostitute then he goes home to his wife after that only I suppose the half of those sailors are rotten again with disease O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldnt be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more I wonder why he wouldnt stay the night I felt all the time it was somebody strange he brought in instead of roving around the city meeting God knows who nightwalkers and pickpockets his poor mother wouldnt like that if she was alive ruining himself for life perhaps still its a lovely hour so silent I used to love coming home after dances the air of the night they have friends they can talk to weve none either he wants what he wont get or its some woman ready to stick her knife in you I hate that in women no wonder they treat us the way they do we are a dreadful lot of bitches I suppose its all the troubles we have makes us so snappy Im not like that he could easy have slept in there on the sofa in the other room I suppose he was as shy as a boy he being so young hardly 20 of me in the next room hed have heard me on the chamber arrah what harm Dedalus I wonder its like those names in Gibraltar Delapaz Delagracia they had the devils queer names there father Vilaplana of Santa Maria that gave me the rosary Rosales y OReilly in the Calle las Siete Revueltas and Pisimbo and Mrs Opisso in Governor street O what a name Id go and drown myself in the first river if I had a name like her O my and all the bits of streets Paradise ramp and Bedlam ramp and Rodgers ramp and Crutchetts ramp and the devils gap steps well small blame to me if I am a harumscarum I know I am a bit I declare to God I dont feel a day older than then I wonder could I get my tongue round any of the Spanish como esta usted muy bien gracias y usted see I havent forgotten it all I thought I had only for the grammar a noun is the name of any person place or thing pity I never tried to read that novel cantankerous Mrs Rubio lent me by Valera with the questions in it all upside down the two ways I always knew wed go away in the end I can tell him the Spanish and he tell me the Italian then hell see Im not so ignorant what a pity he didnt stay Im sure the poor fellow was dead tired and wanted a good sleep badly I could have brought him in his breakfast in bed with a bit of toast so long as I didnt do it on the knife for bad luck or if the woman was going her rounds with the watercress and something nice and tasty there are a few olives in the kitchen he might like I never could bear the look of them in Abrines I could do the criada the room looks all right since I changed it the other way you see something was telling me all the time Id have to introduce myself not knowing me from Adam very funny wouldnt it Im his wife or pretend we were in Spain with him half awake without a Gods notion where he is dos huevos estrellados senor Lord the cracked things come into my head sometimes itd be great fun supposing he stayed with us why not theres the room upstairs empty and Millys bed in the back room he could do his writing and studies at the table in there for all the scribbling he does at it and if he wants to read in bed in the morning like me as hes making the breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2 Im sure Im not going to take in lodgers off the street for him if he takes a gesabo of a house like this Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent welleducated person Id have to get a nice pair of red slippers like those Turks with the fez used to sell or yellow and a nice semitransparent morning gown that I badly want or a peachblossom dressing jacket like the one long ago in Walpoles only 8/6 or 18/6 Ill just give him one more chance Ill get up early in the morning Im sick of Cohens old bed in any case I might go over to the markets to see all the vegetables and cabbages and tomatoes and carrots and all kinds of splendid fruits all coming in lovely and fresh who knows whod be the 1st man Id meet theyre out looking for it in the morning Mamy Dillon used to say they are and the night too that was her massgoing Id love a big juicy pear now to melt in your mouth like when I used to be in the longing way then Ill throw him up his eggs and tea in the moustachecup she gave him to make his mouth bigger I suppose hed like my nice cream too I know what Ill do Ill go about rather gay not too much singing a bit now and then mi fa pieta Masetto then Ill start dressing myself to go out presto non son piu forte Ill put on my best shift and drawers let him have a good eyeful out of that to make his micky stand for him Ill let him know if thats what he wanted that his wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too up to my neck nearly not by him 5 or 6 times handrunning theres the mark of his spunk on the clean sheet I wouldnt bother to even iron it out that ought to satisfy him if you dont believe me feel my belly unless I made him stand there and put him into me Ive a mind to tell him every scrap and make him do it out in front of me serve him right its all his own fault if I am an adulteress as the thing in the gallery said O much about it if thats all the harm ever we did in this vale of tears God knows its not much doesnt everybody only they hide it I suppose thats what a woman is supposed to be there for or He wouldnt have made us the way He did so attractive to men then if he wants to kiss my bottom Ill drag open my drawers and bulge it right out in his face as large as life he can stick his tongue 7 miles up my hole as hes there my brown part then Ill tell him I want £ 1 or perhaps 30/- Ill tell him I want to buy underclothes then if he gives me that well he wont be too bad I dont want to soak it all out of him like other women do I could often have written out a fine cheque for myself and write his name on it for a couple of pounds a few times he forgot to lock it up besides he wont spend it Ill let him do it off on me behind provided he doesnt smear all my good drawers O I suppose that cant be helped Ill do the indifferent 1 or 2 questions Ill know by the answers when hes like that he cant keep a thing back I know every turn in him Ill tighten my bottom well and let out a few smutty words smellrump or lick my shit or the first mad thing comes into my head then Ill suggest about yes O wait now sonny my turn is coming Ill be quite gay and friendly over it O but I was forgetting this bloody pest of a thing pfooh you wouldnt know which to laugh or cry were such a mixture of plum and apple no Ill have to wear the old things so much the better itll be more pointed hell never know whether he did it or not there thats good enough for you any old thing at all then Ill wipe him off me just like a business his omission then Ill go out Ill have him eying up at the ceiling where is she gone now make him want me thats the only way a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarmclock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so as I can get up early Ill go to Lambes there beside Findlaters and get them to send us some flowers to put about the place in case he brings him home tomorrow today I mean no no Fridays an unlucky day first I want to do the place up someway the dust grows in it I think while Im asleep then we can have music and cigarettes I can accompany him first I must clean the keys of the piano with milk whatll I wear shall I wear a white rose or those fairy cakes in Liptons I love the smell of a rich big shop at 7 1/2d a lb or the other ones with the cherries in them and the pinky sugar 11d a couple of lbs of those a nice plant for the middle of the table Id get that cheaper in wait wheres this I saw them not long ago I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The final paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

