A review of Alfred Döblin’s turbulent, encyclopedic riot of a novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.

What is it about?

The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.

But again: What is it about?

Well:

Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.

Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.

Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of. 

With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)

General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.

And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”

And do I spoil the final line?

Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.

Three Books

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Don Quixote by Kathy Acker. Grove Press trade paperback, 1986. Cover design by Neil Stuart. Cover illustration by Catherine Denvir.

A messy punkpostmodern cartoon, a big long jazz howl at the moon.

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The Egghead Republic by Arno Schmidt; English translation by Michael Horowitz. Marion Boyars trade paperback, 1982. Cover design by Imre Reiner, who likely drew the illustration (although he is not explicitly credited).

I found the first 50 pages utterly exhausting, and there were 100 more. I tried. The cover designer Imre Reiner is most famous for his font designs, but he also illustrated many many books, including a 1941 edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

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Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz; English translation by Celina Wieniewska. Cover design by Neil Stuart. Cover illustration by Bruno Schultz. (The novel includes thirty black and white illustrations by Schultz.)

A gross, surreal, dispiriting nightmare. I recall “enjoying” it.

On the Halloween chapter of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

Mischief Night, Jamie Wyeth

The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.

A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:

He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…

The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.

Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:

She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.

What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.

Here is the next paragraph:

Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.

The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.

Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:

The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!

Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.

Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.

The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this post in October of 2018.]

D.H. Lawrence’s The Bad Side of Books (Book acquired 16 Oct. 2019)

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NRYB has compiled a collection of essays from D.H. Lawrence entitled The Bad Side of Books. I’ve always appreciated Lawrence’s nonfiction (particularly Apocalypse) more than his fiction, so this collection (with its great title) piques my interest. NYRB’s blurb:

You could describe D.H. Lawrence as the great multi-instrumentalist among the great writers of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant, endlessly controversial novelist who transformed, for better and for worse, the way we write about sex and emotions; he was a wonderful poet; he was an essayist of burning curiosity, expansive lyricism, odd humor, and radical intelligence, equaled, perhaps, only by Virginia Woolf. Here Geoff Dyer, one of the finest essayists of our day, draws on the whole range of Lawrence’s published essays to reintroduce him to a new generation of readers for whom the essay has become an important genre. We get Lawrence the book reviewer, writing about Death in Venice and welcoming Ernest Hemingway; Lawrence the travel writer, in Mexico and New Mexico and Italy; Lawrence the memoirist, depicting his strange sometime-friend Maurice Magnus; Lawrence the restless inquirer into the possibilities of the novel, writing about the novel and morality and addressing the question of why the novel matters; and, finally, the Lawrence who meditates on birdsong or the death of a porcupine in the Rocky Mountains. Dyer’s selection of Lawrence’s essays is a wonderful introduction to a fundamental, dazzling writer.

Come, you, I want to show you something | From Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz 

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Come, you, I want to show you something. The harlot Babylon, the great harlot, that sitteth upon many waters. I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints.

Franz Biberkopf drifts through the streets, trots his trot and doesn’t stop, he’s getting his strength back. It is warm summer weather, Franz schlepps himself from bar to bar.

He steers clear of the heat. In the bar they are just drawing the first beers.

The first beer says: I come from the cellar, from hops and malt. I am cool, how do I taste?

Franz says: Bitter, good, cool.

Yes, I’ll cool you down. I cool the men, then I make them warm, and then I take away their superfluous thoughts.

Superfluous thoughts?

Yes, most thoughts are superfluous. Am I right or am I right? – Right.

A small schnapps stands bright yellow before Franz. Where did you spring from? – They burnt me, man. – You have a bite to you, fellow, you’ve got claws. – Well, that’s what makes me a schnapps. Expect you haven’t seen one in a while. – No, I was almost dead, little schnapps, I was almost dead and done for. Gone without a return ticket. – You look like it too. – Look like it, cut the cackle. Let’s try you again, come here. Ah, you’re good, good and fiery. – The schnapps trickles down the back of his throat: fire.

