Book Shelves #12, 3.18.2012


Book shelves series #12, twelfth Sunday of 2012.

The shelf holds literature in translation: Witold Gombrowicz, Heinrich Böll, W.G. Sebald, Julio Cortázar, and Roberto Bolaño. There was a geode bookend here until Thursday, when I reorganized (finally giving the Gombrowicz a home and restoring the finished copy of Between Parentheses to its brothers). No, I never finished Hopscotch, nor much of the Böll (although I did read Irish JournalThe Train Was on Time, and The Clown); I haven’t read Ferdydurke yet either.

New in the Stack: Heinrich Böll, Vaclav & Lena, E.M. Forster, and Bob Mould

The stack overfloweth with new books—here are some of the more interesting ones:

Melville House continues reissuing Heinrich Böll’s books with the short novel The Train Was on Time (with a killer afterward by William Vollmann) and Irish Journal, an account of Böll’s travels in Ireland in the early 1950s. Compact, tense, and immediate, The Train Was on Time relates the journey of a young German infantryman traveling on a troop train to the Eastern Front. He realizes that the war is already lost, and that his trip is essentially the first step in a death sentence. Irish Journal is hardly so severe, yet it still bears the scars of WWII trauma. Like all the titles in The Essential Heinrich Böll, these books feature beautiful, elegant design.

Haley Tanner’s début novel Vaclav & Lena (new in hardback from The Dial Press) seems to pull off the tough act of balancing quirky romance and genuine depth. Tanner tells the tale of two Russian emigrés  who meet as kids in Brighton Beach. Verbose Vaclav dreams of becoming a magician; shy Lena soon becomes his assistant, finding comfort in his warm family—and his idealistic, romantic imagination. In a glowing review at The New York Times, Susannah Meadows writes—

Whimsical love stories are tough to pull off. But as in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, vibrant characters, believable romance and dark undertones make for a moving tale. The book’s contrast between childhood fantasy and the grim world outside tamps down the cutesiness. It helps that Ms. Tanner is such a strong storyteller, and her distinctive voice — winsome without being dopey — engulfs you immediately.

New in trade paperback from PicadorA Great Unrecorded HistoryWendy Moffat’s biography of E.M. Forster, examines the life of the great British writer through the lens of his homosexuality. Forster published five classic novels between 1905 and 1924, and even though he wrote biographies and essays until his death in 1970, he never released another novel in his lifetime. Maurice was published in 1971. The novel, which Forster composed over decades, relates a homosexual love affair; Forster was determined that, contrary to convention, the love story should not be a tragedy and should indeed have a happy ending. Part of Moffat’s project seems to be to make a case for Forster as a progenitor of queer writing. From her prologue—

Though he burned great bonfires of ephemera, Morgan [Forster’s middle name] carefully preserved the record of his gay life. Thousands of unpublished pages of letters, diaries, essays, and photographs tell the story of the life he hid from public view. Some of the pages are scattered in archives. Some have been coaxed out into the world from remarkable hiding places — a vast oak cupboard in a London sitting room, a shoebox humbly nestled among mouse turds in a New England barn. Many of Morgan’s surviving friends have told their stories for the first time. Only in 2008 were the final entries in his private diary, restricted from view since his death, opened to readers. All his long life Morgan lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals. He was sixteen when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison, and he died the year after the Stonewall riots.

Almost a century ago, Forster dedicated Maurice to “a happier year.” Perhaps that time is now.

Bob Mould began playing his strange brand of frenzied, fuzzy punk rock in Hüsker Dü less than a decade after Forster’s death, and while it would be ridiculous to suggest that his life as a gay man (and teen) was easy, his new autobiography See a Little Light reveals that it is possible to work through pain, confusion, and negative public attitudes to a positive place. Mould’s homosexuality was an open secret, but he still felt protective of his personal life. However, a 1994 Spin magazine article by Dennis Cooper (yes, that Dennis Cooper) outed Mould. I’ll let him tell this part of the story—

For years I had lived in a fearful yet protective state. My parents were in a small town where people didn’t accept or understand homosexuality. I didn’t want to cause any undue stress in their lives by coming out. I remembered what happened to my high school acquaintance who ended up slaughtered in the woods. My coming out might create a hardship on my brother’s kids too—Syracuse, New York, where he now lived, was not a progressive bastion.