Ulysses (Wandering Rocks) — Roman Muradov

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Ulysses, 2013 by Roman Muradov

 

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?

Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents, gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, Artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe), numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90 % of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.

From James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

The Alchemist — Paulina Olowska

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The Alchemist, 2015 by Paulina Olowska (b. 1976)

Errors on Walt Whitman (Jorge Luis Borges)

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William Burroughs’ Nova Express (Book acquired sometime last week)

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So I couldn’t pass up this first edition hardback Grove Press edition of William Burroughs’ 1964 novel Nova Express (with cover design by Grove Press stalwart Roy Kuhlman) that I found a few hot days ago, wandering decomposing stacks of pressed leaves here in North Florida. It ate up half of my credit at this particular used bookstore and yet was still cheaper than a new hardback NYT bestseller. Haven’t read the damn thing sense college, and don’t own a copy so. Here’s the back cover with an author photo of Burroughs in which he looks like a goddamn baby (how did he live so long?):

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“[T]he greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”! I’m sure Jack Kerouac wouldn’t like hyperbolize even a smidge. What was Burroughs satirizing? Like modernism, modern machine life, etc. Control, as in all Burroughs.

Biologic Agent K9 called for his check and picked up supersonic imitation blasts of The Death Dwarfs — “L’addition — Laddition — Laddittion — Garcon — Garcon — Garcon” — American tourist accent to the Nth power — He ordered another coffee and monitored the café — A whole table of them imitating word forms and spitting back at supersonic speed — Several patrons rolled on the floor in switch fits — These noxious dwarfs can spit out a whole newspaper in ten seconds imitating your words after you and sliding in suggestion insults — That is the entry gimmick of The Death Dwarfs: supersonic imitation and playback so you think it is your own voice — (do you own a voice?) they invade The Right Centers which are The Speech Centers and they are in the right — in the right — in thee write — “RIGHT” — “I’m in the right — in the right — You know I’m in the right so long as you hear me say inside your right centers ‘I am in the right’” — While Sex Dwarfs tenderize erogenous holes — So The Venusian Gook Rot flashed round the world —

Read the rest of the death dwarf routine.

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints (From Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts)

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine … I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground.

