jacques sternberg, “sexualis ’95”

Jacques Sternberg
Sexualis ’95
(trans. Blair Lowell)
(Berkeley Medallion, 1967)


This is a poorly presented book, originally published in French in 1965 with the rather different title Toi, ma nuit. Somewhere along the line it acquired the present English title and cover – the back cover copy suggests that someone skimmed the first three pages, grabbed the first three titillating passages that could be found, and called it done. (I’m inclined not to blame the translator, who also seems to have had a workman-like career later in life, publishing translations of Voltaire, Flaubert, Dumas, Rostand, and Rousseau; in the 1960s, he seems to have been translating Emanuelle and Sade for Grove Press.) It can’t really be said that this ended the career of Jacques Sternberg in the United States – Future Without Future would come out in 1974 to little effect – but this couldn’t have helped. Though the cover promises trash, the reader is more likely to end up confused. There’s a certain similarity to the two French detective novels that John Ashbery translated under the name Jonas Berry: it’s difficult to imagine, at this point in time, who the intended audience for these sorts of books would have been, but it seems almost certain that these books weren’t doing a good job pleasing that audience.

This is not to say that this is a particularly good book: I don’t know if I’m willing to make that argument, though maybe someone might. The last book of Sternberg’s I read reminded me of Houellebecq; this one seems to anticipate him almost entirely. Sexualis ’95 is essentially a one-joke book, which would probably have worked better as a long short story. Thirty years in the future, after a nuclear war in 1975, humanity’s problems have largely solved by the wholesale adoption of free love. Sternberg’s protagonist seems to have wandered in from a Camus novel – later he will explain The Myth of Sisyphus to a similarly bored interlocutor – and finds himself, of course, utterly and completely bored with the world and the easy sexuality on offer. Though the protagonist is relatively successful in advertising – the problems of advertising in such a world can be imagined – he retreats to his books and records of the past.

It’s all a question of a certain quality of anxiety. Prewar anxiety was of better quality, richer in resonances and repercussions. There was something awesome and poignant about it. Our anxiety is as great as our parents’ was, but while our constant efforts to escape from it by noise, wild exaggeration, organized insanity and unremitting pleasure may seem spectacular, they’re more irritating than moving. Especially when that artificial frenzy breaks out of the framework of advertising, leisure and work and overflows into writing, music and films, sweeping everything away in an inarticulate howl that has neither charm nor precise meaning. Our world is so afraid that it doesn’t dare to look at its fear, talk about it or dissect it. It merely stifles it under tons of shouting, hectic rhythms, garish colors and brutal images. (pp. 14–15)

Occasionally this book makes one imagine that you’re reading a Tom Wolfe or Ross Douthat description of what the depraved youth at college are up to; the argument could be made that the same conservative impulse is at work here. In the next paragraph, the protagonist mentions Lovecraft as one of the old-fashioned writers that he turns back to (with Kafka, Beckett, Faulkner, and Céline): and it might be Lovecraft’s misoneism that’s the guiding spirit here. The protagonist is bored and vaguely unhappy for the first half of the book. Not much of note happens here: mostly we’re presented with a world, seen cartoonishly from a male perspective. Women are always available for male pleasure; they are a commodity like any other under capitalism, and it’s not by accident that the protagonist is in advertising, seeking to artificially raise desire in the public. He’s more than aware of the artifice of the job; but this is an existential condition, one that can’t be escaped. His awareness of art does nothing: he can quote Mallarmé to others on a shoot, but no one understands what he’s talking about.

Things take a turn in the second half of the book when the protagonist predictably falls in love. The object of his affections in a woman without desire: the child-like Michèle doesn’t want anything, and for this reason the protagonist wants her. There’s more than a whiff of the amour fou of Breton’s Nadja here, probably on purpose. The protagonist loses Michèle, suffers, and finally finds her again. This is partially played as broad comedy: the protagonist is suffering from the otherwise unknown condition of being in love, and, being of his time, he doesn’t know what to do. Sternberg is writing recognizably in the libertine tradition: the condition of desire is that it cannot be fulfilled.

This book takes a weird turn at the last possible minute, when the reader starts wondering exactly how Sternberg is going to extricate himself from his story, which has devolved into a road movie scripted by Breton: the protagonist and his unconsummated (and unconsummatable) love are on a train headed to a southern town neither of them has been to. Michèle announces that the train is going to be derailed in two miles; then that the train is going to be derailed in one mile. The final paragraph, italicized, is in the third person of a news report; it explains that the train did, in fact, derail and that everyone aboard was killed, including one unidentifiable woman. There also a gratuitous-seeming mention of alien arrival, who have not been mentioned previously in the novel: the implication might be that Michèle is an alien because she doesn’t want anything, but this seems forced.

This is an odd book: it’s not really a good book, and it seems like it could be charged with being flat-out misogynist if there weren’t the distinct possibility that this is all an enormous joke, maybe one lost in translation. But one does wish that more of Sternberg’s work were available in English: it’s hard to think of anyone quite like him.

louis lüthi, “on the self-reflexive page”

Louis Lüthi
On the Self-Reflexive Page
(Roma Publications, 2010)


Louis Lüthi sent me a copy of his book: it’s always a pleasant surprise to find a package in the mailbox from Amsterdam. Opening it, I immediately felt guilty for the pile of unread copies of Dot Dot Dot sitting on my to-be-read pile: I’m not sure why – and I should interrogate myself about this – but after a certain point, I stopped reading issues of that magazine, one of the last magazines that felt absolutely necessary to me, as soon as they arrived. And so I missed the original publication of Louis Lüthi’s essays on books that use the page in non-traditional ways, which is a shame. Or maybe not: when this would have come out, I was feeling burnt out when it came to thinking about the form of the book; now there’s more space, and I can give this the thought it deserves.

The cover (and back cover) should be immediately recognizable: the marbled pages from Tristram Shandy, which I suddenly realized I’d never seen in color, only grayscale reproductions; one forgets, as well, that the marbled page is actually two marbled pages, a marbled leaf. (With more money & space than I have, a complete collection of editions of that book would be a fine thing to assemble and exhibit: some aspiring Alÿs should get on that project.) The interior of Lüthi’s book consists of first 118 full-page reproductions of other book pages, then an extended essay about what those pages signify, followed by notes and a bibliography. The reproductions of pages have been divided into Black Pages, Blank Pages, Drawing Pages, Photography Pages, Text Pages, Number Pages, and Punctuation Pages. Lüthi’s book is an attempt to create a taxonomy for how non-textual pages function in fiction; his sections on Black Pages, Blank Pages, and Drawing Pages naturally start with the black pages, blank pages, and marbled pages that Sterne uses.

