Another short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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

After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma.  (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.

The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).

And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).

Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.

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

Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.

Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).

Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.

Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.

I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet. 

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How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!

This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.

The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.

I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:

TO THE HAPPY FEW

 

Three Books

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The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau. Translated from the French by Rosamond Lehman. Trade paperback by New Directions (ninth printing). Illustrations throughout by Cocteau. The cover design by David Ford adapts one of Cocteau’s original illustrations. I wish I had read this book when I was much younger than when I did read this book.

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The Hospital Ship by Martin Bax. First edition trade paperback from New Directions. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman, cover design by Gertrude Huston. The Hospital Ship is a cult novel with a cult so small that I’m not sure it exists, exactly. I wrote about the novel here a few years back.

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The Lime Twig by John Hawkes. Trade paperback by New Directions (sixteenth printing). Cover by Rudolph de Harak. I still haven’t read The Lime Twig so I picked it up the other day. If I had read it I could say, “These books are black and white and read all over.” (Forgive me forgive me forgive me…).

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

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

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

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Three Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the interview:

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

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

Books acquired, 7.13.2016

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

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

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

Continue reading “Books acquired, 7.13.2016”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:

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

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

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

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

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

ELKIN: Yes, I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ELKIN: No. Certainly not.

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

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

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

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

Three Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good evenin’, God.”

“How you makin’ it, varmints?”

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

So God sent for de snake and tole him:

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

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

God thought it over for a while then he says:

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

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

Biddy, biddy, bend my story is end.

Turn loose de rooster and hold de hen.

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

I wrote about By Night in Chile here.

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

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

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

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

(Another copy of) The Charterhouse of Parma (Book acquired sometime the week before last)

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I included Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in a post I wrote a few weeks ago about books I start repeatedly yet have never been able to finish. Various folks on Twitter and elsewhere told me I need to stick it out with the novel, including Jacob Siefring, who suggested I try Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation (instead of the 1925 Moncrieff translation I’d been struggling with).  Jacob wrote about this translation on his blog Bibliomanic, by the way. I’m a little over halfway through with Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show and I plan to give this a shot next.

HIC SUNT DODOS! (From Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show)

The report has come back. It’s official. HIC SUNT DODOS!

The dodo is an extinct species of ungainly, flightless bird of the genus Raphus or Didus. Its incubation ground and later its world was the island of Mauritius. It was closely related in habit and aspect to a smaller bird, the solitaire, also extinct but once indigenous to the island of Réunion. It has long been held by ornithologists that the dodo—both the dodo proper and the solitaire henceforward will be subsumed under the pseudo-generic term ‘dodo’—was related to the pigeon, but this is only an hypothesis since the bird has not been available for study since 1680, the year that the last known dodo died. Although the dodo was sent to European museums, no complete specimen exists, and today only the foot and leg of one specimen are preserved at Oxford. The representations one sees, even in the Mauritius Museum of Art itself, are merely restorations, little more than cunning dolls constructed on skeletal frames. Nevertheless, the skeletons, the scattered bones of which are to be found abundantly even today in the Mauritian fens and swamps, have been painstakingly reassembled by Mauritian dodo artisans—the best in the world—and give an accurate picture of what the bird was like.

He was large, slightly bigger than the American turkey whom he in no mean way resembles. In silhouette the dodo is not unlike a great scrunched question mark. For detail we may refer to the paintings from life that have been made of the bird, many of the best of which are still here in the Mauritius Museum of Art and Dodo Reconstruction. Most of the artists seem to be in agreement that the animal possessed an enormous blackish bill which, together with the huge horny hook in which it terminates, constituted the shepherd’s crook of the question mark. Its cheeks, partially bare, seem oddly weather- beaten and muscular, like the toothless cheeks of old men who have worked out in the open all their lives. Black except for some whitish plumage on his breast and tail and some yellowish white the tint of old piano keys on his tail, the dodo was somewhat formal in appearance, if a trifle stupid looking. This formal aspect is attributable also to his wing, foreshortened as a birth defect, which in repose flops out and down from his body like an unstarched pocket handkerchief.

Dodos are said to have inhabited the Mauritian forests—this is the style of information, of certain kinds of fact; I find it relaxing—and to have laid a single large white egg which they mounted high in a setting of piled grass. Hogs, brought in by the settlers, fed on the dodo eggs and on the dodo young, and in one or two generations the birds were extinct.

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

Books I’ll (probably) never finish (yet return to again and again)

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A week or so ago, I wrote about the books (specifically novels) that I can’t seem to finish despite beginning them five, six, seven plus times. In that post, I noted that there “are certain books I’ll probably never ‘finish,’ that I have no aim of finishing,” and hence didn’t include in my silly little list. Such titles seemed to need their own post.

“Finish” is probably the wrong verb to use to denote the act of reading, in traditional sequence, all the words on all the pages of a grand great novel. I have never really “finished” the books that I’ve read the most times from cover to cover—books like Adventures of Huckleberry FinnTheir Eyes Were Watching GodMoby-Dick, UlyssesBlood Meridian2666. Something about such books remains somewhere inside of me, unfinished (in contrast to the many, many novels—most often contemporary “literary” fictions—that I truly finish by reading and then jettisoning from memory). The great books that I’ve finished are unfinished. Something of the really great novels wriggles around in the background of consciousness, whispering, howling.

