Three Books (Possibly Cult Novels)



Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz. English translation by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov. Trade paperback by Yale University Press, 1994. Cover design by Lorenzo Ottaviani. I reviewed Trans-Atlantyk here.


Steps by Jerzy Kosinski. Another Vintage Contemporaries edition, 1988. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; illustration by Chris Moore.

I reviewed Steps here.


The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis. English translation by Edith Grossman. NYRB, 2002. Cover design by Katy Homans; cover photograph by Sally Mann.

Biblioklept reviews here, here, and here.

These three books may or may not be cult novels.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the term cult novel, a term which used to fascinate me in my twenties, but one which I’m beginning to suspect doesn’t really mean anything, or seems to have a different value, anyway, now.

I’ve been thinking about cult novels because I’m nearing the end of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s excellent excellent excellent 1958 novel The Leopard, which someone somewhere (who? where?) told me was a cult novel. I have no idea why The Leopard should be a cult novel. Where is its cult? By cult do we just mean “underread” or “underappreciated”?

It seems that the internet has dramatically changed what a cult novel might be/mean. (I wrote a bit about cult novels on this blog years ago, and I would expand the rough list I outlined were I to update that lousy post, which I won’t). The three books I picked today might be cult novels in the sense that they might be underappreciated/underread—although that statement strikes me as absurd somehow! (Steps won the National Book Award).

I guess a real cult novel would be a novel, or perhaps author, who inspires a cultishly devoted base of readers (is this what the kids call a fandom? Jesus Christ). And because of the internet, cults can be big now: Pynchon, Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick. Such writers and their novels have inspired obsessive fans. But the works of these novelists are hardly samizdat. Look at PK Dick—think of how much of his work, his writing, his ideas have seeped into mainstream culture? So is it cult then?

Or am I really just stuck on an older connotation of “cult,” of cult classic, I guess, which was just a way of saying odd + underappreciated + hard to find? Which is to say in modes both literal and figurative: Inaccessible

And so well then when I say that the internet has changed what a cult novel is/isn’t, I suppose I’m simply noting access—access to the material books, access to fellow readers, access to forums, access to analysis, etc. And I suppose that’s, uh, good.

I considered hammering out a list of cult novels here at the end of this pointless little riff, but it would be too long. Besides, I really have no idea what a cult novel is anymore. I threw the question out there on Twitter, asking for examples, and got a wonderful wild range of responses, but the best response came almost immediately:

Hurrah for more intense pocket universes than ever before.

Read a short story by Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz’s (very) short story “The Tragic Tale of the Baron and His Wife” is up at The Paris Review (translation by Tul’si Bhambry). First section of the story—

The Baroness was a charming creature. The Baron had taken her from a family of high principles and had no reason to mistrust her, despite the fact that the tooth of time had already gnawed into him quite deeply . . . And yet a disquieting element of grace and charm lay dormant within her, which could easily complicate the practical application of the Baron’s imponderabilia (since the Baron was a bit of a stickler). One day, after a period of conjugal life graced with the quiet bliss of marital duty, the Baroness came running to her husband and threw her arms around his neck. “I think I ought to tell you this. Henryk has fallen in love with me . . . Yesterday he declared himself to me, so quickly and suddenly that I had no time to stop him.”

“And are you in love with him, too?” he asked.

“No, I don’t love him, because I have pledged my love to you,” she replied.

“Very well then,” he said. “If you are in love with him but do not love him because it is your duty to love me, then my esteem for you doubles and I love you twice as much. And the young chap’s suffering is a well-­deserved punishment for his weakness of character—losing his heart to a married woman! Principles, my dear! Should he ever make another declaration of love, tell him that you also have a declaration to make—but of principles. A man of unshakable principles can walk through life with his head held high.”

Read the rest of “The Tragic Tale of the Baron and His Wife.”

