January 06, 2012
Some behind-the-scenes advice for attending The National Book Awards, or any literary party:
January 06, 2012
Some behind-the-scenes advice for attending The National Book Awards, or any literary party:
In my darker moments, usually after being away from art for some hours, and, mind you, this doesn’t just mean literature, but paintings, sculpture, film, or whatever, I start feeling kind of jittery, but the darkness takes on an especially despairing hue when I start to think about the pronounced lack of ambition and its concomitant general distrust of virtuosity in the contemporary arts scene. Sure, I’m guilty as anyone else of romanticizing past eras, characterizing them as golden ages, when of course the amount of dross to gold has always been grossly disproportionate all throughout history. However, these necessary caveats do little to assuage my disappointment with the various contemporary scenes and milieus. That said, there are, of course, massive exceptions, and fortunately these examples do provide respite from our consumerist culture’s celebration of mediocrity, its wallowing in sloppiness. For instance, as I write this, I’m listening to Beirut’s odd fusion of folkloric textures from the Balkans and Eastern Europe with pop forms, all seamed together by Zach Condon’s plaintive, Jeff Buckley-influenced vocals (something which would normally annoy me but, strangely, as with Andrew Bird, the sincerity of the voice outweighs the obvious debt, and it might be because Condon also blends a bit of Robert Smith’s melancholy and Morrissey’s effete tonality). And during February, when New York City’s interminable winter and its resultant gloom invariably descends upon my household, well, upon my partner, but somehow it ends up being the primary theme anyway, I pulled through with books by William Gass, continuing my plan to consecutively read (and reread some of the books) his complete oeuvre. (I should mention that writing with music on is near impossible for me to do these days, and it is an incredible struggle for me to do this now, but there’s a feeling I want to stay in, and Beirut is helping me do that.)
I began this month with reading Gass’s The Tunnel, a massive tome that took from this reader as much as it gave to him. So what did it take? Well, first of all, it took time and an incredible amount of focus; it demanded patience with its catalogs, its fragmentary narrative, its thoroughly unlikeable narrator, although I must qualify this by saying that Gass ingeniously seduces the reader to like, well sort of, a despicable character by couching his rhetoric within a brilliant, inimitable lyricism. There aren’t many writers out there that attack a sentence with this kind of vigor, intensity of focus, and, moreover, with an easy virtuosity as Gass does. Who else? Well, there’s Mary Caponegro, for instance, whose attentiveness to sentences, and whose use of collage and less conventional narrative forms, and a sometimes fabulist sensibility, has marked her as an important contemporary stylist; and who also calls Gass, as any other writer with any sense would, “the master.” And then there’s Alexander Theroux, Rikki Ducornet, D.A. Powell, Joanna Howard, Gary Lutz, Carole Maso, Joyelle McSweeney, Lance Olsen, John Ashbery, and…well, I should stop there because this will end up flowering, or festering depending on your inclinations, into a massive list; and while I will hang on every word of a finely-crafted list, the kind of thing most readers, I’d guess, probably skip, I’ll spare you. Back to The Tunnel, there’s no way to do the book justice without addressing its innumerable delightful qualities, but I’ll just briefly say that the interplay between its form, its design elements, and its sundry typographical arrangements with the actual language and its refractive narrative achieves a kind of tactility, or, rather a kind of surface tension, and, in keeping with this idea of a liquid cohesion, here’s a representative (actually, this isn’t really true since the tenor and tonal shifts of voice would require numerous representative sections, so let’s just call this a section I like) section:
I would turn the garden hose on to a trickle and let the water leak into the street. Then I would follow its flowing down the road, noting how, as I’d been told, it sought the low path always; how, balked by leaves and twigs, the stream crept secretly underneath its obstacle or skirted ends and edges when it could, piling up puddles, running into cracks, forking as opportunity offered; but making manifest, as I realized, a collection of creek beds which had always been there, a system of incipient rivers, hidden in the concrete the way lines of poetry, perhaps, are hidden in the general terrain of a language, waiting only for a thought to take its course and gently connect one innocent word with an unsullied other till something repeatable, even memorable, is written, gets said, and a line is composed the way events, which seem fated to sing the do-re-mis of destiny, are linked: and to this extraordinary consequence shouldn’t we award a suitable name (after all, every baby gets one on account and before any earnings), so why not? a name, say, like Sandusky, which will certainly serve a fine verse or sentence better, and more appropriately, than its present place.