Deep cadmium, geranium lake, imperial purple, parchment … after the last of our children had found employment and had moved out of our home, my wife and I were able to buy for ourselves things that had previously been beyond our means. I bought my first such luxury, as I called it, in a shop selling artists’ supplies. I bought there a complete set of coloured pencils made by a famous maker of pencils in England: a hundred and twenty pencils, each stamped with gold lettering along its side and having at its end a perfectly tapered wick. The collection of pencils is behind me as I write these words. It rests near the jars of glass marbles and the kaleidoscope mentioned earlier. None of the pencils has ever been used in the way that most pencils are used, but I have sometimes used the many-striped collection in order to confirm my suspicion as a child that each of what I called my long-lost moods might be recollected and, perhaps, preserved if only I could look again at the precise shade or hue that had become connected with the mood – that had absorbed, as it were, or had been permeated with, one or more of the indefinable qualities that constitute what is called a mood or a state of feeling. During the weeks since I first wrote in the earlier pages of this report about the windows in the church of white stone, I have spent every day an increasing amount of time in moving my pencils to and fro among the hollow spaces allotted to them in their container. I seem to recall that I tried sometimes, many years ago, to move my glass marbles from place to place on the carpet near my desk with the vague hope that some or another chance arrangement of them would restore to me some previously irretrievable mood. The marbles, however, were too variously coloured, and each differed too markedly from the other. Their colours seemed to vie, to compete. Or, a single marble might suggest more than I was in search of: a whole afternoon in my childhood or a row of trees in a backyard when I had wanted back only a certain few moments when my face was brushed by a certain few leaves. Among the pencils are many differing only subtly from their neighbours. Six at least I might have called simply red if I had not learned long ago their true names. With these six, and with still others from each side of them, I often arrange one after another of many possible sequences, hoping to see in the conjectured space between some or another unlikely pair a certain tint that I have wanted for long to see.

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

I failed as a reader of fiction (From Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts)

Whenever I tried long ago to learn from books about the workings of minds, I was equally troubled whether I read fiction or non-fiction. In the same way that I struggled and failed to follow plots and to comprehend the motives of characters, so did I struggle to follow arguments and to understand concepts. I failed as a reader of fiction because I was constantly engaged not with the seeming subject-matter of the text but with the doings of personages who appeared to me while I tried to read and with the scenery that appeared around them. My image-world was often only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes; anyone privy to my seeming-sights might have supposed I was reading some barely recognisable variant of the text, a sort of apocrypha of the published work. As a reader of texts intended to explain the mind, I failed because the words and phrases in front of my eyes gave rise only to the poorest sort of image. Reading about our minds or the mind, and about purported instincts or aptitudes or faculties, not to mention such phantasms as ego, id, and archetype, I supposed the endless-seeming landscapes of my own thoughts and feelings must have been a paradise by comparison with the drab sites where others located their selves or their personalities or whatever they called their mental territories. And so, I decided long ago to take no further interest in the theoretical and to study instead the actual, which was for me the seeming-scenery behind everything I did or thought or read.

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

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Book Party — Jansson Stegner

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Book Party, 2016 by Jansson Stegner (b. 1972)

I guess it’s over (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

Mucho blinked sympathetically, a little sadly. “I guess it’s over. We’re on into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, then it’ll be the Reagan Years—”

“Ol’ Raygun? No way he’ll ever make president.”

“Just please go careful, Zoyd. ’Cause soon they’re gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that. And they will.”

“Fat Police?”

“Perfume Police. Tube Police. Music Police. Good Healthy Shit Police. Best to renounce everything now, get a head start.”

“Well I still wish it was back then, when you were the Count. Remember how the acid was? Remember that windowpane, down in Laguna that time? God, I knew then, I knew. . . .”

They had a look. “Uh-huh, me too. That you were never going to die. Ha! No wonder the State panicked. How are they supposed to control a population that knows it’ll never die? When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one, so of course they had to take it away from us.”

“Yeah, but they can’t take what happened, what we found out.”

“Easy. They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming—just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.” It was the way people used to talk.

“I’m not gonna forget,” Zoyd vowed, “fuck ’em. While we had it, we really had some fun.”

“And they never forgave us.” Mucho went to the stereo and put on The Best of Sam Cooke, volumes 1 and 2, and then they sat together and listened, both of them this time, to the sermon, one they knew and felt their hearts comforted by, though outside spread the lampless wastes, the unseen paybacks, the heartless power of the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into.

An elegiac passage from Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland.

The spilled, the broken world (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

So the bad Ninjamobile swept along on the great Ventura, among Olympic visitors from everywhere who teemed all over the freeway system in midday densities till far into the night, shined-up, screaming black motorcades that could have carried any of several office seekers, cruisers heading for treed and more gently roaring boulevards, huge double and triple trailer rigs that loved to find Volkswagens laboring up grades and go sashaying around them gracefully and at gnat’s-ass tolerances, plus flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, movies at malls letting out, bright gas-station oases in pure fluorescent spill, canopied beneath the palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant fireworks, the spilled, the broken world.