“The artist who realizes himself inside art will never be creative” (Witold Gombrowicz)


“Mankind is accursed because our existence on this earth does not tolerate any well-defined and stable hierarchy” (Witold Gombrowicz)

Memories! Mankind is accursed because our existence on this earth does not tolerate any well-defined and stable hierarchy, everything continually flows, spills over, moves on, everyone must be aware of and be judged by everyone else, and the opinions that the ignorant, dull, and slow-witted hold about us are no less important than the opinions of the bright, the enlightened, the refined. This is because man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul, be it even the soul of an idiot. I absolutely disagree with my fellow writers who treat the opinions of the dull-witted with an aristocratic haughtiness and declare: odi profanum vulgus. What a cheap and simplistic way of avoiding reality, what a shoddy escape into specious loftiness! I maintain, on the contrary, that the more dull and narrow-minded they are, the more urgent and compelling are their opinions, just as an ill-fitting shoe hurts us more than a well-fitting one. Oh, those judgments, the bottomless pit of people’s judgments and opinions about your wisdom, feelings, and character, about all the details of your personality—it’s a pit that opens up before the daredevil who drapes his thoughts in print and lets them loose on paper, oh, printed paper, paper, paper! And I’m not even talking about the heartfelt opinions so fondly held by our aunts, no, I mean the opinions of those other aunts—the cultural aunts, those female semi-writers and tacked-on semi-critics who make pronouncements in literary magazines. Indeed, world culture has been beset by a flock of superfluous hens patched-on, pinned-on, to literature, who have become finely tuned to spiritual values and well versed in aesthetics, frequently entertaining views and opinions of their own, who have even caught on to the notions that Oscar Wilde is passé and that Bernard Shaw is a master of paradox. Oh, they are on to the fact that they must be independent, profound, unobtrusively assertive, and filled with auntie kindliness. Auntie, auntie, auntie! Unless you have ever found yourself in the laboratory of a cultural aunt and been dissected, mute and without a groan, by her trivializing mentality that turns all life lifeless, unless you have ever seen an auntie’s critique of yourself in a newspaper, you have no concept of triviality, and auntie-triviality in particular.

Further, let us consider the opinions of men and women of the landed gentry, the opinions of schoolgirls, the narrow-minded opinions of minor office clerks, the bureaucratic opinions of high officials, the opinions of lawyers in the provinces, the hyperbolic opinions of students, the arrogant opinions of little old men, and the opinions of journalists, the opinions of social activists as well as the opinions of doctors’ wives, and, finally, the opinions of children listening to their parents’ opinions, the opinions of underling chambermaids and of cooks, the opinions of our female cousins, the opinions of schoolgirls—a whole ocean of opinions, each one defining you within someone else, and creating you in another man’s soul. It’s as if you were being born inside a thousand souls that are too tight-fitting for comfort!

From Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke.


David Foster Wallace on INTERPRET-ME Novels

Certain novels not only cry out for what we call “critical interpretations” but actually try to help direct them . . .  Books I tend to associate with this INTERPRET-ME phenomenon include stuff like Candide, Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger. These five are works of genius of a particular kind: they shout their genius. Mr. Markson, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, tends rather to whisper, but his w.o.g.’s no less successful . . . Clearly the book was/is in some way “about” Wittgenstein, given the title. This is one of the ways an INTERPRET-ME fiction clues the critical reader in about what the book’s to be seen as on a tertiary level “about”: the title: Ulysses’s title, its structure as Odyssean/Telemachean map (succeeds); Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem (really terrible); Cortázar’s Hopscotch (succeeds exactly to the extent that one ignores the invitation to hop around in it); Burroughs’s Queer and Junkie (fail successfully (?)). 

From David Foster Wallace’s essay “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” which is collected in Both Flesh and Not.

Book Shelves #12, 3.18.2012


Book shelves series #12, twelfth Sunday of 2012.

The shelf holds literature in translation: Witold Gombrowicz, Heinrich Böll, W.G. Sebald, Julio Cortázar, and Roberto Bolaño. There was a geode bookend here until Thursday, when I reorganized (finally giving the Gombrowicz a home and restoring the finished copy of Between Parentheses to its brothers). No, I never finished Hopscotch, nor much of the Böll (although I did read Irish JournalThe Train Was on Time, and The Clown); I haven’t read Ferdydurke yet either.