I followed The Tunnel with three monographs about William Gass’s works. Understanding William Gass, by H.L. Nix, is a pretty straightforward treatment of Gass’s fiction up to Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, and also examines the general thrust of his literary theories. Next was Conversations with Gass which, because of its inherent looseness, was a lot of fun to read, well, once you get past its many typos. Gass is at his best here when he is cantankerous; he does not suffer fools lightly. There is, for instance, the classic clash, or what I would call the “clash of the titan versus the tyrant,” between Gass and John Gardner. Gass “wins,” of course. And there are innumerable glimmerings of his approach toward fashioning fictions:
That’s one reason why I spend a lot of time examining objects. They hold still. They aren’t threatened or embarrassed by your stare. I don’t regard as much as I once did, but I realized that I was looking for sources of language, and now my source of language is almost always other language instead of things in the world. Words are supreme objects. They are minded things.
This reminds me of what happens in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” namely, that as the subject of the poem gazes upon the object, the object begins to look at the subject.
After Conversations, I read another of Gass’s essay collections: Finding a Form. As usual, it’s comprised of reviews and also extended meditations on a variety of subjects literary, philosophical, and political. Actually, I should stop to say that Gass treats his reviews—a much maligned form, and therefore a form that many writers, at best, don’t take seriously or at worst use as an occasion to parade their juvenile glibness—as he treats anything else he writes, that is, as pieces demanding all of his prodigious craft, and therefore creates works that transcend the usual utilitarian function of a review, and can be read for the sheer pleasure of his insights and his glistening prose. There are countless wannabe Dale Pecks out there swinging their hatchets in the air, but few critics who, like Gass, move their brush across the page. Other highlights include the titular essay wherein his admonishes:
So even if you hope to find some lasting security inside language, and believe that your powers are at their peak there, if nowhere else, despair and disappointment will dog you still; for neither you nor your weaknesses, nor the world and its villains, will have been banished just because, now, it is in syllables and sentences where they hide; since, oddly enough, while you can confront and denounce a colleague or a spouse, run from an angry dog, or jump bail and flee your country, you can’t argue with an image; in as much as a badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator, and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul. The unpleasant consequence of every such botch is that your life, as you register your writing, looks back at you as from a dirty mirror, and there you perceive a record of ineptitude, compromise, and failure.
In his essay “Autobiography,” Gass outlines some pitfalls inherent to the form and posits:
It is healthy, even desirable, to mix genres in order to escape the confinements of outworn conventions, or to break molds in order to create new shapes; but to introduce fiction into history on purpose (as opposed to being inadvertently mistaken) can only be to circumvent its aim, its truth, either because it wants to lie, or now thinks lying doesn’t matter and carelessness is a new virtue, or because one scorns scrupulosity as a wasted effort, a futile concern, since everything is inherently corrupt, or because an enlivened life will sell better than a straightforward one, so let’s have a little decoration, or because “What is truth?” is only a sardonic rhetorical question which regularly precedes the ritual washing of hands.
I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and then having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world. Anyone honestly happy with himself is a fool. (It is not a good idea to be terminally miserable about yourself either.) But an autobiography does not become a fiction just because fabrications will inevitably creep in, or because motives are never pure, or because memory will genuinely fade. It does not become a fiction simply because events or attitudes are deliberately omitted, or maliciously slanted, or blatantly fabricated, because fiction is always honest and does not intend to deceive. It announces itself: I am a fiction; do not rely on my accuracy, not because I am untrustworthy, because I am engaged not in replication but in construction. There will be those who will try to glamorize their shoddy products by pretending they are true, and then, when they fail to pass even the briefest inspection, like the movies JFK and Malcolm X, dodge that responsibility by lamely speaking of “art.” Fiction and history are different disciplines, and neither grants licenses to incompetents, opportunists, or mountebanks.
