“Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” by Donald Barthelme
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we’d have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn’t begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he’d always been fond of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a “delaying tactic” and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. “Be reasonable,” he said to Colby. Colby said he’d try to think of something a little less exacting.
Hugh was worried about the wording of the invitations. What if one of them fell into the hands of the authorities? Hanging Colby was doubtless against the law, and if the authorities learned in advance what the plan was they would very likely come in and try to mess everything up. I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moralright to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far. We agreed that the invitations would be worded in such a way that the person invited could not know for sure what he was being invited to. We decided to refer to the event as “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams.” A handsome script was selected from a catalogue and we picked a cream-colored paper. Magnus said he’d see to having the invitations printed, and wondered whether we should serve drinks. Colby said he thought drinks would be nice but was worried about the expense. We told him kindly that the expense didn’t matter, that we were after all his dear friends and if a group of his dear friends couldn’t get together and do the thing with a little bit of eclat, why, what was the world coming to? Colbv asked if he would be able to have drinks, too, before the event. We said,”Certainly.”
The next item of business was the gibbet. None of us knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans. The important thing, as far as he recollected, was that the trapdoor function perfectly. He said that just roughly, counting labor and materials, it shouldn’t run us more than four hundred dollars. “Good God !” Howard said. He said what was Tomas figuring on, rosewood? No, just a good grade of pine, Tomas said. Victor asked if unpainted pine wouldn’t look kind of “raw,” and Tomas replied that he thought it could be stained a dark walnut without too much trouble.
Makes breakfast for his wife. Goes to the butcher. Goes to the post office. Goes to church. Goes to a chemist. Goes to a public bath. Goes to a funeral. Goes to a newspaper press. Goes to a locksmith to canvass an ad. Feeds some seagulls. Goes to a bar. Helps a blind man cross the street. Goes to the museum. Goes to to the library. Visits a bookseller. Window-shops. Goes to a restaurant. Listens to some live music. Writes a love letter. Goes to another bar. Nearly gets in a fight. Masturbates to a beautiful eighteen-year-old exhibitionist giving him a private show. Takes an alfresco nap. Takes up a collection for a widow. Goes to a hospital to visit a pregnant woman. Flits with a nurse. Feeds a stray dog. Goes to a whorehouse. Helps avert a row with the police. Goes to a cabman’s shelter and listens to a sailor tell stories. Breaks into his own house. Urinates under the stars with another man. Watches the sunrise. Kisses his wife on her arse.
It would have been the single busiest, most adventurous day of my life.
From Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.
The following morning he came down, he very calmly told Oberlin how his mother had appeared to him in the night; she had emerged from the dark churchyard wall in a white dress and had a white and a red rose pinned to her chest; she had then sunk into a corner and the roses had slowly grown over her, she had no doubt died; he had felt quite calm about this. Oberlin then remarked that when his father died he was alone in the fields and then heard a voice so that he knew his father was dead when he came back home this was indeed so. This led them further, Oberlin spoke of the mountain people, of girls who could detect water and metal under the ground, of men who had been possessed on certain peaks and wrestled with spirits; he also told of how he had once been transported into a state of somnambulism upon looking into the empty depths of a mountain pool. Lenz told him that the spirit of water had come over him, that he had then experienced something of its special essence. He continued on: the simplest, purest creatures were closest to elemental nature, the more refined a man’s mental life and feelings, the more blunted this elemental sense became; he did not consider it to be a higher plane, it lacked the requisite self-sufficiency, but he believed it must be an endless delight to feel moved by the unique life of each and every form; to have a soul for stones, metals, water and plants; to take in every being in nature into oneself as in a dream, as flowers do with air at every waxing of the moon.
From Georg Büchner’s Lenz, in translation by Richard Sieburth. Lenz (1836) is a novella or story or fragment based on the diary of J.F. Oberlin, who briefly took care of Jakob Lenz, a playwright suffering from schizophrenia.
“Mexican Manifesto” by Roberto Bolaño (translation by Laura Healy):
Laura and I did not make love that afternoon. In truth, we gave it a shot, but it just didn’t happen. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now I’m not so sure. We probably did make love. That’s what Laura said, and while we were at it she introduced me to the world of public baths, which from then on, and for a very long time, I would associate with pleasure and play. The first one was, without a doubt, the best. It was called Montezuma’s Gym, and in the foyer some unknown artist had done a mural where you could see the Aztec emperor neck-deep in a pool. Around the edges, close to the monarch but much smaller, smiling men and women bathe. Everyone seems carefree except the king, who looks fixedly out of the mural, as if searching for the improbable spectator, with dark, wide-open eyes in which I often thought I glimpsed terror. The water in the pool is green. The stones are gray. In the background, you can see mountains and storm clouds.
