“Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth (Thomas Pynchon)

By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.”

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally ran this review in February of 2017.]

29 still frames from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice

01 (498)03 (497)04 (498)07 (498)11 (508)12 (508)14 (508)16 (508)17 (508)19 (508)22 (508)27 (508)29 (507)30 (507)32 (506)34 (506)36 (505)40 (505)42 (501)45 (496)46 (494)47 (488)48 (488)49 (487)50 (483)55 (467)60 (447)61 (432)65 (337)

From Inherent Vice, 2014. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with cinematography by Robert Elsit. Via Film Grab.

An interview with Margaret Carson about translating Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings

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As a huge fan of Remedios Varo’s art, I was thrilled last year when Wakefield Press published Margaret Carson’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings. I reached out to Margaret, who was kind enough to talk to me about her translation in detail over a series of emails. 

In addition to Letters, Dreams and Other Writings Margaret Carson’s translations include Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, A Journey and My Two Worlds. She is Assistant Professor in the Modern Languages Department at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.

Margaret Carson
Margaret Carson

Biblioklept: When did you first see Remedios Varo’s art? 

Margaret Carson: I first heard of Remedios Varo in the mid-80s, when I was living in Madrid. But it was by reading Janet Kaplan’s biography, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, that I learned more about her life and first saw many images of her paintings. That was in the 90s. On a trip to Mexico City at that same time, I was surprised to find in a bookstore a small collection of her writings, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, and I brought it home with me. I started translating parts of it and later heard about an exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., in 2000: The Magic of Remedios Varo. That was my first experience seeing her paintings up close, and it blew me away. Nothing compares to  standing in front of one of her paintings to see the meticulous details, the true color, and the actual scale (her artworks can be much smaller than you imagine). Since then, I’ve seen other paintings, including Mimetismo/Mimicry and La creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world. 

Creation of the Birds, 1957

Exciting news for Varo fans in the New York area: MoMA has acquired one of her most extraordinary works, The Juggler, which will be put on display when the museum re-opens in October 2019. Can’t wait to see it!

Biblioklept: I’ve yet to see one of Varo’s pieces in a museum, unfortunately—just reproductions in books and online. But I love them. I think the first time I saw one of her works was in Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, sometime in the late 1990s. There’s a tiny black and white reproduction of Celestial Pablum in there, next to a reproduction of a Dorothea Tanning painting. Leonor Fini also gets a black and white reproduction in that chapter, while Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portrait gets a larger, full-color reproduction. All of these painters, with the notable exception of Varo, also show up in another of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series that was important to me when I was younger, Sarane Alexandrian’s Surrealist Art. While internet archives have made images of Varo’s works easily available to those who search for them, she is still something of a comparatively obscure figure, at least next to other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington. Have you noticed any change in her prominence as an artist since you first encountered her work?

MC: You brought up Whitney Chadwick, which reminds me of her essential book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, first published in 1985 and still in print. If you don’t know it, take a look. That’s where many readers have had their first encounter with women surrealists. Chadwick devotes several pages  to Varo and includes three color reproductions and many black and white images of her work. As to how well known Varo is, it’s hard to tell what causes an artist to move up or down in the fame game. Varo seems to have a solid core of admirers who had an encounter with her work, almost always in reproduction, and the images stick. Why is that? What is it about her paintings? Their inherent narrative quality, their mystical elements, their humor? The simple pleasure of looking at her meticulously composed scenes? I think she’s still fairly unknown, but did you know that in the first chapter of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 there’s a fascinating description of Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle? I just met a young bookseller who told me that that’s how she first heard of Varo. And did you know that in chapter 9 of Amulet, Roberto Bolaño imagines that the main character, Auxilio Lacouture, visits Remedios Varo in her house? So Varo has already popped up in ways that go beyond her artwork.

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, 1961

Biblioklept: I’m a huge fan of Bolaño, and I read Amulet eight or nine years ago, but I’d honestly forgotten about the Varo episode! I just went back and reread the chapter, and there’s this wonderful strange moment where Varo shows Auxilio a landscape painting, the “last one,” or maybe the “second-to-last one” she’ll paint, and the painting causes an anxiety in Auxilio that manifests in the vision of “a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss” her on the mouth. I love the line because it’s so strange; it shows a kind of poetic rivalry on Bolaño’s part with Varo’s own imagery. 

I’m also a huge Pynchon fan. I remember that I wasn’t able to find a reproduction of Embroidering the first time I read The Crying of Lot 49—like in the late nineties—but when I reread it a few years ago it was as easy as a simple internet search. So I think the internet is making her work more accessible. Pynchon apparently actually got to see Emboidering at a retrospective of Varo’s work in Mexico City in 1964, and, as Bill Brown notes, Pynchon essentially reinterprets the painting’s details from memory. He probably didn’t have a reproduction of it. Again, the author enters into a kind of rivalry with the poet. 

Letters, Dreams & Other Writings contains a section that features Varo’s own descriptions of her paintings, comments intended for her family back in Spain. She describes Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle like this: “Under the orders of the Great Master, they’re embroidering the earth’s mantle, seas, mountains, and living things. Only the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.”

