“In the reading room of Hell” — Roberto Bolaño

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Stanley Elkin and William Gass on the mythic mode, Faulkner, etc.

From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection YouTube channel.

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” — James Hill

fisherman and his soul
James Hill’s illustration for “The Fisherman and His Soul” by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968. 

“The Fisherman and His Soul”

by

Oscar Wilde


Every evening the young Fisherman went out upon the sea, and threw his nets into the water.

When the wind blew from the land he caught nothing, or but little at best, for it was a bitter and black-winged wind, and rough waves rose up to meet it.  But when the wind blew to the shore, the fish came in from the deep, and swam into the meshes of his nets, and he took them to the market-place and sold them.

Every evening he went out upon the sea, and one evening the net was so heavy that hardly could he draw it into the boat.  And he laughed, and said to himself, ‘Surely I have caught all the fish that swim, or snared some dull monster that will be a marvel to men, or some thing of horror that the great Queen will desire,’ and putting forth all his strength, he tugged at the coarse ropes till, like lines of blue enamel round a vase of bronze, the long veins rose up on his arms.  He tugged at the thin ropes, and nearer and nearer came the circle of flat corks, and the net rose at last to the top of the water.

But no fish at all was in it, nor any monster or thing of horror, but only a little Mermaid lying fast asleep.

Her hair was as a wet fleece of gold, and each separate hair as a thread of fine gold in a cup of glass.  Her body was as white ivory, and her tail was of silver and pearl.  Silver and pearl was her tail, and the green weeds of the sea coiled round it; and like sea-shells were her ears, and her lips were like sea-coral.  The cold waves dashed over her cold breasts, and the salt glistened upon her eyelids.

So beautiful was she that when the young Fisherman saw her he was filled with wonder, and he put out his hand and drew the net close to him, and leaning over the side he clasped her in his arms.  And when he touched her, she gave a cry like a startled sea-gull, and woke, and looked at him in terror with her mauve-amethyst eyes, and struggled that she might escape.  But he held her tightly to him, and would not suffer her to depart.

And when she saw that she could in no way escape from him, she began to weep, and said, ‘I pray thee let me go, for I am the only daughter of a King, and my father is aged and alone.’

But the young Fisherman answered, ‘I will not let thee go save thou makest me a promise that whenever I call thee, thou wilt come and sing to me, for the fish delight to listen to the song of the Sea-folk, and so shall my nets be full.’

‘Wilt thou in very truth let me go, if I promise thee this?’ cried the Mermaid.

‘In very truth I will let thee go,’ said the young Fisherman.

So she made him the promise he desired, and sware it by the oath of the Sea-folk.  And he loosened his arms from about her, and she sank down into the water, trembling with a strange fear.

Read the rest of Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” at Project Gutenberg.

The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it | “On the Return of the Dead,” Hilaire Belloc

“On the Return of the Dead”

by

Hilaire Belloc

from On Nothing and Kindred Subjects (1908)


 

The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it.

In the old time they would come casually, as suited them, without fuss and thinly, as it were, which is their nature; but when such visits were doubted even by those who received them and when new and false names were given them the Dead did not find it worth while. It was always a trouble; they did it really more for our sakes than for theirs and they would be recognised or stay where they were.

I am not certain that they might not have changed with the times and come frankly and positively, as some urged them to do, had it not been for Rabelais’ failure towards the end of the Boer war. Rabelais (it will be remembered) appeared in London at the very beginning of the season in 1902. Everybody knows one part of the story or another, but if I put down the gist of it here I shall be of service, for very few people have got it quite right all through, and yet that story alone can explain why one cannot get the dead to come back at all now even in the old doubtful way they did in the ’80’s and early ’90’s of the last century.

There is a place in heaven where a group of writers have put up a colonnade on a little hill looking south over the plains. There are thrones there with the names of the owners on them. It is a sort of Club.

Rabelais was quarrelling with some fool who had missed fire with a medium and was saying that the modern world wanted positive unmistakable appearances: he said he ought to know, because he had begun the modern world. Lucian said it would fail just as much as any other way; Rabelais hotly said it wouldn’t. He said he would come to London and lecture at the London School of Economics and establish a good solid objective relationship between the two worlds. Lucian said it would end badly. Rabelais, who had been drinking, lost his temper and did at once what he had only been boasting he would do. He materialised at some expense, and he announced his lecture. Then the trouble began, and I am honestly of opinion that if we had treated the experiment more decently we should not have this recent reluctance on the part of the Dead to pay us reasonable attention.