The smoke from the fire rises in Franz, it scorches his throat, he needs another beer: you’re my second beer, I’ve already had one, what have you got to say to me? – Taste me first, fatso, then we can talk. – All right.

Then the beer says: now listen, you, if you drink another couple of beers, and another kummel, and another grog, then you’ll swell up like dried peas. – So? – Yes, then you’ll be fat again, and then what will that look like? Can you be seen among people like that? Have another swallow.

And Franz grabs his third: I’m swallowing. One after the other. All in nice order.

He asks the fourth: what do you know, darling? – She just growls back blissfully. Franz knocks her back: I believe yer. Whatever you say, my darling, I believe yer. You’re my little sheep, and you and me are going up to the meadow together.

From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

 

Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek

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I got a copy of Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek strips a few weeks ago and have been reading a strip a day, or sometimes reading two or four strips a day, or sometimes reading no strips a day.

Snake Creek comprises the first volume of Snake Creek comix created by Lerman between the summers of ’18 and ’19. Lerman made one each day, as far as I can tell, which, like props.

The heroes of Snake Creek are maybe-human Dav (an altar-ego for Lerman?) and maybe walkin-talkin potato/maybe-mutant Roy, who spend their days and nights strolling the beaches, riffing on life, and extemporizing poems and songs. They take up with a dog and one point, and later encounter strange ducks. (I’m sure there’s more—I’ve been trying, like I said, to limit myself to a few strips a day.) It’s all a big anarchic kick.

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Snake Creek has an absurdist and occasionally nihilist bent, flavors I love. Never too bitter, the strip’s sweetness is anchored in the weird friendship betwixt Dav and Roy, who wander and wonder along a Miami Beach that Lerman turns into a kind of desert island running on Prospero’s magic.

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Snake Island’s chords and rhythms resonate with Walt Kelly’s Pogo, another Floridaish strip, as well as George Herriman’s zany strip Krazy Kat. Lerman seems like a willing descendant of Kelly and Herriman, but Snake Island is also wholly contemporary, a comic that begins with a discussion of old G-chats.

I’m really digging the collection, and I hope not to gobble it up too fast.

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The authentic American apocalyptic novel | Harold Bloom and Blood Meridian

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Harold Bloom’s esteem for Blood Meridian may have done much to advance the novel’s reputation since its publication, especially in pre-social media outlets, like Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. His essay on the book, first published in his 2000 collection How to Read and Why and later included as the preface to Random House’s Modern Library edition, makes a strong case for Blood Meridian’s canonical status. Bloom begins, in typical Bloomian fashion–the anxiety of influence is always at work–by situating McCarthy’s book against other heavies:

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian . . .

The Garden of Earthly Delights — Hell, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1504

Bloom goes  on to rate Blood Meridian over DeLillo’s Underworld, several books by Philip Roth, and even McCarthy’s own All the Pretty Horses. Indeed, Bloom proclaims Blood Meridian “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This doesn’t mean that Bloom is at home with the book’s violence; he confesses that it took him two attempts to read through its “overwhelming carnage.” Still, he makes a case for reading it in spite of its gore:

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence–its language, landscape, persons, conceptions–at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.

Bloom repeatedly invokes Melville and Faulkner in his essay, arguing that Blood Meridian’s “high style” is one of its key strengths (unlike fellow aesthetic critic James Wood, who seems to think that McCarthy is a windbag). The trajectory of Bloom’s essay follows Melville and Shakespeare, finding in Judge Holden both a white whale (and not so much an Ahab) and an Iago. He writes:

Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.

