the ivory tower

“We were then living in a strange period, such as usually succeeds revolutions or the decline of great reigns. It was no longer the gallant heroism of the Fronde, the elegant, dressed-up vice of the Regency, or the scepticism and insane orgies of the Directoire. It was an age in which activity, hesitation, and indolence were mixed up, together with dazzling Utopias, philosophies, and religious aspirations, vague enthusiasms, mild ideas of a Renaissance, weariness with past struggles, insecure optimisms – somewhat like the period of Peruginus and Apuleius. Material man longed for the bouquet of roses which would regenerate him from the hands of the divine Isis; the goddess in her eternal youth and purity appeared to us by night and made us ashamed of our wasted days. We had not reached the age of ambition, and the greedy scramble for honors and positions caused us to stay away from all possible spheres of activity. The only refuge left to us was the poet’s ivory tower, which we climbed, ever higher, to isolate ourselves from the mob. Led by our masters to those high places we breathed at last the pure air of solitude, we drank oblivion in the legendary golden cup, and we got drunk on poetry and love. Love, however of vague forms, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms! Seen at close quarters, the real woman revolted our ingenuous souls. She had to be a queen or goddess; above all, she had to be unapproachable.”

(Gérard de Nerval, “Sylvie: Recollections of Valois,” trans. Geoffrey Wagner, pp. 74–75 in the Exact Change Aurélia & Other Writings.)

donald barthelme, “paradise”

Donald Barthelme
Paradise
(Penguin, 1986)


Paradise seems to be Barthelme’s least appreciated novel: Snow White has stayed in print most consistently, The Dead Father seems the most obviously ambitious, and The King is funny historical fiction. Paradise might be my favorite of his novels, the one I’m most tempted to pull off the shelf, though I’ve read Snow White more times, and I think The Dead Father deserves respect. The King, for whatever reason, never really clicked with me. But Paradise is the neglected one. Michiko Kakutani hated it, generally a good sign; there don’t seem to be a lot of other reviews about, and it evidently doesn’t merit its own Wikipedia page.

Like much of Barthelme’s work, Paradise is a novel with a wacky premise: three underwear models move in with a middle-aged architect who is adrift in his own life. This is the reverse of Snow White, written twenty years before, where one woman is living with seven men. But this is not a young author’s wacky premise; rather, this is a wacky premise written by a middle-aged man with a middle-aged man as the protagonist. I’m reminded of the premise that forms the basis for Proust’s The Captive: suppose a young man, well known in society, decides to install his lover, also well known in society, in an apartment in his own house. This causes the considerable displeasure of everyone’s families; but looked at closely, one realizes that this segment is a break from the realism that drives the rest of Proust, and that no one is behaving in a way that anyone would would expect. Proust’s aims here are not autobiographical, though Albertine might be a stand-in for his male chauffeur. Rather, he takes his character, sticks him into a situation, and sees what will happen. That’s what, I think, Barthelme is doing here: taking a character and sticking him into an unlikely character to see how he will react. Barthelme’s women are as nebulous as Proust’s Albertine, understood only through the main character’s consciousness.

Paradise is made up of sixty unnumbered sections, mostly lasting three or four pages. A chronology can be worked out. First, the past: Simon, who has studied architecture at Penn with Louis Kahn, worked in Philadelphia and was married to Carol (“everybody’s with is named Carol” – p. 131); they had a child, Sarah, but the marriage fell apart and Simon moved to New York. New York is the continuous present: Anne, Dore, and Veronica move in with him for eight months; finally, they leave, ostensibly to find jobs. Finally, after their departure Simon stays on in New York, where he seems to be seeing an analyst (or someone who is questioning him on his experiences). These pasts, presents, and futures are interleaved; but it’s unclear, for example, whether the ten sections where Simon is questions appear in the book in chronological order. While the sections set in the present appear to be in chronological order, many are vague with reference to time; and the past is called in as needed. In section 38, for example, Simon meets a poet; section 40, detailing what happens with the poet, takes place after 38, but section 39 could take place any time in the continuous present. The sections with Simon and the poet are hard to match to the rest of the narrative, as only Simon and the poet appear in them; in the intervening sections, Simon may not appear, or Simon may be appearing in the future, talking about his past. The arc of Simon’s affair with the poet continues in section 43; finally, it is resolved into the main narrative in sections 44 and 45 after it has ended off-stage.

