David R. Bunch’s Moderan (Book acquired, 13 Sept. 2018)

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I’ve enjoyed dipping into the first few stories in NYRB’s collection of David R. Bunch’s Moderan stories over the past few days. Bunch’s weird world has meshed nicely with the Strugatsky’s The Snail on the Slope, which I finished today. More to come on Moderan, but here’s NRYB’s blurb for now:

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.

This volume includes eleven previously uncollected Moderan stories.

“Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task”

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This week’s New York Times Magazine offers a compelling profile of Gerald Murnane. The profile, by Mark Binelli, is an expansive and engaging look at the Australian author, whose cult will undoubtedly grow larger after this exposure. From Binelli’s piece:

Murnane’s books are strange and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe in a sentence or two. After his third novel, “The Plains,” a fable-like story reminiscent of Italo Calvino published in 1982, Murnane largely turned away from what might be called conventional narrative pleasures. Dispensing almost entirely with plot and character, his later works are essayistic meditations on his own past, a personal mythology as attuned to the epic ordinariness of lost time as Proust, except with Murnane it’s horse races, a boyhood marble collection, Catholic sexual hang-ups and life as a househusband in the suburban Melbourne of the 1970s.

Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task. Even by the standards of the solitary writer, his eccentricities are manifest. He has never flown on an airplane; in fact, he has barely traveled outside of Victoria. In a 2001 speech that has become legend among Murnanophiles, he informed an audience at the University of Newcastle of his longstanding belief that “a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done.”

A lovely section from later in Binelli’s essay touches on Murnane’s archives:

Murnane began keeping the archives more than 50 years ago, both for posterity and to satisfy his own meticulous sense of order, and he has left strict instructions regarding their contents, which are not to be made public until after his own death and the death of his surviving siblings. (He has one brother, a Catholic priest, and a sister; another brother, who was born with an intellectual disability and was repeatedly hospitalized, died in 1985.) Nonetheless, Murnane opened the cabinets to give me a sense of their contents. His so-called Chronological Archive is stuffed with hanging files covering each period of his life and featuring headings like “I rebuff a wealthy widow,” “I fall out with an arrogant student of mine,” “Two women bother me,” “I decide that most books are crap,” “Hoaxes! How I love them!” and “Peter Carey exposed at last.” He also has multiple drafts of his 13 books; letters addressed, as in a time capsule, to a future Murnane scholar, whom he imagines as a young woman, and whom he addresses in the letters as “Fc,” for “future creature”; a notebook of 20,000 words titled “My Shame File”; a 40,000-word report on miraculous or unexplained events in his life; and a 75,000-word account of his dealings with everyone he has ever courted romantically or considered courting.

Read the profile at The New York Times Magazine.

Marjorie Worthington’s The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (Book acquired 26 Sept. 2017)

Marjorie Muir Worthington’s 1966 memoir about her relationship with occultist and fellow Lost Generation weirdo William Seabrook is forthcoming in a new edition from indie Spurl. It looks fascinating. Their blurb:

This is the somber, quietly stunning account of American author Marjorie Worthington’s life and relationship with William Seabrook.

A bestselling writer on the exotic and the occult, Seabrook was an extraordinary figure from the 1920s to the 1940s who traveled widely and introduced voodoo and the concept of the “zombie” to Americans in his book The Magic Island.

In 1966, years after his death from suicide, Worthington, a novelist and Seabrook’s second wife, cast her eye on their years living in France as lost-generation expatriates; their time traveling in the Sahara desert (where Seabrook researched his book The White Monk of Timbuctoo); their friendships with Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, and Michel Leiris; and the gradual erosion of their relationship.

Worthington was with Seabrook in France and later New York when his life became consumed by alcohol, and he took the drastic step of committing himself to a mental institution for a cure; though he wrote about the institution in his book Asylum, he remained an alcoholic. He was also fixated by sadistic games he played with women, which he and the surrealist Man Ray photographed, and which he later viewed as a way to initiate altered psychological states through pain.

