the end of the world

“One morning around ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city. Then it slowly unclenched and remained this way, immobile, like an enormous canopy of ruin. It looked like rock, but it was not rock; it looked like flesh but it wasn’t; it even seemed made of cloud, but cloud it was not. It was God, and the end of the world. A murmuring, which here became a moan, there a shout, spread through the districts of the city, until it grew into a single voice, united and terrible, rising shrilly like a trumpet.”

(Dino Buzzati, “The End if the World,” trans. Lawrence Venuti, p. 7 in Restless Nights.)

artificial intelligence, italian style

“ ‘Excuse me,’ said Olga, interrupting her. She turned to her husband. ‘Does she speak too? The machine, I mean.’

‘Not in the normal sense, no. It doesn’t know languages. We’ve been firm about that. It would have been fatal if we’d taught it a language. Speech is the greatest enemy of mental clarity. Through wanting to express his thoughts in words at all costs, man has got himself into such a mess that—’ ”

(Dino Buzzati, Larger Than Life (1960), trans. Henry Reed, p. 72)

something you have never thought about

“Anyone whom God has given a fate of continuous encounters with Evil has been dealt a terrible blow, though Catholics, of course, don’t make the best example. For Catholics, Evil lies finally and exclusively in the absence of the Pleasures, whereas Protestants furnish a truer measure of the portent of really believing in the Devil, sometimes hanging him by the neck, sometimes cutting off his head, sometimes burning his body with billions of fiery sparks on a modernly invented chair. So, a terrible destiny has been allotted to people who have been thrown by God or their own ambitions (this is not yet clear) into continual conflict with perversity. But have you ever given a thought to the desperate plight of Perversity or Wickedness itself, deprived for virtually mathematical reasons of all possible struggle with itself, or of flight from itself, and therefore condemned to the constant horror of its own desperate presence, this presence being nothing other than itself? No, that’s something you have never thought about.”

(Anna Maria Ortese, The Iguana, pp. 92–3, trans. Henry Martin.)

the daring colloquialisms of modern slang

“ ‘I must be patient, by the Lord! of course I must . . . and I have been . . . Still, I mustn’t, either, show the energy of a jelly-fish!’

The journalist, who delighted in the daring colloquialisms of modern slang, need have had no fear of ever being credited with energy of that flabby sort.”

(Marcel Allain, Fantômas Captured, trans. A. R. Allinson (1926), p. 119)

noted

  • William Gaddis (and his second wife Judith) evidently appeared as an extra in 1973’s Ganja & Hess, a cut-rate vampire movie. See him here, here, and here.
  • A decent review of the new editions of Impressions of Africa and New Impressions of Africa at Open Letters Monthly.
  • A newly translated (by Anne McLean) excerpt of Julio Cortázar’s From the Observatory at Agni.
  • Amie Barrodale’s “William Wei” at the Paris Review.

june 1–june 15

Books

  • Giuseppi Gioachino Belli, The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppi Gioachino Belli, trans. Harold Norse
  • Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, trans. Rupert Copeland Cuningham
  • Harry Mathews, Trial Impressions
  • Harry Mathews, Armenian Papers: Poems 1954–1984
  • Harry Mathews, The New Tourism
  • Robert Seydal, Book of Ruth
  • Mark Ford, Soft Sift

Films

  • The Hangover Part II, directed by Todd Phillips
  • L’Illusionniste (The Illusionist), dir. Syvain Chomet
  • Hold Me While I’m Naked, dir. George Kuchar
  • Pink Flamingos, dir. John Waters
  • Fughe e approdi (Return to the Aeolian Islands), dir. Giovanni Taviani
  • One Lucky Elephant, dir. Lisa Leeman
  • The Trip, dir. Michael Winterbottom

Exhibits

  • “Temporary Antumbra Zone,” Janet Kurnatowski Gallery
  • “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore,” Jewish Museum
  • “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” Jewish Museum
  • “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective,” Met
  • “Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: ‘Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Inovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philosopher’,” American Folk Art Museum
  • “Ryoji Ikeda: The Transfinite,” Park Avenue Armory

raymond roussel, “locus solus”

Raymond Roussel
Locus Solus
(trans. Rupert Copeland Cuningham)
(OneWorld Classics, 2008; originally published 1970)


