So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter’s night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino

An excerpt from If on a winter’s night a traveler

by

Italo Calvino

Translated by William Weaver


So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter’s night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn’t published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books by Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).

All this simply means that, having rapidly glanced over the titles of the volumes displayed in the bookshop, you have turned toward a stack of If on a winter’s night a traveler fresh off the press, you have grasped a copy, and you have carried it to the cashier so that your right to own it can be established.

You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.

You derive a special pleasure from a just-published book, and it isn’t only a book you are taking with you but its novelty as well, which could also be merely that of an object fresh from the factory, the youthful bloom of new books, which lasts until the dust jacket begins to yellow, until a veil of smog settles on the top edge, until the binding becomes dog-eared, in the rapid autumn of libraries. No, you hope always to encounter true newness, which, having been new once, will continue to be so. Having read the freshly published book, you will take possession of this newness at the first moment, without having to pursue it, to chase it. Will it happen this time? You never can tell. Let’s see how it begins.

Spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen | Notes on some Thomas Pynchon letters I have not read

I’m sure this is old news to long-time Pynchon fanatics, but I came across two articles earlier this week while searching archives for something else (which I did not find). Both articles were composed by the late theater critic Mel Gussow. The first article, “Pynchon’s Letters Nudge His Mask,” published 4 March 1998, details the then-recent Morgan Library’s acquisition of Pynchon’s correspondence to his former agent Candida Donadio. The collection apparently acquired more than 100 letters, composed from 1963 to 1982. Pynchon fired Donadio in early 1982:

Most of the letters are signed ”later, Tom,” one, ”love, Tom.” Then suddenly on Jan. 5, 1982, he writes, ”As of this date, you are no longer authorized to represent me or my work,” and signs the letter ”Cordially, Thomas Pynchon.” In a follow-up letter, he asks Ms. Donadio’s assistant to send him everything else of his that she still has. He does not mention the letters.

Donadio sold the letters to arts patron Carter Burden for $45,000 in 1984; a few years after his death, his family bequeathed the collection to the Morgan.

Mel Gussow appears to have had complete access to the letters. The first article includes a number of interesting observations. “He typed the letters single space on graph paper, until his Olivetti broke; then he switched to printing in longhand,” Gussow writes. The graph paper detail gels with some of the pics of letters from UT’s Harry Ransom archive. 

According to Gussow’s reading of the letters, Pynchon “moved from Mexico to California, from Texas to London, trying to preserve his anonymity and privacy.” Pynchon is of course well-aware of his reclusive reputation:

When he hears that the humorist H. Allen Smith has written an article for Playboy claiming to be both J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, he says, ”What no one knows is that Smith is actually Pierre Salinger, and I am H. Allen Smith.”

Pynchon writes of his hatred for Time magazine magnate Henry Luce and his admiration for James Agee’s A Death in the Family. He’s sickened by a 1964 profile by Dick Schaap published in The New York Herald Tribune, claiming it makes him feel “homicidal” — again though, these are private letters. (I have had no success tracking down Schaap’s article; I’m assuming that this Schaap is the same one who made his bones as a New York sportswriter.)

Gussow’s article notes Pynchon’s early self-assurance of his literary abilities:

In April 1964, Mr. Pynchon tells Ms. Donadio he is facing a creative crisis, with four novels in process. With a sudden bravado, he says, ”If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium.”

How many of those novels came to fruition? It’s hard to guess, I guess. It’s clear that Pynchon’s ideas might gestate for decades:

In a handwritten letter in January 1975, Mr. Pynchon mentions for the first time another work in progress, Mason & Dixon, 22 years before it was published.

Other points:

Pynchon refers to his second novel The Crying of Lot 49 as “a short story, but with gland trouble.” At one point, he hopes to sell both 49 and his first novel V. to Hollywood. We know Pynchon’s love for film, but Gussow underlines it:

He reveals himself as an avid moviegoer, offering capsule reviews. When the possibility of writing film criticism for Esquire arises, he says he would love to do it and explains: ”I can be crisp, succinct, iconoclastic, noncoterie, nonprogrammatic . . . also curmudgeonly, insulting, bigoted, psychotic and nitpicking. A boy scout’s decade of virtues.”

I’d love to see some of those capsule reviews.

I’d also love to see some of Pynchon’s responses to his peers’ work (if you can call the peers). Donadio sends Pynchon novels, and Gussow notes that, “He is generous in his responses, applauding John Cheever, John Hawkes, Bruce Jay Friedman and lesser-known writers.”

Gussow’s first article concludes with the alarm of Pynchon’s then-lawyer, Jeremy Nussbaum:

”It’s a rather startling event,” said Mr. Nussbaum. ”I’ve never heard of an agent selling letters of a client, except after the death of the client. They were entrusted to her in a relationship of confidence, and they were sold against his wishes.”

Nussbaum’s alarm (which is of course Pynchon’s alarm) bears fruit; a few weeks later (21 March 1998), Mel Gussow reports that “The Morgan Curtails Access to a Trove of Pynchon Letters.” The gist of the whole deal is that Pynchon’s letters to Donadio won’t be available until after his death, and even then with limited access.

Forgive me for indulging in this nonsense. Pynchon’s true contemporary William Gaddis put it best: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology?”

Pynchon prefigured the dregs sentiment by almost a decade, in a more self-deprecating mode. Gassow notes that Pynchon writes to his then-agent in ’78 about a suggestion he write his autobiography:

As for spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen, for some strange reason.

It’s all in the novels then.

Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Book acquired, 25 May 2021)

My friend texted me yesterday to tell me that Dawnie Walton was on the NPR program Fresh Air. Walton was two years ahead of us in high school, and although I missed the interview, I was psyched when I read the description of her new novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. I picked up a copy today and read the first fifty pages.

Walton’s debut novel takes the form of an oral history of the titular fictional interracial 1970s psych duo. The controlling voice is the editor of the oral history, “S. Sunny Shelton” (a pseudonym). She’s the daughter of the duo’s deceased drummer—murdered by a “racist gang”—who was also carrying on an affair with Opal (these facts are laid out in the novel’s opening paragraph, so this isn’t a spoiler–I’m guessing that the climax of the novel (or conclusion?) gets to the murder).

I’m digging The Final Revival of Opal & Nev so far. It has a buzzy, propulsive style—genial and largehearted, even as its episodes deliver a chilling shorthand pop history of the Civil Rights Movement. The non-narrator S. Sunny Shelton is the most intriguing aspect here—what is she emphasizing or omitting in her assemblage of “facts”? (I’m reminded of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine just a bit.)