Flipping through the illustrations, one recognizes old friends: Gass is here, as is Perec, Zo’s illustrations to Roussel, Alasdair Gray, B. S. Johnson, Sebald, John Barth. Broodthaers’s crossed-out Mallarmé is here, though it stands out a bit: most of Lüthi’s other examples are more clearly pages of fiction. Rousse is another outlier (as he always is), as are Dieter Roth (here telling stories), two of Aram Saroyan’s visible poems, and the map of the ocean from The Hunting of the Snark, also included in Perec’s stripped-down reproduction (from, it should be noted, one of his non-fiction excursions). There are also pages from more recent writers: Douglas Coupland, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Salvador Plascencia, Lorrie Moore, Steven Hall. It’s a useful anthology: while a number of histories of visual poetry or text-based visual art are available, it’s harder for me to think of a compilation of fiction that uses visual devices.

Lüthi’s essay considers how these pages are used in the text. Here, his consideration starts with Nabokov and Cortázar: this is a sensible move. Both of these writers might be seen as being in this tradition, but not completely of it; both have characters who suggest a textual device rather than directly presenting it to the reader. Humbert Humbert instructs his printer to fill the page with Lolita’s name; a page of Morelli’s work filled with a single sentence is described in Hopscotch. (Cortázar’s strategies might not be as non-textual as Lüthi suggests: the chapter in Hopscotch where lines are interleaved is not included here, nor is the use of illustration in his non-fiction considered.) There’s a remove from the strategy that Sterne followed here, of course: but conversely, the work of Nabokov and Cortézar can be seen as completely fictional, not breaking into the visual.

There’s a peril that comes with showing and not telling which feels familiar to me: the young expositors of playing-with-the-page (Jonathan Safran Foer, Reif Larsen, Dave Eggers, etc.) are not, for the most part, creating books that felt the need to engage with in any substantive way. I do periodically go to the bookstore, pick up these books which I know I should be interested in – they’re quite visibly coming from a heritage I’m interested in – and put them down, not quite seeing what’s interesting in them. (This isn’t simply a problem with younger writers: I have the same problem with Danielewski and much of B. S. Johnson’s page-based experimentations, though I’ll give House Mother Normal and The Unfortunates – neither mentioned here – a pass.) Why do I react positively to (generally older) visual poetry, or to Alasdair Gray or William Gass, but not to something like Foer’s Humumented edition of Bruno Schulz? Fear of gimmickry? Perhaps its the sense that the visual is there something that’s simply been roped into the service of fiction, rather than something that’s interested in exploring the space between forms. Or maybe it’s a problem with seeming played-out, not experimental enough. There’s a useful passage in “Blank Pages” (the essay portion of this book is not paginated):

But a blank page in 21st-century literature cannot be the same thing as a blank page in the 20th century, much less one in the 18th; time erodes originality and alters meaning, and what was considered a tabula rasa a century ago could not be regarded as facile legerdemain.

This is a position akin to that taken in a passage in Umberto Eco’s The Open Work where Eco discusses Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book-in-a-box where every page gets its own leaf, astonishingly translated into English and published in the late 1960s:

I recently came across Composition No. 1, by Max [sic] Saporta. A brief look at the book was enough to tell me what its mechanism was, and what vision of life (and obviously, what vision of literature) it proposed, after which I did not feel the slightest desire to read even one of its loose pages, despite its promise to yield a different story every time it was shuffled. To me, the book had exhausted all its possible reading in the very enunciation of its constructive idea. Some of its pages might have been intensely “beautiful,” but, given the purpose of the book, that would have been a mere accident. Its only validity as an artistic event lay in its construction, its conception as a book that would tell not one but all the stories that could be told, albeit according to the directions (admittedly few) of an author.

What the stories could tell was secondary and no longer interesting. Unfortunately, the constructive idea was hardly more intriguing, since it was merely a far-fetched variation on an exploit that had already been realized, and with much more vigor, by contemporary narrative. As a result, Saporta’s was only an extreme case, and remarkable only for that reason. (trans. Anna Cancogni, p. 170)

Eco’s right here, I think; but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he turns up in Lüthi’s book with a page from Foucault’s Pendulum, ostensibly a record of a computer printout of the 720 possible names of God.

Reading this book, I found my thoughts returning to Susan Howe’s poetry: That This, which I should still write about, and The Midnight, her volume which considers the interleaf. Howe’s work is intensely visual: but it also springs from the history of the visual, the history of American letters and the documents that compose it being one of her primary concerns. Howe’s work feels astonishingly powerful to me, as vibrant of that of anyone working today. Here’s text from the beginning of The Midnight from the space where an epigraph would go: it faces a mirrored facsimile of the interleaf covering the title page of The Master of Ballantrae, a subject of that book:

There was a time when bookbinders placed a tissue interleaf between frontispiece and title page in order to prevent illustration and text from rubbing together. Although a sign is understood to be consubstantial with the thing or being it represents, word and picture are essentially rivals. The transitional space between image and scripture is often a zone of contention. Here we must separate. Even printers and binders drift apart.. Tissue paper for wrapping or folding can also be used for tracing. Mist-like transience. Listen, quick rustling. If a piece of sentence left unfinished can act as witness to a question proposed by a suspected ending, the other side is what will happen. Stage snow. Pantomime.

“Give me a sheet.

kazuo ishiguro, “never let me go”

Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go
(Vintage International, 2005)


The last time I read Kazuo Ishiguro was in high school, when something possessed me to read not only The Remains of the Day (probably found at some relative’s house) but also An Artist of the Floating World (presumably found at the local library). I don’t remember what I thought of them; by the time The Unconsoled came out, I was in college and interested in other things. When Never Let Me Go came out, I mentally classified it as one of those books that doesn’t need to be bought because you’re bound to find a copy in other people’s houses where it will be the only thing worth reading over a long boring weekend#160;– to this day I have not read Middlesex because of exactly the same reasoning – and six years later I find myself in just such a situation. I did see, I should admit, a decent chunk of the movie version of this on the back of a neighbor’s seat on a long flight to somewhere recently; it seemed pretty, but I can’t say that I remember anything from it.

