It is like information theory; it is noise driving out signal. But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agencies call it disinformation, something the Soviet Bloc relies on heavily. If you can float enough disinformation into circulation you will totally abolish everyone’s contact with reality, probably your own included.
With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.” I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.
The opening lines hooked me:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.
The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.
Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:
Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.
Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].
Angels, Denis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.
Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.
The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”
Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.
And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.
Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.
The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].
Denis Johnson, one of the greatest American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, has died at the age of 67.
In books including Jesus’ Son, Angels, Tree of Smoke, and Fiskadoro, Johnson created vibrant, intense worlds, simultaneously tragic and hilarious, peopled with weirdos and druggies, criminals and soldiers, those who harm and those who cure. Describing Johnson’s prose style requires employing paradox: His prose seems spare, but it’s also incredibly rich; his narratives dwell in rough realism, but this description belies the refined magic of his writing. Johnson painted a damned and fallen world again and again in his novels, but made a space for his characters to earn redemption. His characters, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come off as cartoonish grotesques, but Johnson’s realism extended into their psyches. The man could create souls.
I cannot understate the impact Johnson’s writing made on my development as a reader. I think I first read Johnson’s story “Emergency” in a collection of stories edited by Tobias Wolff; it was on the reading list for a creative writing class I was taking my first semester of college, and I learned more from analyzing the way Johnson put sentences together than I did from anything else. I made a friend read the story; told another friend about it and he said, “Of course,” and made the mistake of loaning me his first edition hardback copy of Jesus’ Son, which had been out for maybe four or five years at the time. I never gave it back, and it remains one of the books I’ve read the most times over the past 20 years.
Johnson’s novel-in-stories Jesus’ Son is the perfect gateway drug to hook 18-year olds on a particular kind of American literature forever. Those interested in Johnson should also check out his debut 1983 novel Angels, his perfect novella Train Dreams, or his Vietnam War opus, Tree of Smoke: All make excellent starting places.
I’ll close with one of my favorite paragraphs, the last lines of “Beverly Home,” the last story in Jesus’ Son. The lines encapsulate Johnson’s vision of his world, his characters’ place in that world, and the redemptive spirit that might guide us to create a place for people like us:
All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.
I’ll be reposting some of the stuff I’ve written on this blog about Johnson’s books all day today, but for anyone interested, here a bunch of links:
May 19th.–. . . Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them. It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow. . . . If at any time there should seem to be an expression unintelligible from one soul to another, it is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood; and, were we to wait a thousand years, we need deem it no more time than we can spare. . . . It is not that I have any love of mystery, but because I abhor it, and because I have often felt that words may be a thick and darksome veil of mystery between the soul and the truth which it seeks. Wretched were we, indeed, if we had no better means of communicating ourselves, no fairer garb in which to array our essential being, than these poor rags and tatters of Babel. Yet words are not without their use even for purposes of explanation,–but merely for explaining outward acts and all sorts of external things, leaving the soul’s life and action to explain itself in its own way.
What a misty disquisition I have scribbled! I would not read it over for sixpence.
Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.
Lish the Elder has impeccable taste, but, you know, c’mon. We all tend to think our kids are great at everything.
Anyway, I picked up a copy of Preparation for the Next Life a few days ago. I wasn’t looking for it; I was looking for another “L” novelist, but the spine popped out. I took it home and read the first few paragraphs. Then I just kept reading, consuming the first third in hungry gulps.
Lish’s prose is amazingly concrete. He renders New York City (and the other settings) with seemingly effortless thoroughness; the evocation of place is vivid and refined in its attention to detail, but reads raw somehow. There’s a flavor of prime Denis Johnson or Don DeLillo here, but these comparisons aren’t fair: Lish is original—the prose reads thoroughly real, real to and from the author. The novel so far strikes me as one of the most authentic “post-9/11” novels I’ve read. There’s almost something sci-fi to Preparation—Lish shows us our world through alien eyes that suck in every detail. I wish I’d read it sooner.
Skinner hitchhikes to New York, newly returned from Iraq, hoping to exorcise his demons. Zou Lei, an undocumented immigrant from Central Asia, catches a bus into the city, searching for a way to get by—or at least stay out of jail. Their unlikely love story becomes the heart of one of the most compelling and widely acclaimed novels in years.