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is an intimate look at the complicated, torturous relationship of two writers. Seabrook was a sadist, yet to Worthington he was also enthralling; he was an alcoholic, but she believed she could protect him. Even after he had hurt her emotionally, she stayed near him. In brilliantly depicted moments of folie à deux, we watch Worthington join Seabrook in his decline, and witness the shared claustrophobic, psychological breakdown that ensues.

A review of Barry Hannah’s cult classic collection Airships

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In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—

I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.

Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—

We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.

He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —

Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.

The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.

Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—

The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.

This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—

In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.

A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.

Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–

My Beloved Daughter,

Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.

Your Dad,

Crabfood

Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.

I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want  to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011. I am currently listening to the audiobook of the Hannah omnibus Long, Last, Happy, and just finished the first section, which contains most of Airships. The audiobook is good, but I wish it was Hannah reading it himself.]

Three Books (Possibly Cult Novels)

 

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Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz. English translation by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov. Trade paperback by Yale University Press, 1994. Cover design by Lorenzo Ottaviani. I reviewed Trans-Atlantyk here.

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Steps by Jerzy Kosinski. Another Vintage Contemporaries edition, 1988. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; illustration by Chris Moore.

I reviewed Steps here.

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The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis. English translation by Edith Grossman. NYRB, 2002. Cover design by Katy Homans; cover photograph by Sally Mann.

Biblioklept reviews here, here, and here.

These three books may or may not be cult novels.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the term cult novel, a term which used to fascinate me in my twenties, but one which I’m beginning to suspect doesn’t really mean anything, or seems to have a different value, anyway, now.

I’ve been thinking about cult novels because I’m nearing the end of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s excellent excellent excellent 1958 novel The Leopard, which someone somewhere (who? where?) told me was a cult novel. I have no idea why The Leopard should be a cult novel. Where is its cult? By cult do we just mean “underread” or “underappreciated”?

It seems that the internet has dramatically changed what a cult novel might be/mean. (I wrote a bit about cult novels on this blog years ago, and I would expand the rough list I outlined were I to update that lousy post, which I won’t). The three books I picked today might be cult novels in the sense that they might be underappreciated/underread—although that statement strikes me as absurd somehow! (Steps won the National Book Award).

I guess a real cult novel would be a novel, or perhaps author, who inspires a cultishly devoted base of readers (is this what the kids call a fandom? Jesus Christ). And because of the internet, cults can be big now: Pynchon, Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick. Such writers and their novels have inspired obsessive fans. But the works of these novelists are hardly samizdat. Look at PK Dick—think of how much of his work, his writing, his ideas have seeped into mainstream culture? So is it cult then?

Or am I really just stuck on an older connotation of “cult,” of cult classic, I guess, which was just a way of saying odd + underappreciated + hard to find? Which is to say in modes both literal and figurative: Inaccessible

And so well then when I say that the internet has changed what a cult novel is/isn’t, I suppose I’m simply noting access—access to the material books, access to fellow readers, access to forums, access to analysis, etc. And I suppose that’s, uh, good.

I considered hammering out a list of cult novels here at the end of this pointless little riff, but it would be too long. Besides, I really have no idea what a cult novel is anymore. I threw the question out there on Twitter, asking for examples, and got a wonderful wild range of responses, but the best response came almost immediately:

Hurrah for more intense pocket universes than ever before.

Illustration for Ben Marcus’s “G-D” (Catrin Morgan)

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Catrin Morgan‘s illustration for “G-D”  is part of the upcoming illustrated reissue of Ben Marcus’s cult jam The Age of Wire and String that the good people at Granta will put out.

Melville House Introduces The Neversink Library

The bibliophiles over at one of our favorite indies, Melville House, are introducing The Neversink Library, a line of international titles that have been overlooked, neglected, and under-appreciated, many languishing out of print for years. The line debuts this summer; the graphic below gives us a good idea of what titles to expect and shows off Neversink’s beautiful design–

I haven’t heard of most of these authors, but Melville House has a great record of bringing neglected and cult authors back to print; their Contemporary Novella series in particular stands out, and Neversink seems to follow this mode in some respects. Even better, you can suggest titles for the series. Looks promising.

