A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

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Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has finally been published. The book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Barracoon went previously unpublished due in part to Hurston’s refusal to revise the prose into a “standard” English. Hurston wrote Barracoon in a phonetic approximation of Cudjo’s voice. While this vernacular style may pose (initial) challenges for many readers, it is the very soul of the book in that it transmits Cudjo’s story in his own voice, tone, and rhythm. Hurston used vernacular diction throughout her work, but Cudjo’s voice is singular; it bears a distinctly different sound than the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel. It is hard to conceive a more compelling version of Barracoon than this one, the one Hurston refused to compromise, with its intense, vital orality.

What is Barracoon about? I shall liberally borrow my summary from the book’s introduction, penned by Hurston scholar and biographer Deborah G. Plant:

On December 14, 1927, Zora Neale Hurston took the 3:40 p.m. train from Penn Station, New York, to Mobile, to conduct a series of interviews with the last known surviving African of the last American slaver—the Clotilda. His name was Kossola, but he was called Cudjo Lewis. He was held as a slave for five and a half years in Plateau-Magazine Point, Alabama, from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free. Kossola lived out the rest of his life in Africatown (Plateau). Hurston’s trip south was a continuation of the field trip expedition she had initiated the previous year.

Oluale Kossola had survived capture at the hands of Dahomian warriors, the barracoons at Whydah (Ouidah), and the Middle Passage. He had been enslaved, he had lived through the Civil War and the largely un-Reconstructed South, and he had endured the rule of Jim Crow. He had experienced the dawn of a new millennium that included World War I and the Great Depression. Within the magnitude of world events swirled the momentous events of Kossola’s own personal world.

Zora Neale Hurston, as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist, was eager to inquire into his experiences. “I want to know who you are,” she approached Kossola, “and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?” Kossola absorbed her every question, then raised a tearful countenance. “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

Those final sentences should give you a quick taste of Barracoon’s central rhetorical conceit. After her own introductory chapter (which details the historical circumstances of the Clotilda’s illegal journey to West Africa), Hurston lets Cudjo inspirit the text, telling his own story in his own voice. Hurston, who spent three months with Cudjo, initially interposes herself in the story, as we see early in the book’s first chapter:

“My grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go.”

I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, “But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa.”

He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?

This brief “cutting in” is one of the last moments in the narrative that Hurston attempts to steer Cudjo in a particular direction. Instead, she befriends the old man, bringing him watermelons, hams, peaches, and other treats. These little gifts serve to frame Cudjo’s narrative as he moves from one episode to the next. Otherwise, Hurston disappears into the background, an ear for Cudjo’s voice, a witness for his story.

Cudjo’s story is astounding. He describes life in his own West African village and the terrible slaughter of his people at the hands of “de people of Dahomey,” a tribe that eventually sells Cudjo and the other young people of his village to white men. Cudjo describes his early enslavement in Alabama, which took place in secret until the Civil War, and his eventual freedom from bondage. He tells Hurston about the founding of Africatown, a community of West Africans. He describes his life after capture and slavery—his marriage, his children, his near-fatal railroad accident. Cudjo’s life and his children’s lives were incredibly difficult. They were always othered:

“All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.

“Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time. Me and dey mama doan lak to hear our chillun call savage. It hurtee dey feelings. Derefo’ dey fight. Dey fight hard. When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, ‘Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”

Somehow most devastating in a narrative full of devastation are the deaths of Cudjo’s children. After his daughter dies in infancy, his namesake is killed by a sheriff, a scene that resonates with terrible pain in 2018:

Nine year we hurtee inside ’bout our baby. Den we git hurtee again. Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.

He say he de law, but he doan come ’rest him. If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man. If he mad wid my Cudjo ’bout something den he oughter come fight him face to face lak a man. He doan come ’rest him lak no sheriff and he doan come fight him lak no man.

Another of his sons is decapitated in a railroad accident. A third son, angry with the injustice of the world, simply disappears: “My boy gone. He ain’ in de house and he ain’ on de hill wid his mama. We both missee him. I doan know. Maybe dey kill my boy. It a hidden mystery.”

Cudjo, ever the survivor, went on to outlive his wife and all of his children.  In her foreword to Barracoon, Alice Walker captures the pain and pathos of this remarkable position:

And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis’s life after Emancipation. His happiness with “freedom,” helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis’s case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving.

I cannot improve on Walker’s phrase here. Hurston brings that “nobility of soul” to life via Cudjo’s own rich language.