A clear-eyed illustration of life in New York City’s margins, Preparation For the Next Life evokes the unsettling realities of the American Dream for U.S. immigrants and unsupported veterans in stark, vivid detail. At once a nightmare and a love letter to New York City (a place one loves partly for its host of nightmares), Lish’s prose is disciplined yet always alive and taut with danger, rendered with the voice of a new and natural talent.
Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom-if not the bottom of this page then some other page-where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think out the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence, which ends when the page is turned, or the sentence falls out of the mind that holds it (temporarily) in some kind of embrace, not necessarily an ardent one, but more perhaps the kind of embrace enjoyed (or endured), by a wife who has just waked up and is on her way to the bathroom in the morning to wash her hair, and is bumped into by her husband, who has been lounging at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, and doesn’t see her coming out of the bedroom, but, when he bumps into her, or is bumped into by her, raises his hands to embrace her lightly, transiently, because he knows that if he gives her a real embrace so early in the morning, before she has properly shaken the dreams out of her head, and got her duds on, she won’t respond, and may even become slightly angry, and say something wounding, and so the husband invests in this embrace not so much physical or emotional pressure as he might, because he doesn’t want to waste anything-with this sort of feeling, then, the sentence passes through the mind more or less, and there is another way of describing the situation too, which is to say that the sentence crawls through the mind like something someone says to you while you are listening very hard to the FM radio, some rock group there, with its thrilling sound, and so, with your attention or the major part of it at least already rewarded, there is not much mind room you can give to the remark, especially considering that you have probably just quarreled with that person, the maker of the remark, over the radio being too loud, or something like that, and the view you take, of the remark, is that you’d really rather not hear it, but if you have to hear it, you want to listen to it for the smallest possible length of time, and during a commercial, because immediately after the commercial they’re going to play a new rock song by your favorite group, a cut that has never been aired before, and you want to hear it and respond to it in a new way, a way that accords with whatever you’re feeling at the moment, or might feel, if the threat of new experience could be (temporarily) overbalanced by the promise of possible positive benefits, or what the mind construes as such, remembering that these are often, really, disguised defeats (not that such defeats are not, at times, good for your character, teaching you that it is not by success alone that one surmounts life, but that setbacks, too, contribute to that roughening of the personality that, by providing a textured surface to place against that of life, enables you to leave slight traces, or smudges, on the face of human history-your mark) and after all, benefit-seeking always has something of the smell of raw vanity about it, as if you wished to decorate your own brow with laurel, or wear your medals to a cookout, when the invitation had said nothing about them, and although the ego is always hungry (we are told) it is well to remember that ongoing success is nearly as meaningless as ongoing lack of success, which can make you sick, and that it is good to leave a few crumbs on the table for the rest of your brethren, not to sweep it all into the little beaded purse of your soul but to allow others, too, part of the gratification, and if you share in this way you will find the clouds smiling on you, and the postman bringing you letters, and bicycles available when you want to rent them, and many other signs, however guarded and limited, of the community’s (temporary) approval of you, or at least of it’s willingness to let you believe (temporarily) that it finds you not so lacking in commendable virtues as it had previously allowed you to think, from its scorn of your merits, as it might be put, or anyway its consistent refusal to recognize your basic humanness and its secret blackball of the project of your remaining alive, made in executive session by its ruling bodies, which, as everyone knows, carry out concealed programs of reward and punishment, under the rose, causing faint alterations of the status quo, behind your back, at various points along the periphery of community life, together with other enterprises not dissimilar in tone, such as producing films that have special qualities, or attributes, such as a film where the second half of it is a holy mystery, and girls and women are not permitted to see it, or writing novels in which the final chapter is a plastic bag filled with water, which you can touch, but not drink: in this way, or ways, the underground mental life of the collectivity is botched, or denied, or turned into something else never imagined by the planners, who, returning from the latest seminar in crisis management and being asked what they have learned, say they have learned how to throw up their hands; the sentence meanwhile, although not