Here’s publisher Simon & Schuster’s blurb:

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

A lurid paperback copy of Harry Crews’s lurid novel A Feast of Snakes (Lurid book acquired, 14 May 2021)

I love to browse my local used bookstore of a Friday afternoon. This afternoon I came across a copy of my favorite Harry Crews novel, A Feast of Snakes. It’s a 1978 massmarket edition from Ballantine. The lurid cover captures the novel’s lurid spirit. It wraps around; here’s the back (I’d scan the whole thing flat but I don’t think the book’s spine would survive):

The art seems to be signed with the (last I’m guessing?) name “Gentile.” If anyone can confirm I’d appreciate it.

I shared the cover on Twitter, where one user pointed out that the publishers seemed to be “pre-emptively casting the film,” with Ed Asner in a supporting role. I’m guessing they would’ve wanted Burt Reynolds for Joe Lon.

The cover captures the sweaty abjection of A Feast of Snakes—it’s a nasty, gnarly novel that pushes the so-called “Southern Grotesque” style into new, gross, territory. If you haven’t read Crews, it’s a perfect starting point (although I’m sure that the novel is like, problematic or whatever in many, many ways). I love the cover, as I’ve said–it fits the novel wonderfully, unlike the more “respectable” cover for my 1998 edition (which I’ll be trading in now):

 

From the novel: not quite a recipe for snakes:

When they got to his purple double-wide, Joe Lon skinned snakes in a frenzy. He picked up the snakes by the tails as he dipped them out of the metal drums and swung them around and around his head and then popped them like a cowwhip, which caused their heads to explode. Then he nailed them up on a board in the pen and skinned them out with a pair of wire pliers. Elfie was standing in the door of the trailer behind them with a baby on her hip. Full of beer and fascinated with what Joe Lon could feel—or thought he could—the weight of her gaze on his back while he popped and skinned the snakes. He finally turned and looked at her, pulling his lips back from his teeth in a smile that only shamed him.

He called across the yard to her. “Thought we’d cook up some snake and stuff, darlin, have ourselves a feast.”

Her face brightened in the door and she said: “Course we can, Joe Lon, honey.”

Elfie brought him a pan and Joe Lon cut the snakes into half-inch steaks. Duffy turned to Elfie and said: “My name is Duffy Deeter and this is something fine. Want to tell me how you cook up snakes?”

Elfie smiled, trying not to show her teeth. “It’s lots of ways. Way I do mostly is I soak’m in vinegar about ten minutes, drain’m off good, and sprinkle me a little Looseanner redhot on’m, roll’m in flour, and fry’m is the way I mostly do.”

American Short Stories Since 1945 (Book published in 1968 and acquired, 30 April 2021)

I was perusing the anthologies, looking for a book called Anti-Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction (1971). I didn’t find it, but the spine of American Short Stories Since 1945 interested me enough to pull it out, and the wonderful cover (by Emanuel Schongut) intrigued me more. The tracklist on the back cover is what got to me:

I’ve read seven of the stories and fourteen of the twenty-six authors here. You probably have too. But there are close to a dozen authors here I’ll admit I’ve never even heard of—authors rectangle-pressed in with favorites of mine like Barthelme, Gass, Jackson, and Pynchon, whose piece “Under the Rose”is part of V., which I recently re-read. (I opened the “Acknowledgements” page to see that “Under the Rose” was first published in Noble Savage 3, May 1961—I checked the “N” anthologies and found Noble Savage #2, but no three for me.)

Edited and introduced by the poet John Hollander, Since 1945 “aims to show the major shapes taken by shorter fiction in America since the end of World War II.” Published in 1968, it’s heavy on the white guys, but I think there’s an attempt here to point toward not just “major shapes,” but new shapes.

I couldn’t not pick it up (I’d brought in some paperbacks to trade, anyway). Maybe I’ll try to read it this summer, posting on each piece. I’m most interested in how the selection of authors shows a tipping over in to postmodernism, a postmodernism many of these guys never signed up for.

 

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. 

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in the summer of 2019.]

There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough | A short riff on (a short riff from) Thomas Pynchon’s first novel V.

 

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McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns” are two minor characters in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. I will get back to them in a second.

But—

A novel crammed with minor characters (hundreds of them, I’d guess) V. pulsates with intersections, drive-bys, concordances and discordance. Characters crisscross and quick-change in ways that both parody and honor the authorial sleight-of-hand in play in V.

Pynchon repeatedly challenges his readers’ credulity–while its intersections are never as neat and tidy as its titular vee angle might suggest, V. is still a confusion of happenstance that both confounds and sanctifies coincidence, even as it ironizes those winds of fate.

The mode is necessarily postmodern. Pynchon repeatedly evokes Modernist poets by name—Pound and Eliot, especially—but it’s the immediate postwar (post, war, world, two) that he’s most concerned with in V. The novel critiques Modernist critiques (through a double lens of a critique of colonialism).

The great concern here is for the divergent angle of the second half of the twentieth century. As such, much of V. is a loving parody of the Beat scene (much more loving than Gaddis’s sustained attack on art poseurs in The Recognitions). In V., Pynchon creates a non-chorus in The Whole Sick Crew, an outcast cast of losers and would-bes and pseudointellectuals.

The Whole Sick Crew lards V.’s enormous, hard-to-follow cast. Two members of the nebulous Crew are

McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns.”

And so–

There’s a marvelous moment about two-thirds of the way through V. where McClintic and Paolo, erstwhile lovers (Paolo in the guise of “Ruby” — everyone here is a quick change artist)—where McClintic and Paolo transcend the quick-changing and irony and and sensory-cloggingness of the modern condition. They drive upstate, talk straight—the plot details don’t matter here, just read:

Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.

She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool.

And then our man McClintic comes to something close to an epiphany, although epiphanies are always hedged, suspicious, constrained in Pynchon—but I think there’s something real here. Earlier in the novel, McClintic feels concern for the postwar “cool,” for the feeling that the world might flip or flop again, go from zero to binary in a weird heartbeat (that binary code theme pulsates through the rest of Pynchon’s work to date). Makes sense for machines, maybe, but people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines.

McClintic’s epiphany is a pragmatic resolution, and I take it to be Pynchon’s cautionary thesis:

…there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.