While Barracoon is of a piece with Hurston’s anthropological collections Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, it does not read like an autoethnography. It is rather a compelling first-person narrative. Hurston collecteed stories from Cudjo–fables, parables, games—but these are included as an appendix, a wise narrative choice as any attempt to integrate them into the main narrative would hardly be seamless. The appendix adds to the text’s richness without imposing on it, and links it to Hurston’s work as a folklorist.

I’ve noted some of the additional material already—Walker’s foreword, the appendix of folklore, as well as Plant’s introduction. Included also is an afterword by Plant that contextualizes Barracoon within Hurston’s academic career, a list of the original residents of Africatown, a glossary, a bibliography, and a lengthy compendium of endnotes. This editorial material frames the historic and academic importance of Barracoon, and will be of great interest to anyone who wishes to study the subject more. However, Cudjo’s narrative stands on its own as a sad, compelling, essential story. It’s amazing it took this long to reach a wider audience. Recommended.

[Ed. note–this review originally ran in May, 2018.]

Blog about Anna Burns’s maybe-horror/maybe-comedy novel Milkman

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Anna Burns’s third novel Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize and was reviewed in a number of prominent publications. It hardly needs my recommendation at this point, but I do recommend it: It’s artful, horrific, endearing, and troubling, a claustrophobic, unrelenting depiction of terror and paranoia. It’s also really funny.

Scattershot snippets I’d heard about Milkman indicated that the novel was “difficult” and even “confusing” or “challenging,” in large part because of the novel’s major stylistic trope—the first-person narrator refuses to ascribe clear, “stable” names to the characters in the book.

Our narrator, an eighteen-year-old woman in Northern Ireland, is referred to variously as “daughter,” “middle sister,” and “maybe-girlfriend” (among other titles) depending on whom she is interacting with. Similarly, most other characters are referred to in such terms: “oldest friend,” “third brother-in-law,” or simply “neighbour,” a nebulous catchall. (There are “named’ characters of a sort though: “chef,” “tablets girl,” “nuclear boy,” “real milkman,” and, of course, the horrific titular character “milkman.”) This narrative device might disarm some readers initially, but I found it easy to sink into our first-person narrator’s distinctive, brave, funny voice, a voice that emerges into new states of knowing and new states of consciousness as the novel unfolds.

Naming, or rather not naming is especially rhetorically significant given the setting and context of Milkman. It is the late 1970s, and the strange hot cold silent loud civil war in Northern Ireland has been going on for the entirety of our narrator’s lifetime. It has fully colonized her consciousness, shaped her language. Significantly, the conflict itself cannot be named except obliquely, nebulously. When our narrator tries to describe this zeitgeist, she employs the vague term “political problems”; her third brother-in-law replies, “Are you referring to the sorrows, the losses, the troubles, the sadnesses?”

Similarly, phrases like Protestant or Catholic are never employed, let alone anything as specific as the British army and the IRA, or unionists and nationalists. There’s just “their side” and “our side.” The sides don’t ultimately matter in Milkman. Rather this is a novel about what a constant state of their side-our side does to a person.

Our narrator, bound since birth in this state of their side-our side, has difficulty clearly communicating the central conflict of Milkman. She finds herself the strange victim of the milkman, an older married man who is a top level operative of the renouncers, anti-government paramilitaries who essentially run her district. (To be clear, he is not a real milkman. There is a real milkman though, and he’s a good guy.) Milkman stalks the narrator, creeping up next to her in his white van as she walks home reading 19th-century novels (a habit that marks her as “beyond the pale,” an outsider in her community) or waylaying her as she runs in the park. He’s a nightmare force of patriarchal ideology, a creeper at the edge, but utterly empowered.

Milkman isn’t the narrator’s only stalker. No, there’s also Somebody McSomebody, who we meet, sort of, in the novel’s astonishing opening sentence: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Somebody McSomebody is a poseur though. He’s a pretend renouncer, a would-be hardman also inscribed in the violent ideology of the the Troubles. The narrator calls him her “amateur stalker.”

The narrator uses variations of the word “stalk” in Milkman, but this word is meant to convey meaning to us, to a readership that might now better understand the term. (This effect of an older voice imposing its wisdom on a younger perceiver persists in Milkman.) What’s clear though is that nobody, or at least nobody in authority, can help the narrator from her stalkers:

That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything.