Ten of the sections – scattered fairly evenly across the book’s sixty sections – are interviews (by characters given the name “Q:” and “A:”) where it becomes clear that the person answering the questions is Simon, and Q says, at one point “I’m a doctor.” The premise of these interactions seems to be the vivid dreams that Simon is having, dreams that seem to start after the women leave. A different version of these questions and answers appeared as “Basil from Her Garden”. (I assume that the title refers to Keats’s “Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil” refracted through T. S. Eliot, but I might be wrong.) The modifications are interesting: primarily, the change made is one of tense, which changes the whole character of the exchange. In “Basil from Her Garden,” Q asks “What do you do, after work, in the evenings or on weekends?” while in Paradise Q asks “What did you do, after work, in the evenings or on weekends, in Philadelphia?” The answer, in both, is adultery. In Paradise, this is given as “Well, adultery. I would say that’s how I spent most of my free time. In adultery.” “Basil from Her Garden” differs by a single letter: spend instead of spent. In Paradise, A is referring to the vague past; because of the “in Philadelphia,” Simon seems to be referring to what happened in his marriage (dissolved or in the process of dissolution) before he moved to New York; he’s not talking about the three women at all. In “Basil,” we learn about A’s married lover, Althea, and his wife, Grete; he seems to be talking with Q to resolve the problem of his marriage. What happens in Paradise is more complex: Simon appears to be explaining his life – from the breakdown of his marriage on to the departure of the girls, which seems to have brought on a series of bad dreams – to Q, who seems to be more interested in hearing about his time with the three girls.

The Q & A sections are the clearest structuring device in the book, but others run through the book. Four sections consist of entirely unattributed dialogue between the women about Simon; sections which consist mostly of Simon talking to one of the women also recur, as do sections in which Simon is cooking. Occasionally a section is in detached third-person, relating what happened to Simon from a later vantage point; or a section relates what happened to Simon in Philadelphia before the main events of the book took place. Repetition with differences occasionally happens. Section 27 begins:

What if they all lived happily ever after together? An unlikely prospect. What was there in his brain that forbade such felicity? (p. 100)

At the start of section 55:

And what if we grow old together, just the four of us? The loving quartet? What if we raddle together? (p. 195)

There’s not quite the unidirectional moving inward across the book that this pair suggests, as they move from the third person to the first. Rather, it’s a faceted approach: Simon, a rational man, knows full well before section 27 that the situation is untenable and attempts to work out in his mind what can be done about it. There are hints that a crisis is being resolved: while in New York, Simon seems not to be working, although whether that’s a blockage is never addressed. After the women leaves, he returns to his work, staying on alone in New York. In a retrospective section, there’s this exchange:

Q: Do you hear from them?
A: Postcards.
Q: These women spread out before you like lotus blossoms. .&nbsp. .
A: Not exactly like lotus blossoms.
Q: Open, blooming. . . .
A: More like anthills. Splendid, stinging anthills.
Q: You fall face down in an anthill.
A: Something like that. (p. 30)

There’s an echo of the story of Job in this: the author has put Simon into a situation (in this case, what is ostensibly paradise) to see what happens. It’s a minor novel, compared to Barthelme’s other work, but I think that is succeeds at what it’s trying to do.

pamela moore in the new york times

(“In and Out of Books,” excerpted, 19 August 1956.)

(“Books and Authors,” excerpted, 27 August 1956)

(Review of Chocolates for Breakfast, 16 September 1956.)

(“A Literary Letter from Paris,” excerpted, 4 November 1956.)

(“Of Local Origin,” excerpted, 7 May 1960.)

(Letter to the editor about Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, 17 September 1961.)

ads for pamela moore

(From the New Yorker, 10 November 1956, p. 220; the same ad had also appeared in the issue of 27 October 1956.)

(From the New Yorker, 2 February 1963, p. 120; the same ad also appears on 9 February and 16 February of that year.)

(A Rinehart ad on p. 96 of the October 1956 issue of Harper’s.)

noted

  • 106 Green, a building/gallery in Greenpoint is putting on a show based on Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual (up on Sundays from March 7–April 4).
  • A fine historical essay by Robin Kinross on the problems of book glue and bindings.
  • Ben Vershbow’s put together a fantastic online, annotated version of Candide for the NYPL.
  • John Ashbery is in the TLS this week.
  • From the archives of the New York Times: a letter from Pamela Moore, author of Chocolates for Breakfast, defending Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. (See also Robert Nedelkoff’s Facebook group.)

exodus 4:24–26

“And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.”

(KJV)

noted

  • Marjorie Perloff’s consideration of Guy Davenport in Sibila is interesting in her focus on how his book reviews functioned.
  • More Guy Davenport: an essay by Jeet Heer at Sans Everything considers Davenport as a cartoonist. Missed this before.
  • And the Abbeville Press edition of the Codex Seraphinianus seems to be online in its entirety. One assumes this won’t last very long, as Rizzoli has it back in print; buy your own copy here (which comes with a “Recodex” booklet compiling criticism of the work, including the Italo Calvino introduction). One notes as well that Serafini seems to have written an introduction to an Italian edition of Jules Renard’s Natural Histories published last year.

edmund white, “city boy”

Edmund White
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s
(Bloomsbury, 2009)


The first question that arises with this book is why. Edmund White has already written a biography, of a sort (My Lives); more to the point, he’s also fictionalized the period in time in which this book is set in his autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, the books for which he’s probably best known. Why then do this as non-fiction rather than fiction? One might suspect this book of being a cashing in on the present popularity of the memoir; but White has been studiously playing with the boundary between fiction and non-fiction since A Boy’s Own Story, where he began the project of fictionalizing his own life. Most recently, in Fanny and Hotel de Dream, he moved to a project of fictionalizing American literary history (the lives of Fanny Trollope and Stephen Crane, respectively); in the latter, he went so far as to fabricate apocrypha for Stephen Crane. This book, then, should not simply be taken as a clef for his romans à clef: it needs to be observed in context.