The boy who worked at Montezuma’s Gym was an orphan, and that was his primary topic of conversation. On the third visit, we became friends. He was only eighteen, and wanted to buy a car, so he was saving everything he could: tips were scant. According to Laura, he was a little slow. I thought he was nice.
In every public bath, there tends to be a fight from time to time. We never saw or heard any there. The clients, conditioned by some unknown mechanism, respected and obeyed every word of the orphan’s instructions. Also, to be fair, there weren’t very many people, and that’s something I’ll never be able to explain, since it was a clean place, relatively modern, with individual saunas for taking steam baths, bar service in the saunas, and, above all, cheap. There, in Sauna 10, I saw Laura naked for the first time, and all I could do was smile and touch her shoulder and say I didn’t know which valve to turn to make the steam come out.
This is April again. Roller skates rain slowly down the street
Your voice far away on the phone
Once I would have jumped like a clown through a hoop—
“Then the area of infection has increased? …oh …What can I expect after all—I’ve had worse shocks.
Anyhow, I know and that’s something.” (Like hell it is, but it’s what you say to an X-ray doctor.)
Then the past whispering faint now on another phone:
“Is there any change?”
“Little or no change”
The roller skates rain down the streets,
The black cars shine between the leaves,
Your voice far away:
“I am going with my daughter to the country. My husband left today. . . No he knows nothing.”
I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories, The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.
Once the phial was full—here is the bottle it came in.
Hold on there’s a drop left there. . . No, it was just the way the light fell
But your voice on the telephone. If I hadn’t abused words so what you said might have meant something.
But one hundred and twenty stories
April evening spreads over everything, the purple blur left by a child who has used the whole paint-box.
“Our April Letter” is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks.
Cage III — Free Show. B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions/Infernatron Animation Concepts, Canada. Cosgrove Watt, P. A. Heaven, Everard Maynell, Pam Heath; partial animation; 35 mm.; 65 minutes; black and white; sound.
The figure of Death (Heath) presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators’ eyes become larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life (Heaven) uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into gigantic eyeballs.
INTERLACE TELENT FEATURE CARTRIDGE #357-65-65
From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.
“Thoughts on Various Subjects” by Jonathan Swift (From The Battle of the Books)
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions, etc. We enter so little into those interests, that we wonder how men could possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory; look on the present times, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all.
A wise man endeavours, by considering all circumstances, to make conjectures and form conclusions; but the smallest accident intervening (and in the course of affairs it is impossible to foresee all) does often produce such turns and changes, that at last he is just as much in doubt of events as the most ignorant and inexperienced person.
Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.
How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning?
I forget whether Advice be among the lost things which Aristo says are to be found in the moon; that and Time ought to have been there.
No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put into our heads before.
When we desire or solicit anything, our minds run wholly on the good side or circumstances of it; when it is obtained, our minds run wholly on the bad ones.
In a glass-house the workmen often fling in a small quantity of fresh coals, which seems to disturb the fire, but very much enlivens it. This seems to allude to a gentle stirring of the passions, that the mind may not languish.
Religion seems to have grown an infant with age, and requires miracles to nurse it, as it had in its infancy.
All fits of pleasure are balanced by an equal degree of pain or languor; it is like spending this year part of the next year’s revenue.
The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former. Continue reading ““Thoughts on Various Subjects” — Jonathan Swift”
Book shelves series #52, fifty-second Sunday of 2012: In which, in this penultimate chapter, we return to the site of entry #1.
The first entry in this project was my bedside nightstand. This is what it looked like back in January:
This is it this morning:
This is the major difference:
The Kindle Fire has changed my late night shuffling habits.
Here are the books that are in the nightstand:
I read the Aira novel but completely forgot about it, which I’m sure says more about me than it.
Have no idea why this is in there:
But it’s a fun book. With pictures! Sample:
Finally, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual—this is one of my reading goals for 2013. It seems like a good way to close out this penultimate post, as one of Perec’s essays inspired this project
“Every library answers a twofold need, which is often also a twofold obsession: that of conserving certain objects (books) and that of organizing them in certain ways”
—Georges Perec, from ”Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)
“The Christmas Banquet,” a tale from Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Mosses from an Old Manse):
“I HAVE HERE attempted,” said Roderick, unfolding a few sheets of manuscript, as he sat with Rosina and the sculptor in the summer-house–“I have attempted to seize hold of a personage who glides past me, occasionally, in my walk through life. My former sad experience, as you know, has gifted me with some degree of insight into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart, through which I have wandered like one astray in a dark cavern, with his torch fast flickering to extinction. But this man–this class of men–is a hopeless puzzle.”