A Selection from “Hierogylphic Silence” by William S. Burroughs

The following selection is from William S. Burroughs’s “Hieroglyphic Silence,” collected in the totally out-of-print volume The Third Mind, a book of cut-ups Burroughs co-authored with Brion Gysin (you can access the book here via extralegal means). From “Hieroglyphic Silence”–

“I am the Egyptian,” he said, looking all flat and silly, and I said: “Really, Bradford, don’t be tiresome.”

All right, let’s put it apple-pie simple with a picture of a wedge of apple pie there, containing fifty-three grams of carbohydrates.(See the L-C diet.)

Well now, if you don’t know the word for apple pie where you happen to be and want it, you can point to it or you can draw it. So, when and why do you need a word for it? When and why do you need to say, I want apple pie, if you just don’t care how fat you get?

You need to say it when it isn’t there to point to and when you don’t have your drawing tools handy\ In short, words become necessary when the object they refer to is not there.

No matter what the spoken language may be, you can read hieroglyphs, a picture of a chair or what have you; makes no difference what you call it, right? You don’t need subvocal speech to register the meaning of hieroglyphs. Learning a hieroglyphic language is excellent practice in the lost art of inner silence. “It would be well, today, if children were taught a good many Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs as a means of enhancing their appreciation of our alphabet.” If you are able to look at what is in front of you in silence, you will be able to write about it from a more perceptive viewpoint.

What keeps you from seeing what is in front of you? Words for what is in front of you, which are not what is there. As Korzybski pointed out: whatever a chair may be, it is not a “chair.” That is,it is not the label “chair.”So, now try this: pick up your Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, and copy out the following phrases:

p. 104; They fall down upon face their in land their own.

p. 173; Stood the prince alone in the presence of the gods.

p. 181; The lock of hair which was in.

p. 79; the wind

p. 202; Giver of winds is its name.

p. 190; coming forth waiting for thee from of  old

p. 200; night that of the destruction of the enemies

p. 208; come thou to us not having thy memories of evil come thou in thy form

p. 103; In the writing of the god himself he writeth for thee the book of breathings with his fingers his own.

p. 195; Shall it be that thou wilt be silent about it.

Now, having memorized the above passage, turn to the hieroglyphs on the following page and read in silence.

Even More Images from Codex Seraphinianus

More images from Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus. Learn more by reading Justin Taylor’s essay from the May 2007 issue of The Believer.


Biblioklept Interviews Melville House’s Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson, along with wife Valerie Merians, heads Melville House Publishing, an independent book house putting out some of the best stuff on the market today. They also have a bookstore in Brooklyn that regularly hosts all kinds of neat literary-type events. Melville House is the outgrowth of Johnson’s literary blog MobyLives, an insightful source of reportage on the literary world today. In 2007, the Association of American Publishers awarded Melville House the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing and in 2009 The Village Voice declared Melville House “The Best Small Press of the Year.” I talked to Johnson by phone last week and he answered my questions with patience and humor. We discussed how Johnson finds the marvelous books he publishes, translation, novellas, and upcoming releases from Melville House. After the interview he was kind enough to ask me about my own blog and offer me some encouraging words. Just a few days after our talk it was announced that one of Melville House’s recent publications, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven had won the 2010 Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

Biblioklept: I want to begin by congratulating Melville House on Hans Fallada’s novel, Every Man Dies Alone. It’s done really well both critically and commercially. The book is something of a “recovered classic,” published just last year for the first time in English. Can you tell us a little bit about how Melville House came to publish the book?