The trickiness afoot commences with the first, one-sentence paragraph in the book:

In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.

A fine beginning; this is what those of us who weren’t in New York in the 1970s assume about life then. But this might be instructively compared to “Uncle Ed and My Life with Him,” an essay by White’s nephew Keith Fleming. Fleming lived with his uncle in the 1970s; this is engagingly fictionalized in The Farewell Symphony and described at length in City Boy, as well as in Fleming’s own memoir, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. In the section excerpted on White’s website we find this description:

The first book he had suggested I read had been Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, and I instantly recognized my uncle in Chesterfield’s dictum that a gentleman never rises later than ten in the morning, no matter when he might have gone to bed, and that his day should be divided evenly between study and pleasure, which mutually refresh each other.

Lord Chesterfield certainly shows up in City Boy: on p. 27, White talks about how much he liked his writing, though White doesn’t mention what time Chesterfield thought a gentleman should rise. If one actually looks at Chesterfield, things become even more complicated:

But then, I can assure you, that I always found time for serious studies; and, when I could find it no other way, I took it out of my sleep, for I resolved always to rise early in the morning, however late I went to bed at night; and this resolution I have kept so sacred, that, unless when I have been confined to my bed by illness, I have not, for more than forty years, ever been in bed at nine o’clock in the morning but commonly up before eight.

How do we resolve the disjunction between Fleming’s account and White’s broad statement? Assuming that Fleming is accurately remembering his uncle’s habits, the “everyone” in White’s line must not include him, as we would have expected. If Fleming is misremembering Chesterfield but correctly remembering that this passage made him think of his uncle, White’s behavior is even more atypical of 1970s New York. Memory and truth are complicated; and this is a book that needs to be read carefully.

Looked at from the New York of 2010, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s in New York can’t help but seem a golden age for the arts, which we observe from mannerist decline. It’s not easy, for example, to think of a New York novel from the past decade that’s likely to hold its own in twenty years. But that past is a hard thing to nail down: talking to people who were in the New York art scene in the 1960s, one quickly realizes that any two accounts of the same events in that period are bound to be contradictory. White’s strategy, then, is to approach the same events several times, using different techniques. Reading his novelizations, the uninformed reader won’t always match names to characters correctly; the names remain ciphers, and what the reader is left with is the relationship between the characters. With names attached, as in City Boy, it becomes a record of the celebrity: this is what Richard Howard did, this is how Susan Sontag was, this is the sort of person that Harold Brodkey was. Both ways are valid ways to tell a story which is important; however, the fiction read before the memoir is going to have a different effect than the fiction after the memoir. Perhaps this is what White is getting at when he says, after a description of James Merrill:

Having actually known such a person doesn’t give one a special purchase on the reality. In fact familiarity can lead to slightly idiotic complacencies. The French critic Sainte-Beauve wrote that he couldn’t see why everyone made such a fuss over “Beyle” (Stendhal), since good ol’ Beyle would surely have been the first to laugh at his exaggerated posthumous reputation. Even so, everyone wants to hear the story just because it “really” happened, and yet in truth its reality – fragile at best and now largely mythologized into a new shape – is scarcely telling. (p. 86.)

The project of going back to the same history again and again makes sense with this in mind. City Boy is a blunt representation of reality; but it’s also a more measured one given that more time has passed since White’s last attempts to write about the period. This is maybe counterintuitive: The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) was written at a moment of crisis; while panic about AIDS in the U.S. was calming by the time that The Farewell Symphony appeared in 1997, its repercussions were still being strongly felt. If one were attempting simply to document what was being lost (a charge frequently leveled at autobiographical fiction), it would have made more sense to work in the memoir form then. But obfuscation allows for better representation.

A case might be made that one of the most interesting works of fiction in the past few years is White’s contemporary James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, a sequel to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, his novel of gay opera devotees in New York of the 1950s besotted with Irishness. Now Voyagers is an enormous, fantastically intricate book; it’s one of the most explicitly Joycean American novel that I can imagine (and McCourt has promised a sequel). But one senses, reading it, the heartbreaking feeling that this is a book that might never actually find a readership: it’s a document of a vanished age, in a vanishing language. I can sense how well it’s done, but my knowledge (of opera, of Irishness, of gay life in the 1950s) isn’t enough to really understand McCourt on his own terms; I can only admire his language. Now Voyagers is reminiscent of White’s first few novels, especially the elliptical allusions of the first, Forgetting Elena, which seems underrated despite Nabokov’s approval. White seems to have moved in the opposite direction, providing easier ways in to the past. I’m not sure, though, that this is an outright rejection of his earlier experimentation: rather, he’s continuing to play with style across what we think of as fiction and non-fiction.