I had looped all the different possible fallouts and fears in my mind, a big one being that for fifteen years I had gender-neutralized my work so that it would be all-inclusive; as a result, my music was highly personal, and yet it affected a lot of people, whether they were gay or straight. But my fear was that 90 percent of my audience would have the meaning of my songs ripped out from underneath them. A song that straight people related to, now they find out it’s about two guys? The flip side, or what I now know to be the upside, was that I had a large audience who might not have known about my homosexuality, were very attached to the work, and could now see that love and loss and hope are universal emotions that can’t be owned, controlled, or denied by law or religion.

See a Little Light is not just a document of Mould’s struggles with homosexual identity, but that element is obviously indivisible from the rest of his life, which he writes about in deeply personal detail (with the aid of Michael Azerrad, who documented Hüsker Dü in a chapter of his book Our Band Could Be Your Life). There’s also plenty here on the Minneapolis-St. Paul scene, the early post-hardcore indie scene, analyses of Hüsker Dü songs, a history of Mould’s second band Sugar, thoughts on guitars, and touring, touring, touring. I’m hardly an unbiased reader here—Hüsker Dü and Sugar songs soundtracked a hefty chunk of my teen years and early twenties—but See a Little Light offers an emotional depth and level of insight absent from most musical biographies. See a Little Light is new in hardback from Little, Brown.

On the Feeling of Being In-between Books

Like most bibliophiles, I have a big ole stack of books — multiple stacks, really — lying around the house; that is, I have unshelved books in little intermediary piles that I am either always reading or planning to read “next,” which is to say, sometime in the near future. I’ve written before about books I’m always reading (and re-reading), so I’ll set that aside for the moment; also, there are those books of a somewhat fragmentary nature that I like to read slowly (fodder for a future post, perhaps) — but let’s set those aside as well, because they are not what I’m speaking of here.

I found a few years ago that the best way to finish a book, especially a challenging book, but really any novel worth reading, is to simply give it as much undivided attention as you can — to do your best to not let all those other books jump the queue. And for the most part, I’m pretty good at doing this.

So well anyway.

I finished Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet the night before last. I’ve had the book for a while, and though I had desired to read it, I hadn’t had the feeling of wanting to commit to this particular book; so, what I’m doing now, gentle reader, is distinguishing between these two things. We, that is bibliophiles, we all desire to read certain books (lots of certain books, no doubt), but that’s not the same as the feeling of wanting to commit to the particular book. Because generally a bibliophile knows that a great book, or at least a book worth reading, requires a certain level of commitment.

I picked Amulet out of the stack after reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I don’t know why. There was no intellectual impulse in the choice, although a connection might easily be made between the two novels, both set in Mexico; indeed, Bolaño opens The Savage Detectives with a quote from Under the Volcano, and the heroine of Amulet shows up in The Savage Detectives — so there is some connection. But again, the decision to read Amulet next, instead of, say, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time or any of the other dozens of books cluttering up Biblioklept International Headquarters, was, or at least I believe was, more a matter of intuition and feeling than intellect.

So, as I mentioned, I finished Amulet the other night, and, during the course of reading that novel, another dead literary darling’s novel came out, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Which I’ve been greatly anticipating. Which I’ve been very much desiring to read. Which I have absolutely no desire to commit to reading now, which is to say in that moment between books. Which is strange, I suppose, but perhaps easy to account for on several fronts. First, every day seems to bring some new, fully realized review of The Pale King to the internet, or some piece about Wallace’s “legacy” and The Pale King, or, even worse, some coverage about coverage of The Pale King (which, yes, I realize this post is now threatening to become). Another reason that might account for the fact that I have no feeling to commit to reading The Pale King now may be that it is Wallace’s last novel; maybe I want to wait a bit, give myself a bit of distance from the internet buzz, let anticipation build again. Divorce myself from the idea of having to read the book — especially in the context of Biblioklept, a maybe-literary blog.