The epiphany is bitter, and Pynchon’s narrator refuses its epiphanic value (“It didn’t come as a revelation”), even as the narrative acknowledges its intrinsic power. A few lines later, McClintic addresses the Real Work to Be Done in the World:

Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”

“Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”

The highway stinks, sticks skunky to fleeing motion, gummed up in the nostalgic emblems we’d imaginatively credit to our loving forebears. The grist, grit, and horror of the big postwar world will cling to the present. Nobody’s stepping down from heaven, or Heaven and there are no magic words—but there is a kind of love, a loving with your mouth shut, a kind of radical, earnest, transcendent love that Pynchon evokes, soils, and sanctifies here.

“Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer” | George Plimpton reviews Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V.

George Plimpton’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was first published in The New York Times on April 21, 1963 (hey! 58 years ago to the day, coincidentally) under the title “Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer.”

The NYT republished the piece on 6 Oct. 1996, under the title “The Whole Sick Crew.” It ran next to a 1969 review of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—with a big picture of Roth. No Pynchon pic, natch.

Plimpton’s review below:


“Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer”

(A review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel V.)

by

George Plimpton


Since the war a category of the American novel has been developed by a number of writers: American picaresque one might call the archetype, and its more notable practitioners would include Saul Bellow with ”The Adventures of Augie March,” Jack Kerouac, ”On the Road,” Joseph Heller, ”Catch-22,” Clancy Sigal, ”Going Away,” and Harry Matthews, who last fall produced a generally overlooked though brilliant novel entitled ”Conversions.” The genus is distinguished by what the word ”picaresque” implies — the doings of a character or characters completely removed from socio-political attachments, thus on the loose, and, above all, uncommitted.

Such novels are invariably lengthy, heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.

For the author, the form of the picaresque is convenient: he can string together the short stories he has at hand (publishers are reluctant to publish short-story collections, which would suggest the genre is perhaps a type of compensation). Moreover — the well-made, the realistic not being his concern — the author can afford to take chances, to be excessive, even prolix, knowing that in a work of great length stretches of doubtful value can be excused. The author can tell his favorite jokes, throw in a song, indulge in a fantasy or so, include his own verse, display an intimate knowledge of such disparate subjects as physics, astronomy, art, jazz, how a nose-job is done, the wildlife in the New York sewage system. These indeed are some of the topics which constitute a recent and remarkable example of the genre: a brilliant and turbulent first novel published this month by a young Cornell graduate, Thomas Pynchon. He calls his book ”V.”

” V.” has two main characters. One of them is Benny Profane — on the loose in New York City following a Navy hitch and a spell as a road-laborer. Born in 1932, Profane is Depression-formed, and his function in the novel is to perfect his state of ”schlemihlhood” — that is to say being the victim, buffeted by circumstance and not caring to do much about it — resigned to being behind the 8-ball. Indeed, in one poolroom fracas the 8-ball rolls up to Profane, prostrate on the floor, and stares him in the eye. His friends are called the Whole Sick Crew, a fine collection of disaffected about whom one observer says ”there is not one you can point to and say is well.” Typical of them is the itinerant artist Slab, who calls himself a catatonic expressionist. Beset by a curious block he can only paint cheese danishes — Cheese Danish No. 56 is his subject at one stage of the book.

Set in contrast to Profane is a young adventurer named Stencil. He is active as opposed to passive, obsessed by a self-imposed duty which he follows, somewhat joylessly — a Quest to discover the identity of V., a woman’s initial which occurs in the journals of his father, a British Foreign Office man, drowned in a waterspout off Malta. The search for V., a puzzle slowly fitted together by a series of brilliant episodic flashbacks, provides the unifying device of the novel — a framework encompassing a considerable panorama of history and character. V., turning up first as a young girl in Cairo at the start of the century, reappears under various names and guises, invariably at times of strife and riot, in Florence, Paris, Malta, South Africa. Finally one finds her disguised as a Manichaean priest, trapped under a beam in a World War II bombing raid on Malta and being literally disassembled by a crowd of children.

The identity of V., what her many guises are meant to suggest, will cause much speculation. What will be remembered, whether or not V. remains elusive, is Pynchon’s remarkable ability — which includes a vigorous and imaginative style, a robust humor, a tremendous reservoir of information (one suspects that he could churn out a passable almanac in a fortnight’s time) and, above all, a sense of how to use and balance these talents. True, in a plan as complicated and varied as a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, sections turn up which are dull — the author backing and filling, shuffling the pieces of his enormous puzzle to no effect — but these stretches are far fewer than one might expect.

Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City — a recluse. It is hard to find out anything more about him. At least there is at hand a testament — this first novel ”V.” — which suggests that no matter what his circumstances, or where he’s doing it, there is at work a young writer of staggering promise.

 

Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel (Book acquired, 30 March 2021)

Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel is forthcoming in English translation by Annie McDermott from the good folks at And Other Stories. It’s a big ole book! Here is And Other Stories’ blurb:

A writer attempts to complete the novel for which he has been awarded a big fat Guggenheim grant, though for a long time he succeeds mainly in procrastinating – getting an electrician to rewire his living room so he can reposition his computer, buying an armchair, or rather, two: ‘In one, you can’t possibly read: it’s uncomfortable and your back ends up crooked and sore. In the other, you can’t possibly relax: the hard backrest means you have to sit up straight and pay attention, which makes it ideal if you want to read.’

Insomniacs, romantics and anyone who’s ever written (or failed to write) will fall in love with this compelling masterpiece told by a true original, with all his infuriating faults, charming wit and intriguing musings.

I loved the last two And Other Stories editions I read, by the way. I highly recommend Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood (translated by Nora Whittle) — I wrote about it here.

The other AOS book was Ann Quin’s 1969 avant garde novel Passages, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever read (although Joyce’s Ulysses, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Beckett, Derrida’s Glas, and Julia Kristeva come to mind). I reread it last weekend in an attempt to outline a review, which I hope to have up soon.