Trans-Atlantyk — Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz’s semi-autobiographical novel Trans-Atlantyk is a slim, bristling work that dances out over a mere 122 pages with a force that simultaneously exhausts and engages. Our hero is the eponymous Gombrowicz, a Polish intellectual who travels via pleasure cruise to visit Argentina. The ship arrives to the near-immediate news that the Nazis have occupied Poland. Most of the dutiful, patriotic Poles clamber back on the ship; Gombrowicz, doubling the real-life author, elects to stay in a self-imposed exile. None of the reasoning or rationale behind these decisions is made especially clear (indeed, I had to glean much of the reasoning for these events from the book’s introduction). Here is how the scene plays out in Gombrowicz’s strange syntax—

Then would I fain have fallen on my knees! Albeit I did not fall at all, just quietly began to Curse, Damn mightily but only to Myself: “Sail, sail, you Compatriots, to your People! Sail to that holy Nation of yours haply Cursed! Sail to that St. Monster Dark, dying for ages yet unable to die! Sail to your St. Freak, cursed by all Nature, ever being born and still Unborn! Sail, sail, so he will not suffer you to Live or Die but keep you for ever between Being and Non-being. Sail to your St. Slug that she may ever the more Enslime you.” The ship turned aslant now and was moving off so this I likewise say: “Sail to that Madman, to that St. Bedlamite of yours—oh, haply Cursed—so that he may Torment, Torture you by those leaps and frenzies of his, drown you in blood, howl at you and by his Howling howl you out, by Torturing torture you, Children of yours, wives, to Death, to Agony—in agony himself, in the agonies of Madness Madden you, O’ermadden you!” With this Curse, turning my back on the ship, I entered the Town.

The passage, which I encourage you, gentle reader, to read again (go ahead, I’ll wait), showcases much of Trans-Atlantyk’s strange power: the archaisms, the snaky syntax (Gombrowicz repeatedly delays his predicate verb or even his subject, burying them at the end of the sentence), the bizarre capitalization, the acid humor, the bloody pathos, the impossible tone. So many of the book’s conflicts are laid bare in this passage. We see the essential conflict of an individual vs. the culture and society that would claim him as its mouthpiece; we find Poland, “that St. Monster Dark,” that cursed “St. Slug” forever trailing behind the rest of Europe, playing out the fight between tradition and modernism; we find the conflict of the exile, projected through the distortion of a fun house mirror, smacking back on our narrator who himself is now cursed “for ever between Being and Non-being.”

Trans-Atlantyk was composed during and after WWII, and much of the madness inherent in its themes became normalized during this time. As if to call attention to these psychic disjunctions, Gombrowicz writes Trans-Atlantyk in the mode of the gawęda, an antiquated form of Polish folk narrative popular with the rural nobility. Gawęda, oral in scope and tradition, emphasizes inner-textual creation, randomness, digression, alliteration, and, above all, energetic narrative freeplay—features Trans-Atlantyk displays with remarkable force. Gombrowicz uses this idiom in a celebratory mode, showcasing the possibility and liveliness of language, but he also ironizes language itself: Trans-Atlantyk might be read as a sustained attack on Poland’s obsessions with archaic tradition, as well as an attack on patriotism and patriarchal authority in general. In the 1994 translation I read, Carolyn French and Nina Karsov render Gombrowicz’s pseudo-gawęda in a kind of 17th or 18th century English style—and they do so to grand effect. Their “Translator’s Note” is perhaps the most instructive piece of scholarship on how translation happens that I have ever read. It’s worth the price of admission alone. And while I do not possess the skills to read the book in its original Polish, I imagine that French and Karsov have accurately and faithfully telegraphed the spirit of Gombrowicz’s novel.