Dennis Johnson: Well, it was a search it’s a real saga about hunting down that book. I’m always interested in finding material from that part of the world and that time of history because I think a good deal of very good literature was lost between the two wars. And it’s just writing that I like a lot. So a friend of mine, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg had family that came through that part of the world at that time and I asked her if she had any recommendations and she told me I should look into Hans Fallada, who I’d never heard of. So I tracked down a couple of his titles that had been translated–because he was a bestselling writer here in the 1930s–and it took a while but I found some of those books which had been out of print for a long time and I really loved them. And then, von Furstenberg told me that his best one had never been translated. That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it. And, at that point, once we’d discovered it, it was pretty easy sailing. But tracking down his stuff that had been translated and finding out more about him was really kind of a fun bit of detective work.

B: Did Michael Hoffman translate it specifically for Melville House?

DJ: Yeah, he did. We hired him to do it.

B: Is that normally how you go about with these works–like Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan or Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack? Hiring a translator?

DJ: Well, there’s a couple of things you can do. You can find the translator, or you can reprint things that have been translated already, if you think it’s already a good translation–that’s a less expensive way to do a translated book. So for example, with the Fallada, I bought some old translations of his other books and published them simultaneously with the new translation of Every Man. There was, you know, there was no old translation to buy. But two of his other books, two great books, one called The Drinker and one called Little Man, What Now? I thought were pretty well translated so we just bought those old translations. They were out of print, they were available [for publication].

B: It seems like a lot of the books you guys put out are–I don’t know how to put it–recovered classics or cult books or just books that English-reading audiences just aren’t necessarily exposed to. Is that purposeful with Melville House?

DJ: I think we have a fairly mixed list. The names you were citing a minute ago . . . Balestrini, he’s only been translated once, I think, thirty or forty years ago. But he’s a very prominent writer in Italy. And it wasn’t exactly a “discovery,” it was just someone that we thought American audiences should know about. Imre Kertész on the other hand is extremely famous, he’s a Nobel Prize winner and he’s published by Knopf. We were thrilled when he wanted to come to Melville House. So, you know, some of these writers are here, some are not. We publish some well known writers, some very obscure writers. We try to mix it up. You know, there’ s no rule, just good literature.

B: Can you talk a little bit about the Contemporary Art of the Novella series? How did it come about?

DJ: Well, we originally had a series called just the Art of the Novella. It’s classics, many of them translated, classics from around the world, lots of European classics, and some of those are new translations that we did it, some are old translations that we reprinted. And that series did really, really well and people really seemed to love it so we decided that we would do a contemporary version of that series and try to mix it up the same way. And so the new series has new discoveries in it, some old reprints, things from around the world, we’re expanding beyond Europe and Russia, we’ve got a native Japanese author named Banana Yoshimoto in it coming out, we’ve got African writers, South American writers . . . It’s been off to a very good launch. I think we’ve done about fourteen or fifteen books in that series so far and it’s going really well. You know, it’s very hard to publish translation in the United States. It doesn’t . . . it doesn’t sell. It’s hard to keep it in store for a long time. And it’s expensive to do translated books because you have to pay your translator. In the Contemporary series we often use new translations because it’s new work that’s never been translated before and that can get very expensive because you’ve got two authors, you know, you have to pay the author, the translator, and that’s why a lot of people are cutting back on doing translations. But we wanted to keep doing translations and we had to figure out a way to keep doing it and one idea we had was, if we had this series of short novels . . . well, one, they’re just cheaper to do, they cost less to buy from another publisher, they cost less to make because they’re less paper and they cost less to translate because they’re shorter. And you know, you pay by how long. So, it suddenly became a more economical way for us to publish translated books. The booksellers, they like the Contemporary series. They get the whole series and they keep it in the store. So, for example, we’re about to do a deal with a new book store in Fort Greene called Greenlight where they would do a whole wall of these books. Other stores do a spin-rack of these books. And they just keep them. And what usually happens with new books is you just get a few weeks in the bookstore and if it doesn’t sell they return it. And so we would get really creamed on the translated work because it wouldn’t have very long in the store and it’s hard to get publicity for them and then they just didn’t have enough time to sell. But, if they’re taking the whole series and keeping them on display, forever, well, then these books have a real chance of surviving. So there were a lot of good reasons for us to do a Contemporary series. And in the end, the reason was that it allowed us to keep doing really good, serious, translated work.