The first thing that is strange about this book is the type, which is Bembo Schoolbook. This is a standard Bembo with a couple of weird variations: there’s a single-story lowercase “a”, for example, and the descenders of the “g” and “y” are similar, simple curves. The effect is oddly dizzying: you look at a page of the book and it’s clear that something is wrong, though it’s not immediately clear what. The strangeness goes away when reading, of course. It’s hard to tell what the desired effect is supposed to be: the name of the type suggests its intended function, to be easy for children to read, though it’s entirely unclear that the standard Roman “g” is more difficult to read that a “g” without the bottom loop. Perhaps this is a simple joke: this is a book about a school, so the type should look like it’s from a school. This isn’t what ends up happening: Bembo Schoolbook doesn’t look handwritten at all. Mostly it looks exactly like Bembo, a face most familiar for its common use in books. If the context of a school was intended, more direct ways could be imagined. Rather than child-like, the modified characters come across as strange, almost jolting; as previously noted, something seems wrong. There’s maybe something to be said for this. (The book designer, it should be noted, was Iris Weinstein; I haven’t seen anything she might have said about the design of this book, but I haven’t looked as deeply as I might.)

The second thing that’s odd about this book is the genre. It’s rather straightforwardly science fiction in content: young people who are raised as clones in a Britain that is parallel to ours, but that differs in having evidently developed cloning technology in the 1950s; there’s a rather rigidly worked-out system of how some clones are donors, who seem to donate organs four times, and others are carers, who care for the donors in some way. The economic superstructure that undergirds such a system is left untouched (there’s very little money in this book); nor is any moral debate that might have taken place. The back of the book doesn’t indicate that the book is science fiction, but this is clear to the reader from the first paragraph, which wields the words “carer” and “donor” in such a way to make it clear that this world functions differently than our own. After the dedication of the book, a blank page contains the inscription “England, late 1990s” which should make it clear that while this may be England, it’s not the 1990s that we lived through. The copyright page, however, thoughtfully includes Library of Congress classifications for the book, supplied by the publisher: there we learn that this book is about “1. Women—Fiction. 2. England—Fiction. 3. Cloning—Fiction. 4. Organ donors—Fiction. 5. Donation of organs, tissues, etc.—Fiction.” It’s strange how emphatically this book is set up not to be science fiction.

Formally, this is a straightforward book. The first chapter, set in the novel’s present, sets up something of a mystery (what do these terms mean? how do these characters relate?); the second flips back to the beginning of the story (the childhood of the characters) and things progress chronologically from there; by the end of the novel, we’re caught up to the first chapter, which can now be read and understood. The story is told in the first person; there’s an interlocutor who appears occasionally as a “you” to whom the book is addressed (“I don’t know how it was where you were,” p. 13), and who we can assume is a fellow clone to whom the narrator, Kathy B., is narrating the story. Kathy B. is a carer, and presumably she is telling this story to a nameless donor. There’s a gesture at emotion here: we can presume then that this is a story told to someone who is suffering to alleviate pain. But this isn’t really followed up on: references to “you” drop off sharply after the beginning of the book, and it feels almost like a convenient excuse for a first-person narrative; the story told is about the narrator, not the person listening to it. The form of the narrative, it goes almost without saying, is purely literary: we’re under no illusions that we’re actually listening to someone telling a story.

The question of whether this book is a work of science fiction matters because the overwhelming idea of this book is fatalism. No one has any real control over what happens to them: though the clones are born into a life that will be full of suffering, there’s never any real attempt to look outside that system. Suicide, weirdly, is never an option: instead, everyone seems to imagine it best that they might go to their deaths with their sufferings ameliorated in different fashions. (Much of the book has to do with a school in which the main characters are brought up, which is revealed to be a progressive attempt at providing a humane setting for people bred to be slaughtered: a good deal could be written, and maybe has been written, about this book and the politics of food.) For a period, the characters are reading Joyce and Kafka and Tolstoy: the ideas of those writers never really come into play – though this book might be seen as an extended riff on “In the Penal Colony” – perhaps this is to suggest that the characters in this book have no more autonomy than fictional creations.

“lives of the later caesars”

Lives of the Later Caesars: The First Part of the Augustan History, with Newly Compiled Lives of Nerva and Trajan
(edited & translated by Anthony Birley)
(Penguin Classics, 1976)


I originally picked up Suetonius because I wanted to read about Septimius Severus; but of course Septimius Severus wasn’t one of the Twelve Caesars. This book is an odd continuation of Suetonius, another series of lives of the Caesars: editorially, this consists of the first half of the Augustan History along with two newly written lives of Nerva and Trajan, whose lives seem to have fallen out of the manuscripts of the Augustan History. Only the first half, alas, of the Augustan Manuscript is presented here: Anthony Birley’s introduction explains that “after the Heligabalus, which itself descends into fiction at a point about half-way through, the remainder of the Augustan History is of very dubious quality.” This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that I find myself interested in in preference to real history; but half of the Augustan History is here, and the rest is easily read online. My knowledge of the classics is unapologetically slanted toward the fictional; some day I’ll rectify this, but not yet. Herodotus waits in the to-be-read pile; I still haven’t given the Iliad a proper reading, though I’ve read more Greek romances than anyone should. Books like this one appeal more: maybe because they’re clearly minor literature.

This is a strange book. The lives of Nerva and Trajan are the concoctions of Anthony Birley, written as a pastiche of Suetonius and the Augustan History, heavily footnoted with sources. It’s hard to know how to take these: they’re not necessarily history – a flaw which the Augustan History as a whole might be said to suffer from – but neither are they historical documents, a category which could include such fabulations as the Augustan History. These lives are primarily fact-based, but one runs into passages like this one in the life of Trajan:

It was a fault in him that he was a heavy drinker and also a pederast. But he did not incur censure, for he never committed any wicked deed because of this. He drank all the wine that he wanted and yet remained sober, and in his relations with boys he harmed no one. It is reported that he tempered his wine-bibbing by ordering that his requests for drink should be ignored after long banquets. (p. 47)

Footnotes after the third and fourth sentences point to Cassius Dio and Aurelius Victor: we can assume that “it is reported” refers to a passage in Aurelius Victor. But it’s hard to tell about the judgment in the first sentence: did Cassius Dio think that those were Trajan’s faults? The factuality of the second sentence can be judged by the historical record; the third is probably relying on Cassius Dio’s reporting of the facts, though it seems entirely possible that this is Birley’s interpretation. The effect is something like a Renaissance fair, but also somewhat like attempting to understand history by reading Wikipedia; maybe the argument could be made that it’s a good preparation for the rest of the Augustan History.