I’m curious about your translation here, particularly of the word “Only,” and the singular “girl,” which seems to contrast the “they” referenced in the previous sentence. Varo seems to describe two parts of the triptych, the second and the third panels. Can you talk a little bit about translating this description?

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Toward the Tower, 1960

MC: Varo has a description for each of the paintings in the triptych (her descriptions, of course, shouldn’t close off other interpretations). That singular “girl” is introduced in the first painting, Toward the Tower, which shows a group of convent school girls riding fanciful bicycles made in part from their capes. Varo writes that while the eyes of the other girls are “as if hypnotized,” only the girl in front “resists the hypnosis.” (Sólo la muchacha del primer término se resiste a la hipnosis.) The girl clearly has a mind of her own. Varo follows her into the second painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. The original is: “Bajo las órdenes del Gran Maestro, bordan el manto terrestre, mares, montañas y seres vivos. Sólo la muchacha ha tejido una trampa en la que se le ve junto a su bienamado.” There’s a repetition in the Spanish, “Sólo la muchacha….” that I picked up in the translation “Only the girl has woven a ruse….” She’s the exception—she stands out from the other girls (“they”) who are under the influence and control of the Great Master and are embroidering what he commands. I could have said “Except that the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.” to underscore her act of rebellion more clearly, but then the parallelism would have been lost.

Getting back to the Bolaño, I’d like to re-read Amulet and think about how he works Varo into the narrative and whether he’s referencing any of her paintings or making them up — from your description, I suspect the latter. But more importantly, what did Varo represent to Bolaño? How did he come to know about her work? Did she have some sort of underground fame in Mexico City while he was living there?

I’m also fascinated by the fact that Auxilio visits Varo at her house, which I always make a point of passing by when I’m in Mexico City. (Again, Bolaño’s description is not based on reality.) Varo lived in Colonia Roma on Avenida Álvaro Obregón in a four-story building that’s now boarded up—someone told me it was damaged in an earthquake. But lights are on at night behind windows covered with newspapers, so someone’s living there. Is there any memory in the neighborhood that Varo lived there? It’s where she painted her most famous works. To me, it has a special aura, even in its dilapidated and boarded-up state.  

Biblioklept: I’m pretty sure Bolaño made the painting up, although I did spend quite a bit of time looking for a real-world corollary for it. He definitely had a penchant for invention, often taking cult or outsider artists and then attributing works to them that don’t always exist. It seems possible that he could’ve been aware of the location of her house, but I’m guessing he was living in Spain and had been away from Mexico for ages when he wrote Amulet.

On of my favorite pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is “On Homo rodans,” a Borgesian send-up of scientific monographs. (Varo attributes the monograph to one “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt”). While its style isn’t a huge departure from that of the letters or even fragments in the collection, it stands out a bit. Can you tell us a bit about translating “On Homo rodans,” and a bit about the piece itself? 

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Facsimile manuscript of “On Homo radans

MC: Homo rodans is one of Varo’s oddest creations. It has two parts: first, the “fossil find” of the humanoid figure with one big wheel instead of legs, which she crafted out of chicken and turkey neck bones and fish vertebrae. The second part is a pseudo-scientific treatise she wrote to accompany the “fossil,” which purports to explain its origin and the great significance it has—it’s basically a missing chapter in human evolution, a predecessor to Homo sapiens that depicts a road not taken: before evolving into a biped, humans were creatures on a monowheel. (That sort of figure is a recurring leitmotiv in her work—see Transmisión ciclista con cristales from 1943, Caminos tortuosos from 1957.)  I’d now like to clear up a misunderstanding that’s arisen with the English translation. To an English-speaking reader, “rodans” might look like a corrupted version of “rodents.” It’s a similarity that exists only in English. To Varo, rodans was a creative spin on rota, the Latin word for wheel, from which the Spanish rueda descends (in English we have rotate, rotary, rodeo). Varo wasn’t suggesting humankind descended from rats; she was imagining a wheeled ancestor and giving it a suitably Latinate name.

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The “fossil” in question

Varo wrote “On Homo rodans” by hand, in the style of an old illuminated manuscript (see attached photo), and gave its narrator the farfetched but seemingly authoritative name of Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, an anthropologist who sets out to correct a colleague’s error about bones discovered on the southern slopes of the Carpathians. I think this was all for the sake of fun, like a lot of her writings. She probably never imagined that anyone would be interested in buying the sculpture and the treatise. It was just by accident, apparently, that someone happened to see it when she was showing it at a bookstore and acquired it for his boss, who was none other than the President of the Republic, Adolfo López Mateos. That was in 1959.

On an investigative level, I’d love to find out who owns Homo rodans now—the sculpture and original manuscript (does the López Mateos family still own it?). I’d also like to do some sleuthing to discover how it was that a small facsimile edition of the treatise was published a few years after Varo’s death. What called that into existence? Who read it? Was it reviewed? It’s because of that edition that we have the text in Spanish.