If we return briefly, kind reader, to the excerpt above, we find our hero penniless and cursed, heading into town. Here he finds an odd non-home among the Polish ex-pats, who humorously call the Argentinians “aliens.” (Gombrowicz repeatedly stages scenes that show the extreme disconnection between the Poles and their New World surroundings; it is as if these Europeans are unable to comprehend that they are in the midst of a culture other than their own). Unsure of what to do and fearing the stigma of being a traitor (and, honestly, broke), Gombrowicz heads to the Polish Legate, essentially to turn himself in, but also in the hopes of gaining some kind of employment. He meets with the Polish Minister in a scene that is hilarious but, in its historical irony, also shocking and sad. The Minister is something of a mouthpiece for the Polish attitude that Gombrowicz satirizes—

He drew a breath. Did flash his eye. Did say: “We will, by my troth. I say this to you, and I say this so you cannot say that I was saying that we would not Vanquish, since I say to you that we will Vanquish, will Win, for we will reduce to dust with our mighty, gracious hand—smash, crush to dust, powder, with Sabres, Lances, anatomize, annihilate, and under our Colours and in our Majesty, oh Jesus Maria, oh Jesus, oh Jesus . . . we will grind, Kill! Oh, we will kill, anatomize, demolish! And why are you staring so? I tell you indeed, we will annihilate! Indeed you can see, you can hear the Minister himself, the Gracious Envoy is telling you we will Annihilate; perchance you can see that the Envoy himself, the Minister, is pacing here before you, waving his hands and telling you that we will Annihilate! And don’t you dare bark thus: that I didn’t Pace before you, that I didn’t Say, as you see that I do Pace and Say!”

The minister’s phallic aggression, bound in two of the book’s motifs—walking and speaking—reveals the deep paranoia that seethes under the surface of the ex-pat community; indeed, it’s this very paranoia that drives Gombrowicz to the Legate in the first place. In any case, Gombrowicz soon finds a job as a bank clerk, although the specifics here are a bit murky. The real-life Gombrowicz worked as a bank clerk for years in Argentina, famously saying that the job gave him the freedom to write while his boss wasn’t looking. Thankfully, Trans-Atlantyk spends little time in its protagonist’s workplace, but I think it’s worth sharing one of the few passages about office life in the book. There’s a Kafkaesque scope to Gombrowicz’s observations about the modern office, an innate realization of the dehumanizing aspects inherent in bureaucracy, but also a strong vein of absurd humor—

Amidst these rustlings I slightly opened the door that led to the next Room. A big room, long and Darkish, and a row of tables at which clerks sit, over Promissory Notes, Ledgers, Folios studiously bent; and such a number of Papers, so lumped, Swamped that you can hardly move, for likewise on the floor there a multitude of papers and old scribblings; and Ledgers from a cupboard protrude and even to the ceiling heave, out onto the windowsills bulge and swamp the Office. So if any of the clerks moves, he rustles as a Mouse in these papers.

The description continues, Gombrowicz marking the ways  in which the clerks remain at their desks even to eat. As the passage reaches its conclusion, the scene described might take place in any contemporary office—

Whereupon Tea was brought in, viz. Mugs with coffee and buns on a tray, and then all the clerks, having paused in their work, set upon the food. And anon, as usual, discourse sounded. I was overcome by laughter at the sight of that Coffee Drinking of those clerklets! Since at first sight one could see that, for years, sitting together in this Office, every day the eternal Coffee drinking and the eternal Bun munching, with these same old jokes treating themselves, they at once all there was of theirs was comprehended.

So much of contemporary life is there: its mundane rituals, its mechanical repetitions, its pathetic consolations. If Gombrowicz feels contempt for the idea that an individual owes a duty to society, that contempt extends right into the workplace.

Yet I’m barely scratching the surface here. The real plot of Trans-Atlantyk—and bear in mind, kind reader, that this plot hurtles or waltzes or jerks through its motions, rarely employing conventional narrative sequencing signals; rather, we have here a picaresque of sorts, a constant deferral of clear meaning—the real plot of Trans-Atlantyk (if such a thing exists) careens around a good old-fashioned duel. Somehow our hero falls into this intrigue, which results when a senior Polish man finds his honor assaulted. What assaults his honor? The lascivious intentions of a notorious and wealthy homosexual Argentinian on said senior Pole’s son. It’s easy here to frame the conflict in any number of dualities: Euorpean vs. New World, patriarchal tradition vs. homosexual outsider, familial order vs. alien anarchy. But there’s more to the conflict than mere duality. The homosexual Gonzalo, with his predatory designs on the Pole’s teenage son, comes to embody himself that core conflict of “Being and Non-being,” a figure whose conceptual impossibility reflexively engenders new and untold possibilities. Here’s our narrator’s description—