To go back to my earlier point, the point of all of this (if this rambling can be said to have a point) is that I realize that I rarely choose to read the “next” book in an intellectual way — that is, the choice is almost always intuitive, born from some feeling that I don’t know how to name, except to say that it’s the feeling that I have when I’m in-between books. It’s a wonderful feeling, exhilarating and freeing and full of possibility, as corny as that sounds, but also a kind of anxiety, a feeling paradoxically tempered by the temporal messiness of being a reader, which is to say being a human, as if the limited time we have to read dampens — and thus defines — the edges of this particular exhilaration. I love the feeling because it opens a seemingly illimitable range of possibilities — the possibilities of new books, new narratives — even as the choice forecloses the possibility of another choice. Etymologically, the word “decide” means “to cut off.” But enough dithering. Time to riffle through the stack.

The Clown — Heinrich Böll

The titular figure in Heinrich Böll’s 1963 novel The Clown is Hans Schnier, a man whose personal and professional life is burning down around him as he howls in (often hilarious) despair. During a performance at a third-rate venue, Hans purposefully injures his knee and retreats to Bonn, where he holes up in his small apartment and makes angry desperate phone calls (and tries not to drink too much brandy) as he reflects on his past.

His common-law wife Marie has returned to the conservative Catholicism she was raised on, and subsequently left Hans; even worse, shes’ taken up with a bourgeois hack named Zupfner. Marie and Hans initially came together as teens, sexing it up in their provincial German town. After scandalizing all the decent ex-Nazis in town, they retreat to the comparatively cosmopolitan city of Bonn and begin a life (in sin) together, traveling from venue to venue and performance to performance as Hans’s career grows.

It becomes clear through the course of The Clown — which is essentially Hans’s long, angry rant against complacent conformity — that Marie is merely an object for Hans, a romantic idealization. He repeatedly tells us that she doesn’t get his art–

I don’t believe there is anyone in the world who understands a clown, even one clown doesn’t understand another, envy and jealousy always enter into it. Marie came close to understanding me, but she never quite understood me. She always felt that as a “creative person” I must be “deeply interested in absorbing as much culture as possible.” She was wrong.

Hans is always the outsider, even to the woman he loves. Still, Marie represents both comfort and some sense of continuity for this traveling artist whose life is basically a series of hotels, train rides, and performances. Without her, Hans is lost, adrift without an anchor, pure vitriol aimed at a society he rebukes at every turn. Consider his parents, for instance, rich Protestants with a penchant for providing patronage to middling writers — Hans’s hate for them is almost metaphorical, a hate that extends to their religion and their complicity in the evils of WWII. While The Clown is a highly personal story, the tale of an artistic soul tortured in the absence of his love, it’s also an indictment of postwar Germany, a milieu all-too ready to whitewash its sins in the easy absolution of cheap religion.

At times the nuances of The Clown’s argument against the conformist postwar German culture were lost on me. Hans’s many references to the particular rhythms and contrasts of Teutonic Protestants and Catholics were beyond my ken. Still, this rarely detracted from my enjoyment or involvement in the novel. Its caustic bite and extreme depression is tempered by ironic humor and expansive knowledge. Here’s an early passage in the book that I think shows off these attributes and obsessions while highlighting a bizarre metaphysical conceit that I don’t know how to properly work into this review–

I felt sick. I forgot to say that not only do I suffer from depression and headaches but a I also have another, almost mystical peculiarity: I can detect smells over the telephone.  . . . I had to get up and clean my teeth. Then I gargled with some of the cognac that was left, laboriously removed my makeup, got into bed again, and thought of Marie, of Christians, of Catholics, and contemplated the future. I thought of the gutters I would lie in one day. For a clown approaching fifty there are only two alternatives: gutter or palace. I had no faith in the palace, and before reaching fifty I had somehow to get through another twenty-two years.