As to the translation itself, something that helped me catch the antiquated tones of the pedantic von Fuhrängschmidt were nineteenth-century bulletins on scientific expeditions and fossil excavations you can easily find using Google Books. But on the whole it was a wild ride. You’ll notice that the Homo rodans itself only comes up once, toward the end of the piece, after countless disquisitions on unrelated subjects (Babylonian wet nurses, the universal tendency toward hardening and softening (wink-wink), the transcendence of canes, the pterodactyl-turned-first-umbrella…), interspersed with quotes by ancient sages in nonsense Latin. Before I translated it, I thought “On Homo rodans” would mostly be about the one-wheeled fossil. It was only after I got into the translation that I realized the fossil find was just one stop on an extended absurdist romp.

Biblioklept: It’s interesting to me that you used old pieces of science writing as reference points. Was this to help convey the flavor of Varo’s prose, and to give an aural sense of what she’s parodying? Did you use similar techniques elsewhere in this translation, or in other translations of yours? 

MC: The Edinburgh Encylopaedia, published in 1832, was an excellent resource to mine for old-fashioned scientific prose. Some of it rubbed off on the translation. “Osseous,” for example, referring to bones, was a word that peaked in the nineteenth century, according to Google Ngram, and it fit in perfectly.

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Varo’s manuscript notebook recipe “To Induce Erotic Dreams”

For Varo’s recipes “To Induce Erotic Dreams” and “To Dream You Are King of England,” I consulted cookbooks such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to see how the instructions were worded. As strange as the recipes are, I had to keep to the conventions of the cookbook genre: “Set hens to boil.” “Reserve feathers.” “Take the four kilos of honey and with a spatula spread on the bedsheets.” It’s one example of how translators often look at companion texts in the language they’re translating into—some text that shares some stylistic feature with whatever is being translated, or that treats a similar topic. In a previous translation I did, Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, a Journey, there’s a scene in which a cockfight takes place. Knowing nothing about cockfighting, I looked at Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, where there’s a play-by-play of a cockfight in progress. I pilfered some of the language and phrasing there to help make the translation ring true in English.

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The Lovers, 1963

Biblioklept: Varo’s “recipes” are a great example the tension between a conventional form and a kind of, I don’t know, absurd pivot in the language that creates a surreal image. Her letters, too, are infused with vivid and surreal images. She describes raising a “supernatural puppy,” details enclosing a “small volcano” and turning it into a kitchen, and tells one unidentified painter that he may be interested in her “residence in a piece of quartz.” Can you tell us a little bit about translating the letters? Were there letters of Varo’s that were perhaps more conventional that aren’t collected in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings?

MC: The original Cartas, sueños y otros textos contains only eight letters, but I’m sure Varo wrote many more. She had a genius for letter-writing, too—it was simply another medium she excelled at. As you say, the letters are infused with all sorts of surreal images and absurd scenarios, such as the “small volcano” that begins to rise on its own in the courtyard of someone’s house, throwing off lava that her friend Leonor Carrington is allergic to. That’s in my favorite letter, no. 7, “To Mr. Gardner,” i.e. Gerald Gardner, the great British popularizer of Wicca in the 1950s. It’s completely over-the-top! The most notorious is Letter 5, a kind of Surrealist prank, in which she picks a person’s name from the phone book and invites him to a New Year’s Eve party. (See Varo’s “Letter to a Stranger”). What comes next is left to your imagination: did the stranger show up, and if so, what happened?

As to other letters being published elsewhere, I’m aware of a few additional ones, to her mother and to some friends from her schooldays back in Spain, which were included in a personal memoir written by her niece, Beatriz Varo. I suppose you could call those letters more conventional, but they’re equally amusing to read, even when she’s telling her friends about her arduous ocean journey to Mexico in 1941, when she sailed from Europe on the Serpa Pinta with many other refugees who had been granted asylum in Mexico.

I was enchanted by all the letters and I’m hoping more of her correspondence turns up. I’d be especially interested in her side of the correspondence with Benjamin Péret after he returned to France in 1948. His letters to Varo are collected in his Oeuvres complètes, but no one seems to know where hers are…

Biblioklept: It’s a shame that we don’t have Varo’s letters to Péret. It seems like a lot of the work by the women surrealists of the twentieth century was perhaps at the time not seen as important as the work by the men. (I think of The New York Times’s obituary for Frida Kahlo, which opened with this line: “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today”). I think that your work, the work of Wakefield Press in general, and the work of other independent publishers is helping to bring the work of people like Varo, Leonora Carrington, Gisèle Prassinos, Unica Zürn and others to a wider audience though. What other women writers and artists would you like to see gain a wider audience? 

MC: What writings are out there, out of print, or unknown, hidden in archives, uncatalogued, untranslated? The French poet and artist Alice Rahon, who also lived in Mexico City and moved in the same artistic circles as Varo, should be better known. She published a few books of poetry during her lifetime, and there’s an archive of unpublished work in Mexico City in both French and Spanish to be explored. A few poems in translation appear in Mary Ann Caws’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of surrealist writing published last year by New Directions, and I believe Mary Ann has been translating more of Rahon’s work. The Spanish artist Maruja Mallo, who was slightly older than Remedios Varo, also deserves more attention. Like Varo, she graduated from the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and also lived in exile, in her case in Uruguay and Argentina, before returning to Spain in the 1960s. They both spent time in Paris in the 1930s, and I’m fairly sure they knew one another. Mallo has gotten some renewed interest lately—there was a recent gallery show in New York—and she has a short text “Surrealism as Manifest in My Work” in Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. The artworks clearly take the lead for all three women, but their writings give a window into their strange art (and vice-versa), or maybe, can even stand independently, as do Leonora Carrington’s writings.