The Augustan History is ostensibly a compilation of works written by six different authors, which were compiled at around the age of Constantine. This is apparently a fiction, propagated to make it seem like the histories of the emperors were written more or less contemporaneously with their rule; Birley argues in his introduction, following Hermann Dessau, that the work was composed by a single author writing at the end of the fourth century, who cribbed much of his material from other sources, some of which still survive and some of which have passed away. There’s also a fictional overlay, with the various fake narrators explaining themselves, their purposes, and to whom they were ostensibly writing. Birley takes a hard line with this, and peppers the text with footnotes explaining, over and over again, that “this is fiction” and “this is inaccurate,” with the idea that if the fictional layer is peeled away some truth might be revealed. My interest in truth about the Roman empire is rather low; read as fiction, the book is entertaining.

“Married women” are often referred to as a class: Marcus Aurelius, for example, is credited with “reforming the morals of married women and of young noblemen, which were growing lax” (p. 131). Perhaps he had a personal motive: after his wife dies, we are told that Marcus Aurelius requested honors for his wife from the Senate “even though she had a reputation for lack of chastity.” Marcus Aurelius is probably the most familiar character who appears in this book; but here he isn’t entirely the buttoned-down Stoic he might appear to be in the Meditations and his letters to Fronto: here, he’s credited with praying for a thunderbolt that wins him a battle (shades of Constantine) and also successfully praying for rain for his thirsty soldiers. Marcus also had his no-good brother Lucius Vero; the story is presented, with the caveat that it couldn’t possibly be true, that Marcus Aurelius split a sow’s womb (the people in this book are constantly eating sow’s wombs, the reason for which I would love to know) with his brother using a knife poisoned on one side. It’s nice to imagine this scene, which appears in the lives of both; one can imagine the biographer’s motivation.

Occasionally there are nice asides. Caracalla appears here, for reasons that are unclear, under the name “Caracallus”; he dies on his way to do honor to the god Lunus, where he was done in by the imperial guard, as does seem to happen again and again. Then we get this:

Since we have made mention of the god Lunus, it should be known that it is held by the most learned and has been committed to record – and is still generally believed, especially by the people of Carrhae – that whoever thinks the moon ought to be called by the feminine name and sex will be controlled by women, and always subservient to them; but whoever thinks that the deity is masculine shall dominate his wife and never put up with any womanish wiles. Hence although the Greeks and Egyptians, in the same way that they say a woman is ‘man’, likewise call Luna a ‘god’, yet in mystic rites they use the name Lunus. (p. 256)

This passage has nothing at all to do with the life of Caracalla, save that he was ostensibly murdered trying to honor the god Lunus on his birthday (which Birley notes is wrong). But I like this narrative swerve, coming right after the climactic moment in his life: the sense that the narrator is distracted, but feels like he has something important to impart, however nonsensical it might be.

rebecca west, “survivors in mexico”

Rebecca West
Survivors in Mexico
(ed. Bernard Schweizer)
(Yale University Press, 2002)


This is the first Rebecca West I’ve read; it probably does her a disservice in my mind. Survivors in Mexico is a posthumous book, pulled together from notes by the editor, Bernard Schweizer; it’s not quite fair to judge the writer by it. Obviously, I should have read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon first; I’ll get around to that eventually. But I found a used copy of this in the bookstore on Mercer Street; I’m always interested in how Mexico, and particularly Mexico City, were written about in the twentieth century. Also I hadn’t read Rebecca West.

As displayed in the book, West’s understanding of Mexico is odd, which isn’t particularly surprising when one finds out that she was fairly old by the time she got there and didn’t speak any Spanish. West never finished this book, based on her trips to Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s; the present arrangement of it is very much Schweizer’s, who seems to have acted in the interest of constructing a readable version of the book. The published Survivors in Mexico still contains the sort of repetitions and inconsistencies that one might expect from a draft. The endnotes suggest that some have been edited out and that some of West’s words have been corrected, which gives the reader some reason to distrust the text. Octavio Paz, whose Labyrinth of Solitude had appeared in English in 1961, is mentioned in the text, though his influence is unfelt; looking in the notes, one finds that “Octavio Paz” is a correction for West’s original “Mario Praz”. Her account of the assassination of Trotsky is confusing, not least because she refers to his assassin as Jacson Mornard rather than Ramón Mercader; the assassination also seems to start in Frida Kahlo’s house and end in Trotsky’s. She decides that it is impossible that Kahlo and Trotsky could have been lovers; she is, predictably, astonished to discover that Diego Rivera’s wife could paint.

Reading this book, one thinks sometimes of Alberto Moravia’s Which Tribe Do You Belong To?, a poorly-titled narrative of his travels in Africa which took place at roughly the same time West was in Mexico. Moravia’s book is surprising in that he’s almost able to see past colonialist attitudes: colonialism was coming to an end while he was traveling, and he began to come to an understanding of the horrors that the continent had undergone. West isn’t able to escape the colonialist lens: Mexico, for her, is to be viewed through a European lens. What emerges as her central thesis is especially weird and staggering: that Spanish colonialism was bloody and destructive, but it was on the whole a good thing, because if they hadn’t done it, the Ottoman Empire would have, creating a Muslim South America. As mentioned before, my understanding of West is limited because I haven’t read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: perhaps West’s vision of the Ottomans would be useful for understanding how she could come up with this bizarre, and seemingly racist, argument. Occasionally reading this book one remembers the ignominious end of Orianna Fallaci.