An uncommon amount of Raymond Roussel is in print in English: Mark Ford’s retranslation of New Impressions of Africa from Princeton, and Mark Polizzotti’s version of Impressions of Africa should be out soon from Dalkey Archive. Rounding out the trilogy of Roussel’s big books is a reissue of the Cuningham translation of Locus Solus, originally published by John Calder in 1970, brought back into print by OneWorld Classics, which seems to have enough American distribution that I could buy a copy in Brooklyn. I loaned my original copy of the book out years ago, so I can’t compare the original printing right now; the text has been reset, but no changes are noted to Cuningham’s translation. It’s fantastic that the Calder line is coming back into print, and OneWorld’s books have attractive covers (this one, unfortunately, seems to have been made from a JPEG); however, one always wishes that they’d do a little editorial work.

(One wonders, incidentally, who Rupert Copeland Cuningham might have been: as far as I can tell, this book seems to be the only thing his name was ever attached to. His name appears to be somewhat in flux: more often than not, there’s an extra “n” in Cuningham when he appears in bibliographies (where his translation is praised). There’s no discussion of Cuningham or Cunningham in the Ford or Caradec biographies; while I don’t have the special issue of Bizarre on Roussel, I have most of what’s available on Roussel in English, and it’s odd that the translator never reappears, as almost everyone else connected with Roussel seems to. One might imagine that R. C. C. never actually existed and is a pseudonym; the translation of Chapter 1 of Locus Solus by Harry Mathews that appears in the Exact Change How I Wrote Certain of My Books is decidedly different, John Ashbery must know the answer to this question.)

An introduction wouldn’t hurt; the omission of notes (aside from five by Roussel and two by the translator) seems like a fairly substantial mistake with a book like this, not least for the diction, which remains somewhat extraordinary. What exactly a paving beetle, also known, splendidly as a punner, might look like (especially in Cantarel’s modified form) is not going to be clear to the general audience of today, though they certainly might have been a century ago. One wonders (especially with punner) how the French that Roussel used would compare. The word subtunicle (not subtunical, something very different), only manages to get five hits on Google; it doesn’t make it into the OED, although tunicle does; while Roussel explains what he means by this, annotation would help. The same for colombophile: the OED says the word is French for “pigeon-fancier”; did anyone but Roussel use it to mean a specially thin kind of paper used to write messages to be carried by messenger pigeons? A cursory search of the Internet doesn’t turn it up; a good editor would find this out.

The typesetting is, unfortunately, shoddy. Italicization is applied (to, for example, aqua-micans) capriciously; a more severe error is found in the name of Martial Cantarel’s Siamese cat, “Khóng-dek-lèn,” which has a diacritical over the e in dek of Roussel’s own invention, half of an open semicircle, has been changed into ẵ (Unicode 7861), an e with a breve underneath a tilde, which is a character used in Vietnamese. The Calder edition did this correctly; a recent French edition presents it as a breve under a macron, which is better than a breve and a tilde. As both biographies point out, Roussel wanted an unpronounceable character, not one that might be pronounced by someone who could read Vietnamese; he went to the expense of having the character made specially for his book, and it would be nice if his example could have been followed – five minutes in Fontographer would have done the job. Roussel demands more attention than he’s been given here; probably best to stick with the older edition if you’re looking to buy an English Locus Solus.

That said: it’s fantastic to have Locus Solus so easily accessible in English again. Roussel’s writing remains intractably bizarre, down to the very structure of the book: in each of the seven chapters, Martial Canterel shows his visitors something inscrutably strange, described in exhaustive detail; then Canterel explains how entirely logical the tableau actually is, showing followed by telling. His audience remains entirely passive; even when they are allowed to interact with the tableaux in the case of the seahorse race, Cantarel explains that the results are entirely preordained. The sense of stillness in this book is almost oppressive: the scenes will go on being reenacted again and again, regardless of an audience. Perhaps this is so unnerving because we know that this is what happens every time we re-read a book or re-watch a movie. The house in Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating would seem to be deeply influenced by Locus Solus; I don’t know if anyone’s written about the influence of Roussel on Rivette, though IMDB falsely claims that 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup is a biopic about Roussel. But Céline and Julie is warm – repetition is a game – while Locus Solus almost radiates coldness, to borrow an image from the book. When Harry Mathews rewrote Roussel in The Conversions, the result is funny; but Locus Solus is deadly serious, even if the situations described are as ridiculous as those in Mathews’s book.