Ergo methinks: And what is’t? Where am I? What do I do? And from him would I have fled long ago, yet sorrowful sore was I to desert my only companion. For a Companion he was. Yet, when by the Tree he so together with me, I feel somewhat discomfited as neither Fish nor Fowl. Viz. hairs black, manly he had on his hand, but this hand—Dimpled, White, dainty Hand . . . and likewise perchance foot . . . and although a Cheek dark with shaven hairs, this Cheek of his charms and coquettes as if ’twere not Dark but indeed white . . . and likewise Leg though Manly as if ‘twould be a Dainty leg and Charms in curious caprices . . . and though head of a man in his prime, bald at the brow, Wrinkled, this head as if slips off a head, seeking to be a dainty head . . . So he as if fain would not himself Transforms in the silence of the night, and now you wit not whether ’tis He or She . . . and perchance, being neither this nor that, he has the aspect of a Creature and not a human . . . He lurks, the rascal, stands, says naught, and only at his Boy silently gazes. So I think, what the Devil, Werewolf, and wherefore I here with him . . .”

Notice how this in-betweener, this “Werewolf” recapitulates the perception of his own indeterminacy back on our narrator, who feels “discomfited as neither Fish nor Fowl.” This radical ambiguity plays out through the remainder of the novel, which alternately writhes, skips, and dances in an exploration of a world without fixed meaning, or, perhaps more accurately, a world where all meaning must be questioned, weighed not just in words and books but also in blood. Trans-Atlantyk ends in an explosion of radically ambiguous laughter, a gesture of hilarity and violence, joy and ridicule—it is a laughter that might claim the reader as its object or, perhaps, invite the reader to laugh along.

Trans-Atlantyk is a marvelous dare to readers, a work of language invention on par with the best in late modernism. Like any work that creates and enacts its own idiom, Trans-Atlantyk poses a learning curve that will doubtless frustrate or intimidate many readers. But its rewards are plentiful for those willing to trek through its anarchy and slip unresisting into its chaos. Recommended.

Biblioklept’s Favorite Books of the Summer

With Memorial Day ’11 just a memory and Labor Day warning off the wearing of white, I revisit some of the best books I read this summer:

Although I posted a review of Roberto Bolaño’s collection Between Parentheses two weeks before Memorial Day, I continued to read and reread the book over the entire summer. It was the gift that kept giving, a kind of blurry filter for the summer heat, a rambling literary dictionary for book thieves. For example, when I started Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk a week or two ago, I spent a beer-soaked midnight tracing through Bolaño’s many notations on the Polish self-exile.

Trans-Atlantyk also goes on this list, or a sub-list of this list: great books that I’ve read, been reading (or in some cases, listened to/am listening to) but have not yet reviewed. I finished Trans-Atlantyk at two AM Sunday morning (surely the intellectual antidote to having watched twelve hours of college football that day) and it’s one of the strangest, most perplexing books I’ve ever read—and that’s saying something. Full review when I can process the book (or at least process the idea of processing the book).

I also read and absolutely loved Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit, which is almost as bizarre as Trans-Atlantyk; like that novel (and Hoban’s cult classic Riddley Walker), Kleinzeit  is written in its own idiom, an animist world where concepts like Death and Action and Hospital and even God become concrete characters. It’s funny and sad. Also funny and sad: Christopher Boucher’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (new from Melville House). Like Trans-Atlantyk and Kleinzheit, Volkswagen is composed in its own language, a concrete surrealism full of mismatched metaphorical displacements. It’s a rare bird, an experimental novel with a great big heart. Full reviews forthcoming.

I’ll be running a review of Evelio Rosero’s new novel Good Offices this week, but I read it two sittings at the beginning of August and it certainly belongs on this list. It’s a compact and spirited satire of corruption in a Catholic church in Bogotá, unwinding almost like a stage play over the course of a few hours in one life-changing evening for a hunchback and his friends. Good stuff.