I think that Bloom’s great insight here is to read the book as a prose epic as opposed to a linear novel. Bloom intuits that Blood Meridian foregrounds a deeply tragic and ironic reworking of the great American myth of Manifest Destiny. While hardly a pastiche, the book is somehow a collage—a massive, deafening collage that numbs, stuns, and overwhelms with its layers of thick, bloody prose. The effect is akin to the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Dense and full of allusion, paintings like The Triumph of Death and The Garden of Earthly Delights surge over the senses, destabilizing narrative logic. Like Blood Meridian, these paintings employ a graphic grammar that disorients and then reorients. They are apocalyptic in all senses of the word: both revelatory and portentously conclusive. And like Blood Meridian, they showcase “a sinister aesthetic glory” (to use Bloom’s term), a terrible, awful, awesome ugliness that haunts us with repulsive beauty.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published a version of this post in September of 2010].

Girl Reading a Newspaper — Louis Anquetin

Girl Reading a Newspaper 1890 by Louis Anquetin 1861-1932

Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890 by Louis Anquetin (1861–1932)

Three Books

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Negrophobia by Darius James. Cover design by Katy Homans, employing All Cats Are Black in the Dark by Natasha Xavier. Trade paperback, NYRB, 2019.

Darius James’s Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence. I loved it and am too much of a coward to attempt a real review.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Cover photograph by W. Eugene Smith; designer uncredited. Penguin Classics US trade paperback, 2006.

Jackson’s spooky 1959 novel has some of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve read in recent years. Hills’ final section answers to its weird opening, dramatizing fraught consciousness in turmoil, disintegrating in a ping-pong free indirect style that leaves the reader stunned, puzzled, and wishing for an extra chapter against his better judgment.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. Book design by Katy Homans, featuring Georg Grosz’s painting Down with Liebknecht (1919). NRYB trade paperback, 2018.

I picked up Döblin’s 1929 Berlin Alexanderplatz on a whim a while ago at a bookstore and picked it up off the shelf today on a different whim and laughed in sympathy through the first two chapters. It’s a long book but I think I’ll keep going.

 

 

Faulkner/Gass (Two Williams acquired, 4 Oct. 2019)

 

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Friday is a day in which I have a few rare spare hours to myself after lunch, and I often like to browse my beloved labyrinthine used bookstore in one of those hours. Last week, I managed to leave without picking anything up, but today I couldn’t resist these two Williams.

Wiliam H. Gass’s last collection of fiction Eyes jumped out at me. I struggled with his bigass opus The Tunnel last year, hardly making a dent, but I loved Middle C as well as the novellas in Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellasso maybe Eyes will be more manageable.

I wasn’t actually browsing the Faulkner section, simply walking past it, but the orange spine of a 1960 Penguin edition of Go Down, Moses jumped out at me. I’m a sucker for these Penguin editions, and Go Down, Moses is my favorite Faulkner (I haven’t read everything Faulkner wrote but I doubt he wrote anything as great as “The Bear”). This edition makes a nice partner with the copy of Intruder in the Dust I picked up a few years ago, too. img_4014

Intruder is a really underrated Faulkner novel in my estimation, and Clarence Brown’s 1949 film adaptation is pretty strong as well.

I was attracted to another orange book, an English-language Japanese publication of Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry, but I had to pass on it—the print was tiny and my forty-year-old eyes aren’t as strong as they used to be. The cover is gorgeous though:

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Carl Shuker’s novel A Mistake (Book acquired 27 Sept. 2019)

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Carl Shuker’s fourth novel A Mistake is new from Counterpress. Their blurb–

Elizabeth is a gifted surgeon—the only female consultant at her hospital. But while she operates on a young woman with life-threatening blood poisoning, something goes horribly wrong. In the midst of a new scheme to publicly report surgeons’ performance, her colleagues begin to close ranks, and Elizabeth’s life is thrown into disarray. Tough and abrasive, Elizabeth has survived and succeeded in this most demanding, palpably sexist field. But can she survive a single mistake?

A Mistake is a page-turning procedural thriller about powerful women working in challenging spheres. The novel examines how a survivor who has successfully navigated years of a culture of casual sexism and machismo finds herself suddenly in the fight of her life. When a mistake is life-threatening, who should ultimately be held responsible?