A description of the postmodern Preterite world from Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland. 

Pynchon in Public Post, 2019

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Today is the 82nd birthday of the American author Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, which a lot of jokers on the internet have turned into Pynchon in Public Day.

The spirit of Pynchon in Public Day is zany fun, and mostly centers around reading Pynchon’s works in public and spreading the muted post horn symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 around as much as possible. I am the last person in the world who will read a book in a coffee shop, but I did don my second 49 shirt today—-

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—and head to the bookstore to pick up the only Pynchon novel I don’t own, Bleeding Edge. More on that in second, but—no real recognition on the shirt today, although I’ve gotten some reactions to the other muted post horn shirt I own over the years, mostly from booksellers (not that interesting I know).

A few years ago though, wandering around downtown Los Angeles (wearing a muted post horn shirt), a stranger passing opposite me on the sidewalk hailed me with this question: “Are you the Trystero, guy?” At least that’s what I thought I said. I looked confused, asked, “What?” and he repeated — “Are you the Trystero guy?”

This particular moment struck me with a neat silly wave of minor paranoia, a Pynchonian moment, maybe—was this some kind of call sign for me to repeat, a password in a game of good fun? So I did the only thing that seemed sensible and replied, “Yes, I am the Trystero.”

The guy then proceeded to tell me that he loved my coffee. This confused me, so I told him that loved his coffee. Then he looked confused. After a few minutes on the hot July L.A. sidewalk we finally figured out a few things: He was referring to Trystero Coffee, which he showed me all about on his iPhone, and I was referring to The Crying of Lot 49, which he promised to read at the end of our exchange.

So anyway I went to the bookstore and picked up Bleeding Edge (and a few other books too, I admit). Along with Vineland, it’s the only Pynchon novel I haven’t read (despite two attempts on each). I’ll read Bleeding Edge before May 8th, 2020 though.

I started a retry of Vineland though. I had hoped to get past the farthest I remember going in—like the first 90 pages—before this post—-but I only made it through the first five chapters these past two days (through page 67). Still, I’d forgotten all about Ch. 5, the “Kahuna Airlines” chapter, which steers the book into new territory, and even though it still hasn’t hooked me yet (unlike the other Pynchons at this point), I’m starting to appreciate it for what I guess it is: Pynchon’s analysis of the eighties, of the absorption of the counterculture into culture, of nostalgia. The jokes are often hilarious and terrible, sometimes simultaneously. Pynchon sets up a Loony Tunes diner bit to deliver the execrable punchline, “Check’s in the mayo” for example. Pynchon names a lawn care company “The Marquis de Sod.” There’s a moment where protagonist Zoyd Wheeler pays for a ludicrous psychedelic party dress with “a check both he and the saleslady shared a premonition would end up taped to this very cash register after failing to clear,” a wonderful little throwaway line that shows Zoyd’s brokeassedness and empathy (and also highlights the Lebowski-Pynchon overlap, if you like). The line that’s cracked me up each time I’ve read it though is Zoyd’s daughter Prairie’s punker boyfriend being described as “the NBA-sized violence enthusiast who might or might not be fucking his daughter.” It’s just so dumb and poetic. I had also missed a few things — the night manager of Bodhi Dharma Pizza is named “Baba Havabananda,” a reference I’m thinking to Gravity’s Rainbow (“Have a banana”). There’s also a reference to the Vulcan hand salute, which shows up improbably in Pynchon’s next novel, Mason & Dixon (more on that here). And there’s the whole Bigfoot motif too, which Pynchon would echo in Inherent Vice, with Zoyd and Zuniga prefigurations of Doc Sportello and Bigfoot Bjornsen. And like every Pynchon novel, I’m sure I’ve already missed a ton of stuff.

Anyway, more on Vineland to come. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Pynchon–why not check him out?

