joseph mcelroy, “preparations for search”

Joseph McElroy
Preparations for Search
(Small Anchor Press, 2010)

This is a short book, a chapbook really, of material that was cut from Joseph McElroy’s biggest work, Women and Men. An earlier version of this was published in the journal Formations in 1984; I can’t tell why this is coming out now. A volume of McElroy’s stories is coming out in the fall from Dalkey Archive; I don’t know if that includes this, though I suspect it doesn’t. For the past few years, he’s been reading from a short novel called Cannonball which still doesn’t seem to have found a publisher, and he seems to still be working on his non-fiction book on water, which I’ve been awaiting impatiently. But any new McElroy material, no matter how unexpected, is a source of excitement to me: this is a small book, but one that lends itself to re-reading.

The plot is easily related: a character named Enos comes to the narrator, Bethel, asking to borrow $1100 so that he can hire a detective to find his father, who left when he was two. The narrator is reticent to do this; other characters (who seem to be in their late twenties and early thirties in downtown New York in the early 1980s) are consulted, and a world is quickly fleshed out around this initial situation; it’s similar to when a pebble dropped into still water, and ripples move across an entire pond, hit the edges, and are reflected to create complex and unpredictable patterns. Here the patterns are created in the people in Enos and Bet’s worlds: their girlfriends, their relations, their friends. A world is slightly destabilized; it struggles to come back to stability. The interest in the book is in seeing how the characters react to a change – a slight one, but still a change – in their environment: it could be said that this is an ecological approach to fiction. 

There’s something distinctive about the voice McElroy uses: I’ve always suspected that Don DeLillo learned a few tricks from him, though DeLillio amplifies the voice until it becomes cartoonish. It’s an internal narration, but it’s an oral narration: you can hear the narrator saying what he relates, the rhythms are those of speech rather than that of the page. In this section Bet puzzles out a relationship; Matt is Enos’s father; Elizabeth wrote Enos’s mother a letter long ago:

Elizabeth had worked with Matt in the office of a lumberyard in Salem, and she loved him though she didn’t think he was the marrying kind, as she put it. But why were Susan and I piecing together this old story as if it were not so full of gaps as hardly to be a story? What did Elizabeth look like, I guess you always want to know. The letter had been typed and was the only news Enos’s mother had ever had. Confusing, for at the time Elizabeth wrote it, Matt had just the week before quit the lumberyard in Oregon and gone down to California, to San José, where he had a job working construction. There was more to it than that. Susan recalled that this woman Elizabeth had been already once a grace widow.
     As for me, I remembered what Susan didn’t know – that the lumber firm in Salem sold out soon afterward. But Susan now recalled that Matt’s girlfriend Elizabeth had been planning to leave Salem anyway. I now recalled that the former manager of the lumberyard there was named Deed, and he had been the one who according to Elizabeth’s letter had told her that Matt was in trouble as a labor agitator down in California. (p. 24)

The words are very simple; but the syntax is complicated, looping back and forth to cover a range of times. As the concern for “this old story” suggests, it’s a carefully literary voice: what’s being recounted here is something that’s past what a single oral narration could explain, a complexity that only literary writing can deal with properly. The section breaks create a rhythm only possible on the page, and the system of quotation – no quotes for recounted dialogue, quotation marks for dialogue that is happening in real time – suggests that thought has gone into creating something that works as a text. An auditor is occasionally possible; it’s hard to tell if this auditor is another character or the reader trying to understand the text. 

It’s a dry voice: there are echoes of the disinterested way in which Kafka relates “In the Penal Colony,” for example, though the use to which that voice is being put is very different: McElroy is deeply interested in the social world that seemed to terrify Kafka: rather than depicting a mechanistic world, the result of positivism, he depicts a world that’s deeply complex because of the myriad interactions. 

Preparations for Search seems to almost be a miniature version of The Letter Left to Me (the short novel that McElroy wrote after Women and Men: to my mind it works a bit better than that book because of its extreme compression, but Letter explores this book’s concerns about the meaning of paternity more deeply. McElroy works by digression: digression for him is a tool to achieve verisimilitude in a complex world. I think his reputation has suffered slightly because of the shallowing of the pool of readers between the 1980s and the present: his work is unremittingly serious, an attempt to use fiction to think about the problems faced by the modern world, and I think that today’s readership, driven to distraction by endless amounts of entertainment, has a harder time sitting down with his large books. This is a shame: his work hasn’t lost anything over time but its audience; maybe his output of shorter works this year will regain some of that. 

It’s hard to tell very much about Small Anchor Press, the publisher, from their website; they seem to be new and based in Brooklyn, and it’s unclear to me how they came to be publishing McElroy. Preparations for Search is an attractive volume: the front cover looks good, though I don’t entirely understand the rationale for the square form, as it’s difficult to make a text block look good on a square page; consequently, the measure is a bit too wide for my taste. The presentation is a bit oblique as well: the text is composed of different sections, some only a paragraph long, and section breaks have become page breaks, giving the book an almost aphoristic look. This becomes confusing with longer sections that span pages (a problem also found when setting poetry); it can be hard to know whether a paragraph break at the end of the page is a section break as well, which matters when the sections present discontinuous moments in the book’s narration. But these are quibbles: it’s nice to see any new McElroy work, and any press that’s publishing him is worth keeping an eye on. 

john crowley, “lord byron’s novel: the evening land”

John Crowley
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land
(Harper Perennial, 2005)

One of the virtues of John Crowley’s book is that they can often be found in awful bookstores when it doesn’t seem like anything readable can be dredged up. I started reading the Ægypt books in Idaho; here in rural Virginia, I found myself a paperback edition of Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, which I wisely hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. It’s pleasant to read his books when cut off from civilization, although they’re the sort that do cry out for the Internet for fact-checking. Did Dr. Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator really predict the weather by means of leaches? Wikipedia claims this is true; their entry on Ada Lovelace, though, reads like the Book of Genesis, multiple authors telling the same stories over and over again in the hopes of eventually getting it right. One wishes for a better version of Byron’s poetry than the easily accessible Project Gutenberg editions; you can’t have everything. The dictionary app on my iPhone has a definition for “operose”: that’s something.

Lord Byron’s Novel consists of three parallel narratives. The first is Lord Byron’s novel, given the title The Evening Land, ostensibly saved from destruction at the hands of his wife by his daughter, Ada Lovelace, whose notes to the novel, at the end of each chapter, create a second chronology, following her reading of the book. Byron’s text takes up the majority of the book. Interlarded between chapters is a discovery narrative, composed of a trail of correspondence, mostly emails, sent to and from Alexandra Novak, an American woman in London doing research on Ada Lovelace for a website devoted to the forgotten history of women in the sciences; Ada has encoded the novel, and Novak and her partner seek to decode it. There’s not a great deal of suspense in this, as the reader has been reading Byron’s novel and knows that it’s accomplished. Rather, this third narrative seems to be working at different ends, examining what coincidence means in fiction and in life. Another plot emerges: Alexandra’s father, conveniently enough a former Byron scholar, has been estranged from his daughter: having left academia for a career in the movies, he commits a Polanski-like crime for which he must flee the country; largely on account of this, he is estranged from his daughter. Relations between fathers and children form a dominant theme: between Byron and his daughter Ada, who he never talked to; between Alexandra and her father; and between Byron’s hero Ali and his fictional daughter Una. 