In the first place, when it was announced that Rabelais had returned to life and was about to deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics, Mrs. Whirtle, who was a learned woman, with a well-deserved reputation in the field of objective psychology, called it a rumour and discredited it (in a public lecture) on these three grounds:

(a) That Rabelais being dead so long ago would not come back to life now.

(b) That even if he did come back to life it was quite out of his habit to give lectures.

(c) That even if he had come back to life and did mean to lecture, he would never lecture at the London School of Economics, which was engaged upon matters principally formulated since Rabelais’ day and with which, moreover, Rabelais’ “essentially synthetical” mind would find a difficulty in grappling. Continue reading “The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it | “On the Return of the Dead,” Hilaire Belloc”

“Memoirs of a Madman” — Nikolai Gogol

Poprishchin, Ilya Repin (1882)

 

“Memoirs of a Madman”

by

Nikolai Gogol

English translation by Claud Field

from The Mantle and Other Stories


 

October 3rd. — A strange occurrence has taken place today. I got up fairly late, and when Mawra brought me my clean boots, I asked her how late it was. When I heard it had long struck ten, I dressed as quickly as possible.

To tell the truth, I would rather not have gone to the office at all today, for I know beforehand that our department-chief will look as sour as vinegar. For some time past he has been in the habit of saying to me, “Look here, my friend; there is something wrong with your head. You often rush about as though you were possessed. Then you make such confused abstracts of the documents that the devil himself cannot make them out; you write the title without any capital letters, and add neither the date nor the docket-number.” The long-legged scoundrel! He is certainly envious of me, because I sit in the director’s work-room, and mend His Excellency’s pens. In a word, I should not have gone to the office if I had not hoped to meet the accountant, and perhaps squeeze a little advance out of this skinflint.

A terrible man, this accountant! As for his advancing one’s salary once in a way — you might sooner expect the skies to fall. You may beg and beseech him, and be on the very verge of ruin — this grey devil won’t budge an inch. At the same time, his own cook at home, as all the world knows, boxes his ears.

I really don’t see what good one gets by serving in our department. There are no plums there. In the fiscal and judicial offices it is quite different. There some ungainly fellow sits in a corner and writes and writes; he has such a shabby coat and such an ugly mug that one would like to spit on both of them. But you should see what a splendid country-house he has rented. He would not condescend to accept a gilt porcelain cup as a present. “You can give that to your family doctor,” he would say. Nothing less than a pair of chestnut horses, a fine carriage, or a beaver-fur coat worth three hundred roubles would be good enough for him. And yet he seems so mild and quiet, and asks so amiably, “Please lend me your penknife; I wish to mend my pen.” Nevertheless, he knows how to scarify a petitioner till he has hardly a whole stitch left on his body. Continue reading ““Memoirs of a Madman” — Nikolai Gogol”

Scissors-and-paste man | William Gaddis’s notes toward composing J R

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William Gaddis’s cut-and-paste notes toward composing his novel J R. Check out more of Gaddis’s notes for J R at the Modern Literature Collection at Washington University. (They also have a really cool new YouTube channel).

Gaddis’s cut-and-paste technique evinces in J R, particularly in the authorial stand-in Jack Gibbs, who muddles about with scraps of ideas in his pockets—scraps that perhaps eventually become (a version of) Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape.

I wrote about Agapē Agape here and a recent rereading of J R here.

Read a 1970 microfiction by Thomas Bernhard, new in English translation by Douglas Robertson

Thomas Bernhard’s (short) short story “The Woman from the Foundry and the Man with the Rucksack” (“Die Frau aus dem Gusswerk und der Mann mit dem Rucksack”) is new in translation from Douglas Robertson.The story was first published (in Bernhard’s German, of course) in 1970. Robertson’s ongoing project to bring untranslated Bernhard into English is marvelous. Here are the first four (of fourteen) sentences—read the whole thing here.

THE WOMAN FROM THE FOUNDRY AND THE MAN WITH THE RUCKSACK

The woman, who is employed at the foundry, found her eye caught by a fairly old man who, with a fully-packed rucksack was pacing up and down the riverbank, a man who was wearing buckskin lederhosen tied up at the ankles, a pair of high-topped lace-up boots, a coat made of milled cloth, and a sturdy felt hat on his head.  She thought there was something terrifying about the face of the man, who seemed, like her, to be impatiently awaiting the arrival of the train, this man who now and then would quite unwarrantably shove another person out of the way in order to keep his own path clear.  She had already observed the man on her way to the stop and begun forming thoughts about him.  The man was a complete stranger to her.