Our narrator lives in a constant state of maybe, a trope underscored by her relationship with “maybe-boyfriend” (himself something of an oddball). Maybe-boyfriend is a compelling character in Milkman, and perhaps something of tragic-absurd one as well. (One of the strangest details in the novel: maybe-boyfriend and his brothers are abandoned by his parents so that they can become world champion ballroom dancers—which they do (become world champion ballroom dancers, that is.)) In a particularly strong section of the book, maybe-boyfriend, a mechanic and car enthusiast, brings home the supercharger of a Bentley and shows it off to his neighbors. The jovial atmosphere slowly slides into a tense then paranoid exchange—Bentleys are English after all—which eventually erupts into violence. It’s a remarkably controlled episode that describes the ideology of the Troubles in a way that a historical textbook never could.

Even though our narrator lives in a perpetual maybe, she still understands her community and can describe it for us. She is intelligent and perceptive, and much of the humor in Milkman evinces from moments where she gets on a rhetorical roll, as when she describes her home as “our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.” Horror and comedy conjoin in her absurd description of a run-in with the milkman as “talking to a sinister man while holding the head of a cat that had been bombed to death by Nazis.”

Radical horror, violence, and uncertainty percolate in Milkman. Paranoia rules on all levels, but by focusing primarily on the narrator’s being stalked by milkman, Burns offers a concrete portrait of a malevolent force that might otherwise be too sinister and abstract to properly convey in a fictional novel. At the same time, our narrator is able to extrapolate beyond her concrete circumstances to other injustices—

those big ones, the famous ones, the international ones – witch-burnings, footbindings, suttee, honour killings, female circumcision, rape, child marriages, retributions by stoning, female infanticide, gynaecological practices, maternal mortality, domestic servitude, treatment as chattels, as breeding stock, as possessions, girls going missing, girls being sold and all those other worldwide cultural, tribal and religious socialisations and scandalisations, also the warnings given against things throughout patriarchal history that were seen as uncommon for a woman to do or think or say.

Milkman is full of moments like this, rhetorical flights that help weave a richer picture of our narrator’s psychic state.

Milkman also shows us how that psychic state deteriorates. Our narrator was always an outsider, reading novels while walking or going on long runs as a way to tune out reality. Our narrator is aware of this tuning-out; indeed, it is her primary practice. However, as gossip and lies spread about her and the milkman, her consciousness begins to crumble–

Thing was though, before I’d gained the understanding of what was happening, my seemingly flattened approach to life became less a pretence and more and more real as time went on. At first an emotional numbness set in. Then my head, which initially had reassured with, ‘Excellent. Well done. Successfully am I fooling them in that they do not know who I am or what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling,’ now began itself to doubt I was even there. ‘Just a minute,’ it said. ‘Where is our reaction? We were having a privately expressed reaction but now we’re not having it. Where is it?’ Thus my feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing. And now this numbance from nowhere had come so far on in its development that along with others in the area finding me inaccessible, I, too, came to find me inaccessible. My inner world, it seemed, had gone away.

This is a sad, remarkable, and genuinely horrifying passage. We get the horror of un-becoming, a kind of un-becoming that we might find in many other horror-tinged feminist works, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Anna Kavan’s Ice to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. 

Not only is our heroine emotionally and psychologically drained, she also finds herself physically exhausted by the duress of being stalked—stalked now not only by the milkman, but also by the whispering community. No longer able to take the walks and runs that replenished her, she languishes. The horror and absurdity culminates when she is poisoned, for no real reason, by tablets girl, “our district poisoner” and must recover without the aid of professional medical care. (Nobody in the district can go to the hospital without fear of being thought an informant.)

After a serious bout of purging, the narrator recovers. While recovering, her triumvirate of “wee sisters” asks her to read them a story. Tellingly, they purloin their ma’s copy of The Exorcist. Milkman is a novel of possession and purging, of being inscribed in a preexisting symbolic order and forging a consciousness strong enough to resist and endure that order.

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

Blog about some books acquired, 17 July 2019 (and some Poe and Whitman illustrations)

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Despite having a pretty large TBR stack, I killed this afternoon’s spare hour at my favorite used bookstore. This particular bookstore is a maze of used books, labyrinthine walls of books, with ever-mutating shelves growing from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. I confess I don’t always stoop low—I get old, I get dizzy—but stooping low to look for something else (which I now misremember; I get old) I found a big fat stack of copies of John Kennedy Toole’s cult novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Which I have never read. Which was recommended to me twenty years ago when I wasn’t so old, when I was way into Vonnegut, Burroughs, Hemingway. Which was recommended to me by someone who had made me read Tom Robbins. Which was why I didn’t bother to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I’ve always sort of assumed that I’d missed my window with this one—not sure why—-like that I should’ve read it before I was thirty. Anyone, I threw it out on twitter and some smart folks gave me the go ahead. So we’ll see.