It’s neat, but not too neat. It’s difficult when reading a novel which consists of interplay between a text and its annotations, to avoid thinking of Pale Fire, which has almost always done the job more perfectly. Not that perfectly is necessarily the same thing as better: Nabokov’s book is constructed so tightly that it could only be fictional, and in its unrealistic world there’s no friction where the reader might be caught and held. Crowley doesn’t seem to be attempting to compete with this: his project here is different because there’s an interplay between the real biographical history of Byron and those around him and the fictionalizations that Crowley has created. When the reader is presented with a text ostensibly by Lord Byron with annotations by his daughter, Ada Lovelace, it’s clear that the exegesis in the notes actually operates in reverse. The similarities that Ada finds in Byron’s text to his own life aren’t the signs of a novelist disguising his own life by hiding it in fiction, but rather the raw materials that the reader knows that Crowley has used to construct a novel that might be Byron’s. The reader suspects that the notes might have preceded the novel: they’re the historical pieces from which fiction might be constructed. 

This works in other ways as well: when a character appears named “Lord Corydon,” we know that we understand the name “Corydon” differently from the way that Ada would have, as Gide’s work wouldn’t appear until well after her death. Ada’s notes point out that Byron’s account in his novel of how the Duke of Wellington won the Battle of Salamanca is counterfactual; but we also know that the very existence of Byron’s novel (and Ada’s notes on it) is counterfactual. The author is winking at us: in less deft hands, this might be annoying, but it doesn’t happen often enough here to wear out its welcome. The text that is to be decoded appears mysteriously, in the hands of a figure who might be the author himself; late in the process, he appears again, to cast doubt on the truth of the rediscovered novel. 

This isn’t experimental fiction, in the sense that Pale Fire was experimental when it appeared; rather, it takes a form (albeit one that hasn’t been used especially often) and puts it to good use. It’s a pleasant book, exactly right for vacation reading: hence my pleasure at being able to find John Crowley’s books in remote bookstores. The Evening Land might have stood alone: it’s an enjoyable pastiche of Romantic writing, a bit reminiscent of James Hogg’s Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner though without the supernatural aspects of that book. Someone must be compiling a dissertation on the appearance of the Internet in American fiction: Crowley’s grasp of the way people talk over email is surprisingly convincing and readable, and would belong in such a volume. In the earlier sections of the book, one finds oneself racing through the pseudo-Byron to reach the contemporary narrative; as the book progresses, interest reverses itself; it’s skilled writing that can maintain such interest.

alvin levin, “love is like park avenue”

Alvin Levin
Love Is like Park Avenue
(ed. James Reidel) 
(New Directions, 2009)

Love Is like Park Avenue collects the fiction of Alvin Levin, who was born in 1916, but seems to have given up writing fiction in 1943: seven years worth of writing, mainly short pieces, make up his entire literary output, not quite breaking 200 pages. The title, which appeared on two distinct pieces collected here, was to have been that of Levin’s novel, which never materialized; it’s hard to tell, from the content here, what form that novel would have taken, as Levin doesn’t seem to have been given to conventional unities of plot or character. The editor suggests that much of this material might have been part of a novel; but Levin has been dead since 1981, and his rumored novel was nowhere to be found in his possessions.

Levin, born in Paterson, New Jersey, grew up in the Bronx and attended City College; most, though not all, of his work seems to center around lower-middle class Jews in roughly similar situations. In his introduction, James Reidel notes that Levin had polio and walked with a crutch for most of his life; Reidel suggests that Levin lived vicariously through his younger sister, both in his life and in his fiction. (“A Cool Drink Is Refreshing,” written in 1939, might be the most straightforwardly autobiographical work here: the story is told from the perspective of a young woman who visits a boys’ school to tell her brother that their father has found him a job, delivering milk; the implication is that he’ll need to quit school.) It’s hard to tell how much to read into this: but Levin does have a pronounced sense of empathy, and he captures his women characters, narrators as often as not, remarkably well. Following the examples of Faulkner and Dos Passos, Levin generally uses a stream of consciousness narration; the point of view frequently shifts, and the narrator at the end of a piece (“story” seems the wrong word) often isn’t the one who started it. Names and locations sometimes shift capriciously; this seems to be intentional. His prose is always energetic: Levin is always an interested observer even if his exact position can be difficult to pin-point. The excerpt from a novel published in 1942 as “Love Is Like Park Avenue” is composed of a series of short vignettes, none longer than a few pages, each with different characters; there’s a unity to the world and vision that Levin presents, but the characters, their voices, and their situations are constantly shifting

Having grown up in the Depression, Levin’s subject is frequently the lower classes; but he never writes as a tourist, seeking to explain how the other half lives to an educated audience; nor is his writing polemical. There’s no disdain in his words; what he sees in life, and he puts it down on paper with the hope, perhaps, that someone will read it. It’s possible that this comes through most clearly because Alvin Levin was never actually a successful writer, though William Maxwell asked him to submit material to the New Yorker and the British poet Nicholas Moore asked him for a story for an anthology of avant-garde fiction. This doesn’t seem like writing for a mass audience or for an avant-garde audience; Levin appears to have been interested primarily in pleasing himself, a supposition that might be entertained because he seems to have voluntarily given up writing entirely. In Reidel’s telling, this seems to have been because he had many other interests keeping him busy: he was a lawyer, and seems to have run a successful pamphlet-publishing business for years. 

Reading Levin now, one notices the kinds of fiction that we don’t have today. The contemporary American novel, or that subset of it known as literary fiction, is generally written by the upper class because it is written for the upper class. The social structures that generate fiction and its writers – MFA programs – are, with a few notable exceptions, self-selecting, limited to those who don’t need to make a living. It’s not an accident that the New Yorker, the most prominent venue where new fiction might be seen, is aimed squarely at those who aspire to be upper class. This isn’t something unknown – Walter Benn Michaels was making this argument a few years ago, albeit hamfistedly – but it’s generally not discussed, as class doesn’t tend to be discussed in America. This isn’t solely a contemporary problem – writing itself has always tended to limit itself to those who have the time and leisure to engage in it – but Levin’s book suggests that things have not always been quite so stagnant as they are now. Writing, for Levin, seems to have been a possible agent of social mobility, an aspirational vehicle: the upper classes wrote, but he could write too; by doing so, he could earn the prestige of a millionaire like James Laughlin, who corresponds with him like a peer. But avant-garde writing isn’t a viable way out of the lower middle class, especially if you need to support yourself because you’ve been crippled by polio; Levin might have realized this, and this might be why he turned away from writing. It’s hard to blame him, but it’s our loss.

It’s worth noting that this is an unusually attractive book for New Directions, whose recent work has been deeply disappointing given the publisher’s long history of good book design. Levin sought to be published by James Laughlin; his most prominent publications were in New Directions annuals, but James Laughlin never seems to have coaxed the promised novel out of him. James Reidel arranges his work chronologically, interspersing correspondence to and from potential publishers; useful notes complete the volume, and John Ashbery’s brief preface recalls how exiting his voice was in 1942 and explains his part in Levin’s republication. We’re lucky that Levin found the young Ashbery as a reader.

ettie stettheimer, “love days”

Ettie Stettheimer
Love Days
(in Memorial Volume of and by Ettie Stettheimer)
(Alfred E. Knopf, 1951)

Love Days, originally published under the pen name Henrie Waste (from HENRIEtta WAlter STEttheimer), has the strange full title “Love Days [Susanna Moore’s],” Susanna Moore being the protagonist; perhaps another Love Days had been recently published in 1923 and this was to avoid confusion. The Stettheimer sisters were friends of Marcel Duchamp in New York; this novel features a character based on Duchamp, which is my reason for picking up the book; his correspondence with Ettie Stettheimer suggests that he found the portrayal amusing. His correspondence with the Stettheimer sisters, and particularly Ettie, was one of his most sustained; I’ve seen her sister Florine’s paintings, some of which feature him, and Carrie’s immense dollhouse, now at the Museum of the City of New York featured a tiny version of Nude Descending a Staircase that he made to order. Ettie Stettheimer’s writing, however, seems to be neglected.