Carl Shuker has produced some of the finest writing on the physicality of medical intervention, where life-changing surgery is detailed moment by moment in a building emergency. A Mistake daringly illustrates the startling mix of the coolly intellectual and deeply personal inherent in the life and work of a surgeon.

Three Books

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I haven’t read every Italo Calvino novel, but of the ones I’ve read, If on A Winter’s Night a TravelerInvisible Cities, and The Baron in the Trees are my favorites. I have a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich three-volume in slipcase edition designed by Louise Fili. The illustration on the slipcase is uncredited.

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Fili’s design for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler features Giorgio de Chirico’s 1915 painting Autumnal Melancholy. English translation by William Weaver.

This was the second Calvino novel I read. I was in my early twenties, still very much enamored of John Barth and David Foster Wallace, and Traveler’s formal postmodernism did something electric to me.

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Fili’s cover features a woodcut of a seventeenth-century drawing screen. English translation by William Weaver.

Invisible Cities was the first Calvino novel I read. I read it in 2002 when I was 22, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A friend who met me in Bangkok had brought it with him in his backpack. I couldn’t find more Calvino in Chiang Mai, but I did manage a copy of Pynchon’s V. 

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Fili’s design for The Baron in the Trees features a detail from on of Pablo Picasso’s drawings for La Guerre et la paix. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.

Baron is probably my favorite Calvino novel, which is maybe strange because it’s not a very Calvinoesque (Calvinoish?) novel—it’s funny, absurd, and witty, true, but it’s not formally postmodern. It reads very much like a picaresque novel, jaunty and romantic, with an intriguing lead in the rebellious and charismatic hero Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo. Writing this makes me want to read it again.

 

Miss Auras, The Red Book — John Lavery

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Miss Auras, The Red Book, c. 1892 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire | Denis Johnson

At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk’s radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway half a block west, and go have a look.

As I headed toward Eighth Avenue I tried calling Mark Ahearn about lunch, but my cellphone only hammered out a rapid-fire beep. Please don’t ask me how this can be true: I traveled through the busy lobby and walked for half a long block on a crowded Manhattan street and then boarded the World Trade Center subway completely unaware that I was participating in a citywide disaster, and moving toward its center.

The World Trade Center station came a few stops south of Twenty-Third Street, but we didn’t get there. After Christopher Street the train halted in the tunnel and waited, humming. It gave a screech, lurched backward slightly, and stopped again. Somehow the general news had infiltrated the sealed subterranean environment that something historically enormous was happening very nearby, and it got quiet in our compartment, and almost everybody entered into a small, desperate battle with a worthless cellphone. The train moved forward and gained speed, but began braking long before Houston Street, the next station, where it halted with several rear cars sticking out behind into the tunnel. For a tense minute, whoever spoke only whispered. Then came a shout—“Tell us what’s going on!” and others raised the same cry until we heard the conductor’s PA saying something about the tracks, the tracks…“Due to the catastrophe, this train will not go farther. Please exit out the forward cars onto the platform. Do not go onto the tracks.” We were all on our feet, maneuvering selfishly, angling for the doors. But the doors didn’t open. The engine stopped. “Open the doors! Open the doors!” The engine started. A man shouted, “Just everybody stand still!” People from the car behind had pried their way into ours, and somebody almost went down. A woman said, “Stop that, you fool!” A man in front of me pushed a teenage boy beside him. With the meat of his fist he began beating the back of the boy’s head. And I jumped into the fray, didn’t you, Harrington, like a monkey, yes you did, and got yourself an elbow in the eye. The doors to the compartment flew open and people clambered out onto the station’s platform, where a dreadlocked man in a crimson athletic suit jumped up and down on a bench as if it were a trampoline, screaming “God, see what we’re doing to each other down here.” When I came up into the street, dizzy and one-eyed, I couldn’t get my bearings. I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue. We stood in the middle of the street with thousands of other people, all of us motionless, like a frozen parade, all silent. I began to believe the man. We watched the flames spreading through the building’s upper stories over the course of about twenty minutes, and then the eighteen-hundred-foot structure seemed to curtsy and dip left, and then it went down.