This is elaborated in her account of the conquest of Mexico by Hern´n Cortés. West problematically chooses Cortés as her hero, fashioning from the nebulous historical accounts a man thoughtful and moral, though at the same time an impecunious lady’s man. It’s difficult to understand her sympathy for Cortés, who by any reasonable standard was at the least the author of a genocide. West finds moments in Cortés’s narratives that are more human: he regrets, for example, having to kill six thousand Aztecs to take the city of Cholula. This, in her telling, this was a trap set by the Aztecs that he would have liked to have avoided. The destruction of the Aztecs, in her telling, was historical inevitability:

It would have availed the Aztecs nothing to massacre Cortés and his men, for had he failed to return there were many other adventurers to persuade the Council of the Indies to sanction a larger expedition, which would certainly have been more cruel. (p. 157)

This is tangled reasoning. West’s reasoning does eventually become clear:

If Cortés had his uneasy nights, it was because he was under the strain of finding that a country he wished to annex for Spain by peaceful penetration meant to resist him, and that this country was so beautiful and strange that he did not want to make war on it and was also so horrible that, over an issue in which Spain played only a minor part, but which was vital to his own soul, he must break it and remake it. (p. 150)

The “issue” referred to in this bizarre sentence (“peaceful penetration”!) is the Aztec practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Cortés is a humanist because he stops the Aztecs from sacrificing the members of the other groups they ruled: all Spanish savagery can ultimately be justified because of this one moral advance. (La Malinche functions as a hero here: by serving Cortés, she freed her people.) Cortés, it should be noted, was the first to import African slaves to Mexico; this is mentioned, but blame is placed on Bartolomé de las Casas for suggesting it as a means of ameliorating Mexican suffering. Las Casas was, of course, one of the first to point out the excessive cruelty of Cortés; he comes up nowhere else, as West seems to be relying most heavily on Bernal Díaz.

It’s here that one feels unjust in reading this book. West’s narrative of the conquest of Spain comes to an abrupt end after she introduces the theme of human sacrifice in the last paragraph. There’s the sense that she wasn’t sure where she could go; perhaps she’d run into a dead end, and there’s a reason this book was left unfinished. There are easily missed opportunities: the Spanish, looking at Tenochtitlán, compare the marvelous city to the romance of Amadís de Gaula; this is used to demonstrate that the Spanish were “not insensitive, not brutish” (p. 154). Amadís de Gaula was also the inspiration of Don Quixote; there the results were far less bloody.

william e. young, “shark! shark!”

Captain William E. Young
(as told to Horace S. Mazet, F.R.G.S.
Shark! Shark! The Thirty-Year Odyssey of a Pioneer Shark Hunter
(Gotham House, 1934)


I acquired this book somewhat mistakenly: there was a Paul Collins piece somewhere about strange books, and there was a mention of the first edition of this book, bound in sharkskin. I ordered a copy online, thinking such a book would be an interesting thing to have; but the copy that arrived turned out to the be second edition, which is a rather undistinguished hardcover. Still, it is a book about shark-hunting; books like this aren’t really written any more. It’s not especially well written: Horace S. Mazet is attentive to the problems involved in describing sharks, as he seems to have soldiered in the shark-writing business for years, but the narrative is not all that might be hoped for, despite the occasionally gripping content. Most of the attraction of this book comes from the character of Captain Young, who comes across as a decidedly unphilosophical Ahab, interested only in killing sharks, who explains his life in a matter-of-fact way. There is a formative experience in William Young’s youth, but it’s not especially revelatory: he ditches his Boy Cadets drill to go fishing with the old fishermen; one of them invites him to go fishing, and the boy sees his first shark. After that, of course, he wants to kill as many sharks as he can; he leaves California for Hawaii, where he proceeds to do just this.

Young’s story is unrelentingly bloody. He starts killing sharks before there’s any commercial reason to do so; he is interested in finding commercial uses for sharks not to get rich, but that he might continue killing them. Perhaps the sport of this is taken for granted; maybe this hasn’t aged well. At times, he seems to want to wipe sharks off the face of the earth as a problem for fishermen; he is continually having to explain to people that sharks eat people, which the people of the 1920s and 1930s seem loathe to believe. It’s confusing, and Captain Young comes off as a maniac, which might be what makes this book compelling. From time to time there are digressions like this one, when Captain Young is harvesting sharks in North Carolina for a New York sharkskin concern in 1921 or 1922:

Another fisherman, who evidently had more than one fish in his frying pan, approached me one evening with a most curious proposition. He beat about the bush for so long that finally I asked him in desperation what under the sun he was driving at.
     “Waal, it’s this way,” he said. “You’re bringing in lots of sharks every day from out to sea. Now why” – here he dropped his voice to a whisper – “why not try a little bootlegging in the shark bellies? No one ever bothers you, and no one will ever suspect.”
     It was an ingenious idea, and I suppose it would have been possible to stow away a good many bottles of liquor inside each shark. At the time, however, my mind was entirely concentrated on catching sharks. (p. 127)

Captain Young is cheerfully insane and guileless, which makes him good company, despite his murderous tendencies. Almost certainly he should not have killed all of those sharks, but it’s too late for regrets now. A few pages later, he is visited at his shark processing plant by a “diffident visitor” who shows him a fossil shark’s tooth, and tells him about the Age of Fishes when sharks ruled the earth. Then the visitor gives Captain Young the fossil tooth and wanders out; Captain Young has no idea who the man was, nor does he ever turn up again. Such things happen when you’re a shark hunter. Later, Haile Selassie turns up: he wants to go lion hunting, but Captain Young has sharks in Somali that he has to deal with, so that doesn’t happen. Felix von Luckner, who provides a forward that was surely scrawled on a cocktail napkin on his yacht, makes an appearance near the end of the book, with the suggestion that fishing for sharks might be made more sporting if bungee cords were used as lines. I’d not known of Count von Luckner; his Wikipedia entry points out his ability to tear up telephone books with his bare hands, among other exploits.

This is a book that has its longueurs; but the end of this book has the advantage of taking the reader completely unaware. Thirty pages before the end of the book, Captain Young is still talking about his foiled plans to start an aquarium in Cuba where sharks could be kept; this aquarium would also feature a café “allowing visitors to select a fish and see it captured by a fisherman for their meal”. Then there’s an excursus about the question of whether it’s possible for a diver with a knife to kill a shark (possible, yes, but dangerous). Then some men from Harvard show up to make a film about him and sharks, to be titled Tigers of the Sea. Then a paragraph about how old men like to tell stories, and the book’s suddenly over. There are thirty more pages of an Appendix, which explains via diagram how to go about skinning a shark, among other things; but the book is over.

jacques sternberg, “future without future”

Jacques Sternberg
Future Without Future
(trans. Frank Zero)
(Seabury, 1974)