I also found a copy of The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. Again, I wasn’t looking for this book. Actually, I found this Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series edition quite by accident, but recalled the NYRB edition (both are translated by Barbara Bray) and picked it up. I usually am not a big fan of photographs of people on covers, but I really like this one.  I’ll steal NRYB’s blurb:

This is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Here long-suffering Telumee tells her life story and tells us about the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from. Time flows unevenly during the long hot blue days as the madness of the island swirls around the villages, and Telumee, raised in the shelter of wide skirts, must learn how to navigate the adversities of a peasant community, the ecstasies of love, and domestic realities while arriving at her own precious happiness. In the words of Toussine, the wise, tender grandmother who raises her, “Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

My good luck streak of finding old massmarket paperback copies of Strugatsky brothers novels continued when I found Prisoners of Power (English translation by Helen Saltz Jacobson).

I also found myself intrigued by some large illustrated editions of Melville and Poe, although I resisted picking them up. I really love the simple design of this 1931 omnibus Romances of Herman Melville—

As far as I could tell, the publishers failed to credit the edition’s illustrator, but he signed it—Edward S. Annison.

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The editors of an oversized 1973 David R. Godine edition of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did bother to name the illustrator: Gerry Hoover. Hoover’s illustrations are pretty creepy:

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Okay—maybe the last one isn’t creepy. But the tortoise’s grimacing beak is intense.

Blog about a book acquired and a bit of recent reading

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The copy I ordered of Fernando A. Flores’ novel Tears of the Trufflepig arrived today and I finished the first three chapters before putting on the USA-ENG World Cup game—sort of a noir sci-fi tone so far (Flores’ novel, not the World Cup match).

I ordered the book after reading the first five paragraphs of J. David Gonzalez’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books a few days ago. I’ll read the rest of the review after I finish Trufflepig; these are the paragraphs I stopped with—

Now, about the plot. Drugs have been made legal, so the cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” animals, bio-engineered exotics brought back from extinction and served at black market dinners for the incredibly rich and extraordinarily vacuous. The death (by filtered ostrich, no less) of El Gordo Pacheco, the leader of the world’s most powerful cartel, has led to a global turf war for control of the filtering syndicates. Australia, Helsinki, Tangiers, New Hampshire: They all want in. Enter Leone McMasters, the silver-mustached head of McM Imports, a shadowy multinational corporation. Think Pynchon’s Golden Fang. Think Monsanto.

Also, there is a thriving black market for the shrunken heads of the Aranaña Indians, a fictional tribe of indigenous people at the heart of Trufflepig’s mystery. Having been vanished for over 400 years, their sudden reappearance portends something. Perhaps it’s doom, but perhaps it’s nothing at all, simply the passing of time. Still, tokens of their existence have led to a Möbius strip of tragedy, “with Indians now killing other Indians for their heads, because they are left out on the margins of the modern world and have few recourses to feed their families.”

I finished Anna Kavan’s novel Ice a few days ago (I wrote about it herehere, and here). I realized after having written about Ice that I’d neglected to compare it favorably to a number of other novels and stories. By compare—well, what I want to say is that reading Ice feels a particular way; it’s disorienting, a bit upsetting, and truly strange. I had meant to compare it to Georg Büchner’s novella Lenz, the novels of João Gilberto Noll, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Village after Dark,” plenty of Poe, and the films of David Lynch.

After Ice I read a bit of Anna Burns’ recent novel Milkman, but it didn’t stick for whatever reason—I’ll give it a proper effort soon though. I ended up pulling a collection of Angela Carter from the shelf and rereading some of the tales in The Bloody Chamber (specifically, Carter’s riffs on Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast). I think maybe it was the lingering Kavan flavors—the fable-making psychosexual thrust of it all—that prompted rereading a bit of Carter, which served as almost a palate cleanser. I’ll probably read a few more tales from it after I finish Trufflepig. But now back to the soccer match, which just tied up at 2-2.

An area of total strangeness | Blog about the final third of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice

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Bondage by Leonor Fini. Part of Fini’s illustrations for a 1962 edition of Pauline Réage’s novel The Story of O.