“The Auction,” a very short story by Stephen Crane

“The Auction”

by

Stephen Crane


 

Some said that Ferguson gave up sailoring because he was tired of the sea. Some said that it was because he loved a woman. In truth it was because he was tired of the sea and because he loved a woman.

He saw the woman once, and immediately she became for him the symbol of all things unconnected with the sea. He did not trouble to look again at the grey old goddess, the muttering slave of the moon. Her splendours, her treacheries, her smiles, her rages, her vanities, were no longer on his mind. He took heels after a little human being, and the woman made his thought spin at all times like a top; whereas the ocean had only made him think when he was on watch.

He developed a grin for the power of the sea, and, in derision, he wanted to sell the red and green parrot which had sailed four voyages with him. The woman, however, had a sentiment concerning the bird’s plumage, and she commanded Ferguson to keep it in order, as it happened, that she might forget to put food in its cage.

The parrot did not attend the wedding. It stayed at home and blasphemed at a stock of furniture, bought on the installment plan, and arrayed for the reception of the bride and groom.

As a sailor, Ferguson had suffered the acute hankering for port; and being now always in port, he tried to force life to become an endless picnic. He was not an example of diligent and peaceful citizenship. Ablution became difficult in the little apartment, because Ferguson kept the wash-basin filled with ice and bottles of beer: and so, finally, the dealer in second-hand furniture agreed to auction the household goods on commission. Owing to an exceedingly liberal definition of a term, the parrot and cage were included. “On the level?” cried the parrot, “On the level? On the level? On the level?”

On the way to the sale, Ferguson’s wife spoke hopefully. “You can’t tell, Jim,” she said. “Perhaps some of ’em will get to biddin’, and we might get almost as much as we paid for the things.”

The auction room was in a cellar. It was crowded with people and with house furniture; so that as the auctioneer’s assistant moved from one piece to another he caused a great shuffling. There was an astounding number of old women in curious bonnets. The rickety stairway was thronged with men who wished to smoke and be free from the old women. Two lamps made all the faces appear yellow as parchment. Incidentally they could impart a lustre of value to very poor furniture.

The auctioneer was a fat, shrewd-looking individual, who seemed also to be a great bully. The assistant was the most imperturbable of beings, moving with the dignity of an image on rollers. As the Fergusons forced their way down the stair-way, the assistant roared: “Number twenty-one!”

“Number twenty-one!” cried the auctioneer. “Number twenty-one! A fine new handsome bureau! Two dollars? Two dollars is bid! Two and a half! Two and a half! Three? Three is bid. Four! Four dollars! A fine new handsome bureau at four dollars! Four dollars! Four dollars! F-o-u-r d-o-l-l-a-r-s! Sold at four dollars.”

“On the level?” cried the parrot, muffled somewhere among furniture and carpets. “On the level? On the level?” Every one tittered.

Mrs. Ferguson had turned pale, and gripped her husband’s arm. “Jim! Did you hear? The bureau—four dollars—”

Ferguson glowered at her with the swift brutality of a man afraid of a scene. “Shut up, can’t you!”

Mrs. Ferguson took a seat upon the steps; and hidden there by the thick ranks of men, she began to softly sob. Through her tears appeared the yellowish mist of the lamplight, streaming about the monstrous shadows of the spectators. From time to time these latter whispered eagerly: “See, that went cheap!” In fact when anything was bought at a particularly low price, a murmur of admiration arose for the successful bidder.

The bedstead was sold for two dollars, the mattresses and springs for one dollar and sixty cents. This figure seemed to go through the woman’s heart. There was derision in the sound of it. She bowed her head in her hands. “Oh, God, a dollar-sixty! Oh, God, a dollar-sixty!”

The parrot was evidently under heaps of carpet, but the dauntless bird still raised the cry, “On the level?”

Some of the men near Mrs. Ferguson moved timidly away upon hearing her low sobs. They perfectly understood that a woman in tears is formidable.