Biblioklept: Thanks for that list! I’m curious if you know how much of Carrington’s fiction Varo might have read. Was Carrington a stylistic influence? I’m also curious about other influences you detect in her writing, which seems so strange and original. “On Homo rodans” is definitely Borgesian, and Varo mentions reading Borges’s story “Deutsches Requiem” in one of the “Dreams” in the collection…who and what was Varo reading? How might it have influenced her writing?

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The Street of Hidden Presences, 1956

MC: It’s hard to talk about influence because there must have always been a back-and-forth between Varo and Carrington and an intense sharing of mutual passions. They collaborated on a play, El santo cuerpo grasoso (“The Holy Oily Body”), written in the late 1940s and as far as I know, never performed for the general public. The original manuscript shows that they composed it in alternating lines, one hand followed by the other and back again, somewhat like a cadaver exquisit. They appear to have written it as a private amusement, to be performed by a small circle of friends. Carrington has a Varo-like character in The Hearing Trumpet, Carmella Velazquez, who, just as Varo did in the letter mentioned above, wrote letters to complete strangers she picked out of the phone book. She was the one who introduced Varo to Gerald Gardner, the Wicca popularizer. She may also have introduced her friend to Frank Sherwood Taylor, the British author of The Alchemists. A Spanish translation of this book was in Varo’s library. The heroine of Varo’s story “Mistress Thrompston Discovers by Accident the Source of the Tremendous Humidity that Reigns in the County of Kent” seems to be modeled on Carrington. There are other appearances by Carrington in the translation. Varo’s Mimicry (Mimesismakes an obvious nod to Carrington’s Self-Portrait.

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Mimicry, 1960

About their writings, keep in mind that Varo, unlike Carrington, never published her work during her lifetime, and it’s not clear she would have done so if offered the chance. Most of the texts I translated were found in Varo’s notebooks after her death. And don’t forget her long relationship with Benjamin Péret. A comparison of Varo’s and Péret’s writings would also be interesting. Her automatic writings probably date back to the time they were together. In Letters, Dreams Péret appears in the Felina Caprino-Mandrágora story as Benjamin Pérez, an avid bicyclist and the owner of a carrier-pigeon business. It’s a funny little scene, perhaps Péret-like in how it unfolds. All speculation, because I don’t know his work that well.

At a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City of items from Remedios Varo’s archive, there were a few shelves of books from her library. I saw titles (in the original French, Spanish or English or in translation) by Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Rodney Collin (a British writer influenced by the mystics Pyotr Ouspensky and Gurdjieff), Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil. That gives you an idea of other directions her reading took besides Borges. No way of knowing, though, all the books she read, or what her earliest reading was like growing up. 

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Some titles from Varo’s shelves

Biblioklept: Varo clearly read works of literature both in translation as well as in their original languages. In our own era, it’s very easy to quickly access all kinds of media from around the globe, including media that might not be as challenging to understand as literature might be. Why is reading literature in translation still important?

MC: You’re right—there’s more “content” than ever before and you can find it in a split second via Google. But if you’re asking, is there still a place for literature given the glut of writing, etc. on the Internet, I’d say yes, because it’s not an either/or. At the same time, I don’t think reading literature in translation is something meritorious in itself. It’s simply a natural consequence of being curious about what’s being written in other places: fiction, poetry, essays, plays, graphic novels, comics. It’s inevitable: a lot of it has to come to you in translation. 

Biblioklept: One of the longer pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is titled “Project for a Theater Piece,” which you note was likely to be a collaboration with Leonora Carrington. For me, “Project for a Theater Piece” is simultaneously rich and frustrating. It opens with a character list that includes characters that we never get to meet (and omits characters we actually do meet), and has like a dozen plot openings that remain unresolved. This is what we might expect from a surrealist text: aporia, incongruity, dream logic (and some wonderful humor). At the same time, Varo’s writing strikes me as not bound to any kind of genre expectations. 

MC: “Project for a Theater Piece” is indeed fragmentary and puzzling. Leonora (Carrington) and Eva (Sulzer) are inspirations for the Ellen Ramsbottom character. Daphne Fitz is inspired by Edward James, the eccentric Scottish arts patron who was a close friend of Leonora Carrington’s. He also seems to be the inspiration for the Poltergeist, who appears in the story wearing a short plaid skirt, sneakers and ankle socks, and is mistaken at first for a woman. I have no idea why it’s called “Project for a Theater Piece,” since it’s basically a cast of characters followed by two unconnected short stories. I’m assuming the editor of the original book, Isabel Castells, gave it that name. All the texts are said to be from Varo’s notebooks, so everything needed to be transcribed: in her introduction, Castells says that Varo’s last partner, Walter Gruen, did the transcription. I’m not sure if Castells saw the original; she may have been working only with Gruen’s transcription. Did the order in the book follow the order of the texts in Varo’s notebooks? Or was there some editorial intervention by Gruen and/or Castells linking them together? I don’t know. Castells also suggests that Leonora Carrington may have written parts that are missing, in a kind of surrealist chain story. If that’s true, it would be interesting to read “Project for a Theater Piece” against the collaborative play I mentioned above, El santo cuerpo grasoso/The Holy Oily Body, for stylistic similarities. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t read it as a finished text. It’s open to all sorts of speculations about the context in which it was written and about the editorial interventions that occurred later on in preparing the original edition of Cartas, sueños y otros textos for publication.