insensible of these considerations, has a festering conscience of its own, which persuades it to follow its star, and to move with all deliberate speed from one place to another, without losing any of the “riders” it may have picked up just being there, on the page, and turning this way and that, to see what is over there, under that oddly-shaped tree, or over there, reflected in the rain barrel of the imagination, even though it is true that in our young manhood we were taught that short, punchy sentences were best (but what did he mean? doesn’t “punchy” mean punch-drunk? I think he probably intended to say “short, punching sentences,” meaning sentences that lashed out at you, bloodying your brain if possible, and looking up the word just now I came across the nearby “punkah,” which is a large fan suspended from the ceiling in India, operated by an attendant pulling a rope-that is what I want for my sentence, to keep it cool!) we are mature enough now to stand the shock of learning that much of what we were taught in our youth was wrong, or improperly understood by those who were teaching it, or perhaps shaded a bit, the shading resulting from the personal needs of the teachers, who as human beings had a tendency to introduce some of their heart’s blood into their work, and sometimes this may not have been of the first water, this heart’s blood, and even if they thought they were moving the “knowledge” out, as the Board of Education had mandated, they could have noticed that their sentences weren’t having the knockdown power of the new weapons whose bullets tumble end-over-end (but it is true that we didn’t have these weapons at that time) and they might have taken into account the fundamental dubiousness of their project (but all the intelligently conceived projects have been eaten up already, like the moon and the stars) leaving us, in our best clothes, with only things to do like conducting vigorous wars of attrition against our wives, who have now thoroughly come awake, and slipped into their striped bells, and pulled sweaters over their torsi, and adamantly refused to wear any bras under the sweaters, carefully explaining the political significance of this refusal to anyone who will listen, or look, but not touch, because that has nothing to do with it, so they say; leaving us, as it were, with only things to do like floating sheets of Reynolds Wrap around the room, trying to find out how many we can keep in the air at the same time, which at least gives us a sense of participation, as though we were Buddha, looking down at the mystery of your smile, which needs to be investigated, and I think I’ll do that right now, while there’s still enough light, if you’ll sit down over there, in the best chair, and take off all your clothes, and put your feet in that electric toe caddy (which prevents pneumonia) and slip into this permanent press hospital gown, to cover your nakedness-why, if you do all that, we’ll be ready to begin! after I wash my hands, because you pick up an amazing amount of exuviae in this city, just by walking around in the open air, and nodding to acquaintances, and speaking to friends, and copulating with lovers, in the ordinary course (and death to our enemies! by and by)-but I’m getting a little uptight, just about washing my hands, because I can’t find the soap, which somebody has used and not put back in the soap dish, all of which is extremely irritating, if you have a beautiful patient sitting in the examining room, naked inside her gown, and peering at her moles in the mirror, with her immense brown eyes following your every movement (when they are not watching the moles, expecting them, as in a Disney nature film, to exfoliate) and her immense brown head wondering what you’re going to do to her, the pierced places in the head letting that question leak out, while the therapist decides just to wash his hands in plain water, and hang the soap! and does so, and then looks around for a towel, but all the towels have been collected by the towel service, and are not there, so he wipes his hands on his pants, in the back (so as to avoid suspicious stains on the front) thinking: what must she think of me? and, all this is very unprofessional and at-sea looking! trying to visualize the contretemps from her point of view, if she has one (but how can she? she is not in the washroom) and then stopping, because it is finally his own point of view that he cares about and not hers, and with this firmly in mind, and a light, confident step, such as you might find in the works of Bulwer-Lytton, he enters the space she occupies so prettily and, taking her by the hand, proceeds to tear off the stiff white hospital gown (but no, we cannot have that kind of pornographic merde in this majestic and high-minded sentence, which will probably end up in the Library of Congress) (that was just something that took place inside his consciousness, as he looked at her, and since we know that consciousness is always consciousness of something, she is not entirely without responsibility in the matter) so, then, taking her by the hand, he falls into the stupendous white puree of her abyss, no, I mean rather that he asks her how long it has been since her last visit, and she says a fortnight, and he shudders, and tells her that with a condition like hers (she is an immensely popular soldier, and her troops win all their battles by pretending to be forests, the enemy discovering, at the last moment, that those trees