I wrote about the first third of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice here and then wrote about the second third here. This third blog will discuss, sort of, the novel’s final third. If you want a very short review though, here goes: If you like novels that disrupt our conventional sense of how a novel should “work” and challenge the very process by which we understand narrative, you will like Ice. Like is maybe not the right verb here, but I’ll let it stand. Ice is simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, personal and alienating, small and epic. Kavan conjures an apocalypse that refuses the promise of revelation that an apocalypse entails, leaving her readers and characters in a state of radical unknowing. Kavan’s strangeness is Kafkaesque, yes, but hardly imitative, instead drawing from the same wells of modern absurdity, but also sculpting that absurdity into something new, something postmodern, a tale that deconstructs its own telling with  gothic earnestness. If you “like” weird ones, Ice might be for you.

Now then.

So I finished reading Ice the other afternoon. I then made the mistake of reading Kate Zambreno’s marvelous afterword to the novel (originally published as “Anna Kavan” in Context N°18). Zambreno’s essay is fantastic. She reads Kavan’s novels and contextualizes them within and against the novelist’s life. If Zambreno’s essay were not a work rooted in biographical reality, it would be a highly-achieved short story. Kavan’s life was fascinating.

I used the noun “mistake” in the second sentence of the previous paragraph; what I mean to say is: I should have let myself write this third blog before I had any context about Kavan’s biography. I’m glad I initially skipped Jonathan Lethem’s foreword to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of Ice that I read, which would have done me the disservice of coloring the lens through which I read Ice. Zambreno’s essay is excellent, and I don’t begrudge it (Lethem’s is, like, fine), but the fact that Penguin felt the need to wedge Ice into such a contextual frame perhaps attests to the novel’s wonderful estranging weirdness.

(Of course, had I read Zambreno’s essay beforehand (which, like, go for it, I would have picked up Ice as soon as possible.)

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At Her Feet by Leonor Fini. Part of Fini’s illustrations for a 1962 edition of Pauline Réage’s novel The Story of O.

Where was I? Ok. The last third of Ice.

Kavan structures her novel (structure is not the right verb) around three persons, all unnamed: the narrator, the girl, and the warden. The narrator and the warden pursue the girl, a cipher who is placed, displaced, replaced, and displaced again throughout Ice. But as the narrative progresses, it seems that this unstable menage a trois might simply be the narrator’s projection—indeed, Ice is a monomaniac narrative. Projection in the previous sentence is not the right word—I think it implies too much a level of psychological introspection that Ice subverts. There are objects and subjects and analyses in Kavan’s novel, but they never quite meet up.

The ever-shifting setting of the novel is apocalypse in the form of (of course) the titular ice. We never quite learn the specific cause of this apocalypse, although we do know that it is humanity itself that has engendered its own permanent victimhood. Beyond this slim explanation, Ice is a novel that defers, derails, and deconstructs our traditional notions of cause and effect. While there’s often a Ballardian tone to Kavan’s apocalyptic narrative, there’s none of the connective tissue that we might expect from even the strangest science fiction. There’s instead push and pull, contraction and expansion.

We see these oppositions at the beginning of Ch. 11, which initiates the novel’s final third. Our narrator somehow arrives at a safe harbor, a small paradise subsisting on illusions and borrowed time—

The past was forgotten, the long, hard, dangerous voyage and the preceding nightmare. Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality. There were theatres, cinemas, restaurants and hotels, shops where goods of all sorts were sold freely, without coupons. The contrast was staggering. The relief overwhelming. The reaction too great. A kind of delirium was induced, a mad gaiety.

The passive voice our narrator employs here highlights his arcing agency as he moves from nightmare to a “solid reality” that will, in due time, disintegrate. And everything in Ice disintegrates, only to re-integrate into new textual territories.

It would be too easy to read Ice as a prescient allegory for our own stark era of impending ecological disaster (the poet picked fire, although he noted that ice would suffice). Still, it’s hard not to nod in recognition at a passage like this one—

The festivities went on and on: carnivals, battles of flowers, balls, regattas, concerts, processions. Nobody wanted to be reminded of what was happening in other parts of the world. Rumours coming from outside were suppressed by order of the consul, who had assumed responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, ‘pending the restoration of the status quo’. To speak of the catastrophe was an offence under the new regulations. The rule was to choose not to know.

“The rule was to choose not to know,” but our narrator’s delusions of grandeur won’t permit him to party nonstop at the threshold of apocalypse (even if he has the girl with him)—

I could not remain isolated from the rest of the world. I was involved with the fate of the planet, I had to take an active part in whatever was going on. The endless celebrations here seemed both boring and sinister, reminiscent of the orgies of the plague years. Now, as then, people were deluding themselves; they induced a false sense of security by means of self-indulgence and wishful thinking. I did not believe for one moment they had really escaped.

