december 16–31

Books

  • Thornton Wilder, The Ides of March
  • Cathy Park Hong, Engine Empire
  • Djuna Barnes, The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings
  • Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life
  • Alex Savage, The Flesh Is Like a Kind of Muppet Caper
  • Ted Berrigan & Joe Brainard, The Drunken Boat
  • Max Frisch, A Wilderness of Mirrors, trans. Michael Bullock

Films

  • Trading Places, directed by John Landis
  • Счастье (Happiness), dir. Aleksandr Medvedkin
  • Le Bonheur (Happiness), dir. Agnès Varda
  • Haywire, dir. Steven Soderbergh
  • Wise Blood, dir. John Huston
  • Camille, dir. George Cukor
  • Silver Linings Playbook, dir. David O. Russell
  • Intolerance, dir. D. W. Griffith

Exhibits

  • “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925,” MoMA
  • “Trevor Winkfield: New Paintings,” Tibor de Nagy Gallery

chorus & hero

When it came it came with eyes
We could not close our eyes to escape its gaze
When it came it came with eyes that looked through our lids
That looked through our eyes     its eyes
Looked below the hair on our heads that did or did not blow
In the wind branching out of our brains the sky
Gathered in a cave where each one of us says I and I echoes
It came and gazed into us until it found itself staring back
When he returned from the underworld he thought his eyes
Were the same eyes he opened to the shades
His eyes dilated in the dark until he could see in the dark
The darkness opened in his head until his head could not contain it
He did not know night followed him when he returned
He could not see behind him     his children
Stared at him with his own eyes when he came home to see them
He did not know he was the danger they were in     the gods
Put vision in his eyes     he did not think he could not
See the difference long ago he notched the arrows he shot
Sometimes we see with our ears the blood on hero’s hands
Sometimes the hero walks out from his house with his hands held out
As if to ask us who cannot help but see
If these blood-covered hands are mine     are these hands mine
It’s hard to see in the night flowing out behind the hero’s head
If these hands are mine     if these hands are
Mine to close mine to turn palms up mine to bring close to my own head
To cover our eyes with the same hands we do not want to see
Ourselves looking at our hands
Children look through the mirrors their parents gave them for eyes
Tears come out the mirrors when they cry
The mirrors widen in the dark but in the dark show less
The mirrors widen in fear a little door in the mirror opens wider
We who gave birth to them live in a cave in their heads
A cave in which we watch ourselves as they hide
Behind a column or behind their mother’s robes     our children’s eyes
When a force moves through us
When our arms act because our minds command them
When our mind obeys our eyes     but our eyes
Are not our own eyes     when we see as we are forced to see
When the command comes from the gods hiding inside the eye
Replacing our eyes with a vision
We do not say I     we say we     we say we did this     we did
This act     and when it’s worse     when it’s my hands
When these hands are mine     we don’t say we
We say it     we say it came upon me     a force none could resist
Soul or breath     god or madness     it acted in me
It came      and when it came it came with eyes

(Dan Beachy-Quick)

december 1–december 15

Books

  • Amélie Nothomb, Hygiene and the Assassin, trans. Alison Anderson
  • Michael Allen Zell, Errata

Films

  • Ruthless, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
  • Tillsammans (Together), dir. Lukas Moodysson
  • Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light), dir. Patricio Guzmán

Exhibits

  • “Jesús Rafael Soto: Soto Unearthed: A 1968 Film and Selected Early Work,” Bosi Contemporary
  • “Pieter Schoolweth: After Troy,” Miguel Abreu Gallery
  • “The Art of Scent 1889–2012,” The Museum of Arts and Design
  • “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde,” MoMA

michael allen zell, “errata”

zellerrataMichael Allen Zell
Errata
(Lavender Ink, 2012)

The end of the year is in sight, and with it the urge to clean up everything left undone. I’ve done a poor job of writing about my reading here, largely from lack of leisure; but I also haven’t felt compelled by that many books this past year. This one probably goes on that short list. Errata arrived in the mail as comb-bound ARC some time over the summer, chiefly notable for how amateurish it looked. I’m not sure why I received the book, as I’d never taken notice of Lavender Ink’s books (although Bill Lavender did pop up in the news shortly thereafter); but I put the book in my bag and, after a while, ended up looking at it while on a cross-town bus delayed in traffic, hoping that I could decide that it wasn’t worth bothering with, toss it, and thus accomplish something with what seemed to be a wasted day. The book, it soon became clear, was interesting; the alternating alliterations of cs and vs in a sentence on the first page was enough to stop and take notice:

I crave calming veins of vicarious titillation, the caricature of civilization kept viciously certain by every scanner burst, its randomness cutting through this vexing cloister. (p. 7)

There’s prolixity there, maybe worrying, but controlled rhythm as well, so I read to the next page, where there was a smart consideration of Nabokov, discovered that page to be the end of the first chapter already; a second chapter, almost as short, started the narrative again and revealed the name of the narrator to be Raymond Russell. There wasn’t much that I could do to stop myself at that point; and this is a short book. I don’t think that I was stuck on public transportation that day long enough to read the whole thing, though that’s not outside of the realm of possibility.

What happens in this book is easily laid out: the bookish narrator drives an unlicensed cab in New Orleans in late 1984. He becomes involved, glancingly, in the life of a woman, Hannah Spire; they are mixed up in the death of a corrupt police officer, the Pelican. The book’s twenty-two chapters are subsequent attempts at writing what happened for posterity. The story is simple (though with nice details); but it’s how the story is written (or, as the narrator announces, “how I’ll tell the story around the story”) that makes this book especially worthwhile. Zell’s literary references deserve special: the book swims in Bruno Schulz, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Herman Melville, Josef Váchal, tools that the narrator uses to think through the problem of addressing his problem. His house is slowly sinking; he props up the foundation with stolen and read books, almost an image of Neurath’s boat. Harry Mathews pops up – this book is related to The Journalist – as does Mallarmé’s Livre and Valéry’s style of dialogue. Roussel is hiding in the background, making the occasional appearance:

More recently, I’d also been told rumors from faves about the 5th District cop who literally pistol-whipped out the teeth of neighborhood men, collected them, and then, referring to his nickname Half and Half, wrote 1/2 as a teeth mosaic in the dirt of empty lots by their sidewalks to remind the residents of his brutality. A civil servant who wore his ethics the way buildings wear rain. (pp. 45–6)

Textual puzzles litter the book. One of the epigraphs, for example, comes from a “P. Reyval”; rearranging the letters reveals Valéry, the reason the quote seems familiar; but on scrutiny, what P. Reyval says is rearranged from what Valéry said. The reader is rewarded for paying attention, though there’s also easy pleasure to be had from the surface of the book. Consider this paragraph-long discussion of Melville and facial hair:

Many men have many minds, so shouldn’t many men also be permitted an assorted masquerade ability to wear several varieties of facial hair or none? The first clause of the preceding sentence references a chapter title from The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, which is appropriate because his writing wasn’t always appreciated throughout his lifetime, but his beard certainly was and is, what with the iconic photographs of the bearded Melville remaining his prevailing visual impression. He knew the power of sporting one’s own Spanish moss during an exceptionally hairy era, using over two dozen different words or phrases of beard description in the novel White Jacket, published when he was barely into his 30’s and his writing career was waning, requiring him to pursue another line of work. (pp. 33–34)

Excerption doesn’t quite show how beautifully this paragraph’s precise deployment of trivia wraps up the narrator’s discussion earlier in the chapter of his own problems with work and shaving as a correlative for that; it foreshadows a point later in the book where the narrator becomes a beard. The Confidence Man hangs over the book; we are reminded that the steamship in that book is sailing for New Orleans.

In a sense Zell’s novel is perfectly common: a literary young man attempts to explain a story with reference to his personal history, his reading, and his education. It’s told in the first person. But this is a book which is always deeply conscious that it is a book, and that the act of writing is fundamentally at odds with living:

Life is not a document. Life cannot be documented. Documents cannot be lived. The writing process is at odds with reconciling life and living sensibly. All I can do is immerse myself and write with abandon to make sense of the situation, and literally try to scrawl myself to sleep, the errata notebook a line to grasp onto for the sake of saving my neck and to be pulled back to my previous reality. (pp. 22–3)

By itself, this philosophizing might become tiresome; attached to a swiftly moving narrative, it works well. Halfway through the book, a chapter is mostly devoted to a consideration of the place of dialogue in fiction, with the narrator supporting the position that dialogue in fiction functions to the detriment of fiction itself, which becomes an argument for telling rather than showing. This sort of explaining shouldn’t work; usually when I come across this sort of thing, I react badly. Zell makes it work.