they have eaten their lunch under have eyes and swords) (which reminds me of the performance, in 1845, of Robert-Houdin, called The Fantastic Orange Tree, wherein Robert-Houdin borrowed a lady’s handkerchief, rubbed it between his hands and passed it into the center of an egg, after which he passed the egg into the center of a lemon, after which he passed the lemon into the center of an orange, then pressed the orange between his hands, making it smaller and smaller, until only a powder remained, whereupon he asked for a small potted orange tree and sprinkled the powder thereupon, upon which the tree burst into blossom, the blossoms turning into oranges, the oranges turning into butterflies, and the butterflies turning into beautiful young ladies, who then married members of the audience), a condition so damaging to real-time social intercourse of any kind, the best thing she can do is give up, and lay down her arms, and he will lie down in them, and together they will permit themselves a bit of the old slap and tickle, she wearing only her Mr. Christopher medal, on its silver chain, and he (for such is the latitude granted the professional classes) worrying about the sentence, about its thin wires of dramatic tension, which have been omitted, about whether we should write down some natural events occurring in the sky (birds, lightning bolts), and about a possible coup d’etat within the sentence, whereby its chief verb would be-but at this moment a messenger rushes into the sentence, bleeding from a hat of thorns he’s wearing, and cries out: “You don’t know what you’re doing! Stop making this sentence, and begin instead to make Moholy-Nagy cocktails, for those are what we really need, on the frontiers of bad behavior!” and then he falls to the floor, and a trap door opens under him, and he falls through that, into a damp pit where a blue narwhal waits, its horn poised (but maybe the weight of the messenger, falling from such a height, will break off the horn)-thus, considering everything very carefully, in the sweet light of the ceremonial axes, in the run-mad skimble-skamble of information sickness, we must make a decision as to whether we should proceed, or go back, in the latter case enjoying the pathos of eradication, in which the former case reading an erotic advertisement which begins, How to Make Your Mouth a Blowtorch of Excitement (but wouldn’t that overtax our mouthwashes?) attempting, during the pause, while our burned mouths are being smeared with fat, to imagine a better sentence, worthier, more meaningful, like those in the Declaration of Independence, or a bank statement showing that you have seven thousand kroner more than you thought you had-a statement summing up the unreasonable demands that you make on life, and one that also asks the question, if you can imagine these demands, why are they not routinely met, tall fool? but of course it is not that query that this infected sentence has set out to answer (and hello! to our girl friend, Rosetta Stone, who has stuck by us through thick and thin) but some other query that we shall some day discover the nature of, and here comes Ludwig, the expert on sentence construction we have borrowed from the Bauhaus, who will-“Guten Tag, Ludwig!”-probably find a way to cure the sentence’s sprawl, by using the improved way of thinking developed in Weimer-“I am sorry to inform you that the Bauhaus no longer exists, that all of the great masters who formerly thought there are either dead or retired, and that I myself have been reduced to constructing books on how to pass the examination for police sergeant”-and Ludwig falls through the Tugendhat House into the history of man-made objects; a disappointment, to be sure, but it reminds us that the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones
I am in a mood that gets more and more familiar: words lose their meaning suddenly. I find myself listening to a sentence, a phrase, a group of words, as if they are in a foreign language—the gap between what they are supposed to mean, and what in fact they say seems unbridgeable. I have been thinking of the novels about the breakdown of language, like Finnegans Wake. And the preoccupation with semantics. The fact that Stalin bothers to write a pamphlet on this subject at all is just a sign of a general uneasiness about language. But what right have I to criticize anything when sentences from the most beautiful novel can seem idiotic to me?
… I made tea, and then I remembered a story that was sent to me last week. By a comrade living somewhere near Leeds. When I first read it, I thought it was an exercise in irony. Then a very skilful parody of a certain attitude. Then I realized it was serious—it was at the moment I searched my memory and rooted out certain fantasies of my own. But what seemed to me important was that it could be read as parody, irony or seriously. It seems to me this fact is another expression of the fragmentation of everything, the painful disintegration of something that is linked with what I feel to be true about language, the thinning of language against the density of our experience.
Rainer J. Hanshe is the translator of My Heart Laid Bare & Other Texts, a collection of writings by Charles Baudelaire, new from Contra Mundum Press. Over a series of emails, Hanshe was kind enough to talk to me about My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire, dandyism, translation, art, stealing books, and all other manner of topics.