The book is presented from the perspective of Susanna Moore, a New York orphan who seems to be of considerable means, though that’s never quite explained. The book isn’t a roman-à-clef, though Duchamp appears rather transparently as the figure of Pierre Delaire; nor is he the only famous figure to appear in the book, as Maxim Gorky has a role as an extra in Capri, and a Cubist painter couple might be meant to be the Delaunays. The book follows Susanna Moore, first through Barnard, then studying in Germany; thus far, it might be said to follow the life of Ettie Stettheimer, who earned a doctorate in philosophy at Freiburg in 1907. She then returns to New York, where she sets herself up as an independent scholar of Greek; after soundly rejecting men for most of the book, she very suddenly falls madly in love with Grodz, a French painter of Finnish-Greek extraction, and marries him. Ettie Stettheimer, like her sisters, never married. 

As far as I can tell, this volume is the most recent publication of Ettie Stettheimer; there doesn’t seem to be much interest in her prose. This particular volume is a bit macabre: evidently after her sisters Carrie and Florine died and Ettie had put their affairs in order, she decided to provide for her own posterity by putting together this omnibus edition of her own work: this novel, an earlier novella (Philosophy: A Fragment, about an American girl studying philosophy in Germany), a philosophical work that had been her dissertation on the work of William James (which seems to have been her most widely read work), and four short stories. She adds an introduction to the whole; a few contemporary reviews are inserted as introductions to the individual volumes. The Memorial Volume was published by Knopf in 1951; nonetheless, this has the slightly sad feeling of a vanity project, right down to the dedication, to “E. S.”. 

This isn’t the most likable novel; at 350 pages, it’s probably twice as long as it needs to be, and fifty-page chapters are tiresome. The characters are predictable: the overly romantic French artist that she marries almost immediately is filled with jealousy before the honeymoon is over. Stylistically, there’s a rather excessive use of ellipses, designed to indicate emotion; there’s sometimes something about the writing that seems off.

Susanna folded the letter and gurgled. She gurgled when she laughed to herself and felt apologetic for finding herself amusing. (p. 62)

This gurgling is a one-time affair, but she is given to drawling, even in German. Later, when the heroine considers Ewart, an American she meets in Capri when he offers her a powder for a headache of convenience:

She decided that he looked like a smart twenty year old lounge lizard, and like a forty year old scientist, and she was pleasantly intrigued by the unresolved combination he presented. (p. 187)

This description is good enough for a reprise thirty pages later:

Ewart, the considerate and objective young lizard bulging with a brow that seemed a temple of wisdom, was saying, “Of course it has been proved statistically that the great majority of marriages are unsuccessful; one member is unfaithful to the other, which is probably perfectly natural, since according to psychological law people grow tired of anything after a time, etc. etc. . . .” (p. 216)

Susanna Moore’s marriage does collapse and end in divorce, though the actual collapse happens in a gap between chapters; it is blamed on pneumonia. While recovering from the pneumonia in a sanatorium, she first encourages the attentions of a Nietzscheian baron; then she finally finds love in the person of a English doctor who is the baron’s wife’s cousin and reputed lover but who has tuberculosis. This isn’t quite as interesting as it might sound: plot twists are telegraphed well in advance and the characterizations and varied geographic settings (hotels in Europe, mainly) aren’t particularly interesting. 

Susanna Moore seems, on the whole, rather full of herself and a bit tiresome. On the whole, she appears lacking in feminist consciousness; but there are strange passages that suggest that she might be more interesting. While she’s in her Greek class at Columbia, one of her friends, whom she dislikes, suggests that she should get married and settle down with children, a suggestion that Susanna has no truck with:

”No,” Susanna said in her languid way that never sounded final, but often was.— Whenever her potential motherhood, marriage or death were touched on in conversation she felt as though some one else were being referred to, and the chief emotion produced in her was one of estrangement from the speaker who so unpleasantly identified her with that other person. . . . “Let’s go on with Medea. She got married and didn’t settle down to a hum-drum existence,” she remarked, feeling much closer to Medea at this moment than to Blanche. (p. 17)

Frustratingly, this isn’t elaborated on; this is also the case later in Germany, where she complains to a would-be swain that she thinks is odd that an elderly German man should be explaining Sappho to her; then she asks Tom to explain what he thinks of Sappho, which isn’t much more helpful:

”In other words, because she made great poetry of perverse love, she must have been perverse?” she asked.
“Felt perverse, anyway.”
“And,” Susanna continued to educate herself, “why was she perverse; because she had no adequate normal love affair, did you say?”
Tom burst out laughing. “You seem to regard me as an authority, you funny Susan, or are you trying to find out something else? I wasn’t there, you know; I mentioned this as a probably cause of perversity: often men and women are driven to perverse practices because the normal satisfactions obtainable are of an unbeautiful nature, more unbeautiful than the perverse ones seem to them at any rate to be. This is the most favourable interpretation of perversity, reserved for artists and people who seem to have some pretensions to a sense of – of fastidiousness.” Tom paused; he had seen Susanna’s face frowning like a perplexed child’s trying to understand. His strident voice grew softer. “All in all, my dear, it’s not an attractive subject, and it’s hard for healthy people to grasp, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t ‘get’ it; neither does the Professor. Susan, child, where are we going?” (p. 70)

With that, the subject is dropped entirely. It’s vexing, because there is obviously an interesting subject here; but again it’s simply pushed aside. While in Germany, she is pursued by countless lovelorn Germans, a romantic people; she wants none of their attentions, and realizes that she can escape them by saying Mir ist schlecht, I feel sick. There’s an echo of this at the end of the book: Hugh, her English doctor, is the perfect object for her love because he is sick, and loving him will make her sick. He refuses; she seemingly kills herself by covering her mouth and holding her breath. It’s a bit too clumsy to be affecting, and Susanna Moore isn’t quite a model feminist: but the novel does provide a picture of a woman trying to make her way through an uncomprehending and unjust world. 

The character based on Duchamp has a walk-on part; he visits her once, and stays for five pages. Susanna Moore appears to have no real friends; a few appear, but each is jettisoned in their turn. Pierre Delaire seems to be the only one to escape this. He isn’t a romantic figure to her: she thinks that “his delicate fairish classicality of a dry and cerebral quality had all of beauty except beauty’s particular thrill” (p. 95) and he disappoints her by having shaved his head. He explains his new canvases:

”In form Cubist – but there is an ulterior intention which removes them from Cubism. I wanted to produce those impressions so painful to the eye which it sometimes receives from a moving picture when several objects more simultaneously at different velocities, – for instance in the picture of a race. Do you remember that we once saw one together and remarked on it? The eye became confused and the head a little dizzy. Eh bien, it interested me to get these same effects through static means.” (p. 96)

Susanna Moore refused to take voyages with Delaire, just as Ettie Stettheimer refused to set sail for Buenos Aires with Duchamp; Moore and Delaire fall into a discussion of their lives as a solar system, a mythologization which might, at a stretch, be seen to reflect Duchamp’s myth-making in the notes for The Large Glass. And then he wanders out of the book: he doesn’t seem to have missed much.

frederick rolfe, “the desire and pursuit of the whole”

Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo 
The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: A Romance of Modern Venice
(Cassell & Company Ltd., 1951; first published 1934, written 1909.) 

This book gives the reader pause from the first sentence; following an epigraph from Plato, we learn:

The text chosen, o most affable reader, on which to hang these ana of Nicholas and Gilda for your admiration, will require such a lot of expounding that we must get at the heart of explanations (as to how it all happened) without undue delay.