B: What do you think about “rock star” writers like Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño whose English translations sell very well? Does that help the prospects of translated books at all?

DJ: Well, every year there are one or two books that are translated that do very well. But they’re the exception to the rule. At any given point in the year, you look at the New York Times bestseller list for fiction, there’s almost never a translated book on it. Or if there is, it’s some, you know, Scandinavian murder mystery or something. It’s very rare it’s a serious work of literature. So I would say those writers are the exception to the rule. But it’s certainly does help those of us selling translated fiction to be able to point to those things. It encourages booksellers to give us a chance.

B: Can you tell us a little bit about upcoming titles and authors you’re excited about?

DJ: Well, we’re doing another Fallada–

B: Wolf Among Wolves, right?

DJ: We’re doing Wolf among Wolves in May. And we’re doing the paperback for Every Man Dies Alone at the end of this month, as a matter of fact. So those are two that I’m really excited about. We have some really great nonfiction coming out. We just published a book about North Korea called The Cleanest Race. It’s about understanding North Korea through its propaganda. It’s got a lot of really wild art showing the propaganda posters and movie stills and things. And then we’ve got some novels coming out, one from a young British writer named Lee Rourke. It’s the first novel. It’s called The Canal and I think it’s one of the very best novels we’ve ever published. It’s generating a lot of excitement. We’re doing another one with Kertész next year, which is a big novel called Fiasco. He wrote a trilogy years ago about his experience in the camps. What was he, fifteen or something, when he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, working in a Nazi factory trying to turn coal into gasoline? And he wrote a novel called Fatelessness about that and another one called Kaddish for an Unborn Child. And Knopf published Kaddish and Fatelessness but they never published Fiasco. So we’re really excited about that.

B: Something I enjoy about MobyLives is your perspective as a publisher covering real news about book selling.

DJ: Thanks. It’s a labor of love. If you look at the historic arc of the website, you can see that we became more informed by being a publisher. I wasn’t a publisher when I started it and it was much more general-interest reader kind of thing. I try to get help. I try to make the staff here participate, I think it makes it a little more wide-ranging.

B: So, have you ever stolen a book?

DJ: Sure, yeah. I used to steal a lot of books from my brother. I remember stealing Gore Vidal’s Burr. My big brother’s a lot older than me and he left the house when I was a kid and I remember stealing a lot of his books. So Burr yeah, a novel Vidal wrote about Aaron Burr. Fantastic book. I still have it. He hasn’t asked for it back. I don’t think he knows.

Why Don’t They Make Book Covers Like This Anymore?

Cover design for Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard by Jerome Moriarty, 1966 Time Reading Program edition.

On Cult Books

I finished Lore Segal’s lovely and perplexing 1976 novella Lucinella today. It’s a witty and rewarding little book that deserves its own review, of course, and I’ll post one later this week. Lucinella is new in print again for the first time in a few decades courtesy of the good folks at Melville House Publishing. The jacket and the press release Melville House sent me both trumpet the book as a “cult classic.” I’ve been reading a number of so-called “cult books” lately–William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and John Crowley’s Little, Big. But I’m not really sure what a “cult book” might be. It got me to thinking, of course, and before I went to that ersatz oracle of our time (i.e., a Google search), I thought I’d try to define “cult book” in my own terms:

First, to be clear, a cult book is not (necessarily) a book about cults. It’s a book that has a cultish following (i.e., a group of devoted (perhaps obsessive) fans who work to push the work on anyone who will listen to them).

Second, cult books tend to address or include subject matters and issues outside of mainstream tastes (whatever that means). Of course, what’s open to public discourse changes over time, so what was once a cult book, over time, can soon move into mainstream or even canonical tastes. Hence, a large number of books and authors that once might have been cult are no longer cult.

ulysses unrestored copy
First edition of Ulysses

But this doesn’t seem satisfactory: James Joyce’s Ulysses had to be initially smuggled into America; it’s now a canonical standard. William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch faced similar obscenity charges; decades later, Burroughs starred in a Nike ad. Yet, it seems that despite their eventual “mainstreaming” both books have something of a cult status–yet they don’t seem to need a cult the way that Gaddis or Lowry might. But what about Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy? It clearly needs a cult to push it on people in the hopes of it actually being read, despite its canonical status. Which brings us to defining point three:

Third, the cult in question can not be purely academic. Faulkner would probably be a cult author if it weren’t for English professors and teachers with their syllabi and whatnot.