Biblioklept: What is My Heart Laid Bare? Did Baudelaire envision its publication in his lifetime?
Rainer J. Hanshe: The title My Heart Laid Bare is Edgar Allan Poe’s, and it’s he who conceives of a book that, if daring enough, if ‘bare’ enough, could revolutionize human thought, opinion, and sentiment. This could be achieved, Poe said, “by writing and publishing a very little book. Its title should be simple — a few plain words — ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But this little book must be true to its title.” Baudelaire took up Poe’s provocation and his Mon cœur mis à nu is one of a number of different books that he dreamt up and hoped to write “without lassitude — in a word to be in good heart day after day.” Others Baudelaire mentioned along with it in an 1864 letter included Histoires grotesques et sérieuses, Les fleurs du Mal, Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, Contemporaines, and Pauvre Belgium! The first notes for Mon cœur mis à nu begin in 1859, two years after the initial publication of The flowers of Evil, if not possibly somewhat earlier, and continue until 1865, ceasing only due to Baudelaire’s severe health condition (he would die in 1867 at just 46 years of age), hence they comprise the final decade of his writing life.
Aside from the more direct root of Poe, Rousseau was another of Baudelaire’s models, albeit a negative one to surpass. Baudelaire said that “all the targets of [his] rage” would be collected in Mon cœur mis à nu. “Ah! if ever that sees the light of day, J-J’s Confessions will seem pale.” As I describe in the synopsis, it is an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note, and extended reflection. It is not however some memoir-like spewing of Baudelaire’s bios; rather, it is the baring of his l’esprit, and as a crystallization of such, it isn’t some kind of ‘tell-all exposé’ (Rousseau’s notion of absolute transparency, an indulgence we could well do without, especially considering its pernicious ramifications), but to me a much higher form of ‘confession,’ for it is the arc of thought, the play of the mind in its every breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion, and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature, the arts (George Sand receives some choice malicious arrows), and love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en générale), and outlines of his conception of the dandy and the Poet.
The Poet for Baudelaire is I would say a figure similar in kind to Nietzsche’s untimely personage, the posthumous human, a kind of philosophical anthropologist who hovers over the earth, examining the human species both from within and externally, from a sub species aeternitatis perspective, diagnosing it like a physician (much of the book’s terminology is medical taxonomy).
In 1861, two years after beginning Mon cœur mis à nu, sieged by resignation, calumny, and ill health (nervous disorders, vomiting, insomnia, fainting fits, recurrent syphilitic outbreaks), Baudelaire expresses doubt that he will ever complete his various projects. “My situation as regards my honor, frightful — and that’s the greatest evil. Never any rest. Insults, outrages, affronts you can’t imagine, which corrupt the imagination and paralyze it.” Three years later, it was against the continuing extremities of an exacerbated solitude, frayed nerves, self-described terrors, and constant hounding by creditors that Baudelaire implored himself to remain stalwart (“I must pull myself together, take heart! This may well bring rewards.”) and write.
Clearly, he did envision publishing the book in his lifetime, and he diligently worked at it, steeling himself against his trials to the degree within his power, but it was never completed. The obstructions he faced were abundant; the somatic afflictions inordinately taxing. The threat of his impending decline or decay is sharply articulated in one passage wherein he speaks of “feeling the wind of the wing of imbecility” passing over him. Various translators have rendered that as “the wing of madness,” but Baudelaire says “imbécillité,” not folie or démence. The notion of “the wing of madness” has greater Gothico-Romantic cache, but it’s not what Baudelaire says, and in this case, there’s a relatively exact equivalence of terms. It was more physical weakness and feebleness that he feared, and experienced, and believed would finally incapacitate him, as it did, not madness. His aphasia and heart attacks led to his losing his ability to speak and thereafter, his ability to read and write — the death of the writer.
We have only the existing fragments then, which have been translated in full, but they were published posthumously. Despite no such title existing in the text, or any related material, French editors originally published the work as “Journaux intime” (Intimate Journals), which included two other sections, “Fusées” and “Hygiène.” Translations into English followed suite, and they adopted the false title, which must at last be discarded. If Baudelaire hadn’t been besieged by illnesses as he was, he would have imaginably given us a definitive version of Mon cœur mis à nu considering that he did complete other books he began around the same period (Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, et cetera). It remains a fragmentary work then, in both senses, yet one that is substantive enough to merit our continued attention.