So we learn that our hero is only in his late twenties, yet already romanticizes a dramatic life of failure; he sees himself as the failed artist down in the gutter, perhaps dreaming of the stars. And he can smell through the phone!

At its core, The Clown is a searing attack on hypocrisy, one grounded in a sense of time and place. And it’s this grounding that gives the book the weight — the concreteness of truth — to transcend its postwar setting and remain relevant today in a world where language, religion, and custom all provide societies and their institutions a kind of metaphysical escape hatch to avoid squarely assessing the gaps between mantra and action. Hans shows us that it takes a jester to truthfully comment on the absurdity of modernity; it’s the trickster whose pantomimes tap into the most mundane gestures to expose the intricate ways these gestures might disguise ugly, banal, or even evil intentions. Great stuff.

The Clown is new in print again from Melville House.

Biblioklept Recommends Five Novels, Some of Them New, Not All of Them German

I shouldn’t be reading five novels at once. It’s a terrible idea, a symptom of a bad habit that I thought I’d broken, but after abandoning Levin’s tedious tome The Instructions and wasting my time on Shteyngart’s insipid dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, I found myself absorbed by a lovely little cache that had been neatly, patiently stacked for a few weeks now.

I’m only 60 or so pages into Lars Iyer’s Spurious — about a third of the way through — and at the rate I’m reading, I won’t finish it until the end of this month. It’s not that it’s slow or tedious or hard work: quite the opposite, in fact — it’s funny and lively, even when it’s erudite and depressive. I’ve enjoyed taking it in as a series of vignettes or skits or riffs. Spurious is about, or seems to be about (the term must be placed under suspicion) two would-be intellectuals, W. and his friend the narrator. They bitch and moan and despair: it’s the end of the world, it’s the apocalypse; they find themselves incapable of original thought, of producing any good writing. The shadow of Kafka paralyzes them. They travel about Europe, seeking out knowledge and inspiration — or at least a glimpse of some beautiful first editions. W. is cruel to the narrator, calling him fat and deriding his intellect for sport. But it’s all in good fun. Or maybe not. I’m really enjoying Spurious and have no hesitation recommending it; however, like a strong shot of bourbon, it’s best enjoyed frequently but in small doses. Spurious is brand spanking new from Melville House.

Iyer’s book dovetails nicely with W.G. Sebald’s first novel, Vertigo, which I picked up expressly to get the bad taste of Shteyngart out of my brain. Both books are haunted by Kafka, both  blur the lines between fiction and biography, both are works of and about flânerie, and both are melancholy. The book comprises four sections; the first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section, which I just read last night, describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life. I’m almost certain that I’ve read this section, “Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva,” before — but I can’t remember where or when. It was strange reading it, almost as if I were experiencing some of the vertigo that permeates the volume. Full review forthcoming.

Kafka was a German-speaking Jewish writer from Prague. So was H.G. Adler, author of Panorama, new in English for the first time (hardback; Random House). Another way to transition from the Sebald paragraph above to this write-up of Panorama might be to point out that Sebald references Adler in Austerlitz, a book that tries to measure continental memory of the Holocaust. Adler survived the Holocaust, forced first into Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz, where his wife and mother were murdered in the gas chambers. Panorama is an autobiographical bildungsroman, with its hero young Josef Kramer standing in for Adler, and while it will clearly work its way into grim territory, the beginning — which is to say, the part that I’ve read so far — is bucolic and sweet and strange, as we see young Josef at home with his family. There’s a cinematic scope to Adler’s prose — Panorama is a Modernist work, one where the narrative freely dips into its protagonist’s mind. More to come.

Continuing in this Teutonic vein is Heinrich Böll’s novel The Clown (also Melville House). It’s postwar Germany, and Hans Schnier is a clown who’s crashing and burning. He hurts himself–purposefully–during a performance (at one of the increasingly more provincial venues he finds himself playing for these days) and retreats to Bonn, where he holes up in his small apartment and makes angry desperate phone calls (and tries not to drink too much brandy) and reflects on his past. What’s eating him up? His gal Marie, basically his common-law wife, has reverted back to her Catholic ways and up and left him for some chump named Zupfner. Schnier rants against a complacent and complicit German bourgeoisie, spitting vitriol against Protestants and Catholics alike; some of the best parts of the novel though are his ravings about art and the role of the “artiste” in society. Also: he can smell over the phone. Full review soon.