News or Something — Pablo Martinez

News or Something, 2017 by Pablo Martinez

Father Fairing’s Sewer Rat Parish | Thomas Pynchon

They were entering Fairing’s Parish, named after a priest who’d lived topside years ago. During the Depression of the ’30s, in an hour of apocalyptic well-being, he had decided that the rats were going to take over after New York died. Lasting eighteen hours a day, his beat had covered the breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy souls. He foresaw nothing but a city of starved corpses, covering the sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly-up in the fountains, hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps. The city—maybe America, his horizons didn’t extend that far—would belong to the rats before the year was out. This being the case, Father Fairing thought it best for the rats to be given a head start—which meant conversion to the Roman Church. One night early in Roosevelt’s first term, he climbed downstairs through the nearest manhole, bringing a Baltimore Catechism, his breviary and, for reasons nobody found out, a copy of Knight’s Modern Seamanship. The first thing he did, according to his journals (discovered months after he died) was to put an eternal blessing and a few exorcisms on all the water flowing through the sewers between Lexington and the East River and between Eighty-sixth and Seventy-ninth Streets. This was the area which became Fairing’s Parish. These benisons made sure of an adequate supply of holy water; also eliminated the trouble of individual baptisms when he had finally converted all the rats in the parish. Too, he expected other rats to hear what was going on under the upper East Side, and come likewise to be converted. Before long he would be spiritual leader of the inheritors of the earth. He considered it small enough sacrifice on their part to provide three of their own per day for physical sustenance, in return for the spiritual nourishment he was giving them.

Accordingly, he built himself a small shelter on one bank of the sewer. His cassock for a bed, his breviary for a pillow. Each morning he’d make a small fire from driftwood collected and set out to dry the night before. Nearby was a depression in the concrete which sat beneath a downspout for rainwater. Here he drank and washed. After a breakfast of roast rat (“The livers,” he wrote, “are particularly succulent”) he set about his first task: learning to communicate with the rats. Presumably he succeeded. An entry for 23 November 1934 says:

Ignatius is proving a very difficult student indeed. He quarreled with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from the catechism: “The Church by means of indulgences remits the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.”

“And what,” inquired Ignatius, “is this superabundant satisfaction?”

Again I read: “That which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to their fellow members of the communion of saints.”

“Aha,” crowed Ignatius, “then I cannot see how this differs from Marxist communism, which you told us is Godless. To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.” I tried to explain that there were different sorts of communism: that the early Church, indeed, was based on a common charity and sharing of goods. Bartholomew chimed in at this point with the observation that perhaps this doctrine of a spiritual treasury arose from the economic and social conditions of the Church in her infancy. Teresa promptly accused Bartholomew of holding Marxist views himself, and a terrible fight broke out, in which poor Teresa had an eye scratched from the socket. To spare her further pain, I put her to sleep and made a delicious meal from her remains, shortly after sext. I have discovered the tails, if boiled long enough, are quite agreeable.

Evidently he converted at least one batch. There is no further mention in the journals of the skeptic Ignatius: perhaps he died in another fight, perhaps he left the community for the pagan reaches of Downtown. After the first conversion the entries begin to taper off: but all are optimistic, at times euphoric. They give a picture of the Parish as a little enclave of light in a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.

Rat meat didn’t agree with the Father, in the long run. Perhaps there was infection. Perhaps, too, the Marxist tendencies of his flock reminded him too much of what he had seen and heard above ground, on the breadlines, by sick and maternity beds, even in the confessional; and thus the cheerful heart reflected by his late entries was really only a necessary delusion to protect himself from the bleak truth that his pale and sinuous parishioners might turn out no better than the animals whose estate they were succeeding to. His last entry gives a hint of some such feeling:

When Augustine is mayor of the city (for he is a splendid fellow, and the others are devoted to him) will he, or his council, remember an old priest? Not with any sinecure or fat pension, but with true charity in their hearts? For though devotion to God is rewarded in Heaven and just as surely is not rewarded on this earth, some spiritual satisfaction, I trust, will be found in the New City whose foundations we lay here, in this Iona beneath the old foundations. If it cannot be, I shall nevertheless go to peace, at one with God. Of course that is the best reward. I have been the classical Old Priest—never particularly robust, never affluent—most of my life. Perhaps

The journal ends here. It is still preserved in an inaccessible region of the Vatican library, and in the minds of the few old-timers in the New York Sewer Department who got to see it when it was discovered. It lay on top of a brick, stone and stick cairn large enough to cover a human corpse, assembled in a stretch of 36-inch pipe near a frontier of the Parish. Next to it lay the breviary. There was no trace of the catechism or Knight’s Modern Seamanship.

“Maybe,” said Zeitsuss’s predecessor Manfred Katz after reading the journal, “maybe they are studying the best way to leave a sinking ship.”

The stories, by the time Profane heard them, were pretty much apocryphal and more fantasy than the record itself warranted. At no point in the twenty or so years the legend had been handed on did it occur to anyone to question the old priest’s sanity. It is this way with sewer stories. They just are. Truth or falsity don’t apply.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel V.

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Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography (Book acquired and then unacquired in that long COVID march of March 2020-March 2021)

Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography was published in 1989 by Dalkey. As far as I can tell, the book is out of print and has not been updated.

I checked out Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography via interlibrary loan back in early March, 2020. My librarian borrowed it for me from the good librarians at the University of South Florida. I can’t really recall why I wanted it—probably not anything specific. I’ve used ILL to get a number of weird or rare items in the past, including a pristine copy of Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confessions (a major source for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), and a handful of early stories by William Gaddis (I did not need to get my hands on this juvenalia).

I probably got the bibliography on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. I think that’s the date because I tweeted this photo from its appendix:

If I recall correctly, I had taken that Monday (March 9th) and the preceding Friday off work. My family and I went to Georgia’s coastal Golden Isles and stayed on a houseboat for a few nights. It was the end of my kids’ spring break, and I would have a week of work before my spring break started.

This—the family vacation week—was the first week of March and I was beginning to get pretty paranoid about COVID-19. But I’d been paranoid and tired and really just exhausted for four years straight by now.

I took a break from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy to read Charles Wright’s novel The Wig that weekend. I read it on a houseboat with a corny name on Jekyll Island. We rode bikes around the island and ate sea food, fried food. It was beautiful.

I came back to work, worried but happy to get the Pynchon bibliography, even if it only went to ’89, thus leaving out, like, the last three decades. That must have been, like I said, Tuesday, March 10th.

On Wednesday, March 11th, the NBA canceled their season and I knew what was up.

My department chair decorated our office suite with glittery shamrocks for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day.

I filled a box with the books and binders and gear I figured I needed to teach from home after Spring Break. A colleague made a joke, something like a, Hey did you get fired with that box in your hands? joke.

(Maybe I’ll see him this fall?)

(Those St. Patrick’s Day decorations are still up, by the way, and, once again, out of season. Although I think they fit the mode of the day, the zeitgeist, the long tacky sparkling sad celebratory day.)

And you more or less know the rest, having lived it in your own first-person perspective.

For most of the year that passed I kept Thomas Pynchon: A Bilbiography with my textbooks. I reached out to my librarian around the time it was due, 10 May 2020 (my wife and I were supposed to be in Chicago then; we weren’t). My librarian said to keep the book in good condition.