The Museum of the Moving Image has been having an Alain Resnais retrospective, where I finally saw Je t’aime, je t’aime; the program notes for that film pointed out that it had been written by Jacques Sternberg, “the French Philip K. Dick.” I didn’t remember ever having heard of Sternberg; this book, a 1974 translation of 1971’s Futurs sans avenir seems to be one of two by him available in English (the other being 1967’s Sexualis ’95). Future Without Future appeared as part of Seabury’s Continuum series of foreign science fiction; also listed in the series are works by Stanisław Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, and Stefan Wul, all of whom, like Sternberg, seem to have had their books turned into arty movies. An English Wikipedia page gives some background on Sternberg’s life and work in entertaining prose:

Sternberg, a very apt helmsman, owned a diminutive 12 Ft dinghy (Zef class, excellent for day cruising but slow and utterly unfit for racing) and often undertook arduous coastal treks, even in comparatively bad weather. An anarchist at heart, he rejected organized regatta and racing – Not unlike Bernard Moitessier, the famous ocean vagabond – and wrote a biting satire of yachtsmen, sponsors and yacht clubs, in his erotic-nautical novel Le navigateur published at the peak of Eric Tabarly’s success. Dinghy sailing means living a very close relationship with the sea and it is one of the keys to understand the important place of the sea in Sternberg’s work, specially in what may arguably be his best novel Sophie, la mer et la nuit.

This is not helpful for this book, which contains only passing mention of the sea. The French Wikipedia is a bit more helpful; there we learn that:

Avec 1 089 textes répertoriés à ce jour, J. Sternberg peut se targuer d’être le nouvelliste le plus prolifique du xxe siècle !

Perhaps he will go on being one of the most prolific novelists of the twentieth century; however, he did die in 2006. One learns there that he was part of the Panique group with Fernando Arrabal, Roland Topor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Olivier O. Olivier; a fair number of his works still seem to be in print in France despite his general disappearance in English.

Future Without Future collects a novella (“Fin de Siècle”) and four stories. The novella presents a man’s diary for 1999: he lives in a dystopian Paris clogged with cars and soot run by an all-powerful state. Everything is regulated; there are fines and impositions for any misstep (he is sentenced to play tennis two hours a day for a few months), even down to private life (he has a state-mandated mistress and child; the state gives out adultery cards). He spends his day counting punctuation at a state publisher; his job is futile, as all jobs are futile, but there is no escape. Love turns up, predictably enough; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the government’s manipulations of time (declaring the Sunday will be skipped) are not in name only, as might be expected, but real; the government’s mismanagement of time causes the universe to collapse.

The stories show Sternberg to be preoccupied with the world of the bureaucrat: the drudgery of work is very real in these stories. In “Vacation,” a man is forced to go on vacation (which also happens in “Fin de Siècle”); he takes a jaunt by rocketship to the boring world of his childhood, but on his return he is informed that their rocket will need to be parked in orbit for the next year; no worry, because his work will be sent to him. “Very Sincerely Yours” starts out as a report of an absurdist joke (a bored functionary decides to write letters about his own anomie to the people he is supposed to be corresponding with on official business) which turns into a weird fantasia (his correspondent turns out to be an alien living in a parallel world; the alien infects the world with a virus that will eventually cause humanity to shrink to the height of twenty-eight inches, the height of the alien race, so that they might be more easily conquered in a few hundred years). It’s presented in epistolary form; as it begins it might be the response of a latter-day Bartleby so utterly alienated by capitalism that he has no real name (he signs with the name “JR, Director,” though his boss, of course, can’t be bothered with anything as quotidian as answering letters).

Bartlebys take over the world in “Future Without Future,” the last story in the book: in that, the societal revolutions are telescoped forward to a world where the young (“the Fatigued Generation”) refuse to do anything, which stops the Vietnam War and brings about a peaceable planet. Sternberg puts himself in the vanguard of their cultural revolution:

But it is literature, still, which evinces the most spectacular reversals. For two or three years now, the books of Sagan, Druon, Kessel, Troyat, Dutourd, Mallet-Joris, Daninos, or any of the best sellers of the 70’s have not sold a single copy. On the other hand, a vast public of indolent and disgusted readers have flocked to the work of heartsick professionals such as Céline, Beckett, Michaux, Sternberg, Bierce, Kafka, Cavanna, Benchly, and above all Cioran, whose Précis of Decomposition sold five hundred copies between 1949 and 1975, but enjoyed sales of ten million in 1980, and has established itself as the new Bible of modern times. By the same token, no publisher has managed to market a book on management or marketing, those moth-eaten themes of 1970, or any book of poetry, history, politics, sociology, or metaphysics. Those thought-provoking bugbears have finally bored, disgusted, and fatigued the public which still reads. That is to say, the new generation alone. (pp. 193–4)

To Sternberg’s list of familiars, one might add Anna Kavan, whose tone is sometimes very close to this book; I suspect that the argument could probably be made by one more familiar than I that Sternberg presages Houellebecq. Sternberg is not, on the evidence of this book, the French Philip K. Dick: there is no secret meaning to be found in his world, only drudgery, entertainingly presented.

suetonius, “the twelve caesars”

Suetonius
The Twelve Caesars
(trans. Robert Graves, revised Michael Grant)
(Penguin Classics, 1979)


This book I have something of a history with: in a particularly uncomfortable moment during the year I worked in Rome, I was once called in as a witness to ask someone being fired over a disagreement about the contents of this book, Italian, English, and Latin editions of Suetonius being brandished as proof. Which bit of imperial misbehavior was being argued about I don’t remember anymore – spectators being boiled alive by Caligula in the Circus Maximus, maybe. I picked it up again with the idea that the life of Septimius Severus was described here; it’s not, of course, but I always feel guilty about putting off the classics, and this seemed easily digestible and full of entertaining trivia, in the manner of Petronius or Procopius. My classical history seems to be weighted in that direction; this (along with, of course, my lack of Greek and Latin) is why I’m not a classicist.

Suetonius is pleasant, not least because of what he takes to be his work in writing this book. Most of the long chapters – Galba, Otho, and Vitellius weren’t in power long enough to make much of an impression – are effectively divided in half: the first half presents the notable deeds of the emperor before and after coming to power, while in the second half, Suetonius explains what the emperor was really like. While Suetonius has a grudging respect for at least Julius Caesar and Augustus, and he seems to outright like the short-lived Titus, none of the emperors is exempt from criticism. The lives of the first two emperors are told with quotations from original documents; those don’t generally appear in the later histories, ostensibly because Suetonius was kicked out of the archives. One wonders who this book was intended for; it seems hard to imagine such a scabrous book functioning as a widely-read history. The accuracy is hard to gage; at the very least, there’s a huge amount of second- and third-hand information; at least some is outright imagined. One ends up with something like Voragine’s Golden Legend, mostly nonsensical as history, but entertaining nonetheless.