A paragraph near the center of the book might be excerpted for its almost metafictional turn. Here, Cantarel’s process for revivifying the dead is being described; the dead, when brought back to life, re-enact the same scene over and over, and an environment must be made to accommodate them:

During this phase of the investigation Cantarel and his assistants closely surrounded the animated corpse, watching his every movement in order to assist him from time to time when necessary. Indeed the exact reproduction of some muscular effort made in life to raise some heavy object – now absent – entailed a loss of balance which would have caused a fall, but for their prompt intervention. Furthermore, whenever the legs, with only flat ground before them, began to ascend or descend some imaginatry staircase, it was essential to prevent the body falling either forwards or backwards, as the case might be. A quick hand had to be held ready to replace some non-existent wall against which the subject might be about to lean his shoulder, and he would have tended to sit down on thin air from time to time if their arms had not received him. (p. 99)

One imagines Roussel laboriously constructing the situations in this book to fit the results of his procedure; did he expect the reader to guess? Or again at the end of the eighth section of Chapter 4, where François-Charles Cortier hides his confession to his crimes using codes; his son, having deciphered the code and found the confession, feels the word “son of a murderer” branded on his forehead. The reader who knows nothing of Roussel must suspect that something’s up; the informed reader sees Roussel’s breadcrumb trail.

Because of the lack of critical apparatus around this book (aside from the hint of “Roussel’s own uniquely eccentric principles of composition” on the back cover copy), it’s possible that readers are finding this book without any idea of how Roussel wrote his books. It’s difficult to imagine what such a reader might make of this book. It comes off almost as science fiction in the style of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Eve future: but it’s essentially static. Nothing is being promised for the future: at best, the future seems to be endless replay of the past. The text of this book feels almost like being in the company of the insane: the hyperdetail about subjects that makes no sense to the outside world; the sense that the story’s being told regardless – maybe in spite of – whoever might be listening. Henry Darger’s scenes of girls and endless battles and over-regard for the weather aren’t that far away, in some sense; reading Locus Solus one can’t help but notice how many casually insane people are involved. But Roussel’s work is so intricately put together: although a scene in first description appears to be entirely random, every element is shown to be there for a reason. The precision is almost machine-like; there’s a coldness to this book that still chills. Even if one didn’t know about Roussel’s procedure, it might be sensed: something still pumps away deep inside this book.

may 21–may 31

Books

  • William Burroughs, Queer
  • Florence Delay, Patrick Deville, Jean Echenoz, Harry Mathews, Mark Polizzotti, Sonja Greenlee & Olivier Rolin, S. (trans. Mark Polizzotti & Matthew Escobar
  • Jonathan Williams, Uncle Gus Flaubert Rates the Jargon Society: In One Hundred One Laconic Présalé Sage Sentences
  • J. G. Ballard, The Wind from Nowhere
  • Christopher Priest, The Inverted World

Films

  • Caught, directed by Max Ophüls
  • The Reckless Moment, dir. Max Ophüls
  • Night of the Demon, dir. Jacques Tourneur
  • Curse of the Demon, dir. Jacques Tourneur
  • Heaven Can Wait, dir. Ernst Lubitsch
  • The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Mallick
  • Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, dir. Charles Barton
  • Mystery Team, dir. Dan Eckman
  • Nénette, dir. Nicolas Philibert
  • The Gold Ghost, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Allez Oop, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Palooka from Paducah, dir. Charles Lamont
  • One Run Elmer, dir. Buster Keaton
  • Hayseed Romance, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Tars and Stripes, dir. Charles Lamont
  • The E-Flat Man, dir. Charles Lamont
  • The Timid Young Man, dir. Mack Sennett
  • Three on a Limb, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Grand Slam Opera, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Blue Blazes, dir. Raymond Kane
  • The Chemist, dir. Al Christie
  • Mixed Magic, dir. Raymond Kane
  • Jail Bait, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Ditto, dir. Charles Lamont
  • Love Nest on Wheels, dir. Charles Lamont

papanek, still angry

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoe horns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before (in the ‘good old days’), if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.”

(Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, p. ix.)