“Well, but propound him,” said the sculptor. “Let us have an idea of him, to begin with.”
“Why, indeed,” replied Roderick, “he is such a being as I could conceive you to carve out of marble, and some yet unrealized perfection of human science to endow with an exquisite mockery of intellect; but still there lacks the last inestimable touch of a divine Creator. He looks like a man, and, perchance, like a better specimen of man than you ordinarily meet. You might esteem him wise–he is capable of cultivation and refinement, and has at least an external conscience–but the demands that spirit makes upon spirit, are precisely those to which he cannot respond. When, at last, you come close to him, you find him chill and unsubstantial–a mere vapor.”
Book shelves series #44, forty-fourth Sunday of 2012
Not a particularly beautiful shelf—it sits between a TV and a soundbar; houses an unused Wii, an analog clock, and a picture of my kids. The books camouflage cords and wires.
You can see the whole shelf in the top pic. The big pic on the right: a Kokeshi doll set on Henry Miller volume that was a gift from a friend years ago in high school.
To the left: Bukowski, Miller, Anaïs Nin. Then, a section of stuff you can’t really see, including an extremely tattered copy of A Passage to India.
Lower right: Mass-market paperbacks that were especially important to me over the years and as a result have managed to hang around—even in cases where they were replaced by handsomer volumes. Usually obscured by the clock. Includes stuff by Borges, Carson McCullers, Hemingway, Twain, Chopin, Richard Wright . . .
Thrilled today to get Building Stories, Chris Ware’s latest.
Thrilled here is no hyperbole—I can’t remember being so excited to open a book in quite some time.
But Building Stories isn’t really a book.
First, it comes in this big box—like a board game.
I show it set against The Catcher in the Rye in mass market paperback and a glass of red.
(The Catcher in the Rye + glass of red is the international standard for items used to show relative dimensions of size).
(Also, don’t worry about the wine ring—still shrinkwrapped at this point).
And on that shrinkwrap blazons a blurb by some guy named J.J. Abrams:
A description of the formal elements of Building Stories from the back of the box:
I open the box:
From the inside of the top of the box:
Not sure if that second quote shows here, but:
Pablo Picasso suggests that, Everything you can imagine is real.
Strips and papers and books.
Shots as I go through it:
Stack: The shorter/smaller stuff is on top—a suggestion to read it first? / Probably not.
Probably more a packing issue.
I remember a professor in grad school musing about where a book begins.
The title page?
How and where does a book begin?
Chris Ware’s Building Stories: a kind of Möbius strip,
crammed with ideas,
stories . . .
Little golden book
. . . and broadside.
. . . so many faces . . .
. . . layers . . .
. . . and layers . . .
(They always remind me of David Foster Wallace, who I know Ware read).
And thus so well . . .
I should’ve busted out the wine glass or the Salinger here to show the scale of this marvelous painting, better than anything I’ve seen in contemporary art in ages. It tells all the story. (Wait, you (maybe) say, have you actually read the story yet?)
But who hasn’t felt:
Well . . .
[Insert ideas about malleability of form, sequence, narrative, idea—riff on discursive-novel-as-future-novel, etc.]
End riff/now look, read, absorb.
Book shelves series #41, forty-first Sunday of 2012
Lots of lovely books and mags with pictures.
Several years worth of subscription to The Believer, with an unsorted stack setting up front:
I suppose I could write a whole post about The Believer, which I think is an excellent mag but no longer subscribe to, but instead, here’s a cover from Charles Burns:
Charles Burns also shows up in this section, which includes stuff by R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman, and more:
The wife got me a subscription to The Paris Review last year; then, some unsorted books, and then the Nausicaä collection (also courtesy the wife):
Nausicaä spread out on my couch. (My son and I ended up looking through them for an hour):
“Lobster” by Anne Sexton:
A shoe with legs,
a stone dropped from heaven,
he does his mournful work alone,
he is the old prospector for golf,
with secret dreams of God-heads and fish heads.
Until suddenly a cradle fastens round him
and his is trapped as the U.S.A. sleeps.
Somewhere far off a woman lights a cigarette;
somewhere far off a car goes over a bridge;
somewhere far off a bank is held up.
This is the world the lobster knows not of.
He is the old hunting dog of the sea
who in the morning will rise from it
and be undrowned
and they will take his perfect green body
and paint it red
Book shelves series #40, fortieth Sunday of 2012
So we dip into the penultimate book shelf in this series, the one I shot last week in hazy hangover.
(This shelf is lower right; I’ll be working down to up and right to left).