It’s hard not to enjoy the details, like the inadvertantly Joycean bit where Caligula calls his “great-grandmother Livia a ‘Ulysses in petticoats'” (p. 164). Most of the Caesars planned on staking out a month in the calendar; Claudius decided that he would improve the alphabet:

Claudius also added three new letters of his own invention to the Latin alphabet maintaining that they were most necessary. He had written a book on the subject before his accession, and afterwards met with no obstacle in getting the letters officially adopted. They may still be found in a number of books, in the Official Gazette, and in inscriptions on public buildings. (p. 210)

Claudius’s letters didn’t take; but they have, in fact, been added to Unicode: they are Ⅎ, Ↄ, and Ⱶ, and whoever added them to Unicode seems to have ahistorically created minuscule versions of them as well. Wikipedia’s story that Claudius was led to add new letters because of his mother’s taunting isn’t in Suetonius; however, Antonia does refer to her son as “a monster: a man whom Nature had not finished but had merely begun.” The young Claudius comes off as rather endearing, almost a young Prince Hal: his “reputation for stupidity was further enhanced by stories of his drunkenness and love of gambling.” He has questionable friends:

Some jokes exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his face with them. (p. 190)

What’s strange about this book as a whole might be how modern so much of it seems – the struggles for power and succession aren’t immensely different from anything that might be happening today – and yet how unthinkable so much of what’s described as daily life – even aside from the exaggerated excesses – seems to be. A paragraph from early in the story of Vespasian might illustrate this:

In Greece, Vespasian dreamed that he and his family would begin to prosper from the moment when Nero lost a tooth; and on the following day, while he was in the imperial quarters, a dentist entered and showed him one of Nero’s teeth which he had just extracted. (p. 282)

This is not a particularly odd moment in the narrative; indeed, this comes in the midst of a long sequence of auspicious signs that Vespasian noticed prior to becoming emperor. Sequences like this occur again and again in this book. How can we make sense of this? The rationalist approach would say that dreams don’t foretell the future, and that this is an ex post facto dramatization of what happened: Vespasian wanted to be emperor, Vespasian was handed a tooth, Vespasian explains that he dreamt he would be emperor when Nero lost a tooth. Presumably Vespasian is in Greece with Nero, though this is unclear to me. In a more horrific version in the previous paragraph, a stray dog brings a human hand to Vespasian while he’s eating breakfast; this is also a good sign because a hand is an emblem of power. Suetonius doesn’t seems to doubt these signs: he reports them as fact. Vespasian did become emperor, after all. But one feels unimaginably far from a world in which a dog bringing in a hand is regarded as a good thing.

The amount of casual violence is also staggering. Even apart from imperial excess, there’s the sense of life being astonishingly cheap. Regiments of the army are repeatedly decimated; minor crimes are given capital punishment; countless numbers of gladiators and prisoners die in arenas. The family trees of the Claudians and Flavians contain more unnatural deaths than not. Roman life expectancy wasn’t pretty, of course. But it’s almost impossible to imagine what it would have been like to live in a world where death was so inescapable; maybe arbitrary whims of gods make more sense.

andrew taylor, “god’s fugitive”

Andrew Taylor
God’s Fugitive: The Life of C. M. Doughty
(Dorset Press, 1999)


I’ve acquired, somehow, something of a collection of the work of Charles Montagu Doughty: both the full-length and abridged versions of Travels in Arabia Deserta (which I’ve been dipping in and out of for a while), a print-on-demand facsimile edition of the first volume of his epic The Dawn in Britain, a copy of his verse drama The Cliffs. He’s one of those people who pops up in interesting places: Henry Green, Laura Riding Jackson, and Guy Davenport were all interested in him; The Dawn in Britain in mentioned somewhat dismissively in The Pisan Cantos. I had some idea of Doughty but wanted something more, so I found a copy of this relatively recent biography of him; D. G. Hogarth’s The Life of Charles M. Doughty, which I might yet track down, came out in 1928, but I wanted something a little more recent for perspective. This is a serviceable biography; at three hundred pages, it doesn’t presume to be exhaustive, but it does provide a reasonable introduction to Doughty’s life and work, which is mostly what I wanted.

Doughty (1843–1926) seems to fit nicely into the mould of Victorian eccentric: he started out in geology, the most happening subject when he arrived in Cambridge, though he didn’t get particularly far with that. Doughty’s most endearing traits is his astonishing stubbornness: geology interested him precisely because of its increasing conflict with his Christian faith. Being part of the impoverished gentry, he took up traveling; he wound up in the Middle East with the idea of visiting the lands described in the Bible and found it not at all what he was expecting (shades of Melville’s Clarel) but found himself drawn deeper and deeper into it. He set off into Arabia with vague archeological ideas after being impressed with Petra; he ended up wandering the country for a few years. It is a wonder that he was not killed: his travels are known almost entirely through his own accounts, but it seems likely that the Bedouins he traveled with took him for some sort of holy fool. He refused to pretend to be Muslim, much less convert; at the same time, he didn’t presume to proselytize.

Returning to England, he found that most people were uninterested in his travels or his discoveries; relatively uncredentialed, he needed a book. He set to writing Arabia Deserta; as his youthful enthusiasm for geology had worn off, he’d been taken with Chaucer and Spencer, whose works he’d read again and again on his travels. The English language, he was convinced, had fallen into decadence since Spencer’s time; his writing, he hoped, might revive it. (Doughty would certainly have nothing to say to Fr. Rolfe, whose life he overlapped; but one might imagine a certain kinship with Rolfe’s project of creating his own dictionary of macaronic Italian with which to write Don Renato.) Doughty’s reforming spirit was lost, of course, on the publishing world, as well as upon, eventually, the reading public; it didn’t help that the original Arabia Deserta was 1200 pages long. Doughty then abandoned the Arab world entirely for poetry, trotting out an immense epic of the British clash with the Romans (the 30,000 line The Dawn in Britain), dramas in verse with subjects both Christian and anti-German (Adam Cast Forth, The Cliffs, The Clouds) and finally, in 1920, Mansoul, another long blank verse epic describing the journey of the Christian soul. Most of these didn’t make it past a first printing. Wanderings in Arabia Deserta, an abridged version of his first book, eventually found him a small, but devoted, audience; he was befriended by the young T. E. Lawrence, who made sure that he didn’t die indigent.