Thomas Pynchon’s recipe for what is arguably the first British Pizza | A passage from Mason & Dixon

“Lud wishes to know,” Whike relays at last, “Mr. Emerson’s Cousin’s Views, upon the Structure of the World.”
“A Spheroid, the last I heard of it, Sir.”
“Ahr Ahr ahr, ’ahr ahhrr!”
“ ’And I say, ’tis Flat,’” the Jesuit smoothly translates. “Why of course, Sir, flat as you like, flat as a Funnel-Cake, flat as a Pizza, for all that,— ”
“Apologies, Sir,—” Whike all Unctuosity, “the foreign Word again, was . . . ?”
“The apology is mine,— Pizza being a Delicacy of Cheese, Bread, and Fish ubiquitous in the region ’round Mount Vesuvius. . . . In my Distraction, I have reach’d for the Word as the over-wrought Child for its Doll.”
“You are from Italy, then, sir?” inquires Ma.
“In my Youth I pass’d some profitable months there, Madam.”
“Do you recall by chance how it is they cook this ‘Pizza’? My Lads and Lasses grow weary of the same Daily Gruel and Haggis, so a Mother is ever upon the Lurk for any new Receipt.”
“Why, of course. If there be a risen Loaf about . . . ?”
Mrs. Brain reaches ’neath the Bar and comes up with a Brown Batch-Loaf, rising since Morning, which she presents to “Cousin Ambrose,” who begins to punch it out flat upon the Counter-Top. Lud, fascinated, offers to assault the Dough himself, quickly slapping it into a very thin Disk of remarkable Circularity.
“Excellent, Sir,” Maire beams, “I don’t suppose anyone has a Tomato?”
“A what?”
“Saw one at Darlington Fair, once,” nods Mr.”“Brain.
“No good, in that case,— eaten by now.”
“The one I saw, they might not have wanted to eat . . . ?”
Dixon, rummaging in his Surveyor’s Kit, has come up with the Bottle of Ketjap, that he now takes with him ev’rywhere. “This do?”
“That was a Torpedo, Husband.”
“That Elecktrickal Fish? Oh . . . then this thing he’s making isn’t elecktrical?”
“Tho’ there ought to be Fish, such as those styl’d by the Neopolitans, Cicinielli. . . .”
“Will Anchovy do?” Mrs. Brain indicates a Cask of West Channel ’Chovies from Devon, pickl’d in Brine.
“Capital. And Cheese?”
“That would be what’s left of the Stilton, from the Ploughman’s Lunch.”
“Very promising indeed,” Maire wringing his Hands to conceal their trembling. “Well then, let us just . . .”
By the Time what is arguably the first British Pizza is ready to come out of the Baking-Oven beside the Hearth, the Road outside has gone quiet and the Moorland dark, several Rounds have come and pass’d, and Lud is beginning to show signs of Apprehension. “At least ’tis cloudy tonight, no Moonlight’ll be getting thro’,” his Mother whispers to Mr. Emerson.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Boy with Book — Quint Buchholz 

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Boy with Book, 2013 by Quint Buchholz (b. 1957)

Blog about acquiring some books (Books acquired, 3 May 2019)

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Yesterday marked both my wedding anniversary and the end of my spring semester, so I celebrated by spending a spare hour browsing my beloved used bookshop. I had dropped by last week to drop off a box of trade books—mostly old instructor editions of textbooks no longer in use—but I didn’t pick anything up. I did, however, snap a few photographs of the covers of the old 1980s Latin American authors series that Avon Bard put out. I love these covers, and have bought a few over the years.

I ended up picking up two yesterday: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s In Evil Hour and Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro. The cover for Dom Casmurro is pretty bad, actually, but I want to read it.

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Near the Machado de Assis, I found a used copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, which I couldn’t resist. I also found a Grove edition of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote, which I haven’t read since college.

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I also got a book in the mail. I loved Ann Quin’s novel Berg so much that I had to get more Quin, so I ordered The Unmapped Country from publisher And Other Stories. Very excited for this one.

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Problem with you Markson you’ve got no God damned fellow feeling in bosom (William Gaddis)

Problem with you Markson you’ve got no God damned fellow feeling in bosom, put yourself in the poor bastard’s place: like if your wife wrote a novel and the best agent in town declined to handle it, would you go around giving a free ride to the agent’s clients? I mean why the hell do you think some poor bastard wants to be a book calumnist in the first place.

–A 1975 letter from William Gaddis to David Markson. Collected in Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Moore provides this context for Gaddis’s satirical letter:

When Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s negative review of J R appeared in the daily New York Times on 30 October, Markson sent a postcard the same day to WG reading: “Dear Bill—Fuck Christopher Lehmann-Haupt!” (Lehmann-Haupt had also written a negative review of Markson’s Going Down five years earlier.) Gaddis’s reply, undated and without salutation, plays on a joke in J R whereby a foreigner takes literally a dictionary definition of “sympathy” (488–89)…