And so our narrator departs, leaving the girl (who must always be abandoned, found again, imprisoned, and stolen in endless deferrals of victimhood). He heads out in search of the indris, large lemurs who reside in Madagascar (the country is never named of course). These lemurs, whom the narrator claims sing sweetly, are absurd symbols of peace, a world that suspends the very predation and violence that the narrator has participated in and will continue to participate in.

In time he joins a guerrilla force—does it matter which one?—and finds his way back to the warden, a powerful warlord here in the end of days. The warden is horrified to learn that the narrator has abandoned the girl. He chides the narrator, underscoring Ice’s Sadean themes—

‘You don’t know how to handle her,’ he stated coldly. ‘I’d have licked her into shape. She only needs training. She has to be taught toughness, in life and in bed.’

The narrator though is not upset at this idea; rather, he is mortified that his sense of identification with the warden has been sundered:

At that moment I was more concerned with him, linked to him so closely, as if we shared the same blood. I could not bear to be alienated from him. ‘Why are you so angry?’ I went a step closer, tried to touch his sleeve, but he moved out of my reach. ‘Is it only because of her?’ I could not believe this, the bond between him and myself seemed so strong. Just then she was nothing to me by comparison, not even real. We could have shared her between us…’

But of course that sharing has happened throughout the novel, in the most cruel and sadistic way. The girl, a trace, the decenterd center, slips between narrator and warden, all three agents of the same narrative force.

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Submission by Leonor Fini. Part of Fini’s illustrations for a 1962 edition of Pauline Réage’s novel The Story of O.

As Ice approaches its apocalyptic conclusion, the narrator continues to contend with his disintegrating perception of reality. Perhaps the greatest strength of Kavan’s novel is the way in which it reckons with how a first-person perspective is always under duress, always under the pressure to witness to and account for a world that will not stand still, a world to which we can never fully acclimate—

 I should have been inured to climatic changes; but I again felt I had moved out of ordinary life into an area of total strangeness. All this was real, it was really happening, but with a quality of the unreal; it was reality happening in quite a different way.

The final paragraphs of Ice give way to insular, speeding destruction, the narrator and the girl (and the warden, implicitly always with them) in a heated car shuttling through a dying world. Indeed, the narrator remarks near the very end that, “The world seemed to have come to an end already. It did not matter.” The final moments of Ice are sinister and a bit heartwarming, the final phallic image an ironic spike to the narrator’s conciliatory tone. And the apocalypse? Well, the narrative ends, and the world of Ice ends with it—much as it began, with a narrative voice, lost in the cold. Very highly recommended.

Uncertainty of the real | Blog about the first third of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice

The first three words of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice are “I was lost,” a simple declaration that seems to serve as a mission statement for the next 60 odd pages. I read these 60 odd pages (63, to be precise, in my Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of the novel) today, often feeling lost, and glad of it. I like it when I don’t really know what a book is doing, and Ice is such a book.

Ice is told in first-person by an as-yet-unnamed narrator who strikes me as more than a little unreliable. “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” he tells us early in the first chapter, admitting that, “At times this could be disturbing.”

Kavan crafts a disturbing, dreamlike tone from the novel’s opening pages, a sinister menace that intensified over the five chapters that I read today. The novel’s settings are detailed but also indistinct, not tethered to any specific time or place, yet nevertheless vaguely familiar. Ice starts in a place like England, and our narrator soon travels to what seems like a Scandinavian country—more on that in a minute—and it’s unclear when exactly the story is taking place: the past? The future? A twisted version of now?

What is clear is that Ice is set in a world that has fallen or is falling into ruin. The word ruins repeats throughout the book; there’s a sense of a post-war world that never recovered—crumbling walls, abandoned buildings, and a reliance on ancient fortresses as symbols of civilization. It’s simultaneously real and unreal, uncanny, disquieting. “The situation was alarming, the atmosphere tense, the emergency imminent,” our narrator tells us, pointing to the vague horror that writhes under the novel’s surface.

Our unnamed narrator repeatedly underscores Ice’s central unreality, an unreality that it is possible he, as the narrator, actually is creating through his witnessing and telling:

I was aware of an uncertainty of the real, in my surroundings and in myself. What I saw had no solidity, it was all made of mist and nylon, with nothing behind.”