Biblioklept: For me, the fragmentary nature of My Heart Laid Bare is in some ways more appealing than the cohesion of a more polished philosophical or poetic text. It’s a discursive read, and there’s joy in tying (or failing to tie) the fragments together. This reading experience is perhaps as close as we can get to seeing Baudelaire thinking (and feeling). At the same time, there’s perhaps a risk of the average reader’s misreading or misinterpreting some of Baudelaire’s riffs, quips, and jabs here. How tempting was it to footnote the hell out of My Heart Laid Bare?
Hanshe: In his poet’s notebook, Paul Valéry said that “a work is never necessarily finished, for he who has made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it […]. He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things.” Similarly, he says elsewhere that, “in the eyes of lovers of anxiety and perfection, a work is never finished but abandoned.” Since Baudelaire never prepared a definitive version of the book, we cannot know what he would have changed, or not, yet as a work closely aligned with his self, it’s something that could never have been completed, only abandoned. Hence, it would always remain fragmentary. Think of Schlegel’s poetics of the fragment where even ‘incompleteness’ is exceptionally refined, an architecturally precise aesthetic form (sculpturally, this calls to mind Giacometti). In his essay on German Romanticism, Walter Benjamin pointed out that aphoristic writing is not proof against systematic intentions (an accurate insight made about Nietzsche’s work in fact, albeit one lost on many of his later readers…), that one can write aphoristically and still think through one’s philosophy or writing “in a comprehensive and unitary manner in keeping with one’s guiding ideas.” In this way, it’s not that Baudelaire’s book lacks cohesiveness; it’s deliberately fragmentary to eschew finality, and because the self, the ‘heart’ being laid bare, is never complete. That Baudelaire worked on it for nearly ten years though makes it probable that its character was quite well defined before illness permanently disrupted his voluntarily abandoning it.
There are certainly unities, or thoughts that overlap and intertwine within the book, as there are with other books of Baudelaire’s, and when I began translating it, I kept track of those I was aware of while also benefitting from the extensive and exemplary notes that the French editors amassed. The critical addendum was therefore unfurling like an infinite papyrus, threatening to end in it being as long, if not longer, than the book itself. In a way, that kind of critical gesture is an act of usurpation and domination, just as overly lengthy introductions can be (consider the grand effrontery of Foucault’s introduction to Binswanger’s Dream & Existence, which is twice the length of the book). At a certain point, I felt that continuing to amass notes would have made the book extremely cumbersome, one unpleasant to read, merely due to sheer volume. There’s also something about a massive critical addendum that’s imposing, if not intrusive, to many readers. Additionally, it was a question of elegance: I didn’t want to litter the book with footnote numbers; alternative methods to that could have easily been devised but, ultimately, I opted against including extensive notes. While as readers we can disavow them altogether, not having them makes for a more comfortable book to wield. Finally, encountering it would be more like coming upon Baudelaire’s own notebook, free of editorial invasiveness, thereby leaving the reader to his or her own rapturous encounter with it, however intractable it may be. As for misreading or misinterpreting, I don’t think such can ever be definitively foreclosed. While errant and contentious readings exist, to fear risking them is to argue that we can fathom authorial intention, or that there are definitive and absolute interpretations. Reading should be dangerous, risky, volatile, something that threatens to undermine, overwhelm, and mutate us, if not put the world into metamorphosis, as books can and have done, though hardly as much in our depleted and toothless epoch. Otherwise, reading is just entertainment, a diversionary narcotic, and we have to be willing to be shattered by books, to undergo both subtle and emphatic shocks.
Biblioklept: What is Flares?
Hanshe: Quite simply, it’s a writer’s notebook; as such, it doesn’t have a single focus but is more motley, something of a hybrid entity. To paraphrase, we could call it The Poet Laid Bare (of poetic form). Nonetheless, I believe it has two principal nerve centers: critique and meditation.