And we’re off and running. “Ana” is not a misprint; nobody writes books, or uses the English language, quite like Frederick Rolfe did. Baron Corvo, as Rolfe also presented himself, is best know for Hadrian the Seventh, in which a down-on-his luck Englishman becomes Pope; Rolfe’s rather odd life – he was repeatedly foiled from his attempts to become a priest – suggests that this plot was wish fulfillment. The introduction of this book, by A. J. A. Symons, Rolfe’s first biographer (The Quest for Corvo) presents this book as being a further fictionalized autobiography. On reaching page 36, where the many affronts against the life of Nicholas Crabbe to that point have been narrated, the reader is confronted with a footnote, presumably by Symons:

Readers of The Quest for Corvo will need no telling that Rolfe is following the lines of his own life very closely in the description he gives of Nicholas Crabbe’s career. Peter of England is Hadrian the Seventh, Don Superbo is Don Tarquinio, Sieur Rènè is Don Renato, and Songs of Gadara represents Songs of Meleager.

At the bottom of the next page, another note:

Here again Rolfe is, of course, drawing from life. “Bonsen” is the late Mgr. R. H. Benson; and The Sensiblist is The Sentimentalist, a novel which aroused much discussion when it was first published. The central character, Chris Dell, was in some part drawn from Rolfe.

(The annotator commits a solecism: Benson’s book is The Sentimentalists (1906).) It’s hard, when there are such footnotes, to avoid reading this book as a roman à clef: Nicholas Crabbe, Rolfe’s hero, is beleaguered by the world to such a degree to put any modern novelist with a blog to shame. Here, for example, is described the double of Robert Hugh Benson, who seems to have been an inoffensive Catholic novelist who, Symons reports in his introduction, tried to help Rolfe by giving him work but drew his ire by refusing to pay his excessive hotel bills in Venice:

The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan’s Dove, the face of the Mad Hatter out of Alice in Wonderland, and the figure of an Etonian who insanely neglects to take any pains at all with his temple of the Holy Ghost, but wears paper collars and a black straw hat. (p. 36)

Crabbe and the narrator of this book are Catholic (with the zealotry that only the convert can muster) and vitriolic in equal measure, which is a great deal of the pleasure of this text. The story being told is insane; but Crabbe constantly has recourse to the logic of the Church (as he understands it) to back up his logic. The Church, of course, rejects him entirely (he would have been a priest but was blackballed); but that might be to be expected as he is holier than the Church. If only he were Pope, of course, these problems would be solved; but things aren’t so easy:

Beside, he had published a book of personal experiments with priests, Peter of England, an awful audacious book which flayed whom it did not scald; and his mood was not to compete for reprisals. ‘It is not I who have lost the Athenians; it is the Athenians who have lost me,’ he superbly said. So, when priests slank up to him, he civilly warned them off: if they merited kindness and persisted, he gave them double: but, never any more would he admit them beyond the barbican of his lifted drawbridge, never any more would he go beyond parleys from the height of his impregnable battlements – unless they should come, at high noon, with a flag of truce and suitable gages – never any more would he on any account seek them, but to serve him as ministers of grace. (pp. 60–61.)

Crabbe goes to Mass every day, denounces the local Anglicans as Erastian heretics, and quarrels with almost every priest he meets. What’s most surprising in this book, though, isn’t Crabbe’s love/hate relationship with Catholicism (a continuation of Hadrian the Seventh) but its bizarre treatment of gender. Crabbe, sailing alone in the Adriatic Sea, rescues a young girl, her village’s only survivor of an earthquake; but Crabbe is aghast with the impropriety of being along on his boat with a woman. His solution is to declare the androgynous Zilda (the Venetian abbreviation for “Ermenegilda”) to be a boy, Zildo; the girl is more than happy to go along with this, and for the rest of the book, she is a he, with the odd lapse, happily playing the role of Crabbe’s manservant and straining dictionaries just like his master when he’s not speaking in Venetian dialect:

‘I do not understand why this eximious Signor Caloprin will pay me thirty-five franchi every Monday at 8 o’clock, and also a hundred more at 8 of every fourth Monday, just for writing my name.’ (p. 111)

What Crabbe feels for Zildo certainly seems to be love; but it’s a love that Crabbe doesn’t seem to know what to do with. He moves Zildo into a remote apartment so that they might not always be seen together; but Crabbe seems to avoid Zildo, who nonetheless remains devoted. In a moment of crisis, Crabbe considers desperate options, including finding a wife with money:

O god of Love, never! Infinitely far better to marry not-Zildo – if not-Zildo would. But – would not-Zildo? Well, why not? ‘He, who dispenses with woman, lives in sin.’ said Maimonides. (p. 178)

This doesn’t happen; Zildo and Crabbe continue to keep their distance. At the end of the book, however, there’s an odd turnaround: Zildo rescues Crabbe, who is dying of starvation in her boat; when Crabbe recognizes that Zildo has saved his life, he suddenly declares Zildo to be Gilda, and they are in love. This final sex change happens two pages from the end of the book; they appear to be on their way to get married, as Zildo/Gilda has arranged things with the local priest. A check arrives; there’s a happy ending. 

It’s hard to know what to make of this. One would certainly be inclined to read Crabbe as being gay: he huffs and puffs about how terrible women are; he moves Zildo to other quarters because he feels tempted by him; he describes young men in loving detail. Crabbe claims to have been chaste for the past twenty years, as he had intended to take Holy Orders; he seems to regard the priesthood as a homosocial paradise, but one that won’t accept him. He and Bonsen have their own private quasi-religious order (at least until Crabbe angrily resigns); at one point, Bonsen writes him about the advisability of recruiting Italian naval officers.

There’s a monstrous solipsism to this book: it is a record of the genius of Nicholas Crabbe, and its world is seen entirely through his eyes. A first-person narrator occasionally raises his head to reveal himself to be wholly in awe of Crabbe: “Despite his peculiarities, there’s no denying that Nicholas Crabbe was a man of insight and intelligence: though I admit that there is a great deal of difficulty in making this point clear, seeing that he entered into such very close relations with priests and Scotchmen.” (p. 141) One suspects that this narrator is Crabbe himself, at a later date. Zildo, the novel’s second character, exists almost entirely through the eyes of Crabbe, who has been allowed to determine his character down to the level of gender; maybe this could be read as metafiction, though this book doesn’t seem particularly self-conscious in that way. Everyone else barely exists; they are an enemy of Crabbe or insignificant. 

The book is not without considerable flaws. Its misogyny (on the part of both Crabbe and the narrator) has been pointed out; as might be expected, there’s also casual antisemitism. The writing also has curious faults. In the second chapter, it’s pointed out that Crabbe is astrologically a Cancer; there follows an extended metaphor about his crab-like nature, and throughout the book he is constantly said to be rearing up, crablike, or “clashing his awful claws” or his “portentous pincers.” He is frequently furious because it is his nature. This becomes tiresome extremely quickly, not least because of how weirdly clumsy it seems: “He was still Crabbe, and as crabby as ever: but he began to exercise his crabbiness in directions which he had never tried or cared to try.” (pp. 155–6) I can’t tell what Rolfe is trying to do with this; maybe this is an attempt at humor that hasn’t aged well, but it can hardly be imagined that this would ever have been that funny, aside from the initial passage, directing the reader to boil and dissect a crab if they would know the true nature of those born under the sign of Cancer. Likewise tiresome is the subject of the writer complaining about his financial situation and the failure of his publishers to pay him; Crabbe’s vitriol is entertaining, of course, but the pecuniary detail is grueling.