The shrill voice went like a hammer, beat and beat, upon the woman’s heart. An odour of varnish, of the dust of old carpets, assailed her and seemed to possess a sinister meaning. The golden haze from the two lamps was an atmosphere of shame, sorrow, greed. But it was when the parrot called that a terror of the place and of the eyes of the people arose in her so strongly that she could not have lifted her head any more than if her neck had been of iron.

At last came the parrot’s turn. The assistant fumbled until he found the ring of the cage, and the bird was drawn into view. It adjusted its feathers calmly and cast a rolling wicked eye over the crowd.

“Oh, the good ship Sarah sailed the seas,And the wind it blew all day—”

This was the part of a ballad which Ferguson had tried to teach it. With a singular audacity and scorn, the parrot bawled these lines at the auctioneer as if it considered them to bear some particular insult.

The throng in the cellar burst into laughter. The auctioneer attempted to start the bidding, and the parrot interrupted with a repetition of the lines. It swaggered to and fro on its perch, and gazed at the faces of the crowd, with so much rowdy understanding and derision that even the auctioneer could not confront it. The auction was brought to a halt; a wild hilarity developed, and every one gave jeering advice.

Ferguson looked down at his wife and groaned. She had cowered against the wall, hiding her face. He touched her shoulder and she arose. They sneaked softly up the stairs with heads bowed.

Out in the street, Ferguson gripped his fists and said: “Oh, but wouldn’t I like to strangle it!”

His wife cried in a voice of wild grief: “It—it m—made us a laughing-stock in—in front of all that crowd!”

For the auctioning of their household goods, the sale of their home—this financial calamity lost its power in the presence of the social shame contained in a crowd’s laughter.

“Shrove Tuesday,” a tale by Anton Chekhov

“Shrove Tuesday”

by

Anton Chekhov

English translation by

Constance Garnett

from ‘The Cook’s Wedding’ and Other Stories


 

“PAVEL VASSILITCH!” cries Pelageya Ivanovna, waking her husband. “Pavel Vassilitch! You might go and help Styopa with his lessons, he is sitting crying over his book. He can’t understand something again!”

Pavel Vassilitch gets up, makes the sign of the cross over his mouth as he yawns, and says softly: “In a minute, my love!”

The cat who has been asleep beside him gets up too, straightens out its tail, arches its spine, and half-shuts its eyes. There is stillness. . . . Mice can be heard scurrying behind the wall-paper. Putting on his boots and his dressing-gown, Pavel Vassilitch, crumpled and frowning from sleepiness, comes out of his bedroom into the dining-room; on his entrance another cat, engaged in sniffing a marinade of fish in the window, jumps down to the floor, and hides behind the cupboard.

“Who asked you to sniff that!” he says angrily, covering the fish with a sheet of newspaper. “You are a pig to do that, not a cat. . . .”

From the dining-room there is a door leading into the nursery. There, at a table covered with stains and deep scratches, sits Styopa, a high-school boy in the second class, with a peevish expression of face and tear-stained eyes. With his knees raised almost to his chin, and his hands clasped round them, he is swaying to and fro like a Chinese idol and looking crossly at a sum book. Continue reading ““Shrove Tuesday,” a tale by Anton Chekhov”

Read “Loka,” a short story by Kate Chopin

“Loka”

by

Kate Chopin

from Bayou Folk (1894)


 

She was a half-breed Indian girl, with hardly a rag to her back. To the ladies of the Band of United Endeavor who questioned her, she said her name was Loka, and she did not know where she belonged, unless it was on Bayou Choctaw.

She had appeared one day at the side door of Frobissaint’s “oyster saloon” in Natchitoches, asking for food. Frobissaint, a practical philanthropist, engaged her on the spot as tumbler-washer.

She was not successful at that; she broke too many tumblers. But, as Frobissaint charged her with the broken glasses, he did not mind, until she began to break them over the heads of his customers. Then he seized her by the wrist and dragged her before the Band of United Endeavor, then in session around the corner. This was considerate on Frobissaint’s part, for he could have dragged her just as well to the police station.

Loka was not beautiful, as she stood in her red calico rags before the scrutinizing band. Her coarse, black, unkempt hair framed a broad, swarthy face without a redeeming feature, except eyes that were not bad; slow in their movements, but frank eyes enough. She was big—boned and clumsy.

She did not know how old she was. The minister’s wife reckoned she might be sixteen. The judge’s wife thought that it made no difference. The doctor’s wife suggested that the girl have a bath and change before she be handled, even in discussion. The motion was not seconded. Loka’s ultimate disposal was an urgent and difficult consideration.