Kids puzzles and a toy accordion block some books on folklore, history, and music.
As always, sorry for the glare, blur, and poor lighting. Blame my ancient iPhone 3gs .
A book my grandmother gave me a few years ago:
This is a wonderful old collection:
Pissing in the Snow: I’ve gone to that well more than once.
Kind of a motley crew here; the Barthes is misshelved but the lit crit shelves above are too full, so . . .
Musical bios. More of these are scattered around the house. I gave away a few recently.
Some of these books made it on to a list I wrote of seven great books about rock and roll.
Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan bio, which I, ahem, *borrowed* from my uncle years ago.
It made the rounds in high school but I managed to get it back somehow (but not its cover):
“The Image of the Lost Soul” by Saki—
There were a number of carved stone figures placed at intervals along the parapets of the old Cathedral; some of them represented angels, others kings and bishops, and nearly all were in attitudes of pious exaltation and composure. But one figure, low down on the cold north side of the building, had neither crown, mitre, not nimbus, and its face was hard and bitter and downcast; it must be a demon, declared the fat blue pigeons that roosted and sunned themselves all day on the ledges of the parapet; but the old belfry jackdaw, who was an authority on ecclesiastical architecture, said it was a lost soul. And there the matter rested.
One autumn day there fluttered on to the Cathedral roof a slender, sweet-voiced bird that had wandered away from the bare fields and thinning hedgerows in search of a winter roosting-place. It tried to rest its tired feet under the shade of a great angel-wing or to nestle in the sculptured folds of a kingly robe, but the fat pigeons hustled it away from wherever it settled, and the noisy sparrow-folk drove it off the ledges. No respectable bird sang with so much feeling, they cheeped one to another, and the wanderer had to move on.
Only the effigy of the Lost Soul offered a place of refuge. The pigeons did not consider it safe to perch on a projection that leaned so much out of the perpendicular, and was, besides, too much in the shadow. The figure did not cross its hands in the pious attitude of the other graven dignitaries, but its arms were folded as in defiance and their angle made a snug resting-place for the little bird. Every evening it crept trustfully into its corner against the stone breast of the image, and the darkling eyes seemed to keep watch over its slumbers. The lonely bird grew to love its lonely protector, and during the day it would sit from time to time on some rainshoot or other abutment and trill forth its sweetest music in grateful thanks for its nightly shelter. And, it may have been the work of wind and weather, or some other influence, but the wild drawn face seemed gradually to lose some of its hardness and unhappiness. Every day, through the long monotonous hours, the song of his little guest would come up in snatches to the lonely watcher, and at evening, when the vesper-bell was ringing and the great grey bats slid out of their hiding-places in the belfry roof, the brighteyed bird would return, twitter a few sleepy notes, and nestle into the arms that were waiting for him. Those were happy days for the Dark Image. Only the great bell of the Cathedral rang out daily its mocking message, “After joy . . . sorrow.”
The folk in the verger’s lodge noticed a little brown bird flitting about the Cathedral precincts, and admired its beautiful singing. “But it is a pity,” said they, “that all that warbling should be lost and wasted far out of hearing up on the parapet.” They were poor, but they understood the principles of political economy. So they caught the bird and put it in a little wicker cage outside the lodge door.
That night the little songster was missing from its accustomed haunt, and the Dark Image knew more than ever the bitterness of loneliness. Perhaps his little friend had been killed by a prowling cat or hurt by a stone. Perhaps . . . perhaps he had flown elsewhere. But when morning came there floated up to him, through the noise and bustle of the Cathedral world, a faint heart-aching message from the prisoner in the wicker cage far below. And every day, at high noon, when the fat pigeons were stupefied into silence after their midday meal and the sparrows were washing themselves in the street-puddles, the song of the little bird came up to the parapets — a song of hunger and longing and hopelessness, a cry that could never be answered. The pigeons remarked, between mealtimes, that the figure leaned forward more than ever out of the perpendicular.
One day no song came up from the little wicker cage. It was the coldest day of the winter, and the pigeons and sparrows on the Cathedral roof looked anxiously on all sides for the scraps of food which they were dependent on in hard weather.
“Have the lodge-folk thrown out anything on to the dust-heap?” inquired one pigeon of another which was peering over the edge of the north parapet.
“Only a little dead bird,” was the answer.
There was a crackling sound in the night on the Cathedral roof and a noise as of falling masonry. The belfry jackdaw said the frost was affecting the fabric, and as he had experienced many frosts it must have been so. In the morning it was seen that the Figure of the Lost Soul had toppled from its cornice and lay now in a broken mass on the dustheap outside the verger’s lodge.