This isn’t a perfect book; we’ve seen the female characters before, though it’s entirely possible that’s intentional. But the greatest defect of this book is a strange one: it’s not long enough. It’s not that the form isn’t correct for the size; 116 pages wraps the book up perfectly. But like the stories of Kleist, one wishes for more. A book so enjoyable to read shouldn’t be so short, though it does lend itself to re-reading. I’m curious to see what Zell does next.

the frog-readers

“ ‘Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naïve. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I ear: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or caviar; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say “you,” I should say “I myself and a few others,” because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know “what it’s all about.” And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, “Did this book change you?” And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, “Why should a book change me?” ’ ”

(Amélie Nothomb, Hygiene and the Assassin, trans. Alison Anderson, p. 54. As printed, the last line reads “Why should a book to change me?”)

november 16–november 30

Books

  • Suzanne Scanlon, Promising Young Women
  • Arnold Klein, Rangefinder & Powderhorn: Two Poems
  • Paul Scheerbart, Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel, trans. Christina Svendsen

Films

  • The Stranger, directed by Orson Welles
  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles, dir. John Hughes
  • Remember the Night, dir. Mitchell Leisen

Exhibits

  • “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde,” Met
  • “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” Met

paul scheerbart, “lesabéndio”

paul scheerbart, lesabéndioPaul Scheerbart
Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel
(trans. Christina Svendsen
(Wakefield Press, 2012; originally 1913.)

I’ve done a regrettably poor job of keeping up my reading this year, to say nothing of writing about what I’ve read; I feel bad about that, as there are a small handful of books that I would like to have written about in some depth. Too much work, not enough time, the eternal refrain. I’m breaking my silence with this, which I can’t pretend to review impartially: the translator has been a dear friend for years, and when she sent me a chapter wondering if I knew anyone who’d be interested in it I suggested Wakefield Press, who ended up publishing it. (I think I also passed her a copy of the first Scheerbart novel to appear in English, though I might be misremembering that.) Even so, it’s sat on my desk for a month before I could slot in time to make my way through it. But: this is a strange and interesting book, which should be clear from the publisher.

The strangeness of this book starts with genre: Lesabéndio is a science fiction novel from 1913 with strong architectural elements that might be more accurately described an architectural fantasia with a science fiction overlay. There’s probably more similarity to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili than there is to Jules Verne or H. G. Wells; the science is almost entirely fantastical, though it does take place on an asteroid in our solar system, and mention is made of one historical scientist. The protagonists are of two species, neither of them human; the physical laws of our universe don’t entirely seem to apply to them. A portfolio of illustrations that Alfred Kubin did for the novel’s initial publication is included in the back of this volume, but Odilon Redon’s floating eyeballs and natural intelligences almost seem more appropriate to the cosmology of this book, where planets and planetoids quite literally have a Weltgeist.

What happens in this book is fairly straightforward, if bizarre. The setting is the asteroid Pallas, which is inhabited by a species of unisexual beings who appear to be primarily engaged in architectural endeavors. The asteroid is barrel shaped, though it has been turned into a torus by means of two inverted cones at the north and south poles, the points of which meet at the center. Lesabéndio gets it in his head to create an immense tower around the rim of the northern inverted cone; it will reach into the cloud that hovers over the north end of the asteroid which provides, by its motions, day and night to the planet. Lesabéndio’s motivations for constructing this tower vary across the novel; eventually, he seeks to pierce the cloud (made of living beings) to reach the unseen body that hovers past the cloud, which is seen as the head to the asteroid’s torso. Connecting the asteroid’s head-system to its body will achieve the planet’s destiny; Lesabéndio is taken into the head-system and becomes one with the planet.