Our narrator, who claims to have been at times a soldier and at times an explorer, admits that his medication might contribute to his sense of unreality, to his getting lost. Reading Ice is to get lost from paragraph to paragraph, which I mean in the most complimentary sense. I often had to backtrack, especially in the early chapters, to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed a sentence or stray line of connective tissue that might explain why we had suddenly ended up in, say, a Boschian-nightmare battle, or in the inside of a mesmerist’s chamber in a high tower.

The first swerve into unreality (if it is indeed unreality) happens in the opening paragraphs. Our narrator is lost, driving icy hills, looking for the home of a woman (“the girl”) he claims is his former betrothed, now married to another. It’s not quite clear why he needs to see her, but he’s looking for her, and he’s lost. (I have just describe the plot of the first several chapters.) Here is how we first meet the girl:

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was.

Kavan’s narrator never fully explains that what he might have just communicated to the readers was an hallucination or other species of unreality. He concedes that his medication (for “trauma” inflicted by the girl’s desertion of him) leads him to have nightmares and visions, always of the girl becoming a “victim” of some kind (the word victim repeats throughout Ice).

He finally arrives at the house of the girl and her husband. Kavan layers this visit with his memories (or fantasies?) of at least one other visit to their home. Kavan condenses these scenes with surreal fabulsim. Our narrator, like Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim, seems unstuck in time, yet also seems unable, or unwilling, to provide his audience any guideposts. We get lost together.

Our narrator can also see sights that seem impossible to a first-person perspective—he seems able to see the girl in rooms we understand to be closed, in spaces we understand to be private, from distances we understand to be impossible. In one such instance, he even seems to peer through the girl’s own consciousness:

Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all around. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.

This apocalyptic vision is a foretaste of images to come later in the novel, although Kavan (or her narrator, I should write) is more interested, for now anyway, in the dream-like psychological apocalypse of the girl over the ecological apocalypse vaguely hinted at in initial chapters (“a steep rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device,” “substantial climatic change,” impending secret wars).

The girl moves closer to the “arctic prison” of her vision after running away from home and husband (or is she kidnapped?)—and our narrator follows her, trusting his intuition, which somehow gets him on a ship headed to a Scandinavianish country in a town that pulses with mythical dread. Here, the girl seems to be imprisoned by a man called only “the warden” in a fortress called the High House. Our narrator, as before, is able to access this private space, which he describes for us in horrific, archetypal terms:

She was in bed, not asleep, waiting. A faint pinkish glow came from a lamp beside her. The wide bed stood on a platform, bed and platform alike covered in sheepskin, facing a great mirror nearly as long as the wall. Alone here, where nobody could hear her, where nobody was meant to hear, she was cut off from all contact, totally vulnerable, at the mercy of the man who came in without knocking, without a word, his cold, very bright blue eyes pouncing on hers in the glass. She crouched motionless, staring silently into the mirror, as if mesmerized. The hypnotic power of his eyes could destroy her will, already weakened by the mother who for years had persistently crushed it into submission. Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will, which was able to take complete possession of her. I saw it happen

“I saw it happen”: How?

Our narrator poses as a researcher of ruins in the town; the warden allows it (or at least seems to allow it) in the hopes that the narrator will convince his countrymen to help the warden’s country with the coming apocalypse. Meanwhile, the girl seems subject to multiple instances of becoming a victim, sacrificial and otherwise. (There are cliffs, there are dragons, there are battles, there are phosphorescent skeletons). How real these instances are is impossible to say. They are real enough to the narrator in any case, even if he seems able to walk away from them after a paragraph or two. “I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously,” he tells us, adding that “the overlapping of these planes was confusing.”

Confusing is one word, although Kafkaesque would do as well. I have tried to avoid using the word Kafkaesque to describe literature of late—it’s overused, and a bit of a crutch. Ice is reminiscent of The Castle, sure, but that’s not why I use the term here. Kavan’s writing achieves what Kafka’s writing achieves: It evokes the image and psychology of apocalypse while at the same time negating, displacing, suspending, delaying, or otherwise withholding the revelation that apocalypse promises. It is apocalypse without explanation, without understanding, without wisdom. It is being lost.

Kavan’s novel’s fable-like quality also calls to mind Angela Carter’s stories and novels, and the psychological dynamics recall J.G. Ballard (whose blurb appears on my copy). There are other notes of course—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time—but Ice strikes me as its own flavor and idiom of strange, a flavor and idiom I am digging very much right now. More thoughts to come.