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The Call, 1961

Biblioklept: I’m curious about the samples of automatic writing in the collection—specifically, I’m curious about how you approached translating them. Translating strikes me as a hyper-conscious art, a practice that involves a precision and command of tone, diction, rhythm, etc.—but automatic writing is, ostensibly, writing without consciousness. 

MC:  These texts seemed like prose poems to me, wonderful bizarre and disconnected, which led to some head scratching, and yes, a hyper-conscious translation. The text starts off with what seems to be a list of ingredients, like a recipe… or is it for some kind of magical spell? Each “ingredient” then becomes the lead word for a short sequence of images that often evoke Varo’s art: the egg, the crevice that widens (Harmony/Armonía), the raw silk being spun, which reminded me of the delicate lines crisscrossing Fellow Feeling/Simpatía). The sequences in themselves don’t make much sense, but the words themselves are very clear and simple. Sometimes there’s some wordplay, such as “trasto trastorno, torno” in Incense (literally, “dish upset/overturned, turned”) which I translated as “dish depraved, lathe” to get some of the sound effects of the original and suggest the spindle in the next line. We don’t, unfortunately, have Varo’s description of the conditions under which she wrote these texts, or anything that tells us how she understood “automatic writing.” (Also, remember that she didn’t label these writings as such— it was the book’s editor.) She may not have been a purist. Whatever the case, this section is one of my favorites in the book. I love her random scattering of images and the lack of narrative direction. For me, the more nonsensical, the better.

Biblioklept: The issue of the editor’s hand is of course interesting. The “Automatic Writings” do feel…I don’t know, more automatic than some of the project ideas and fragments, which have narrative properties. There’s something wildly imagistic about the “Automatic Writings,” something cinematic really, mental imagery that seems like it couldn’t be painted. But then you read Varo’s descriptions of her own paintings, and you realize that her imaginative vision could realize seemingly impossible images in both paint and words. 

MC: Yes, you wonder what her jumping-off points were. There are a couple of clues. In her “Unpublished Interview” at the beginning of the book, for example, she talks about how a painting develops: “I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned” (“lo visualizo antes de comenzar a pintar y trato de ajustarlo a la imagen que me he formado”). That’s about as close as she comes to describing her process explicitly. (By the way, it’s very possible that she created this interview herself. It was in one of her notebooks, undated, with both the questions and answers in her handwriting. A published version has never been found.)

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Varo’s manuscript notebook

I read the comments she made on her paintings a bit differently, though. She wrote these on the back of photos she sent to family in Spain after the paintings were finished, so she had her brother, mother and other family members in mind as she wrote. The wild creative impulses that went into the act of painting them have calmed down now. Still, she’s not giving away any of their secrets. Of course, when you’re reading the descriptions, you should also be looking at the images, just as her family was. She talks about things you notice in the paintings, but not about all of them. Her descriptions of Harmony and Talleur pour dames (p. 102) are little gems, in my opinion.

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Varo’s manuscript description of Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst
Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960

Biblioklept: Can you tell us anything about your next possible translation project?

MC: No projects at the moment and I’m not sure when I’ll pick up a new translation. Right now I’m doing some investigations around Remedios Varo and her circle of friends. I want to put her writings more in context, for example, that play she collaborated on with Leonora Carrington, or the Homo rodans piece. Or widen the lens to write about the “Surrealists of Calle Gabino Barreda,” the street in Mexico City where Varo and Péret lived in the 1940s. It seems to have been the center for a lot of creative and collaborative activity among the European surrealists in exile.   

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

MC: I’ve taken books people leave in laundry rooms or out on their front stoops, which happens a lot in brownstone neighborhoods in New York City. I also pass by a “Little Free Library” box on my way to work. I’m usually not tempted to take anything, but one day I saw a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and grabbed it!

 

Blog about some recent reading

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It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.

I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.

I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.

I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.

I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.

I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.

I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.

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I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.

Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of  W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49. To be clear, I’m a big Pynchon fanI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].


If it were better written, it might qualify as pretentious.

the prose was simultaneously confusing and boring

my first Pynchon novel and probably my last

I am really picky when it comes to reading.

I suppose if you like post modernist crap?

This novel just did not do it for me.

Opaque, muddled, and mindless.

Yuck! Had to read for class. :-(

the characters were unlikable

Reading shouldn’t be work…

If you’re an English major

What is this I don’t even

I didn’t finish it

insufferable

convoluted

No thanks.

overly complicated

gacked-up cartoon of a…thing

stupidest thing I’ve ever read

left confused about many things

deliberate manipulation of names

palpably viscerally nauseated and sick

Pynchon and Robbins can just go and get a room.