The critique is many-tendrilled, with its points of observation being the craft of the writer, art and aesthetics, love, pleasure, and intoxication (numerous types), religion and theology, politics, etc. The writer’s smelting room and sometimes place of furious venting. As with Mon cœur mis à nu, there is a root in Poe, who in his Marginalia spoke of “a peculiar type of criticism” that “can only be designated by the ‘German ‘Schwarmerei’ — not exactly ‘humbug’ but ‘sky-rocketing’…” Baudelaire took up this idea, naming his work fusées, which is an expansive translation of the English skyrockets. A fusée is a pyrotechnical device (rocket, flare, or firework), musket, or heraldic emblem, hence the title corresponds well with the work’s variegated character. It is something incendiary, combative, and elegant. The manifold subtitles peppered throughout “Flares” offer us a provisional overview of its character, too: Plans, Projects, Suggestions, Notes, Hygiene, Morality, Conduct, Method. Here we see the writer’s notebook, the critique, and the meditation.
In speaking of intellectual gymnastics, the altar of the will, moral dynamics, the great deed, perfect health, the hygiene of the soul, political harmony of character, eurhythmy of character and faculties, self-purification, mastery of time, and accomplishing one’s duties, Baudelaire enumerates a concentration of terms and concepts related to self-cultivation. The book thus contains a kind of technology of the self, the outline of Baudelaire’s martial praxis for the artist — intellectual gymnastics and the sanctification of the will both bespeak an agonistic sensibility, as does his paean to greatness and his call to achieve it in contradistinction to the tremendous oppositional force of nothing less than an entire nation. What is this but Baudelaire’s Miltonic-Satanic typology. “The man of letters rends foundations…” (Flares §6) Such terminology, and the repeated invocations to himself to master his will and to work diligently to become who he is, are part of a regimen of poetic self-shaping. “Want every day to be the greatest of men!!!” (My Heart… §70) The references to Emerson and his Conduct of Life further reinforce that, which is but one reason why in the book’s synopsis I made a parallel to Marcus Aurelius, characterizing the book as Baudelaire’s meditations, which I see as its second nerve center. The poet is clearly concerned with self-government, and this shaping or cultivation of the self is meant to strengthen him, thereby aiding his accomplishing his artistic tasks, of which the book is in part a record.
These notions can be woven together with other parts of the work, i.e. §16 of “Flares,” where Baudelaire speaks of the most perfect type of virile Beauty (the Miltonic Satan), or the Emersonian hero (he who is immovably centered), giving us the supreme artistic model of Satan, that is, Satan as the light-bringer, the visionary, he who is anti-human (“Let us defy the people, common sense, the heart, inspiration, and evidence.” §47; “The man of letters is the enemy of the world.” §53). In §21 of ”Flares” Baudelaire asks, “To give oneself to Satan, what is it?” The book provides us with some answers, as does his poetry (the “Litanies of Satan” et alia), and his Dandy (a superior figure) is another type with similarly sublime aspirations. It is the onset of the anti-Christian hyperanthropos. “The poet, the priest, and the soldier are the only great men among men: … the rest are made for the whip” (§47). Continue reading ““Translation is an act of risk” | An interview with Rainer J. Hanshe on translating Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare”→
I meant to read The Vegetarian after reading Ryan’s review, but got sidetracked, (Sidetracked is not the right metaphor. I hoped to read it but didn’t. Until this weekend).
Anyway, in the meantime while I was not reading it, The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which means it got plenty of reviews and attention, which is good, because it’s a “good” book (whatever that means—what I mean is it’s a perplexing and fucked up and weird book), and also I’ve been out in the sun drinking beers all day and I know I couldn’t muster, like, a review.
To really review the book, I’d have to reread it anyway, which I’ll probably do. The narrative’s arranged in three sections told via three very different perspectives—kinda sorta Rashomon style, I guess—and information in each section shades and intensifies information in other sections—so rereading the first two sections would be, um, valuable to seeing/feeling the novel anew.
I use seeing/feeling above in lieu of understanding. The Vegetarian produced an aesthetic sensation in me (by which I maybe mean emotion that I don’t have the right word for. This previous statement sounds like boilerplate hyperbole, but it’s not—I literally cannot think of an accurate word to describe the feeling of the end of the novel. I’ve read takes on the novel that use terms like “unsettling” or “disturbing,” but these seem like adjectives without clear or proper referents.