Blog about some recently acquired books

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I have acquired a goodly amount of books in the last two weeks and failed to do any of these silly “books acquired” posts about them, having been busy with summer classes and occupying summer-bound children (and, admittedly spending too many free hours rewatching Deadwood so that I can watch the Deadwood film and doing a Brueghel puzzle, and not really writing).

I ordered Pierre Senges’ strange little book Geometry in the Dust. It’s new in English translation by Jacob Siefring from publisher Inside the Castle. (Siefring also translated Senges’ novel The Major Refutation, which I read a few years ago.) Geometry in the Dust is a rectangular novella that includes black and white illustrations by Patrice Killoffer. The text is set in two columns, with occasional inset notes set in a smaller font.

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I mention the size/shape, the inset notes, and the illustrations because, for whatever reason, these things make the reading experience even odder (although I can’t articulate why, and to be clear, I find the oddness compelling).

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Told in the articulate, observant, and often-funny first-person voice of the “sole faithful minister…advisor, chamberlain and…scapegoat” of a certain monarch—a “you” this minister addresses—like, you, the reader—told in this funny and strange voice, Geometry in the Dust is “about” (a term that we’d have to place under suspicion here) the planning, the mental construction of a great city. A sort of extended thought experiment, Senges’ novella captivated me for two quick afternoon reads, and I hope to go through it again in preparation for a proper review. For now, I’ll lazily compare it to Borges, Calvino, Perec, and Antoine Volodine—writers that Senges does not imitate, but seems to drink from the same imaginative well as.

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I went to my beloved used bookstore last Friday to browse, as is often my habit, and while I didn’t find any of the Joy Williams Vintage Contemporaries I was hoping to find, I did find a copy of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Kavan until I read Ann Quin’s fantastic novel Berg (which I reviewed recently on this blog). I subsequently read/heard Kavan’s name brought up in conversations concerning Quin. Ice is my next read.

I also spied a new copy of Anna Burns’ Milkman at half price and picked it up. I’d heard good things about the novel—that it’s weird, challenging; that a lot of folks hated it. And, like, look—Ann, Anna, Anna. Why not? Milkman after Ice?

I got home to three separate review copies in the mail, a bit of an overwhelming shock, really, as one is NYRB’s new edition of Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of my Brother Abel (translated by Joachim Neugroschel and revised by Marshall Yarbrough) b/w Cain: The Last Text (translated by David Dollenmayer). (The novel and its sequel have been published as Abel and Cain.) At nearly 900 pages it is a brick, or maybe a nice big hole to fall into soon.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Contra Mundum Press has published Iceberg Slim’s novel Night Train to Sugar Hill, which was never published in Slim’s (aka Robert Beck’s) lifetime. I’m not sure if this is the first publication of this late novel, but I think it is.

I had read some of Greg Gerke’s essays at LARB and 3:AM before getting See What I See (which is out later this year), and am generally impressed with what I’ve read so far. I admit that I skipped around almost immediately, reading (or rereading, in one case) pieces on William Gass and William Gaddis, before turning through pieces on Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman. An essay ostensibly on Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is really about criticism itself, and contains this paragraph:

Critics have a job incompatible with their raw materials. They are to respond promptly and pithily to a work of art—the very life of which changes by different viewings, listenings, and readings, and at different times in one’s life. It is like being a bull rider—one being is not made to situate itself onto the other. Yet, our culture still respects some views and honors the guidance offered. In conjunction, it is no exaggeration to say we live in an era that disposes of language, including the etiolation of the sentence, punctuation, spelling, and grammar by the rush to judgment, and by the ego not caring what it’s form of thought is like, only that it’s owner’s name is lit up. Our species is changing—words, because they are not respected, boil more easily over into lies and exaggeration, disregarding the best humanistic advice possible, courtesy of Shakespeare: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Where once words were imbricated and limned to grasp at wisdom, we now have the sweet satisfactions of irony, the insulting tweet, and the ham-handed “article” on why this or that does or doesn’t meet one’s satisfaction.

Gerke’s essay reminded me that I had wanted to see Mr. Turner (admiring both Leigh and his subject). (And if Gerke is a namegoogler—I loved Boyhood.)

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. 

 

no/Yes.

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

The final paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

Ulysses (Wandering Rocks) — Roman Muradov

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Ulysses, 2013 by Roman Muradov

 

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

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

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

From James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

The Alchemist — Paulina Olowska

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

Errors on Walt Whitman (Jorge Luis Borges)

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of the death dwarf routine.

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

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

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

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

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

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

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

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Book Party — Jansson Stegner

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