So, what is a cult novel? I have to think that, based on my definitions, cult status is always malleable. Thanks to the internet, readers have greater access to other readers, not to mention an exponentially expanded market of books to access. So I have to think back to high school and college, to those books that friends thrust on me, saying simply, “Read this, you have to,” books that I thrust on others, books that were secreted from hand to hand, clandestinely, until their covers had to be fixed with Duck tape. I think about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; anything by Kurt Vonnegut; Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; anything by Charles Bukowski; Tropic of Cancer (or was it Tropic of Capricorn?). Antony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography made the rounds in my circle of friends, as did the Led Zep bio, Hammer of the Gods.

tropic-of-cancer
Note the warning that the book is verboten in the US and UK

There was also a pirate copy of The Anarchist Cookbook that someone had downloaded off of something called the internet (this was 1994 or 1995) and printed on a dot matrix printer. William Burroughs, of course. William Gibson. Anthony Burgess. Philip K. Dick. Cerebus. Aldous Huxley (especially Ape and Essence). Lolita. On the Road. Camus. Kafka. In college: John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. J.G. Ballard. Douglas Coupland. David Foster Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair, a book literally pressed on me my freshman year by a friend who simply could not believe I had never read Wallace. To some embarrassment, I suppose, Irvine Welsh. Thomas Pynchon. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. After college, a refinement I suppose (grad school ironing out some kinks of course): Blood Meridian. W.G. Sebald. Roberto Bolaño. Jorge Luis Borges. The list goes on; I’m sure I’m forgetting hundreds. (Normally, I’d hyperlink most of these authors and books to Biblioklept posts, but there’s just too many. Interested parties, if they exist, may use the search feature).

My list is pretty expansive I suppose (and it’s truncated to be sure), and I concede that the term “expansive” seems at odds with the term “cult.” It seems that all literature that lasts must first build a cult, and I guess that’s a good thing. Anyway–I eventually did google “cult novels” and here’s a few lists. Plenty of overlap with some of the above citations, and some stuff I didn’t think of as well. Also, stuff that I think is too canonical, but, again, make up your own mind:

The Telegraph‘s 50 Best Cult Books

The Cult’s List (chuckpalahniuk.net)

We like this one from Books and Writers

And of course, we’d love to hear from you, dear reader.


Girl With Curious Hair–David Foster Wallace

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Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a  few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think (by the way, simply googling “David Foster Wallace” will yield several vitriolic essays by people who think that DFW is somehow duping his readers. He’s not. These people don’t know a good story when they read one.)

Girl features “real people” like Alex Trebek, David Letterman, and Lyndon Johnson as characters, but constantly destabilizes any realism these figures might lend to the story. The novella included in this collection, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, alludes directly to John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (another book I’ve loaned out and never gotten back). Westward takes a critical but humorous look at how culture is commodified: the plot centers around a reunion for everyone who has ever acted in a McDonald’s commercial. At the reunion, plans are revealed for a series of real-life “Funhouses,” based on the work of “Dr. Ambrose” (Barth’s stand-in in Westward).

Girl with Curious Hair is probably the best starting point for anyone interested in DFW but daunted by 1000 pages of Infinite Jest (IJ is yet another one I loaned out and never got back). Girl‘s stories have a little more ‘pop’ to them than DFW’s latest collection, Oblivion, and Girl tends to be easier to find used than DFW’s other collections, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (actually a better collection, in my opinion) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (a collection of hilarious essays and nonfiction).

To sum up: if you still haven’t read DFW go consume this book; when you’re done you’ll be left wondering: “What other good stuff have I been missing out on?”