Putting together a little list of books I’m always reading but will likely never finish was not difficult, although I should clarify that I’ve intentionally left off a good number of critical texts—stuff like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.—as well as the letters, notebooks, and journals of writers that I return to again and again. I tried to stick to novels. But are the works pictured/listed here—Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon QuixoteFinnegans Wake, and 1982, Janine—are these actually novels? The question is complex and productive, but I’ll answer it with the simple, “Yes, but– 

(And yet, parenthetically: That the novelness of these novels is suspect is perhaps a key to why these are the works that fascinate me, that these unnovelly novels make me stumble; I resort to shelving them, grab for critical interpretations, guides, commentaries, etc.—in the hopes of…of what?)

Joyce’s Finnnegans Wake is a nice starting place for this little list. The novel’s famous opening line (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) actually completes the novel’s “final” (non-)sentence (“A lone a last a loved a long the”). So Finnegans Wake is a loop, an infinite jest. Over the past decade, I’ve dipped into the book again and again, using Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key as a friendly guide. I’ve learned to have fun with Finnegans Wake, taking something from its language, its connections, its syntheses, while abandoning the pretense that I’ve anything to gain by trucking through it at full speed just to “finish” it.

I pick up Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman less often than I used to, having recovered from trying to understand it. The novel seems to me proof that the term “postmodern” is simply a description of a way of seeing, and not a set of aesthetic conditions. Also, I love that Sterne loves the dash—

It’s perhaps a great moral failing on my part that I’ve never made it past the first few chapters of the Second Part of Don QuixoteI’m familiar with it, largely by way of Nabokov’s lectures and summaries. Anyway, I fail to understand Don Quixote; I fail to read it rightly.

Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine doesn’t have the same reputation as the other novels I’ve listed here; its inclusion wasn’t so much an afterthought but a realization—I bought it four years ago and have yet to shelve it. It’s always on a coffee table, the edge of a sofa, next to my bed, cooing, Start again. I start reading it and then I skip ahead to its weird black heart, then I read from the end, then I go back to the beginning. Then I put it aside, having made no “progress.”

I don’t know what Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is. Is it a novel? (Wait. I think we went through this above). I first encountered it as a bewildered undergrad, checking out an old huge hardback edition from the library. I made a small dent (aided by Ritalin). All that Latin is Greek to me. In his preface to the NYRB edition, William H. Gass advises, “Be prepared to proceed slowly and you will soon go swiftly enough. Read a member a day; it will chase gloom away.” I have not read a member a day, but I do like to pull Melancholy from the shelf late at night, after a few glasses of wine, and dip into it somewhere. I will never finish it.

And yet I’ve retained more from these unfinished novels than most of the contemporary fiction novels I’ve read. Anna Livia Plurabelle. The priest burning poor Quixote’s beautiful books. The marbled pages, the blacked out pages, the squiggles of Tristram Shandy. The typographic explosions in 1982, Janine. The dirty bits. The lists. The force of language, above all.

In a sense, not “finishing” these grand weird novels keeps them vital to me, present somehow, promising in their possibility, taunting and tantalizing in their pregnant unfinishabilty.

White Mythology (Book acquired, 6.17.2016)

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W.D. Clarke’s White Mythology comprises two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. The physical book itself is beautiful, filled with epigraphs and images, occasional font shifts, and intriguing chapter titles (“The Pynchon Method,” for example).

Here’s the blurb:

Dr. Ed’s head should be spinning: a long-lost ‘son’ has just been sent over to his office by the temp agency, his shopping-addicted wife seems to have disappeared, and the clinical trial that he is running for a revolutionary new anti-depressant might well be going off the rails. But Dr. Ed is in control of everything, including himself.

Thus begins “Skinner Boxed”, the first of two thematically linked novellas that comprise White Mythology. In the second piece, “Love’s Alchemy”, five narrators deliver stories of betrayal that are nested like Russian dolls, stories that span an attempted seduction in Tokyo in 1987 back to a brotherly schism that erupts during a bottle rocket game of “war” in 1970s Massachusetts. From boys who poison their teacher’s plants to men who compulsively urinate into rivers, these strange (and strangely connected) monologues drop the reader into the pitch-black dunk tank of the soul.

You can preview White Mythology at Clarke’s site.

What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

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What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.

I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-DickUlyssesInfinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).

Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.

I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).

 Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).

By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…

I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).

I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.

Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.

My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.

I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.

I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.

By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.

And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).

 

Three Books

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The Dead Father by Donald Barthleme. Penguin paperback, 1986. Cover design by Todd Radom; cover illustration by Lonnie Sue Johnson.

Saturn, Orpheus, Lear, Nobodaddy. A sleeping undead giant, a quest. Good angry fun. I’ll say it’s my favorite Barthelme today (answers will change in the future).

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Fathers and Crows by William T. Vollmann. Penguin paperback, 1992. (An enormous paperback—990 pages—it flops slightly on the scanner, refuses to square up neatly). Cover design by Daniel Rembert employing a detail from a painting titled Le Martyrs des missionaires Jesuites (credited to “Anonymous”).

Different fathers, maybe, than the ones celebrated today, Father’s Day, the conceit I’ve lazily tied my Three Books post to…Jesuits. Or maybe they are the fathers. How many times have I tried all of this novel? If you’re interested in Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series, start with The Ice-Shirt or The Rifles instead.

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King Lear by William Shakespeare. Edited by R.A. Foakes. Arden, 1997. Cover design by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell; illustration by the Douglas Brothers.

Lear is maybe my favorite fictional father. I don’t know why. The man is a fool, but a pitiable one. Maybe I just love the play that much—its abjection, its darkness, its insanity. Out vile jelly, etc. Happy Father’s Day!

 

 

What I Believe — Paul Cadmus

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A reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence (William H. Gass)

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.

From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.

The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.

Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?

(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).

I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.

I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.