Much of the book is concerned with the process of building the tower and the various impasses that the builders face, chiefly among them keeping Pallas’s population in agreement with the idea of building a tower. There are a handful of main characters, who have different aesthetic beliefs: one believes that the planet should be polished and crystalline, one prefers irregular and round forms, one is most interested in growing plants. These wills are eventually subsumed into that of Lesabéndio – quite literally, because when a Pallasian dies, he disintegrates and is sucked into the open pores of whichever person he chooses to be taken into. (Pallasians are all male in gender; they spring from walnut-like eggs which are dug from the metal core of Pallas and hammered on until opened. Before hatching, they live in a dream-world, communing with the universe. Who hammered open the first Pallasian nut is left unexplained.) They live in a sort of socialism, where all decisions are made by consensus; public opinion seems to shift very quickly though, and there are any number of setbacks before Lesabéndio’s building plan ineluctably succeeds. Most notably, there’s a conflict between those who think the enormous tower should be built and those who would like to create art; while something of a middle way emerges (parts of the tower are made beautiful), engineering wins out in the end.

The politics of this book are unsettling. Lesabéndio is the great man who will lead the race of Pallasians to their destiny; there is the unbending faith in progress, seemingly religious in nature, that could only exist at the start of the twentieth century. Doubt is never expressed that building a tower to heaven could lead to something bad or even to something desirable; there is only doubt about whether or not this is possible. When Lesabéndio begins constructing his tower, he does not even know that the head-system of Pallas exists; when he discovers it, this is mapped on to his pre-existing plan. It’s a strange book to read now: as trained readers, we keep expecting everything to go terribly, terribly wrong, but that steadfastly refuses to happen. There are technical problems, but those can be surmounted. It’s essentially a Futurist novel; as with Italian Futurism, fascism lurks, though in 1913 one could be happily oblivious.

It’s a strange novel as well in how hard it is to pin down; it’s reminiscent of many things, both before and after. The hollow planet looks backward to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Symzonia, as well as forward to Ringworld or the wooden planet that Lebbeus Woods designed for Alien 3. Lesabéndio’s ecstatic oneness with the planet seems like the end of 2001, though, as I mentioned before, it feels aesthetically closer to the drawings of Redon. Though I’ve meant to, I haven’t actually read Thea von Harbou’s novel for Metropolis, the film she wrote with Fritz Lang. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scheerbart’s influence turned out to be apparent: Lesabéndio‘s emphasis on the head-system and torsos of stars (and the desirability of their successful merging) feels strongly akin to that film’s emphasis on mediation between head and hands. My knowledge of early science fiction is spotty; but this should be very interesting to those who know more.

november 1–november 15

Books

  • Alex Shakar, The Savage Girl
  • Ingeborg Bachmann, The Thirtieth Year, trans. Michael Bullock
  • René Daumal, You’ve Always Been Wrong, trans. Thomas Vosteen
  • Marcel Schwob, The Book of Monelle, trans. Kit Schluter
  • Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Fra Keeler

Films

  • The Lady Vanishes, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
  • Dial M for Murder, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  • The Last Picture Show, dir. Peter Bogdanovich
  • No Man of Her Own, dir. Mitchell Leisen

to create discontent

“ ‘. . . . The salad days of consumer-motivation research, when the great theorist Ernest Dichter, in the introduction to his seminal work The Strategy of Desire, could pose the question of whether or not it was ethical to wade into the human mind and implant never-before existent desires for unneeded products – only to respond wholeheartedly in the affirmative by wrapping himself in the flag.

‘In the Soviet Union, Dichter argued, advertising was every bit as prevalent as it was in America. The only difference was that the Soviets’ advertising campaigns were run by the government and called propaganda, whereas ours were called marketing and were run by private business. The purpose of propaganda, he went on to say, was to manipulate people into believing that all was as it should be; that the citizens had everything they could want; that they lived in a great country founded upon a great ideal; that their work was important; that their lives were meaningful. In short, propaganda strove to create contentment. The purpose of American-styel marketing, in contrast, was precisely the opposite. It existed to create discontent, to ensure that citizens were never happy with their lot, inciting them to crave more money, more property, newer cars, better clothing, better bodies, younger and more beautiful spouses. Thanks to marketing, American citizens were perpetually unsatisfied, goaded ever onward, ever forward, generating the American advantage, the drive that ensured progress, technological innovation, and a fully stimulated economy.’ ”

(Alex Shakar, The Savage Girl, pp. 136–7.)