On the audiobook front, I’ve been working my way through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series; I finished the first audiobook, A Game of Thrones, after enjoying the HBO series, and then moved into the second book, A Clash of Kings, which I’m only a few hours from completing. I think that the HBO series, which follows the first book fairly faithfully, is much closer to The Wire or Deadwood than it is to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films—the story is less about fantasy and magic than it is about political intrigue during an ongoing civil war. This is a world where honor and chivalry, not to mention magic and dragons, have disappeared, replaced by Machiavellian cunning and schemers of every stripe. Martin slowly releases fantastic elements into this largely desacralized world, contesting his characters’ notions of order and meaning. There are also beheadings. Lots and lots of beheadings. The books are a contemporary English department’s wet dream, by the by. Martin’s epic concerns decentered authority; it critiques power as a constantly shifting set of differential relations lacking a magical centering force. He also tells his story through multiple viewpoints, eschewing the glowing third person omniscient lens that usually focuses on grand heroes in fantasy, and concentrates instead, via a sharp free indirect style, on protagonists who have been relegated to the margins of heroism: a dwarf, a cripple, a bastard, a mother trying to hold her family together, a teenage exile . . . good stuff.

Leo Tolstoy’s final work Hadji Murad also depicts a world of shifting power, civil war, unstable alliances, and beheadings (although not as many as in Martin’s books). Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. This novel concerns Murad’s attempt to defect to the Russians and save his family, which Shamil has captured. The book is a richly detailed and surprisingly funny critique of power and violence.

William Faulkner’s Light in August might be the best book I read this summer; it’s certainly the sweatiest, headiest, and grossest, filled with all sorts of vile abjection and hatred. Faulkner’s writing is thick, archaeological even, plowing through layers of Southern sediment to dig up and reanimate old corpses. The book is somehow both nauseating and vital. Not a pleasant read, to be honest, but one that sticks with you—sticks in you even—long after the last page.

Although David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King was released in the spring, I didn’t start reading it until June; too much buzz in my ears. If you’ve avoided reading it so far because of the hype, fair enough—but don’t neglect it completely. It’s a beautiful, frustrating, and extremely rewarding read.

Speaking of fragments from dead writers: part two of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich, published in the summer issue of The Paris Review, was a perfect treat over the July 4th weekend. I’m enjoying the suspense of a serialized novel far more than I would have imagined.

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation is probably the funniest, wisest, and most moving work of cultural studies I’ve ever read.  Unlike many of the tomes that clutter academia, Humiliation is accessible, humorous, and loving, a work of philosophical inquiry that also functions as cultural memoir. Despite its subject of pain and abjection, it repeatedly offers solutions when it can, and consolation and sympathy when it cannot.

So the second posthumously published, unfinished novel from a suicide I read this summer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, the sultry strange tale of a doomed ménage à trois. (I’m as humiliated by that last phrase as you might be, dear reader. Sorry). Hemingway’s story of young beautiful newlyweds drinking and screwing and eating their way across the French Riviera is probably the weirdest thing he ever wrote. It’s a story of gender reversals, the problems of a three-way marriage, elephant hunting, bizarre haircuts, and heavy, heavy drinking. The Garden of Eden is perhaps Hemingway at his most self-critical; it’s a study in how Hemingway writes (his protagonist and stand-in is a rising author) that also actively critiques his shortcomings (as both author and human). The Garden of Eden should not be overlooked when working through Hemingway’s oeuvre. I’d love to see a critical edition with the full text someday (the novel that Scribner published pared down Hemingway’s unfinished manuscript to about a third of its size).

Also fragmentary fun: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks. Like Twitter before Twitter, sort of.

These weren’t the only books I read this summer but they were the best.

Books Acquired, 8.26.11


Double—or triple, really, Witold Gombrowicz grabs at the bookstore today. I love this cover for Ferdydurke (even the ink stain doesn’t really detract too much from its plain elegance). Intro is by Sontag! Should this be my next step after Trans-Atlantyk?


Also picked up this Grove Press edition that collects both Cosmos and Pornografia. I’m not a fan of omnibus editions in general, but, hey, why pass up a chance to pick up a used copy of what is likely a not-so-easy-to-find book.