Wesley Stace’s new novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (new from Picador) is a musical murder mystery set in the early part of 20th century Britain. Our (seemingly less than reliable) narrator Leslie Shepherd is a music critic with an aristocratic background who likes to spend his weekends collecting folk songs with other rich boys in the towns surrounding their country manors. He’s smitten (platonically, of course) with Charles Jessold, a middle class composer with a spark of avant-garde genius, and wins the younger man’s friendship quickly when he tells the story of Carlo Gesualdo, a fifteenth century composer/lord who kills his wife and her lover. (Notice the etymological connection between their names?) This tale of murder and cuckoldry is doubled in the ballad “Little Musgrave“; when Jessold and Shepherd find a new variation of the ballad, they set out to write the next (only?) great English opera, an adaptation of “Musgrave.” Oh, and that plot? The book opens with a news clipping reporting that Jessold killed his wife and her lover, and then himself, after the première of his opera Little Musgrave. Life imitates art imitates life. Stace has a keen ear for the period he writes about as well as a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about music, but he also has the good sense to restrain himself and remember that he’s delivering a murder mystery. I’ve been enjoying Jessold quite a bit, and will return to it when I finish writing these lines. (And, for what it’s worth, part of Jessold is set in Germany).

“I Don’t Understand American Morals” — A Passage from Heinrich Böll’s Novel The Clown

A passage from Heinrich Böll’s novel The Clown, new in print again from Melville House–

Most films which children are allowed to see are full of whores. I have never understood what the boards who grade the films have in mind when they pass this type of film for children. The women in these films are either whores by nature, or they are whores in a sociological sense; they are almost never compassionate. In some Wild West saloon there are these blondes dancing the cancan, while rough cowboys, goldminers, or trappers then go after the girls and try to go up to their rooms with them, they usually have the door slammed in their face, or some brutal swine cruelly knocks them down. I take it this is meant to express something like virtuousness. Cruelty where compassion would be the only humane thing. No wonder the poor devils start beating each other up and shooting — it’s like football at school, only it is even crueller, since they are grown men. I don’t understand American morals. I suppose over there a compassionate woman would be burned as a witch, a woman who does it not for money and not out of passionate love for the man, but simply out of pity for masculine nature.

Books I Will (Make Every Reasonable Attempt to) Read in 2011

If you’re looking for a comprehensive “Books to Look Forward to in 2011” kind of list, The Millions has you covered. This post is not about books that are coming out in 2011, although some books mentioned here will come out in 2011. This post is really just about books I’d like to/plan to read in 2011 (it’s also kind of a dare to myself).

First up, I will finish the books I’m reading/listening to now. This means Adam Levin’s The Instructions (reading; McSweeney’s) and Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (listening; Iambik Audio). I’m on page 342 of The Instructions; there are 1030 pages; a calculator tells me that that is 33.2%. It’s easy reading, often entertaining, but it’s hard to see, even a third of the way in, how Levin can justify taking up this much space. Oh, what is it about? Okay, this kid Gurion Maccabee may or may not be the Messiah. In the meantime, he rules the special ed program at his suburban Chicago school, writes scripture, and gets in lots of fights. The best parts of the book (so far, anyway) are Gurion’s comments on Torah (I would’ve written “the Torah,” but this book seems to suggest that the definite article is pretty Gentile).

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart has been enjoyable, sardonic — funny but sad — and I’m coming up to the end soon. Basically, a trinity of scientists who helped invent the atom bomb (Robert Oppenheimer is the famous one) come back from the dead (sort of) to . . . I don’t know yet. It’s unclear. To hang out with a quiet librarian and her gardener husband as their marriage slowly dissolves? To lead our nation to world wide peace? To take part in a movable circus of weirdos and End Times prophets? Not sure. Full review forthcoming.