My adjective/noun combo for The Vegetarian: “dreamy queasiness.”
Or maybe: “queasy dreaminess.”
Does that hold appeal for you, kind reader? A dreamy queasy South Korean novel about a woman who stops eating meat after a weird dream and whose family reacts extremely poorly to her decision to stop eating meet? That description sounds way more banal than the novel really is. The books’ not banal at all; it’s a weird take on cruelty and abjection and refusal, refusal, refusal. It’s confounding. (I don’t have the right adjectives right now).
I don’t have the right adjectives right now. Maybe I’ll just hit “publish” on this post and then repost Ryan’s review, which is far more detailed and perceptive and interesting than this non-review. In fact, I’m sure I’ll do that.
I picked up Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s 1881 novel ThePosthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas today. I picked it up because of an oblique recommendation via Twitter a few weeks ago when I was raving about Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama.
Brás Cubas reminds me a lot of Tristram Shandy so far—short sharp funny chapters that bop forward and backward. The 1881 novel anticipates anticipates a style and form that we now describe as “postmodern.” I’ll share a few excerpts in the future, but for now, here’s the Wikipedia summary (lazy, I know, but I think it’s a bit better than this Oxford UP edition’s blurb):
The novel is narrated by the dead protagonist Brás Cubas, who tells his own life story from beyond the grave, noting his mistakes and failed romances.
The fact of being already deceased allows Brás Cubas to sharply criticize the Brazilian society and reflect on his own disillusionment, with no sign of remorse or fear of retaliation. Brás Cubas dedicates his book to the first worm that gnawed his cold body: “To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs” (Portuguese: Ao verme que primeiro roeu as frias carnes do meu cadáver dedico com saudosa lembrança estas Memórias Póstumas). Cubas decides to tell his story starting from the end (the passage of his death, caused by pneumonia), then taking “the greatest leap in this story”, proceeding to tell the story of his life since his childhood.
The novel is also connected to another Machado de Assis work, Quincas Borba, which features a character from the Memoirs (as a secondary character, despite the novel’s name), but other works of the author are hinted in chapter titles. It is a novel recalled as a major influence by many post-modern writers, such as John Barth or Donald Barthelme, as well as Brazilian writers in the 20th century
I admit that I picked up Miguel Ángel Asturias’s 1963 novel Mulata de Tal because of the cover and blurb alone. This 1982 translation is by Gregory Rabassa, and part of a series of Latin American authors that Avon/Bard put out in really cool attractive mass market paperbacks in the 1980s. The titles can be hit or miss, but I like the energy of the first two chapters of Mulata. Back cover blurb:
It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. A youth was trudging slowly, without enthusiasm, with his hands buried deep in his trouser’s pockets, towards the down-town places where beds can be hired for coppers. He was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby was a marvel of dust-covered crown and torn rim. He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of “bum” and “hobo,” and with various unholy epithets that small boys had applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most profound dejection. The sifting rain saturated the old velvet collar of his overcoat, and as the wet cloth pressed against his neck, he felt that there no longer could be pleasure in life. He looked about him searching for an outcast of highest degree that they too might share miseries, but the lights threw a quivering glare over rows and circles of deserted benches that glistened damply, showing patches of wet sod behind them. It seemed that their usual freights had fled on this night to better things. There were only squads of well-dressed Brooklyn people who swarmed towards the bridge.
The young man loitered about for a time and then went shuffling off down Park Row. In the sudden descent in style of the dress of the crowd he felt relief, and as if he were at last in his own country. He began to see tatters that matched his tatters. In Chatham Square there were aimless men strewn in front of saloons and lodging-houses, standing sadly, patiently, reminding one vaguely of the attitudes of chickens in a storm. He aligned himself with these men, and turned slowly to occupy himself with the flowing life of the great street.
Through the mists of the cold and storming night, the cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy, breaking silence only by the loud fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of people swarmed along the side walks, spattered with black mud, which made each shoe leave a scar-like impression. Overhead elevated trains with a shrill grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leg-like pillars seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could be heard. Down an alley there were sombre curtains of purple and black, on which street lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers. Continue reading “Read “An Experiment in Misery,” a short story by Stephen Crane”→