In Brief: Beach’s Epistles, Vollmann’s Mummy Sex, and Eggers’s Wild Things

Sylvia Beach was the nexus point for Modernist and ex-pat literature for much of the first half of the twentieth century, running the Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare & Company until the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941. She was the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, she translated Paul Valéry into English, and was close friends to a good many great writers, including William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Ernest Hemingway. In The Letters of Sylvia Beach, editor Keri Walsh compiles many of Beach’s letters from 1901 to just before her death in 1962. Framed by a concise biographical introduction and a useful glossary of correspondents, Letters reveals private insights into a fascinating literary period. There’s a sweetness to Beach’s letters, whether she’s inviting the Fitzgeralds to come to a dinner party or asking Richard Wright (“Dick”) how much he thinks a fair price for a record player is. The Letters of Sylvia Beach is out now from Columbia UP.

I’m a couple of chapters into William T. Vollmann’s 1993 novel Butterfly Stories, one of his (three? four? Dude’s prolific) books about prostitution. The bullied butterfly grows up to be a boy who wants to be a journalist and then a journalist/inept sex tourist in southeast Asia. Good stuff. Here’s a mordantly elegant passage:

Once he began to combine cutting his wrists and half-asphyxiating himself he believed that he’d found the ideal. Afterwards he’d dream of mummy sex with the gentle girl, by which he meant her body being suspended ropelessly above him, then slowly drifting down; when her knee touched his leg he jerked and then went limp there; her hands reached his hands, which died; her breasts rolled softly upon his heart which fibrillated and stopped; finally she lay on top of him, quite docile and still soft . . . He knew that the others didn’t like mummy sex, but that was because they didn’t understand it; they thought that it must be cold; they thought that she must paint her mouth with something to make it look black and smell horrible and soften like something rotten . . . He wanted to open her up until the pelvis snapped like breaking a wishbone. Would that be mummy sex?

Here’s a one-star review of the book from Amazon: “This book is a sordid collection of junk. I picked it out at random from a library shelf and did not enjoy/like/sympathize with even one thing about it. Don’t waste your time.” Guy didn’t like the mummy sex, I guess.

Been working through my reader’s copy of Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things, new in trade paperback from Vintage. I’m having a hard time envisioning a kind of review of the book that escapes the context of the book; that it’s a novelization of a movie script of a Maurice Sendak book of maybe a few dozen words. I loved that book growing up, so no reason that it should be adapted into a feature film, but hoped for the best due to Eggers’s involvement and the fact that the incomparable Spike Jonze was at the rudder. Or helm. Or whatever naval metaphor you wish. Anyway, I absolutely hated the movie–it was mostly melancholy and downright depressing at times. Whereas Sendak’s book channels the joys of transgressive energy while reiterating the need for stable familial order, Jonze’s movie was all sorrow and loss, the hangover of youth, each ecstasy overshadowed in darkness. Too much yin, not enough yang. Anyway. I’ll try to give the book its proper, fair due on its own terms without all that baggage. Full review forthcoming.