In the meantime, I picked up some of the books that Thomas Pynchon had blurbed, often preferring his blurbs to the novels he blurbed.

I read some of his juvenalia again, like “Ye Legend of Sir Stupid and the Purple Knight”:

In May I  finally read Pynchon’s latest (last?!) novel Bleeding Edge.

I looked online for bootleg editions of the material that showed up in Slow Learner. I read more of Slow Learner, leaving two tales…just to leave them, just to not have exhausted a…final supply?

In the absence of March Madness college basketball, I ran a silly bracket of dystopian/sci fi writers — “zeitgeisty” writers” — and Pynchon won, beating out J.G. Ballard, who I still think should have won.

(Someone wrote in to tell me that it was the “most shite” thing that I’ve ever done on the blog and to never do it again. Thanks guy! That felt good.)

And also,

I worried, fretted, washed, ranted, cried even at times, but

I never missed a meal and my family had a regular four square game going and Florida actually gave us real Spring weather, crisp and cool and sunny, and the trees bloomed and budded, and I figure in some ways I was as happy as I’ve ever been.

And the year passed, with its plague, its violent racism, its protests, all swelling into its ugly electioneering.

And then this Spring 2021 semester I went back in, setting my feet on campus for Tues and Thurs classes and the world seemed a bit more normal. We got a normal, boring president; a lot of us started to get the vaccine. Things felt…better? Like other folks, I looked forward to hanging out with all the folks I’d seen so little of in the last year.

I got my first vax jab a few weeks ago; I get my second this Friday. I look forward to hanging with “The Boys” (and “the girls,” and etc.)

 

At some point in the last year I shelved Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography with the rest of the Pynchon books in the house. I just assumed that it was mine, that it was an artifact of the plague year. My covid acquired.

But last week my librarian let me know, Hey, USF wants that Pynchon book back. I held on to it a second week, revisiting it in parts, but mostly to write this here blog post, mostly to find another way to say, Hey, what a year, eh? I’ll drop it off with my librarian tomorrow, but I think it’ll make me feel a bit sad.

But also maybe relieved.

 

She made the world her book | On Danielle Dutton’s novel Margaret the First

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was born to a wealthy aristocratic family who took the royalist side in the English Civil War. She spent her teen years attending the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria as a handmaiden. She soon married William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle (and a steadfast royalist), and lived with him in exile in Antwerp. During this time, she began writing and publishing strange volumes on various topics—science, fashion, language, wit, and the act of writing itself. Her eccentric writing mirrored her eccentric habits. Simultaneously shy and fame-hungry, often depressed or elated and manic, Cavendish earned and maintained a notorious reputation over her lifetime.

Danielle Dutton somehow condenses Cavendish’s starbright life into a slim 160 pages in her novel Margaret the First. This imaginative near-biography borrows from Cavendish’s own writings as well as an essay on Cavendish by Virginia Woolf.  Woolf thought Cavendish a cautionary tale. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf describes her as a brilliant but uneducated woman who “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly.” Dutton captures that reputation early in the novel: “Mad Madge,” goes the cry among a crowd of onlookers at the novel’s outset (the crowd includes the diarist Samuel Pepys). However, Dutton is far more sympathetic toward Margaret, conjuring for us a natural composer. Consider these lines from Margaret the First’s opening paragraph:

She made the world her book, took a piece of coal and marked a blank white wall. Later, she made sixteen smaller books: untitled, sewn with yarn. Her girlhood heroes were Shakespeare, Ovid, Caesar. She wrote them in beside thinking-rocks and humming-shoes and her favorite sister, Catherine, who starred in all but five. Snow fell fast as she sat by the nursery fire; ink to paper, then she sewed. The last book told a tale of hasty gloom, teeming with many shades of green: emerald, viridian, a mossy black. In it we meet a miniature princess who lives in a seashell castle and sleeps in sheets woven from the eyelids of doves.

Dutton roped me in with “tale of hasty gloom,” but the images in that last sentence—sheets woven from the eyelids of doves!—propelled my reading on.

We see here Cavendish as a creator of both books and her own world. Dutton’s narrator notes Cavendish—or shall I use Margaret here?—Dutton’s narrator notes that our protagonist not only writes her books, but sews them. The image of creation as fashion—as literally fashioning objects and ideas—repeats throughout Margaret the First. Margaret tells her patient older husband William that “dressing is the poetry of women.” She finds near-epiphanic inspiration in a masquerade costume worn by Christina, Queen of Sweden, who dresses as an Amazon warrior, baring her breasts to the entire court. Later she wonders, “why must grammar be like a prison for the mind? Might not language be as a closet full of gowns? Of a generally similar cut, with a hole for the head and neck to pass, but filled with difference and a variety of trimmings so that we don’t grow bored?”

Critics of Cavendish attacked her spelling and grammar; Woolf declared her “crack-brained and bird-witted.” Dutton’s portrait though gives us something closer to Emily Dickinson or William Blake. Margaret’s an eccentric who turns her eccentricity into a strange new art that resisted grammar that would be “a prison for the mind.”

And yet Dutton is never too-beholden to her subject. We are never told that Margaret is a genius; rather, Dutton attunes us to Margaret’s own singular perceptions—we feel flashes of genius, but also feel Margaret’s frustrated inability to harness that genius into a form that seventeenth-century England can recognize. She is always at the margin of the circle, too eccentric to orbit neatly with the intellectual luminaries whom she encounters.

We also feel the tinges of Margaret’s melancholic mental instability. Alone in a carriage, she retreats into her mind’s eye:

I found myself in an unknown universe, whirling far into space. African servants, dogs in hats, platonic ideals, sparkling conversation, and ivy-coated quadrangles with womanizing captains, dueling earls, actors. I met Father Cyprien de Gamache, her majesty’s wily confessor; William, a poet, who claimed to be Shakespeare’s son; and a giggling dwarf called Jeffry, who’d been presented to the queen in a pie. I met the ladies-in-waiting, too, who hardly looked my way, busy as they were, bickering over who went where and when, who wore what and when, who fetched what and why, who said what and to whom, and who gave her the right to say that.

Tellingly, the cluttered images in Margaret’s fantasy dissolve into the too-banal reality of the grammar of manners: who can wear what, who can say what, and so on. To cop a phrase from Blake, those “mind-forg’d manacles” are hard to break. Indeed, mind-forg’d manacles tend to break those who resist them. “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson noted, but also pointed out that those who resist the grammar of manners are “straightway dangerous -/ And handled with a Chain.”