I love A LOT of post-modern experimental fiction, but

I managed to finish this novel only because it’s short

This is really the worst book I have ever read

loaded with pretentious intellectualism

I find the weirdness too weird

required too much effort

A Silly Word Salad

wacky hi-jinks

post-beatnik weirdoes

difficult, delirious writing style

pretentious intellectualism posing as literature

like Sacha Baron Cohen of the dreadful movie “Borat” fame

(modern life is uncertain; there is no guarantee of a happy ending)

Pynchon is a sad man with a rather warped and gloomy view of the world

a prose style that is going to either delight or dismay most readers

physics, Greek tragedies, postal history, drug culture

is bizarre like the author is high when he wrote it

hyperstylized game of literary three card monte

I was expecting a Victorian crime drama

nothing to interest a decent reader

he really should find a day job

the character names; silly

without the humor

Thankfully brief

chaos engine

 

 

Way too cheap (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

“Whole problem ’th you folks’s generation,” Isaiah opined, “nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars—it was way too cheap. . . .”

A critique (by Gen X punker Isaiah Two Four) of the Baby Boomers. From Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland.  The “Tube” is television, of course, but might be a placeholder for any passively-consumed entertainment.

I guess it’s over (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

Mucho blinked sympathetically, a little sadly. “I guess it’s over. We’re on into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, then it’ll be the Reagan Years—”

“Ol’ Raygun? No way he’ll ever make president.”

“Just please go careful, Zoyd. ’Cause soon they’re gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that. And they will.”

“Fat Police?”

“Perfume Police. Tube Police. Music Police. Good Healthy Shit Police. Best to renounce everything now, get a head start.”

“Well I still wish it was back then, when you were the Count. Remember how the acid was? Remember that windowpane, down in Laguna that time? God, I knew then, I knew. . . .”

They had a look. “Uh-huh, me too. That you were never going to die. Ha! No wonder the State panicked. How are they supposed to control a population that knows it’ll never die? When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one, so of course they had to take it away from us.”

“Yeah, but they can’t take what happened, what we found out.”

“Easy. They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming—just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.” It was the way people used to talk.

“I’m not gonna forget,” Zoyd vowed, “fuck ’em. While we had it, we really had some fun.”

“And they never forgave us.” Mucho went to the stereo and put on The Best of Sam Cooke, volumes 1 and 2, and then they sat together and listened, both of them this time, to the sermon, one they knew and felt their hearts comforted by, though outside spread the lampless wastes, the unseen paybacks, the heartless power of the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into.

An elegiac passage from Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland.

The spilled, the broken world (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

So the bad Ninjamobile swept along on the great Ventura, among Olympic visitors from everywhere who teemed all over the freeway system in midday densities till far into the night, shined-up, screaming black motorcades that could have carried any of several office seekers, cruisers heading for treed and more gently roaring boulevards, huge double and triple trailer rigs that loved to find Volkswagens laboring up grades and go sashaying around them gracefully and at gnat’s-ass tolerances, plus flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, movies at malls letting out, bright gas-station oases in pure fluorescent spill, canopied beneath the palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant fireworks, the spilled, the broken world.

A description of the postmodern Preterite world from Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland. 

Strugatsky brothers/Mutis/Pynchon (Books acquired, 8 May 2019)

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I went to the bookstore on Pynchon in Public Day, 2019 to pick up the only Thomas Pynchon novel I don’t own, Bleeding Edge. I’ve given the book a shot or three, checking it out from the library, but it’s never quite clicked for me. I’m reading Vineland right now though, the other Pynchon novel I haven’t previously read, and finally really digging it. So maybe I’ll read Bleeding Edge after (although I think I’ll probably immediately reread Vineland after reading Vineland).

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I have a little mental list of books and authors I look for while browsing, including the Australian writer Gerald Murnane whom I did not find a scrap by—but I did unexpectedly find The Mansion, a collection of early short stories and fragments by Colombian author Álvaro Mutis. Here’s one of those little sections (in translation by Beatriz Hausner):

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I also like to scan the massmarket scifi paperbacks at this particular used bookstore for original US editions of works by the Strugatsky Brothers. I’ve been a bit lucky lately, finding Hard to Be a God and The Final Circle of Paradise—and I was thrilled to find the Pocket edition of Roadside Picnic/Tale of the Troika. I read Olena Bormashenko’s 2012 translation of this book a few years ago, and loved it (I also really dug her translation of the Strugatsky’s superweird novel The Snail on the Slope). This translation is by Antonina W. Bouis, and includes an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon. I haven’t read Tale of the Troika, but Sturgeon describes it as a satire that evokes “Kafkaesque horror.” Sounds delightful.

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The Mother Conspiracy (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Otto is earnestly explaining his views on the Mother Conspiracy. It’s not often a sympathetic girl will listen. The Mothers get together once a year, in secret, at these giant conventions, and exchange information. Recipes, games, key phrases to use on their children. “What did yours use to say when she wanted to make you feel guilty?”

“‘I’ve worked my fingers to the bone!’” sez the girl.