Some one mentioned a reformatory. Every one else objected.

Madame Laballière, the planter’s wife, knew a respectable family of ‘Cadians living some miles below, who, she thought, would give the girl a home, with benefit to all concerned. The ‘Cadian woman was a deserving one, with a large family of small children, who had all her own work to do. The husband cropped in a modest way. Loka would not only be taught to work at the Padues’, but would receive a good moral training beside.

That settled it. Every one agreed with the planter’s wife that it was a chance in a thousand;-and Loka was sent to sit on the steps outside, while the band proceeded to the business next in order.

Loka was afraid of treading upon the little Padues when she first got amongst them,—there were so many of them,—and her feet were like leaden weights, encased in the strong brogans with which the band had equipped her.

Madame Padue, a small, black-eyed, aggressive woman, questioned her in a sharp, direct fashion peculiar to herself.

“How come you don’t talk French, you?” Loka shrugged her shoulders.

“I kin talk English good ‘s anybody; an’ lit’ bit Choctaw, too,” she offered, apologetically.

Ma foi, you kin fo’git yo’ Choctaw. Soona the betta for me. Now if you wil-lin’, an’ ent too lazy an’ sassy, we ‘ll git ‘long somehow. Vrai sauvage ça,” she muttered under her breath, as she turned to initiate Loka into some of her new duties.

She herself was a worker. A good deal more fussy one than her easy-going husband and children thought necessary or agreeable. Loka’s slow ways and heavy motions aggravated her. It was in vain Monsieur Padue expostulated:—

“She’s on’y a chile, rememba, Tontine.”

“She’s vrai sauvage, that’s w’at. It’s got to be work out of her,” was Tontine’s only reply to such remonstrance.

The girl was indeed so deliberate about her tasks that she had to be urged constantly to accomplish the amount of labor that Tontine required of her. Moreover, she carried to her work a stolid indifference that was exasperating. Whether at the wash-tub, scrubbing the floors, weeding the garden, or learning her lessons and catechism with the children on Sundays, it was the same.

It was only when intrusted with the care of little Bibine, the baby, that Loka crept somewhat out of her apathy. She grew very fond of him. No wonder; such a baby as he was! So good, so fat, and complaisant! He had such, a way of clasping Loka’s broad face between his pudgy fists and savagely biting her chin with his hard, toothless gums! Such a way of bouncing in her arms as if he were mounted upon springs! At his antics the girl would laugh a wholesome, ringing laugh that was good to hear. Continue reading “Read “Loka,” a short story by Kate Chopin”

I CHOSE ROTTEN GIN and other forthcoming titles from J R Corp (William Gaddis)

I CHOSE ROTTEN GIN The story of a disillusioned Communist, who had not the courage to go against the party.

. . . so ostentatiously aimed at writing a masterpiece that, in a less ambitious work, one would be happy to call promising, for such readers as he may be fortunate enough to have . . .

—Glandvil Hix

OI CHITTERING ONES A serious work which urges us to lay aside our fears and realize our true

. . . the outside world of American life is described so imperfectly and so superficially as to make us feel that the novelist himself has never known it . . .

—M Axswill Gummer

THE R I COONS IGNITE Violence in a small southern community, the racial question delicately and faithfully dealt with.

. . . nowhere in this whole disgusting book is there a trace of kindness or sincerity or simple decency . . .

—S T Erlingnorf

TEN ECHOES RIOTING A delicately evocative novel.

. . . a delicately evocative novel . . .

—B R Endengill

. . . a literary event, of sorts . . .

—Newsleak Magazine

THE ONION CREST G I A rousing war novel, adventure with a tough talking sergeant from Wisconsin (the onion state).

. . . does not persuade us that it is based on any but a narrow and jaundiced view, a projection of private discontent . . .

—Milton R Goth

. . . another long and rather dreary saga of modem man in search of a soul . . .

—Baltimore Sun

THOSE NIGER CONTI Lusty romance with the Godzzoli family in love and the Italian secret service in Egypt.

. . . a complete lack of discipline . . .

—Kricket Reviews

THE TIGER ON SONIC A killer in provincial New England trapped by the brilliant deductions of the author’s popular armchair detective, Mr Ethan Frome.

. . . a really yummy read . . .