Margaret avoids the chain, and if the world is a bit too much for her to bear at time, she fashions it into Something Else. This is the joy of Margaret the First. Dutton could have crafted the tale as a tragedy, but instead she gives us something else—something rich, generative, imagistic, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately deeply endearing. Highly recommended.

That wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils | Moby-Dick reread, riff 39

I. In this riff, Chapters 133-134 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 133, “The Chase—First Day.”

We finally get there.

Ahab has posed one question throughout the book: “Hast seen the White Whale?”

That is the only viewpoint that matters to him—a viewpoint that can point him toward vengeance.

He gets to answer his own question:

“There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

And then the chase begins.

III. Ahab demands of his lookouts whether or not they sighted Moby Dick first. Tashtego claims that he, “saw him almost that same instant, sir, that Captain Ahab did,” but Ahab denies this (much as Stubb takes credit for the first whale The Pequod sights much earlier in the novel).

Ahab is ever-dominant: “Not the same instant; not the same—no, the doubloon is mine, Fate reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the White Whale first.”

Ahab’s “only” condenses his monomania to three syllables.

Ahab’s monomania turns his rhetoric into a series of repetitions through which he tunes himself to the rhythm of the whale:

“There she blows!—there she blows!—there she blows! There again!—there again!” he cried, in long-drawn, lingering, methodic tones, attuned to the gradual prolongings of the whale’s visible jets.

IV. Ahab and his mates set to their boats to chase the White Whale—only Starbuck remains, as previously commanded by Ahab. Omnipresent Ishmael, shows us Ahab seeing Moby Dick: “He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond.” And then, in a remarkable passage, we get what think is Ishmael seeing Moby Dick, or Ishmael seeing Moby Dick as he wished Ahab could see Moby Dick:

A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

The whale here is godlike. But remember that Ahab would strike the sun, would cast down the Titans.

V. Ahab and his men continue to hunt the godlike whale “through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea”; Moby Dick ducks and dives, refusing them the sight of “the full terrors of his submerged trunk.”

Soon though, eagle-eyed Tashtego spies the sign of the whale’s re-emergence:

“The birds!—the birds!” cried Tashtego.

In long Indian file, as when herons take wing, the white birds were now all flying towards Ahab’s boat; and when within a few yards began fluttering over he water there, wheeling round and round, with joyous, expectant cries. Their vision was keener than man’s; Ahab could discover no sign in the sea.

Melville seems to underline a few points here—Tashtego raises a whale for the third time—here, by spying the herons, which our author notes travel in “Indian file” and by noting that this “Indian file” sounds the alarm for the whale. They can see more deeply than Ahab.

VI. But Ahab soon does see something, but only because it rises up to meet him from the ocean’s depths: “It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw.”

But it’s just the first day of the chase in this novel of tripled trios. Ahab’s not done yet, even though “The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.” There’s some foreshadowing for you!

VII. Ahab escapes on this first day, although his boat does not—Moby Dick chomps it to pieces. All sailors are saved too, although Ahab shows more concern for the harpoon he forged earlier aboard The Pequod (it’s saved too).

Moral Starbuck declares the business of the wrecked boat an ill omen, but Ahab won’t read the signs that way:

Omen? omen?—the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.—Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!

VIII. Ch. 134, “The Chase—Second Day.”

And so the second day.

It starts out with an enthusiastically-received mistake. The lookout calls out that he’s sighted Moby Dick, rousing the crew into a kind of mad fury; Ahab’s monomania inspirits them all:

The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls; and by the stirring perils of the previous day; the rack of the past night’s suspense; the fixed, unfearing, blind, reckless way in which their wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark; by all these things, their hearts were bowled along. The wind that made great bellies of their sails, and rushed the vessel on by arms invisible as irresistible; this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race.

“They were one man, not thirty,” notes Ishmael, in another satanic inversion of the earlier oversoul blending the men have experienced. We are now in the mode of blood, a reversal of “the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

IX. But Ahab chastises the men: “ye have been deceived; not Moby Dick casts one odd jet that way, and then disappears.” Ahab ascends the rigging himself, and quickly sights the White Whale again. “Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!” he brags, setting out again in a restored boat (and again leaving Starbuck on The Pequod).

X. A complex battle ensues. All three harpooneers manage to lance Moby Dick, but “in his untraceable evolutions, the White Whale so crossed and recrossed, and in a thousand ways entangled the slack of the three lines now fast to him, that they foreshortened, and, of themselves, warped the devoted boats towards the planted irons in him.” The image evokes to me a kind of elegant wild writing. Moby Dick crossing and recrossing the lines, warping and weaving the material of which he is the unknowable center.

Moby Dick rewrites the violence Ahab seeks to wreak upon him. The men’s lances become “corkscrewed in the mazes of the line,” and Ahab’s only recourse is to edit. He takes a knife to the lines attached to his boat. But Ahab causes an unintended effect—although he’s freed from the whale, the other boats are not, and “the more involved boats of Stubb and Flask” are dashed…together like two rolling husks on a surf-beaten beach.”

XI. Moby Dick then destroys Ahab’s second boat. The particular paragraph is an astounding piece of rhetoric, a single sentence of 141 words, fourteen commas, seven em dashes, and four semicolons. And it begins with While—Melville tries to make his rhetoric do what film does, to situate his sentences as movement, sound, simultaneity. His goal is to set a scene impossible for an eye to take in and comprehend in a simple glance—the wreck of the boats, the struggle of Stubb, Flask, and their men—condensed perhaps most neatly in the phrase which occurs right in the middle of the paragraph—

—in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils,—

(Those dashes do so much work, forcefully connecting and separating the elements of Melville’s tangled, disastrous paragraph of a sentence.)

XII. And well so what happened in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted peril?

—Ahab’s yet unstricken boat seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires,—as, arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it, turning over and over, into the air; till it fell again—gunwale downwards—and Ahab and his men struggled out from under it, like seals from a sea-side cave.

XIII. The men, including Ahab, are returned to The Pequod. But Ahab’s “ivory leg had been snapped off, leaving but one short sharp splinter.”

Ahab then musters the men and finds Fedallah missing; Stubb attests that the Parsee was dragged down in the tangles of Ahab’s lines. Ahab is the author of Fedallah’s death. He goes full King Lear:

My line! my line? Gone?—gone? What means that little word?—What death-knell rings in it, that old Ahab shakes as if he were the belfry. The harpoon, too!—toss over the litter there,—d’ye see it?—the forged iron, men, the white whale’s—no, no, no,—

(Etc.)