“Right! And she used to cook those horrible casseroles, w-with the potatoes, and onions—”

“And ham! Little pieces of ham—”

“You see, you see? That can’t be accidental! They have a contest, for Mother of the Year, breast-feeding, diaper-changing, they time them, casserole competitions, ja—then, toward the end, they actually begin to use the children. The State Prosecutor comes out on stage. ‘In a moment, Albrecht, we are going to bring your mother on. Here is a Luger, fully loaded. The State will guarantee you absolute immunity from prosecution. Do whatever you wish to do—anything at all. Good luck, my boy.’ The pistols are loaded with blanks, natürlich, but the unfortunate child does not know this. Only the mothers who get shot at qualify for the finals.

Here they bring in psychiatrists, and judges sit with stopwatches to see how quickly the children will crack. ‘Now then, Olga, wasn’t it nice of Mutti to break up your affair with that long-haired poet?’ ‘We understand your mother and you are, ah, quite close, Hermann. Remember the time she caught you masturbating into her glove? Eh?’ Hospital attendants stand by to drag the children off, drooling, screaming, having clonic convulsions. Finally there is only one Mother left on stage. They put the traditional flowered hat on her head, and hand her the orb and scepter, which in this case are a gilded pot roast and a whip, and the orchestra plays Tristan und Isolde.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pynchon in Public Post, 2019

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Today is the 82nd birthday of the American author Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, which a lot of jokers on the internet have turned into Pynchon in Public Day.

The spirit of Pynchon in Public Day is zany fun, and mostly centers around reading Pynchon’s works in public and spreading the muted post horn symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 around as much as possible. I am the last person in the world who will read a book in a coffee shop, but I did don my second 49 shirt today—-

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—and head to the bookstore to pick up the only Pynchon novel I don’t own, Bleeding Edge. More on that in second, but—no real recognition on the shirt today, although I’ve gotten some reactions to the other muted post horn shirt I own over the years, mostly from booksellers (not that interesting I know).

A few years ago though, wandering around downtown Los Angeles (wearing a muted post horn shirt), a stranger passing opposite me on the sidewalk hailed me with this question: “Are you the Trystero, guy?” At least that’s what I thought I said. I looked confused, asked, “What?” and he repeated — “Are you the Trystero guy?”

This particular moment struck me with a neat silly wave of minor paranoia, a Pynchonian moment, maybe—was this some kind of call sign for me to repeat, a password in a game of good fun? So I did the only thing that seemed sensible and replied, “Yes, I am the Trystero.”

The guy then proceeded to tell me that he loved my coffee. This confused me, so I told him that loved his coffee. Then he looked confused. After a few minutes on the hot July L.A. sidewalk we finally figured out a few things: He was referring to Trystero Coffee, which he showed me all about on his iPhone, and I was referring to The Crying of Lot 49, which he promised to read at the end of our exchange.

So anyway I went to the bookstore and picked up Bleeding Edge (and a few other books too, I admit). Along with Vineland, it’s the only Pynchon novel I haven’t read (despite two attempts on each). I’ll read Bleeding Edge before May 8th, 2020 though.

I started a retry of Vineland though. I had hoped to get past the farthest I remember going in—like the first 90 pages—before this post—-but I only made it through the first five chapters these past two days (through page 67). Still, I’d forgotten all about Ch. 5, the “Kahuna Airlines” chapter, which steers the book into new territory, and even though it still hasn’t hooked me yet (unlike the other Pynchons at this point), I’m starting to appreciate it for what I guess it is: Pynchon’s analysis of the eighties, of the absorption of the counterculture into culture, of nostalgia. The jokes are often hilarious and terrible, sometimes simultaneously. Pynchon sets up a Loony Tunes diner bit to deliver the execrable punchline, “Check’s in the mayo” for example. Pynchon names a lawn care company “The Marquis de Sod.” There’s a moment where protagonist Zoyd Wheeler pays for a ludicrous psychedelic party dress with “a check both he and the saleslady shared a premonition would end up taped to this very cash register after failing to clear,” a wonderful little throwaway line that shows Zoyd’s brokeassedness and empathy (and also highlights the Lebowski-Pynchon overlap, if you like). The line that’s cracked me up each time I’ve read it though is Zoyd’s daughter Prairie’s punker boyfriend being described as “the NBA-sized violence enthusiast who might or might not be fucking his daughter.” It’s just so dumb and poetic. I had also missed a few things — the night manager of Bodhi Dharma Pizza is named “Baba Havabananda,” a reference I’m thinking to Gravity’s Rainbow (“Have a banana”). There’s also a reference to the Vulcan hand salute, which shows up improbably in Pynchon’s next novel, Mason & Dixon (more on that here). And there’s the whole Bigfoot motif too, which Pynchon would echo in Inherent Vice, with Zoyd and Zuniga prefigurations of Doc Sportello and Bigfoot Bjornsen. And like every Pynchon novel, I’m sure I’ve already missed a ton of stuff.

Anyway, more on Vineland to come. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Pynchon–why not check him out?