But this is a lovely book if only for the diction: “cagotism,” “latebrose,” “dedecorous,” “physidoyls,” “vexilla,” “amoenely,” “succursale,” and the verb “ostends” (to pick largely at random) aren’t words one runs into every day. Rolfe’s English is glossed with Venetian and the occasional Latin; it would be hard to confuse a page of this book for that of any other, even one of Rolfe’s. In no other book, for example, is a servant likely to declare that “He preached so long, sir, that Mr Barbolan went to bed and left him; and Little Peter and Parisotto took him home, at 2½ o’clock, preaching imbriagally all the way, so that a vizile followed them” as one does on p. 208 of this book. And it’s hard not to like a book filled with imponderabilia like this: “Truth is tarter than taradiddles; and nothing is tarter, terser, than truth on the track of tired trash in a trance.” (p. 157) A copy of Don Renato, his book that includes a glossary of the macaronic language of Italian, Greek, and Latin in the back is waiting on my shelf: it’s tempting.

jane bowles, “two serious ladies”

Jane Bowles
Two Serious Ladies
(originally 1943; published in 1966 as part of My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Writings of Jane Bowles, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

It’s a crying shame that Two Serious Ladies is only in print as part of Jane Bowles’s Collected Works: not that there’s anything wrong with the rest of her Collected Works, it’s simply that Two Serious Ladies is so perfectly complete on its own; it deserves to be a Penguin Classic, not one of the ugly redesigned ones, but one of the differently ugly older ones with the light green covers that didn’t smack of marketing, only belief in the power of literature. At one point, it could have been a New York Review Book, shelved between James Schuyler’s Alfred & Guinevere and James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz. I don’t know what happened to Two Serious Ladies that it should be tied up so; maybe this is FSG’s fault.

Two Serious Ladies is a weirdly structured book. The first chapter, 34 pages long, introduces Christina Goering, a rich woman, strange from her religion-obsessed youth. Much later, she is visited by Lucy Gamelon, the cousin of her governess, who has heard stories about Christina; though Lucy worked in publishing, she is not up to anything, and she promptly moves in with Christina after her second visit. Some months later, Christina is invited to a party; she sees her acquaintance Frieda Copperfield, who is distraught about a trip she will have to take. She is then distracted by a morose man named Arnold, who she goes home with, thinking this is the interesting thing to do; she stays the night at Arnold’s house, where she meets his parents, who she likes better than Arnold. Christina sells her house and moves to a smaller house on an island. The second chapter, 75 pages long, is about Mrs. Copperfield’s trip to Panama with her husband; Mrs. Copperfield evidently hates to travel, but she leaves her husband for Pacifica, a prostitute. The third chapter, 90 pages long, returns to Christina Goering: she is now living in a house on an island with Arnold and Lucy Gamelon; eventually, they are joined by Arnold’s father. Christina has an affair with Andy, a man she meets in a bar; she leaves him after a week for a monstrous man named Ben who takes her for a prostitute. Five pages from the end of the book, Frieda Copperfield returns, evidently having returned to the city with Pacifica, who is running after a boy. 

The plot is not why I find myself reading this book over and over again; rather, it’s the way in which the characters behave. In a characteristic passage, Christina Goering and Lucy Gamelon are sitting outside their house; Lucy is thinking about how much she hates Arnold. “He is even too lazy to court either of us,” she tells Christina, “which is a most unnatural thing you must admit – if you have any conception at all of the male physical make-up. Of course he is not a man. He is an elephant.” But Lucy most hates Arnold for freeloading on Christina, which is of course something that Lucy is also doing:

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Miss Gamelon was thinking seriously about all these things when suddenly a bottle broke against her head, inundating her with perfume and making quite a deep cut just above her forehead. She started to bleed profusely and sat for a moment with her hands over her eyes.
     “I didn’t actually mean to draw blood,” said Arnold leaning out of the window. “I just meant to give her a start.”
     Miss Goering, although she was beginning to regard Miss Gamelon more and more as the embodiment of evil, made a swift and compassionate gesture towards her friend. (p. 115)

Within ten pages of this scene, Arnold is calling Lucy “Bubbles” and they are sharing a room, united, perhaps, by their dislike for each other. None of the characters in Two Serious Ladies are likeable. They are not pleasant; at one point Arnold describes Lucy as “constantly in either a surly or melancholic mood,” which could be said about any of these characters. There is no pretense of redemption: these characters start out terrible and they will end terrible. This makes it a very funny book; but, in a way, it’s also more realistic. 

There’s something interestingly off in the way the characters in this book make choices; they are all inscrutable. Here, an interaction between Christina Goering and Andy, her would-be paramour:

“Step back a little farther, please,” he said. “Look carefully at your man and then say whether or not you want him.”
     Miss Goering did not see how she could possibly answer anything but yes. He was standing now with his head cocked to one side, looking very much as though he were trying to refrain from blinking his eyes, the way people do when they are having snapshots taken.
     “Very well,” said Miss Goering, “I do want you to be my man.” She smiled at him sweetly, but she was not thinking very hard of what she was saying. (p. 166)

There’s a disconnect between thought and action that’s funny as well as terrifying: none of their behavior is at all predictable. In another novel, this sort of action could be accounted for by drugs, which would feel like a narrative copout; but these characters are entirely straitlaced, and even drinking doesn’t reliably change their inhibitions. 

This isn’t quite surrealistic whimsy, though the characters do appear to move in dream-like trances: at least in the sections based around Miss Goering, the sense is less of a world gone strange than it is of strange characters who don’t fit into the regular world, characters who could not be described as surrealist dreamers. Miss Goering and her friends appear to move from Manhattan to a largely rural Staten Island, perhaps the Staten Island that Arshille Gorky painted to look like the south of France; the setting is identified by geography rather than by name, but it maintains the prosaic stolidity one expects from that borough. For excitement, they take a ferry to New Jersey, where things seem to be much the same. (There’s a certain similarity to Kafka’s Amerika, though that would have been published in English after Two Serious Ladies.) The Panama that Frieda Copperfield visits is more fantastical; I find myself less drawn to this part of the plot partially because we’re used to seeing Latin America described as a fantastical place where anything can happen. The drama there is still very much more personal than based on its setting: what happens to Mrs. Copperfield on her trip is not what would happen to anyone else, but Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica don’t sparkle quite as brightly as Christina Goering and her followers.

It’s left to the reader to discern what exactly the narrative of Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica has to do with the story of Christina Goering; presumably Copperfield & Goering are the eponymous two serious ladies of the title, although Lucy Gamelon appears more often in the book than Frieda Copperfield does. In their final discussion, Frieda gives an idea of what she might have been trying to do:

“But you have gone to pieces, or do I misjudge you dreadfully?”
     “True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.” (p. 197)

Ms. Goering promptly admits her dislike for Mrs. Copperfield; there seems to be something incompatible about the way that the two of them are working out their lives. When we first meet Christina, she is purifying a young friend’s sins in a ceremony involving a burlap sack and a great deal of mud; through her narrative, talk of sin comes up from time to time. Christina and Lucy, for example, get into an argument about whether sports give Christina a feeling of sinning. Near the end of their affair, Christina realizes that Andy’s self-image has improved and he no longer thinks of himself as a bum:

This would have pleased her greatly had she been interested in reforming her friends, but unfortunately she was only interested in the course that she was following in order to attain her own salvation. (p. 172)

Christina’s theology seems to be her own brand of gnosticism: like Irenaeus’s description of the libertine gnostics, she seems to be trying to save herself through absorbing the sin of the world, which must be destroyed for truth to appear. Frieda, by contrast, appears to finally be enjoying the broken world as it is.

marcel proust, “the prisoner”

Marcel Proust
The Prisoner
(trans. Carol Clark) 
(Penguin, 2003)

The last three books of Proust are the ones I find myself coming back to; this time I return because of seeing Chantal Akerman’s filmed version of this book (La captive, 2000); it was so different than what I remembered of my first viewing three years ago that I thought it was time to turn back to Proust to see how he’d changed. I preferred the new translation of this book to the Moncrieff last time through; but this volume is handier, which is a large part of why I’m using this version. It’s vexing that this book & the final volume still aren’t available in this country because of copyright, though I kind of hate the chunkiness of the American paperback versions of this translation.