It’s hard to make sense of Doughty: he seems to have had a quarrel with the world, which makes his life entertaining reading. A reviewer suggested, for example, that The Cliffs might be derivative of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts; Doughty wrote to a friend:

The writer knows to his small malicious satisfaction that I had copied something from a book with the strange title Mr Hardy’s Dynasts. Not moving in the Literary World, nor reading the Literary Periodicals, I had never heard of the book or the author, and remain in my ignorance till now, and shall continue to do so . . . (p. 302)

There’s something fantastic about his sheer pigheadedness: his determination that he was right and the world was at fault. An earlier letter to a publisher accompanying the manuscript of The Dawn in Britain explains how he saw the literary world in 1905:

Modern poets’ work has fallen into neglect, and perhaps it may be merito. Where is that sincerity, knowledge, and right inspiration, which is required even in the humblest work of art? Where is that intimate knowledge of language, without which there can be only deciduous handiwork? . . . To speak of the present manuscript. This book is my life’s work, a continuation of Chaucer and of Spenser, such as conceivably they might have written in the present . . . (p. 262)

Doughty’s stubbornness seems to have been a dissatisfaction with the world: unhappy with England, he left for the Europe and then the Middle East; unhappy with the writing of the present, he abandoned it for the past. Though religious to his core, he rarely if ever attended church. Taylor only sketches the personal life of Doughty, but these details further complicate his picture: a bachelor for forty years, he married soon after his return to England, and seems to have led a contented life with his wife and two daughters. It’s hard to blame Taylor for this: Doughty seems to have been thoroughly his own man, inscrutable from outside. One might wish, however, for a little more focus on Doughty’s literary works past Arabia Deserta. Maybe they need their own book.

maggie nelson, “bluets” / william gass, “on being blue”

Maggie Nelson
Bluets
(Wave Books, 2009)

William Gass
On Being Blue
(David R. Godine, 1976)


I don’t remember why I picked up Maggie Nelson’s book sometime last year; someone had said something positive about it, and I always feel guilty about not reading enough contemporary work. But I took it home & made my way through the not inconsiderable credits at the back of the book & found myself losing interest, and I put it back on the shelf. It seemed odd, I thought, almost inconceivable, that someone would write a long essay (or a short book) about the color blue when William Gass’s perfectly nice On Being Blue existed in the world, and was still in print.

But I found myself thinking about Gass’s book when reading Thomas Browne in Libya: reading The Garden of Cyrus, it became entirely clear where Gass had taken his form for On Being Blue – starting with a concept, almost arbitrary; then moving through digressions to end up in an entirely different space. There’s something comforting about this: reading something and realizing that others that you know have been there before you. But with this realization, of course, there was the need to go back to Gass, to see how he’d changed since I’d last read him – I think I first read this book around 2001, though I could certainly be wrong – and whether the work holds up. And of course there was the Nelson book on the shelf, which I found myself resolving to be unfair to.

And while reading Browne I found myself thinking about the color blue: at about the same time, we were spending a lot of time driving through the sand seas of the Sahara, and I found myself fixated on the line between sand and sky. Partly this is because the desert is aesthetically barren: there are only two elements, and the sky was uniformly blue, the sand was uniformly orange-yellow. As evening approaches, shadows appear, which change things; but until then, there is the horizon. Next to the sand, the blue of the sky pops in an astonishing way: it’s hard to imagine how any blue could be more blue. There was the urge, with a blue so intense, to capture it somehow; I was taking photos with my iPhone, which I knew very well does not take the best photos in the world, but it was hard to fight off that urge to capture that blueness. It’s hard not to have some sort of aesthetic experience in a space like that – in the same way that it’s hard not to when standing in front of Monet’s Water Lilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie. Blue summons up feelings of the infinite; one understands immediately why people feel the urge to write books about the color. Off the top of my head, I can think of Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colors (which widens its interest to include red and yellow) and Joshua Cohen’s more narrow “Thirty-Six Shades of Prussian Blue” to stay outside of writing about the visual arts; Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art nails down his weird theory of precise meanings of colors and shapes; and of course there are Albers and Goethe and Wittgenstein, and we could go on.

But these two books about blueness, both collections of blue fragments, although they are arranged very differently. One finds Browne sneaking through them; he’s mentioned by name in Gass’s, of course, but one of the most famous passages of Religio Medici:

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition; It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his coold imagination, when he shall consider what an odde and unworthy piece of folly hee hath committed; I speake not in prejudice, nor am averse from that sweet sexe, but naturally amorous of all that is beautifull; I can looke a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse.

In Gass, this is reduced further:

I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing. (p. 20)

Gass’s book is an argument about the relation between words and the world, the experience of blueness tying them together: depiction (like Browne’s portrait of a horse) is different from personal experience. Nelson’s approach to roughly the same subject is messier: in numbered paragraphs, she examines her personal experiences with blueness, drawing in a predictable series of artists and works as evidence (Yves Klein, Rose Hobart, poor old Wittgenstein), trying to discern why blue is important to her personally.

Part of my problem with Nelson’s book comes down to a personal distrust of those writers whose confessions aren’t oblique: those who tell all the truth, but don’t tell it slant. When one gets to the end of On Being Blue, it’s possible to say, really, only two things about the physical existence of William Gass: first, that he saw a particular photograph when young that affected him, an experience he talks about in some detail; second, that he’s married. One knows, of course, that he’s read a lot of books, many of which are mentioned or quoted from; and the reader has a distinct feeling for Gass’s sensibility: what he finds interesting and why, how he thinks about the world, at least the tiny chunk of it that he’s encircled in On Being Blue. The reader has a conception of the author; but the reader is held at arm’s distance. The beginning of the final section of Gass’s book explains this:

It is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual; it is not easy to structure the consciousness of the reader with the real thing, to use one wonder to speak of another, until in the place of the voyeur who reads we have fashioned the reader who sings; but the secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose it is to create conceptual perceptions – blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of the imagination, the mind at gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks, and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define. (pp. 86–87)

In Bluets, Nelson writes off Gass’s book as “puritanism, not eros,” declaring

I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the altar. Your loss. (p. 25)

Because Nelson’s book is constructed aphoristically, she moves on; this is frustrating, because this isn’t really an argument so much as a stance of defiance: her blue is entirely hers, and there’s little space in her book for the reader.