Ahab’s “line” here points in multiple directions—the concrete harpoon line, the genealogical futurity of his familial line; his “line” as an author.

XIV. Ahab’s mad monologue pushes Starbuck over the edge. “Great God! but for one single instant show thyself,” Starbuck implores, perhaps echoing Melville’s own metaphysical misgivings. “In Jesus’ name no more of this,” he implores, ending his own rejoining monologue by declaiming it, “Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”

XV. Ahab’s ego overwhelms in the end though. He concedes that “of late” he’s felt “strangely moved” to Starbuck’s thinking, but then trips into his own fury:

Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ’Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?

So do you feel brave?

The least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight | Moby-Dick reread, riff 38

I. In this riff, Chapters 130-132 of Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick illustration by Herman Melville.

II. Ch. 130, “The Hat.”

In which Ahab’s hat is stolen by “one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks which so often fly incommodiously close round the manned mast-heads of whalemen in these latitudes,” and the crew reads it, almost to a man, as an ill omen.

At the chapter’s outset, our Ishmael is in a meta-textual mood, pushing the quest’s doom into the foreground. He tells us that “all other whaling waters [are] swept” — we are in the penultimate triplet chapters:

In this foreshadowing interval too, all humor, forced or natural, vanished. Stubb no more strove to raise a smile; Starbuck no more strove to check one. Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.

III. Ahab and Fedallah (who has foretold the doom of the ship he crews on) both keep to the deck at all times. Ahab declares that he will take the nailed doubloon, omphalos of both ship and novel — “‘I will have the first sight of the whale myself,’—he said. ‘Aye! Ahab must have the doubloon.'” Fedallah is a silent impenetrable gaze: “his wan but wondrous eyes did plainly say—We two watchmen never rest.”

IV. Ahab, as I’ve contended so many times, is monocular reader. Our one-legged monomaniacal despot of a captain can only watch and read for his dread mission. Unlike diverse, large-hearted Ishmael, there is no diversity in Ahab’s gaze/reading. He reads for one purpose, and all signs are symbols portending the fulfillment of that purpose.

As the sea-hawk approaches, Ahab’s gaze is upon the sea, not heavenward. We learn that the sea-hawk,

darted a thousand feet straight up into the air; then spiralized downwards, and went eddying again round his head.

But with his gaze fixed upon the dim and distant horizon, Ahab seemed not to mark this wild bird; nor, indeed, would any one else have marked it much, it being no uncommon circumstance; only now almost the least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight.

The crew of The Pequod reads the event as the foreshadow of disaster, whether the spectacle is simply a dark omen—the leader’s crown revoked from upon high—or simply the physical reality of their captain losing his hat because his attention was focused in only one direction.

V. Ch. 131, “The Pequod Meets the Delight.”

In which The Pequod encounters its last meeting with another ship—and another Nantucket ship—a “most miserably misnamed” The Delight:

Upon the stranger’s shears were beheld the shattered, white ribs, and some few splintered planks, of what had once been a whale-boat; but you now saw through this wreck, as plainly as you see through the peeled, half-unhinged, and bleaching skeleton of a horse.

I mean, c’mon. White ribs, bleaching skeleton of a horse, etc. It’s really the seeing through in the previous paragraph I’m interested in. Our Ishmael attends the world with the perspective of a ghost who sees through the world’s wreck.

VI. Ahab repeats his famous question (for the last time):

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

“Look!” replied the hollow-cheeked captain from his taffrail; and with his trumpet he pointed to the wreck.

“Hast killed him?”

“The harpoon is not yet forged that ever will do that,” answered the other, sadly glancing upon a rounded hammock on the deck, whose gathered sides some noiseless sailors were busy in sewing together.

Ahab shows off the harpoon he forged with Perth but captain and crew of The Delight remain morosely unimpressed. They bury at sea the last of five sailors they lost in battle with Moby Dick—the other four bodies were lost in the fight.

Ahab turns away from the scene.

And yet—

As Ahab now glided from the dejected Delight, the strange life-buoy hanging at the Pequod’s stern came into conspicuous relief.

“Ha! yonder! look yonder, men!” cried a foreboding voice in her wake. “In vain, oh, ye strangers, ye fly our sad burial; ye but turn us your taffrail to show us your coffin!”

Again—it’s an overdetermined affair, this Moby-Dick.

Show us your coffin!

VII. Ch. 132, “The Symphony.”

The whole thing is about to collapse.

In which Starbuck almost convinces Ahab to change course and save the souls of The Pequod.

“The Symphony” is another sad, sad chapter. “It was a clear steel-blue day,” the chapter begins, and then unfolds in short descriptions of pacific beauty. We are reminded of the peaceful air about The Pequod—that the violent rage at the heart of the novel is carried there by men, by their chieftan Ahab. But the dumb world will not attend our own woes:

Oh, immortal infancy, and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old Ahab’s close-coiled woe!

Again, Ishmael portrays Ahab in a sympathetic cast.

VIII. Ahab monologues at Starbuck, a sympathetic ear. He laments the forty years he’s spent asea:

Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore.

Are these Ahab’s last rites? A sad confession before the crack of doom (with those mythic numbers foregrounded, forty and three)? I think so.

(And, as always—

How does Ishmael witness this dialogue?)

IX. But Ahab’s confession does not lead to redemption. Language carries him away, and as always the ineffable nearly overwhelms him—he contests the unnameable:

What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.

Ahab the philosopher is a thing of despair:

By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!

Starbuck, “blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair,” steals away. But Fedallah remains at his unvacant post, eyes focused on the water.

Vítězslav Nezval’s Woman in the Plural (Book acquired, sometime last week)

Woman in the Plural is a newly-translated collection of poems and plays by Vítězslav Nezval. The new translation is by Ka (the volume also features art by Karel Teige).

Here’s a taste:

And here’s publisher Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

In the summer of 1935, Vítězslav Nezval, already one of the most celebrated Czech poets of his generation, embarked on a period of manic creativity that would result in three volumes of poetry written and published in a two-year span (1935-37), mirrored by three volumes of memoir-like poetic prose. These collections would not only reshape Czech poetry, blending approaches developed by the French Surrealists with national cultural sensibilities and political concerns, taken together they are among the highest achievements of the interwar avant-garde. Woman in the Plural (1936), the first volume in this loose trilogy, adopted “objective chance” as its modus operandi (whereas the third and final volume, The Absolute Gravedigger (1937), was guided by the paranoiac-critical method).