What I like about this section of the book is how with the Albertine captivity narrative, the novel jumps the rails of realism. The narrator’s problems in this book are not, on the face of them, the problems of anyone real; rather, it’s an imagined picture of heterosexual desire, a thought-experiment on Proust’s part. I’m not especially interested in how life in early twentieth-century Paris; that isn’t without interest, of course, but it’s the behavior of Proust’s characters and the narrator’s changing understanding of this behavior that I really care about. There’s not a huge amount of depiction of society in this volume (where I found myself losing interest in the earlier volumes); rather, the action is mostly interior. 

This is a book about jealousy; Albertine is the focus of the narrator’s jealousy, of course, but her person is almost immaterial, a blank screen on which the narrator can project (or reflect) his own fantasies:

But what I could not bear to imagine in Albertine was my own unceasing desire to attract new women, to sketch out new novels in which they would figure; it was the thought of her casting her eye, as I had not been able to restrain myself from doing the other day, even when seated beside her, at the young girl cyclists sitting at the tables in the Bois de Boulogne. Just as one can know only oneself, one could almost say that one can be jealous only of oneself. Observation is of little use. Only from one’s own pleasure can one derive both knowledge and pain. (pp. 356–7.)

With such a narrator, it’s hopeless to imagine Albertine as a real character; rather, she’s a fantastic projection. He reasons that he should have a great love, but doesn’t really have any idea what to do with it when he finds himself in one. There’s no romance in their external relationship – at one point, the narrator wonders whether he ought to buy her a yacht, as if that were what one did in the situation he finds himself in. Their relationship takes place almost entirely in the narrator’s mind, and one wonders if he’d prefer the physical Albertine not to exist; certainly he doesn’t do very much with her, and he comes across as absent-minded, more caught up in this thoughts than in anything that might be going on around him. They talk, but the narrator drifts off, and gets caught up in his own thoughts; early in the book, they discuss noises on the street, which leads to a five-page passage where the narrator considers waking from sleep. It’s virtuosic, of course, some of the nicest passages in the book, but it suggests solipsism:

Wasn’t it perhaps Françoise who had been sleeping, and I who had wakened her? Or rather, wasn’t Françoise somehow enclosed within me, for distinctions between people and their interactions hardly exist in that sepia darkness where reality is no more translucent than in the body of a porcupine, and where our minimal perceptions can perhaps give an idea of those of certain animals? (p. 109)

Albertine is beside the narrator on his bed, but she has been forgotten entirely, replaced her even as a stand-in for the other person by Françoise. It’s difficult to fault the narration for this, of course. At the end of the passage, where the narrator considers the cries of street vendors, we are told that “the cries rolled on for me like an echo of the waves where Albertine left to herself could have been lost, and took on the sweetness of a Suave mari magno” (p. 113). The reference is to the beginning of Book II of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, where he considers how nice it is, when safe on the shore, to watch someone drowning at sea; this is almost exactly the position of the reader, watching the narrator bumble through his jealousy.

This is being narrated retrospectively, of course, an old man reflecting on a younger man’s folly, but sometimes one wonders how well is is being done. A dumbfounding moment late in the book:

Albertine had never told me that she suspected me of being jealous of her, of spying on everything she did. The only words we had exchanged about jealousy, a long time before, seemed to suggest the opposite. (p. 306)

The narrator throughout the book has been acting like a lunatic; one wonders if he thinks that Albertine is an idiot and doesn’t notice anything, or whether he really doesn’t understand how strange his behavior actually is. (The narrator, as mentioned, is somewhat disconnected from reality; early in the book, for example, there’s a hilarious interlude where he fails to understand how a telephone works; a bit later he describes an airplane taking off in such a way as to make it appear that it suddenly moves vertically.) Maybe it’s simply that he’s more interested in jealousy than in other people; a few pages after he considers that Albertine couldn’t have noticed his jealousy, this passage appears:

And no doubt that is how it always is when two people face each other, since each of them is unaware of a part of what is inside the other, even what he is aware of he only partly understands, and each of them shows the other only what is least personal in him, whether because they have not understood themselves and think that the rest is unimportant, or because certain attractions which are not truly part of them seem to them more important and more flattering, or because there are other qualities which they think they need in order not to be despised, but do not have, and so they pretend to care nothing for them, and these are the things which they seem to despise above all and even to abominate. But in love this misunderstanding is carried to the highest degree since, except perhaps when we are children, we try to ensure that the impression we give, rather than being an exact reflection of our thoughts, should be what these thoughts conclude will have the best chance of getting us what we want . . . (pp. 317–8.)

It’s for passages like this that I go back to Proust; and going back, of course, is a pleasure in and of itself, noticing what I marked up the last time through, a record of change in different colors of ink. It’s hard not to think, when re-reading Proust, that it’s more worthwhile doing that that keeping up with what’s new. 

(This edition does, it should be noted, have weird punctuation issues: stretches of dialogue within a paragraph are kept inside single quotes, and “he saids” and “she saids” appear inside those single quotes; different speakers are introduced with a dash. I assume this is an attempt to follow French convention; it appears jarring and unnecessarily strange to the reader of English books. The American versions of the new translation didn’t have this punctuation issue; but I suspect that I care more about the translation of punctuation than most people do.)

frederic tuten, “the adventures of mao on the long march”

Frederic Tuten
The Adventures of Mao on the Long March
(New Directions, 2005; originally 1971)

The Adventures of Mao on the Long March is a collage-novel which tells, in circuitous fashion, what happened on Mao’s Long March. Although they initially appear to be the same, Tuten’s Long March firmly diverges from Mao’s Long March. The novel ends with an interview with Mao in 1968; in a description of Mao’s apartment, we learn that he reads, among many other periodicals, Artforum, Esquire, The Nation, and Cahier du Cinéma, and we realize that we are in the company of a different Mao. Before the interview, there are sections from a realist history of the Long March, collaged texts usually about aesthetics, sections of invented dialogue and action, and sections which parody the style of American writers. This is a book that reads very differently than it did when first published, in part because it has gained a great deal of front and back matter. Starting at the front of the book, one finds a forward written in 1997 by the author; then an introduction, John Updike’s “Satire without Serifs” (originally a review published in the New Yorker); then the book itself; then a list of sources used in the book (when this was added is unclear); and finally a postscript written in 2005 by the author, which goes some way into describing the book’s history. The cover, a lithograph of Mao by Roy Lichtenstein, also needs to be read as part of the book, as it was created for the original text.

But this is also a book that can be read differently when you burrow down to the text itself. Composed in part of sections borrowed from other texts, it was initially published without a list of sources; some the reader would be likely to recognize (bits of Hawthorne, Pater, and Wilde, for example), some less susceptible to recognition (long extracts from James Fenimore Cooper’s Venetian novel The Bravo). Now, of course, it’s very easy to tell where his sources spring from: plugging a string of text into Google generally brings even the unfamiliar to light. The first paragraph, for example, I found weirdly familiar; sending the phrase “to wit, a bottle of strawberry syrup” to Google provides two results, the first being this book and the second being the August 1898 issue of The Quartier Latin (the quoted text is the paragraph beginning “A beauty show” and ending “and so there was peace and happiness”), which I’m fairly certain I’ve never read. (This source, for what it’s worth, isn’t listed in the list of sources; an epigraph from Antony and Cleopatra is, but that epigraph isn’t to be found in my copy. Maybe it fell out of the book in some reprinting.) Before Google, most readers would have had to let this quote pass by; now anyone can pretend erudition. 