The true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

“Please,” the sailor said. “Go on now. You don’t want to stay here.” She looked in her purse, found a ten and a single, gave him the ten. “I’ll spend it on booze,” he said.
“Remember your friends,” said the arthritic, watching the ten.
“Bitch,” said the sailor. “Why didn’t you wait till he was gone?”
Oedipa watched him make adjustments so he’d fit easier against the mattress. That stuffed memory. Register A . . .
“Give me a cigarette, Ramírez,” the sailor said. “I know you got one.”
Would it be today? “Ramírez,” she cried. The arthritic looked around on his rusty neck. “He’s going to die,” she said.
“Who isn’t?” said Ramírez.
She remembered John Nefastis, talking about his Machine, and massive destructions of information. So when this mattress flared up around the sailor, in his Viking’s funeral: the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned. She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. It astonished her to think that so much could be lost, even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world would bear no further trace of. She knew, because she had held him, that he suffered DT’s. Behind the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare. The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was. Trembling, unfurrowed, she slipped sidewise, screeching back across grooves of years, to hear again the earnest, high voice of her second or third collegiate love Ray Glozing bitching among “uhs” and the syncopated tonguing of a cavity, about his freshman calculus; “dt,” God help this old tattooed man, meant also a time differential, a vanishingly small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectile be frozen in midflight, where death dwelled in the cell though the cell be looked in on at its most quick. She knew that the sailor had seen worlds no other man had seen if only because there was that high magic to low puns, because DT’s must give access to dt’s of spectra beyond the known sun, music made purely of Antarctic loneliness and fright. But nothing she knew of would preserve them, or him.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.

Thomas Pynchon’s recipe for what is arguably the first British Pizza | A passage from Mason & Dixon

“Lud wishes to know,” Whike relays at last, “Mr. Emerson’s Cousin’s Views, upon the Structure of the World.”
“A Spheroid, the last I heard of it, Sir.”
“Ahr Ahr ahr, ’ahr ahhrr!”
“ ’And I say, ’tis Flat,’” the Jesuit smoothly translates. “Why of course, Sir, flat as you like, flat as a Funnel-Cake, flat as a Pizza, for all that,— ”
“Apologies, Sir,—” Whike all Unctuosity, “the foreign Word again, was . . . ?”
“The apology is mine,— Pizza being a Delicacy of Cheese, Bread, and Fish ubiquitous in the region ’round Mount Vesuvius. . . . In my Distraction, I have reach’d for the Word as the over-wrought Child for its Doll.”
“You are from Italy, then, sir?” inquires Ma.
“In my Youth I pass’d some profitable months there, Madam.”
“Do you recall by chance how it is they cook this ‘Pizza’? My Lads and Lasses grow weary of the same Daily Gruel and Haggis, so a Mother is ever upon the Lurk for any new Receipt.”
“Why, of course. If there be a risen Loaf about . . . ?”
Mrs. Brain reaches ’neath the Bar and comes up with a Brown Batch-Loaf, rising since Morning, which she presents to “Cousin Ambrose,” who begins to punch it out flat upon the Counter-Top. Lud, fascinated, offers to assault the Dough himself, quickly slapping it into a very thin Disk of remarkable Circularity.
“Excellent, Sir,” Maire beams, “I don’t suppose anyone has a Tomato?”
“A what?”
“Saw one at Darlington Fair, once,” nods Mr.”“Brain.
“No good, in that case,— eaten by now.”
“The one I saw, they might not have wanted to eat . . . ?”
Dixon, rummaging in his Surveyor’s Kit, has come up with the Bottle of Ketjap, that he now takes with him ev’rywhere. “This do?”
“That was a Torpedo, Husband.”
“That Elecktrickal Fish? Oh . . . then this thing he’s making isn’t elecktrical?”
“Tho’ there ought to be Fish, such as those styl’d by the Neopolitans, Cicinielli. . . .”
“Will Anchovy do?” Mrs. Brain indicates a Cask of West Channel ’Chovies from Devon, pickl’d in Brine.
“Capital. And Cheese?”
“That would be what’s left of the Stilton, from the Ploughman’s Lunch.”
“Very promising indeed,” Maire wringing his Hands to conceal their trembling. “Well then, let us just . . .”
By the Time what is arguably the first British Pizza is ready to come out of the Baking-Oven beside the Hearth, the Road outside has gone quiet and the Moorland dark, several Rounds have come and pass’d, and Lud is beginning to show signs of Apprehension. “At least ’tis cloudy tonight, no Moonlight’ll be getting thro’,” his Mother whispers to Mr. Emerson.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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Dodo, 1638 by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681)

He left the dodoes to rot, he couldn’t endure to eat their flesh. Usually, he hunted alone. But often, after months of it, the isolation would begin to change him, change his very perceptions—the jagged mountains in full daylight flaring as he watched into freak saffrons, streaming indigos, the sky his glass house, all the island his tulipomania. The voices—he insomniac, southern stars too thick for constellations teeming in faces and creatures of fable less likely than the dodo—spoke the words of sleepers, singly, coupled, in chorus. The rhythms and timbres were Dutch, but made no waking sense. Except that he thought they were warning him… scolding, angry that he couldn’t understand. Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet downstirred cool by these south-east trades… . Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it then where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

Continue reading “The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow”

Three potential starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon

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Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so here are three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).

Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.

Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.

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Against the Day, 2006.

Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Waitisn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).

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V., 1963.

V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the DayV. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.

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Inherent Vice, 2009.

I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).

Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept ran a version of this post on 8 May 2016].

Are you okay, brother?