I turned around and looked at the people behind me. I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.” We stood far from the buildings—at least a mile, I’d say—far enough that we didn’t feel the ground shake, and we heard nothing but sirens, and official-sounding voices screaming, “Get out of the street! Stay out of the street!” and others too—“They’re attacking the Capitol!—the Pentagon!—the White House!”

Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Collected in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, 2017.

 

The Green Hammock — John Lavery

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The Green Hammock, c. 1905 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Ecstasy and Terror (Book acquired, some time last week)

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I got a review copy of Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection Ecstasy and Terror some time early last week. I’ve read a few of the pieces in here before (“A Critic’s Manifesto” is one that I recalled in particular). Ecstasy and Terror is out in October from NYRB. Their blurb:

This collection of essays exemplifies the range, depth, and erudition that have made Daniel Mendelsohn “required reading for anyone interested in dissecting culture” (The Daily Beast). Here Mendelsohn once again casts an eye at literature, film, television, and the personal essay, filtering his insights through his training as a scholar of classical antiquity in surprising and illuminating ways.

Many of these essays examine how we continue to look to the Greeks and Romans as models: some argue for the surprising modernity of canonical works (Bacchae, the Aeneid), while others detect a “Greek DNA” in our responses to the Boston Marathon bombings and the assassination of JFK. Modern topics are treated, too, from the “aesthetics of victimhood” in Hanya Yanagihara’sA Little Life to the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and from Game of Thrones to recent films about artificial intelligence—a subject, Mendelsohn reminds us, that was already of interest to Homer.

The collection also brings together for the first time a number of Mendelsohn’s personal essays, including his “critic’s manifesto” and a touching memoir of his boyhood correspondence with the historical novelist Mary Renault.

Blog about some recent reading, some books acquired, Hurricane Dorian, etc.

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I am on my second or maybe third dark and stormy and I have cleaned the house twice from top to bottom two days in a row now and I am ready for my kids to go back to school, which was cancelled through Thursday for Hurricane Dorian. My own school, by which I mean my employer, cancelled classes throughout the week, but I’ve been emailing students and trying to maintain some kind of continuity after this weird disruption. We have power here in NE Florida and all seems well. This ride has been a lot easier than Irma.

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I finished Charles Portis’s famous novel True Grit this afternoon and I must confess it might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by the maestro. I shed a little tear for Little Blackie at the end, and also maybe for Rooster Cogburn. My thought is that I wish I’d read the book years ago, before I’d seen the two film adaptations, both of which are, like, fine, but neither of which capture the pure voice of Mattie Ross. Great stuff. I need to read Gringos next, but maybe I’ll wait a bit.

I have been switching between True Grit and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s nuns-in-the-English-fens-in-the-age-of-the-Black-Death The Corner That Held Them and I love both—both are funny, dry (and wet when they need to be). The Corner That Held Them packs in so much storytelling; pages go on for decades with a sprightly and imaginative and droll clip. I’ve been enjoying it so much I went up to my favorite used bookstore, big box of old books in tow, to find more. I picked up Lolly Willowes, which I understand is excellent, and which I will get to posthaste.

I had burned up most of my credit at this particular bookstore, but the box I done brung afforded me enough trade to not only pick up Lolly Willowes but also a first-edition hardback of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

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I also got copies of Antoine Volodine’s Writers and Bardo or Not Bardo in the in the mail this week. I don’t rightly recall buying them online, but I know that after finishing In the Time of the Blue Ball by Volodine’s pseudo-pseudonym Manuela Draeger, I went through my Volodines for references to Draeger. I found references in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, but couldn’t find my copy of Writers and then remembered that I gave it to a friend who seemed to promptly move a hundred miles away afterward. (He said he thought it was good.) Anyway: Bardo soon or not soon.

I read Keiler Roberts’ graphic memoir Rat Time yesterday and loved it so much I wrote about it immediately.

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The hurricane is not so bad for us.