I’m sent back to Guy Davenport’s essay on Barthelme’s “Paraguay,” “Style as Protagonist in Donald Barthelme,” in which he carefully folds back the story to find the unacknowledged sources (a travelogue by Jane E. Duncan and Corbusier) to see how they resonate:

Barthelme’s genius was in such layering. Sometimes we can locate all the layers, sometimes not; Barthelme clearly wanted us to remain in the interstices: that’s where his poetry is. He does not mind (in fact, has alerted us) that phrases like “vast blind wall” and “vast expanse of blankness” can be identified as prose by an architect who cannot control the echoes these phrases contain from Kafka, Mandelstam, Piranesi, and from history. (p. 109 in The Hunter Gracchus.)

“Paraguay” appeared in 1969, slightly before The Adventures of Mao on the Long March; but there’s a similar aesthetic strategy being used, one found as well in the contemporaneous collage essays of Paul Metcalf. Tuten, like Metcalf, is essentially using language as a readymade; this goes for both the found texts on aesthetics, as well as for the parodies of the style of American authors, where an existing style is also something that can be taken and used as a tool. I think of the story of when Duchamp and Brancusi visited an airshow; pointing to a propellor, a beautiful example of industrial design, Duchamp said “Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do anything better than that propellor? Tell me, can you do that?” There are already so many things in the world: direct creation counts for less in such a world. The same goes for plot: Mao’s Long March was, as the real Mao realized, something that could be used as a metaphor; Tuten appropriates it for his own use. Tuten differs from Metcalf in that Metcalf’s interests (at least after Genoa) are not fiction, but rather describing a subject through juxtaposition. 

Although this is a comic novel which uses parody as an essential rhetorical stategy, Tuten doesn’t seem to be making fun of the original texts, even though it might be very easy to do so; rather, he allows them to shine under a different light to show what else might be there. An early section, for example, lifts a visit to the sculptor Kenyon’s studio in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun:

“Here might be witnessed the process of actually chiselling the marble, with which (as it is not quite satisfactory to think) a sculptor in these days has very little to do. In Italy, there is a class of men whose merely mechanical skill is perhaps more exquisite than was possessed by the ancient artificers, who wrought out the designs of Praxiteles; or, very possibly, by Praxiteles himself. Whatever of illusive representation can be effected in marble, they are capable of achieving, if the object be before their eyes. The sculptor has but to present these men with a plaster-cast of his design, and a sufficient block of marble, and tell them that the figure is imbedded in the stone, and must be freed from its encumbering superfluities; and, in due time, without the necessity of his touching the work with his own finger, he will see before him the statue that is to make him renowned. His creative power has wrought it with a word. (pp. 8–9.)

How sculpture was thought of in 1970 was worlds away from how Hawthorne imagined sculpture in 1860; Tuten’s genius is to see that Hawthorne’s words could be recast to describe what had happened in the visual arts in the twentieth century and what Tuten was attempting to bring to the world of fiction. The author of the collage novel is, to a certain extent, putting himself in the same position as the reader: in his introduction, Tuten notes that he wrote this book while working on a Ph.D. on Cooper, and one doubts that anyone not reading Cooper in that fashion would have found the sections of The Bravo that Tuten finds to use. Like the reader, the author makes sense of these juxtapositions. 

It seems important that Mao was still alive when this book was written (and when Lichtenstein’s print was made), as opposed to Warhol and DeLillo’s use of him: dead, he existed only as icon. Appropriating a living person as a character is a braver act (with the caveat, of course, that Mao was presumably then, as now, so distant as to be unreal). Written now, this book would register has historical fiction; in 1971, Mao’s legacy had not entirely congealed and could, one presumes, still be shaped. Lichtenstein’s Mao is a jolly Mao; in the 2005 afterward, Tuten recalls getting a telegram from a confused Diana Vreeland congratulating him on his scoop in interviewing Mao. At that point in time, Mao could still be shaped.

This is a well-wrought book, one which should be discussed more than it is. It’s odd that this book hasn’t come up recently in relation to David Shields’s Reality Hunger: it’s a fine example of how collage can be used inside the structures of fiction rather than precluding fiction, as Shields seems to be arguing.

b. traven, “the treasure of the sierra madre”

B. Traven
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010; originally 1935.)

I have not, I should first point out, seen the John Huston film of this, which seems marginally better known than the novel; sooner or later I’ll get around to it, but I haven’t yet. This is a caper narrative, of course: something that’s set up early on and repeatedly emphasized is the corrupting power of gold, and the narrative tension is the question of whether any of the characters will be able to escape this. The characters are not very likable (with the possible exception of the experienced old man, who we suspect will pull through); but it’s impossible to tell three-quarters of the way through the book who the villain will turn out to be. The book is oddly structured: characters are introduced who seem like they might be significant, then they fade away. It’s true to life, but confusing for fiction.

The narration of this book is also confusing: there are frequent excursions for long stories (in the style of the Manuscript Found in Saragossa); though they are told by a particular character, they are in the same narrative voice as the rest of the book, an omniscient third-person. The narratives always seem to know things that they shouldn’t know (the thoughts of dead characters); in this sense, this might be thought of as a clumsy book. A paragraph in which a main character is killed, for example, starts with his thoughts, moves to a description of what he does, moves to the thoughts of his murderer, and describes the act of murder; the paragraph consists of nine sentences but the perspective repeatedly shifts. This doesn’t seem to be self-conscious in the style of Faulkner; rather, it’s the easiest way to tell the story. While written in 1935, characters think of what they’ve seen in the movies as a model for what might happen to them. 

The social perspective of this novel might be unexpected. The first chapter concentrates on what work – or the lack of it – can do to a man, pointing out exactly how much money it costs to continue to exist when you have none. As noted, Traven’s character’s aren’t particularly sympathetic; he’s operating in the naturalist tradition of Dreiser or (more likely) Zola, and he’s deeply interested in how the machinery of the economy works. (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was contemporaneous with John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy; they’re told differently, but the perspective of the danger of capital is similar.) One notices this now: contemporary novels concerned with work and how terrible it can be are very much the exception. The socialist novel has more or less disappeared; but here economic justice is openly debated by the characters:

“. . . The old man hasn’t stolen the goods. They’re his honestly earned property. That we know only too well. He didn’t get that money by a lousy cowardly stick-up, or from the races, or by blackmailing, or by the help of loaded bones. He’s worked like a slave, the old man has. And for him, old as he is, it was a harder task than for us, believe me. I may not respect many things in life, but I do respect most sincerely the money somebody has worked and slaved for honestly. And that’s on the level.”
     “Hell, can your Bolshevik ideas. A soap-box always makes me sick. And to have to hear it even out here in the wilderness is the god-damned limit.”
     “No Bolshevik ideas at all, and you know that. Perhaps it’s the aim of the Bolsheviks to see that a worker gets the full value of what he produces, and that no one tries to cheat a worker out of what is honestly coming to him. Anyway, put that out of the discussion. It’s none of my business. And, Bolshevik or no Bolshevik, get this straight, partner: I’m on the level, and as long as I’m around you don’t even touch the inside of the old man’s packs. That’s that, and it’s final.” (pp. 236–7.)

This is the point, of course, where it becomes clear who the villain is; there’s not so much a hero as another victim. The gold will be lost, as we’ve been told over and over again by the stories the wiser characters tell; the best one can do is to get by without ripping anyone off too much. The old man mentioned here comes out fine because he’s taken for a doctor by the natives; the natives are foolish, but, it’s made clear, better than the American interlopers or the Church which is cheating them. Men are in competition in this book; only a single notable woman appears in this book, Doña Catalina María de Rodríguez, described in a story in chapter 16: but she falls as well because she takes on the avarice that killed her husband. 