—D O’Lobeer

From William Gaddis’s novel J R. (The titles, I’m sure I don’t have to point out to you, dear reader, are all anagrams of The Recognitions).

Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos (William Gaddis)

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

So I’m going through William Gaddis’s novel J R again (via Nick Sullivan’s amazing audiobook recording-performance)…

One gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc. (W.G. Sebald)

Michael Silverblatt: It seems to me that this book is truly the first to pay extended stylistic respects to the writer who, it’s been said, has been your mentor and model, Thomas Bernhard. I wondered, was it after three books that one felt comfortable in creating a work that could be compared to the writing of a master and a mentor?

W.G. Sebald: Yes, I was always, as it were, tempted to declare openly from quite early on my great debt of gratitude to Thomas Bernhard. But I was also conscious of the fact that one oughtn’t to do that too openly, because then immediately one gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc., and these labels never go away. Once one has them they stay with one. But nevertheless, it was necessary for me eventually to acknowledge his constant presence, as it were, by my side. What Thomas Bernhard did to postwar fiction writing in the German language was to bring to it a new radicality which didn’t exist before, which wasn’t compromised in any sense. Much of German prose fiction writing, of the fifties certainly, but of the sixties and seventies also, is severely compromised, morally compromised, and because of that, aesthetically frequently insufficient. And Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others. So he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative. You’re always sure that what he tells you is related, at one remove, at two removes, at two or three. That appealed to me very much, because this notion of the omniscient narrator who pushes around the flats on the stage of the novel, you know, cranks things up on page three and moves them along on page four and one sees him constantly working behind the scenes, is something that I think one can’t do very easily any longer. So Bernhard, single-handedly I think, invented a new form of narrating which appealed to me from the start.

From W.G. Sebald’s December 2001 interview with Michael Silverblatt; republished in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Lynne Sharon Schwartz ed.).

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them (William H. Gass)

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough. Contrary to those romantic myths which glorify the speech of mountain men and working people, Irish elves and Phoenician sailors, the words which in our language are worst off are the ones which the worst-off use. Poverty and isolation produce impoverished and isolated minds, small vocabularies, a real but fickle passion for slang, most of which is like the stuff which Woolworths sells for ashtrays, words swung at random, wildly, as though one were clubbing rats, or words misused in an honest but hopeless attempt to make do, like attacking tins with toothpicks; there is a dominance of cliché and verbal stereotype, an abundance of expletives and stammer words: you know, man, like wow! neat, fabulous, far-out, sensaysh. I am firmly of the opinion that people who can’t speak have nothing to say. It’s one more thing we do to the poor, the deprived: cut out their tongues . . . allow them a language as lousy as their lives.

Thin in content, few in number, constantly abused: what chance do the unspeakables have? Change is resisted fiercely, additions are denied. I have introduced ‘squeer,’ ‘crott,’ ‘kotswinkling,’ and ‘papdapper,’ with no success. Sometimes obvious substitutes, like ‘socksucker,’ catch on, but not for long. What we need, of course, is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses, and our earthy words are all . . . well . . . ‘dirty.’ It says something dirty about us, no doubt, because in a society which had a mind for the body and other similarly vital things, there would be a word for coming down, or going up, words for nibbles on the bias, earlobe loving, and every variety of tongue track. After all, how many kinds of birds do we distinguish?

We have a name for the Second Coming but none for a second coming. In fact our entire vocabulary for states of consciousness is critically impoverished.

From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue.

A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

You have to have an interest in the world to capture the sublime. I’m not interested in the world. (Gordon Lish)

…it was here that Melville saw the work of JMW Turner

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Whalers, JMW Turner

It is clear from Melville’s journal, one of only two such surviving documents, that his mind was already playing with these ideas. Late at night, he “turned flukes” down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw “blubber rooms” in the butcheries of the Fleet Market. And when he saw Queen Victoria riding past in a carriage, he joked that the young man sitting beside her was the Prince of Whales. London – which itself had only lately been a whaling port – was stirring up the ghosts of his past.

Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, “a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture” of “a black mass . . . floating in a nameless yeast . . . an exasperated whale”. It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged – especially given that the book failed spectacularly in his homeland and it was left to British writers to recognise first its wilful, prophetic genius.

Read the rest of Philip Hoare’s essay “White Whale in the Big Smoke: How the Geography of London Inspired Moby-Dick” at the New Statesmen.