“I’m Not a Good Reader” — Witold Gombrowicz

A List of Things Roberto Bolaño Discussed with His Friend Rodrigo Fresán

From the entry “All Subjects with Fresán,” in Bolaño’s collection Between Parentheses, a list of stuff the late writer talked about with his good friend, which includes (as usual) plenty of references to writers, poets, directors—and some funny jokes as well. Read part of Fresán’s essay “The Savage Detective” — it was the piece that first got me to go pick up a Bolaño. Here’s the list—

1) The Latin American hell that, especially on weekends, is concentrated around some Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s.

2) The doings of Buenos Aires photographer Alfredo Garofano, childhood friend of Rodrigo and how a friend of mine and of anyone with the least bit of discernment.

3) Bad translations.

4) Serial killers and mass murders.

5) Prospective leisure as the antidote to prospective poetry.

6) The vast number of writers who should retire after writing their first book or their second or their third or their fourth or their fifth.

7) The superiority of the work of Basquiat to that of Haring, or vice versa.

8 ) The works of Borges and the works of Bioy.

9) The advisability of retiring to a ranch in Mexico near a volcano to finish writing The Turkey Buzzard Trilogy.

10) Wrinkles in the space time continuum.

11) The kind of majestic women you’ve never met who come up to you in a bar and whisper in your ear that they have AIDS (or that they don’t).

12) Gombrowicz and his conception of immaturity.

13) Philip K. Dick, whom we both unreservedly admire.

14) The likelihood of a war between Chile and Argentina and its possible and impossible consequences.

15) The life of Proust and the life of Stendhal.

16) The activities of some professors in the United States.

17) The sexual practices of titi monkeys and ants and great cetaceans.

18) Colleagues who must be avoided like limpet mines.

19) Ignacio Echevarria, whom both of us love and admire.

20) Some Mexican writers liked by me and not by him, and some Argentine writers like by me and not by him.

21) Barcelonan manners.

22) David Lynch and the prolixity of David Foster Wallace.

23) Chabon and Palahniuk, whom he likes and I don’t.

24) Wittgenstein and his plumbing and carpentry skills.

25) Some twilit dinners, which actually, to the surprise of the diner, become theater pieces in five acts.

26) Trashy TV game shows.

27) The end of the world.

28) Kubrick’s films, which Fresán loves so much that I’m beginning to hate them.

29) The incredible war between the planet of the novel-creatures and the planet of the story beings.

30) The possibility that when the novel awakes from its iron dreams, the story will be there.

“Sail to Your St. Freak, Cursed by All Nature” — Some Creative Cursing from Witold Gombrowicz’s Novel Trans-Atlantyk

A passage from Witold Gombrowicz’s incomparable (and I use that word in a literal sense here) novel Trans-Atlantyk. Context: Upon learning of the Nazi’s invasion of his native Poland, our hero Gombrowicz has decided not to return to Europe and instead take his chances in Argentina. He watches the ship depart—

Then would I fain have fallen on my knees! Albeit I did not fall at all, just quietly began to Curse, Damn mightily but only to Myself: “Sail, sail, you Compatriots, to your People! Sail to that holy Nation of yours haply Cursed! Sail to that St. Monster Dark, dying for ages yet unable to die! Sail to your St. Freak, cursed by all Nature, ever being born and still Unborn! Sail, sail, so he will not suffer you to Live or Die but keep you for ever between Being and Non-being. Sail to your St. Slug that she may ever the more Enslime you.” The ship turned aslant now and was moving off so this I likewise say: “Sail to that Madman, to that St. Bedlamite of yours—oh, haply Cursed—so that he may Torment, Torture you by those leaps and frenzies of his, drown you in blood, howl at you and by his Howling howl you out, by Torturing torture you, Children of yours, wives, to Death, to Agony—in agony himself, in the agonies of Madness Madden you, O’ermadden you!” With this Curse, turning my back on the ship, I entered the Town.

Witold Gombrowicz’s Passport Photo

Witold Gombrowicz's Passport Photo, 1939