One finds one pausing at the distinctive dialogue, which doesn’t sound quite like anything else. A representative passage of Americans speaking from near the beginning of the book:

“Aw, gosh,” said one of the sailors, “don’t talk so much squabash. It makes me sick hearing you. Come up, you two beachers, and we’ll stuff your bellies until they bust. We throw it away anyhow. Who the funking devil can eat a bite in this blistering heat? Gee, I wish I was back in that ol’ Los An, damn it.”
     When they left the tanker, they couldn’t walk very far. They lay down under the first tree they reached.
     “That was what I call a square meal, geecries,” Dobbs said. “I wouldn’t walk a mile even for an elephant tooth. I’m out for the next two hours. And we better get a rest.”
     “Okay by me, sweety.” (p. 21)

Or later in the book, some Mexican bandits (previously established as only speaking Spanish) castigate each other after a murder:

“Aw, shut up, you damned yellow dog! Why didn’t you do it? Afraid of that funking son of a bitch by a stinking gringo, hey? I know who did it and bumped him. And I tell ye, get away from me, both of you chingando cabrones and que chinguen los cabrones a las matriculas. Do I need your stinking advice, you puppies? Out of my way, you make me sick looking at you, you dirty rats.” (p. 269)

anish. Generally when Spanish is used in the text, it’s followed by a restatement in English (“Tiene un cigarro, hombre? Have you got a cigarette?”); maybe profanities left untranslated are more powerful. The euphemisms “funking” and “geecries” appears all over the book rather than their antecedents; neither appear in the OED, and “geecries” would appear only ever to have been used in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though it’s vaguely possible that Traven is using “funking” in the sense of “cowardly”. One wonders if anyone actually ever talked like this. 

This particular edition is, it should be said, an embarrassingly ugly book. The insides have been reshot from some older, smaller edition, leaving the text box weirdly positioned on the page; the cover of this paperback employs the hoary old trick of trying to make it look like it’s a frayed old hardcover, the spine about to fall off, then negates that entirely by slapping a strictly two-dimensional yellow banner obliquely across the front declaring that “READERS WHO IGNORE THE GENIUS OF B. TRAVEN DO SO AT THEIR PERIL,” a quote sourced to the NYTimes Book Review, though one that I can’t find in their archive. Another tacky yellow banner adorns the back, with a blurb from John Chamberlain’s original review in the Times in 1935; the rest of the back cover ignores the concept of the front.) The back cover copies suggests that the book is worth reading because it may have inspired 2666, which suggests a certain amount of desperation. When confronted with a cover like this, one remembers Jan Tschichold’s dictum that dust-jackets of books should always be thrown away as advertising.

One wonders as well why there’s no editorial apparatus around this book, save a brief biography of Traven on the first page that uses phrases like “many scholars think.” Certainly an introduction could be cobbled together for a novel’s seventy-fifth anniversary edition. An interview with Vice last year (the source, probably, of the “many critics” connecting this book to 2666) could have been turned into something serviceable; a sharp editor might have had Blixa Bargeld put together something. A history of the text – if it started out in German, how much of it was the creation of the original editor – would be useful and probably of general interest, especially when the author’s life is being used to sell the book on its back cover.

joshua cohen, “a heaven of others”

Joshua Cohen
A Heaven of Others
(drawings by Michael Hafftka)
(Starcherone Books, 2007)

The premise of this book is carried in its subtitle: “Being the True Account of a Jewish Boy Jonathan Schwarzstein of Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem, and his Post-Mortem Adventures in & Reflections on the Muslim Heaven as Said to Me and Said Through Me by an Angel of the One True God, Revealed to Me at Night as if in a Dream.” Like Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto it is composed of a long monologue (albeit one with section breaks this time); Jonathan Schwarzstein speaks in the first person, so the “me” of the subtitle might be the author himself: one thinks of how Joseph Smith is given a translation credit on The Book of Mormon.

The book most readily brought to mind by this fictional exploration of Heaven is Stanley Elkin’s The Living End (1979): Ellerbee, Elkin’s virtuous everyman, is sent to Hell after he is killed in a hold-up of his liquor store by a literal-minded God for, among other offenses, keeping his store open on Sundays. God is getting tired, as he explains to Ladlehaus, one of Ellerbee’s killers: 

I’m Himself Himself and I don’t know how I do it. I don’t even remember making this place. There must have been a need for it because everything fits together and I’ve always been a form-follows-function sort of God, but sometimes even I get confused about the details. (p. 54)

He goes on to brag that Ladlehaus would go blind even trying on His contact lenses. While it’s left unclear if Elkin’s characters are Jewish (as was, of course, their author), the afterlife they end up in is the Christian one of popular mythology: St. Peter waits at the gates of Heaven, there’s no Purgatory. It’s clear what sort of universe Elkin’s is: one battered down by neglect and incompetance; it might be run by Communist bureaucrats. (God is once described as having an Iron Curtain around him.) The Living End is, I should make clear, an immensely funny book. Cohen’s, by contrast, starts from the same lack of definition of the Jewish Heaven, but turns into a corporatist nightmare Hugging the young Muslim suicide bomber who kills him, Jonathan ends up in the Muslim heaven; no redress of the mistake is possible. The influences of Beckett (the trilogy) and perhaps even more Kafka (the blind fixation on justice in “In the Penal Colony”) are here, inescapably: while this is a cosmology without meaning, the structures linger on, not unlike Nike co-opting Gary Gilmore’s “Just do it” into advertising for sneakers.

Like Schneidermann, this is an extended monologue; however, this one is less directly indebted to Bernhard. This book is broken into sections; three short poems (“Alef,” “Beit,” and “Alef” again) further subdivide the text. That isn’t to say that the breathless quality of Schneidermann isn’t here: a child is telling this story, and the rhythm varies from short, fragmentary sentences to extended, redoubling ones; the final section, titled “A ‘Metaphor’,” is a single 16-page sentence. Something odd is going on with capitalization: take this, for example, excerpted from a much longer sentence, where Jonathan recalls his father talking about cancer:

. . . he said it was A big black bumpishness that just grew larger or rather filled you largely despite what the doctors would empty, which despite the nail of any needle would never be enough to empty It all – Aba himself never went to doctors, he went to the Queen, by which I mean my first one and only his second – and so this Queen, that former Queen whom I never knew her neither her name even she was blackened as if burned like a bush once consumed . . . (pp. 126–7.)

The words capitalized in the middle of sentence (as “A” and “It” in the example above) recur throughout the book; in the sections with extended sentences they seem to function almost as pauses for breath, or the way linebreaks function in a poem. (The first one in this quotation also has a slightly different function, signaling the opening of a quotation.) This book could probably have worked as a narrative poem: as in Schneidermann, the language is very much oral, and the rhythms of this book demand that it be read aloud. But there is a pronounced bookishness to this, which the capitalized letters bring out: capital letters don’t exist in spoken language, or, for that matter, in Hebrew; they are a part of written language, that of the scribe writing this book. 

Something should also be said about the form of this book: most prominently, it features spidery, blotchy pen and ink drawings by Michael Hafftka, generally illustrative of what’s happening in the text at that point in time. I don’t love these; but they are of a piece with the tone of the text, and it’s a good match. It’s nice to see an illustrated book, though I don’t know that they add much to the text. I find myself a bit vexed by the book design (also by Hafftka): the body text is set in a slab serif, which complicates reading. Perhaps this was chosen because the darkness of the letterforms look like Hebrew (as is the case with the display type); to me, it gets in the way of the text and seems too showy. 

The death of David Markson makes me think of the apocryphal story that Samuel Beckett was a friend of the parents of André the Giant and would drive the young André to school. One wonders what stories Beckett would have entertained a child with; maybe something like this.