Appearing in English translation for the first time, Woman in the Plural displays Nezval’s prodigious talents in a variety of forms, styles, and genres as he spins images of the female form like a zoetrope to create novel and hallucinatory ways of conceiving woman’s mythical, divine, and creative power. It is an eclectic collection that blends profound free verse, at times reading like a cascade of automatic writing, with pages from Nezval’s dream journal, an exuberant set of Surrealist exercises, and a full-length play of chance encounters with “a woman like any other,” all the while addressing the social and political uncertainties of the 1930s. Led off by Karel Teige’s original collages from the first edition, Woman in the Plural is a vibrant and volatile tour de force from one of the greatest European artists of the 20th century.

A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 37

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Chapters 127-129 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 127, “The Deck.”

Another chapter composed as playwright’s drama—mostly dialogue, and a few spare stage directions.

The dialogue is between Ahab and the carpenter. The poor old man has been charged with the task of converting Queequeg’s coffin into a life-buoy (you will recall The Pequod lost both the life-buoy and the sailor it was thrown to save in the previous chapter).

Ahab’s back-and-forth with the carpenter highlight’s the captain’s careen into deeper madness. He’s alarmed by the carpenter’s ironic task:

Then tell me; art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolising, heathenish old scamp, to be one day making legs, and the next day coffins to clap them in, and yet again life-buoys out of those same coffins? Thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades.”

It’s another metatextual moment in Moby-Dick, where Ahab plays a critic, pointing out perhaps that Melville’s ironic foreshadowing here is overdetermined stuff. But the dialogue leads Ahab inward to monologue, and he tries to play out the greater meaning of the symbol, beyond plot-bound gimmickry. The phenomenal experience of hearing the carpenter’s work sends him into a philosophical reverie:

Rat-tat! So man’s seconds tick! Oh! how immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts? Here now’s the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further? Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality-preserver! I’ll think of that.

In the end though the coffin is a life-preserver—it saves Ishmael, and, in a sense, is an immortality-preserver, as it becomes the mechanism that sustains Ishmael’s infinite witnessing.

III. Ch. 128, “The Pequod Meets The Rachel.”

This is possibly the saddest chapter in Moby-Dick.

The Pequod meets The Rachel, also of Nantucket. It’s the penultimate ship they will meet in their soon-to-be-over voyage (the ironically named Delight is their last exchange).

The captain of The Rachel is able to affirm Ahab’s monomaniacal hailing, and then pose his own rejoinder:

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

“Aye, yesterday. Have ye seen a whale-boat adrift?”

The Rachel’s captain boards The Pequod. It turns out that one of the whaling boats of The Rachel set out after Moby Dick, yet never returned. We then learn his motivation for the curt gam:

The story told, the stranger Captain immediately went on to reveal his object in boarding the Pequod. He desired that ship to unite with his own in the search; by sailing over the sea some four or five miles apart, on parallel lines, and so sweeping a double horizon, as it were.

Callous Stubb suggests that the captain is anxious to get the boat’s crew back because “some one in that missing boat wore off that Captain’s best coat; mayhap, his watch.” Stubb shows a tenderer heart though when the truth is revealed: “My boy, my own boy is among them,” pleads the captain,” begging Ahab to charter The Pequod for two days.

Stubb—who I’ve thought in this reread the villain of the novel for his bullying humor—redeems himself here: “His son!” cried Stubb, “oh, it’s his son he’s lost! I take back the coat and watch—what says Ahab? We must save that boy.”

What says Ahab?

But first—what says the captain—referred to repeatedly as “the stranger” in this chapter:

“I will not go,” said the stranger, “till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case.

We find here Melville reworking the Gospel of Matthew, 25:35-45. 

The specific passages from Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly refer to the stranger—who is to be fed, clothed, visited, etc. — like, generally, done unto. (Melville would explore the concept in a leaner story with more depth in Bartleby.)

The Gospel’s injunction is straightforward. We must treat others—particularly strangers, those othered-others, “the least of these,” in the NIV translation—as we wish to be treated.

And so well,

What says Ahab?

“Avast,” cried Ahab—“touch not a rope-yarn”; then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word—“Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go.

Ahab hopes he can forgive himself. But the end of Matthew Ch. 25 is pretty clear (KJV this time).: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.”

IV. Ch. 129, “The Cabin.”

Another chapter composed as playwright’s drama—mostly dialogue, and a few spare stage directions—and, like Ch. 127, a chapter that ends in a crazed monologue.

The chapter starts with Ahab telling Pip way too late, “Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him.” Ahab tells Pip that Pip is the cure for his malady, but that his “malady becomes [his] most desired health.” It’s a strange moment between two cursed persons—Ahab recognizes here the injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that he’s failed to meet in the previous chapter (and hey, I even forgot to point out that the captain of The Rachel is not even a stranger to Ahab—our monomaniac calls the man by name!)—but where was I? I think it’s a weird tender moment. Ahab recognizes Pip as a kind of son, and tells him to stay safe in his cabin. But he also seems to know that the entire ship is headed toward some kind of Big Death.

Ahab departs; Pip fills the cabin — and the end of the “The Cabin” — with his crazed voice. He’s already the vacant post that Ishmael will evoke in the novel’s epilogue. So let him speak:

Here he this instant stood; I stand in his air,—but I’m alone. Now were even poor Pip here I could endure it, but he’s missing. Pip! Pip! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip? He must be up here; let’s try the door. What? neither lock, nor bolt, nor bar; and yet there’s no opening it. It must be the spell; he told me to stay here: Aye, and told me this screwed chair was mine. Here, then, I’ll seat me, against the transom, in the ship’s full middle, all her keel and her three masts before me. Here, our old sailors say, in their black seventy-fours great admirals sometimes sit at table, and lord it over rows of captains and lieutenants. Ha! what’s this? epaulets! epaulets! the epaulets all come crowding! Pass round the decanters; glad to see ye; fill up, monsieurs! What an odd feeling, now, when a black boy’s host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!—Monsieurs, have ye seen one Pip?—a little negro lad, five feet high, hang-dog look, and cowardly! Jumped from a whale-boat once;—seen him? No! Well then, fill up again, captains, and let’s drink shame upon all cowards! I name no names. Shame upon them! Put one foot upon the table. Shame upon all cowards.—Hist! above there, I hear ivory—Oh, master! master! I am indeed down-hearted when you walk over me. But here I’ll stay, though this stern strikes rocks; and they bulge through; and oysters come to join me.