I already wrote about one of the Tintin collections I picked up late last year; I will read the other three collections (and likely hunt down more). I’ll also read (hopefully; that is, hopefully it will come out) the next installment in Charles Burns’s X’ed Out trilogy.

Also on the proverbial plate, non-illustratedwise, is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, the story of a clown in post-Reich Germany who can smell through the phone (I think there’s more to it than that). Melville House is actually releasing several new editions of Böll’s novels this year, and they have a pretty excellent track record with the Germans, what with Hans Fallada and all, so hey, why not.

On the I-will-read-everything-Sam-Lipsyte-writes front, Picador is putting out a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve (perhaps in concordance with The Ask coming out in paperback?). I will read The Subject Steve.

Books I bought this year and didn’t read but will make every reasonable attempt to read this year—

William Gaddis’s JR was, I think anyway, the last book I picked up in 2010. It’s really long, seems to be written entirely as a dialog, and hey, I read 2/3rds of The Recognitions and then didn’t even finish it (yet?) which is kinda remarkable/totally lazy. Maybe I should just finish The Recognitions. I just feel like “I get it already.” Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Loved the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, even though it was really silly. Stay tuned, folks.

I read the first two stories in Barry Hannah’s Airships and then a few galleys bombed my doorstep and then I got distracted, but these things have Spring Break written all over them, so, yes, look for the Airships report in the future (or be a hipster douchebag and write in to tell me how awesome you already know Hannah is now that he’s dead blah blah blah).

I remember that I bought Renata Adler’s Speed Boat the same day I bought Airships (because, y’know, the titles). I read the first 30 or so pages and then read them again and then read them again a week or so ago. Kind of dumbfounding stuff. It’s been hovering around the coffee table, the nightstand; it’s been jammed in briefcases, wedged in coat pockets. What is it? What is she doing?

After slowing down my consumption in 2010, I’m ready to feed the addiction again in 2011: Bolaño, Bolaño, Bolaño. I need to read Amulet; I’ll also read The Insufferable Gaucho and probably something else.


The Pale King

But everyone’s buzzing about that already, right?

Our Favorite Book Covers of 2010

We know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover and blah blah blah, but really, c’mon, aesthetic sensibilities go a long way. Here are a some of our favorite covers for books published in 2010.

Has Melville House made a book that’s not really really good looking? This NY indie not only put out some of our favorite reading of 2010, they also put out some of the best designed books of the year. Books like Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama and Mahendra Singh and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Carroll evince a diverse aesthetic range unified by simple and attractive designs. We absolutely love the cover for Tao Lin’s Richard Yates; the visual non sequitur dovetails nicely with the book’s arbitrary name.

In fact, it’s a trio of forthcoming books from Melville House that prompted this post. In January, they’ll release the first in a series of books by Nobel winning German author Heinrich Böll. The first three books, which arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters yesterday, are beautiful, simple, and elegant.

We’ve started The Clown; a review of the book’s guts forthcoming. Another book with a cool cover that we haven’t read yet is Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut. We know someone on Twitter pointed out that skulls are the smiley faces of this decade but we can’t remember who gets credit, so let’s just pretend you heard that witticism here first.

We haven’t read Adam Levin’s mammoth début The Instructions yet, but a copy arrived today, and man is it beautiful. McSweeney’s knows how to do a hardback right–why encumber a book with a dusty dust jacket that’s going to get in the reader’s way when some gold embossing will do much nicer? Our copy is white but we couldn’t find an image of a white one on the internet, so here’s a blue one because Jesus Christ we’re not about to start photographing books now, are we?

We like both covers for Tom McCarthy’s C, but maybe we’re biased here because we loved the book so much.

We also love the cover of Charles Burns’s X’ed Out.

Picador’s British edition of Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is somehow playful and deadly serious at the same time (just like the book).

Another one on the posthumous tip: We’re not big into tattoos but we can’t help digging this cover for David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System.