I’ve always wanted a book from Gass on the craft of writing, something that would, unlike most books that I’ve read about writing, actually prove useful to me. (I’ve read a number of them, many of them classics, and usually get very little out of them.) Since this book will never be written (although his promised book on Baroque prose where he concentrates his attention on John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, and Thomas Hobbes may serve), I thought of xeroxing all of his articles that are essentially about writing, well, largely about the construction of sentences. In that personally-compiled anthology I’d have to include the abovementioned “Finding a Form,” and also from Finding a Form: “The Music of Prose” and “The Book as a Container of Consciousness,” “Simplicities,” and perhaps even “The Baby or the Botticelli.”
Gass has talked about how his natural breadth, when it comes to fiction, is between thirty and forty pages. Even his novels are comprised of smaller sections usually within that same page range. So in Cartesian Sonata, a collection of four novellas, we find Gass writing in what is perhaps the best, or rather the more easily digestible showcase of his talents. Whenever someone asks me where they should start with Gass I usually recommend In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and On Being Blue. I’d have to add this book as well to the shortlist. There’s so much to admire in these novellas that, once again, a tiny gloss here will fail to capture the beauty and complexity of form, style, and language. While a number of Gass’s themes are manifested here, namely, the characters’ spooling webs of language and obsessions with the meanings of words; family squabbles and other tensions; allusions if not outright references to modern poetry, as well as recurring images like windows and snow; Gass also explores some new territory like clairvoyance in the titular novella and also like Emma’s desire in “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” to make herself literally insubstantial. We also find some similar themes like the protagonist of “Master of Secret Revenges” who is, like many of Gass’s characters, concerned with the problem of evil.
Reading Rilke is an amazing display of Gass’s erudition and range, and actually one of the most unique works in translation. In it, he translates Rilke’s Duino Elegies, along with a healthy dose of poems from throughout the oeuvre, no small task, to put it lightly, and this alone makes the book well worth reading, but squeezed between the poems, like mortar between bricks, are Gass’s reflections on the difficulties he encountered while translating, giving tremendous insight into his process, while also highlighting some aspects of Rilke’s life and his creative, and otherwise, predilections. A portion of the acknowledgments page goes toward describing Rilke’s importance to Gass:
The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been; not because he has allowed himself—now a shade—at last to be loved; and not because I have been able to obey the stern command from his archaic torso of Apollo to change my life, nor because his person was always so admirable it had to be imitated; but because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine.
I’ve always loved Rilke. As a matter of fact, it may have been “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” where I first encountered his poetry. This was followed by reading several (four, I think) translations of Sonnets to Orpheus, and two translations of Duino Elegies. I picked him up again a few years ago with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, of which I’ve since read four translations, including Michael Hulse’s recent translation (more on that below). The meaning of Rilke’s poetry is often tremendously difficult to decipher and Gass’s glosses are instructive. For instance, this, an introduction to “The Second Elegy”: “It is the poet’s purpose to put the world into words, and, in that way, hold it steady for us. The poet can write of love, too, in a similarly immortalizing fashion. But love alters its lovers even as they love, so that their love is altered and the next kiss comes from a different mouth and is pressed to a different breast.” And later, we find one source of Gass’s thoughts about consciousness, or rather, how consciousness is altered by made things:
Rilke does not understand how the transformation of matter into mind works, but we should not blame him for that. No one does. After several thousand years of wondering, we still don’t know. Although materialists will be happy to explain to us how the nervous system functions, and hope we shall confuse this explanation, as marvelous and detailed as it is, with an account of the character of consciousness and how consciousness came to be, they are not a step closer to crossing that threshold. We may not know how our awareness got here, but Rilke believes he knows what its purpose is: to make the signals we receive from external things into inner, and hence invisible, manifestations–the invisible visibly invisible, if you like.
As with any of Gass’s books, I can’t help quoting liberally from Reading Rilke. There’s just so much here for the attentive writer:
Every line of fine literature forms a secure, seemingly serene, yet unquiet community. As in any community, there are many special interests and the groups which promote them; there are predominating concerns, persistent problems; and, as in the psyche of an individual, or in the larger region of the body politic, there are competing aims, anxieties, habits, anticipations, perplexities, memories, needs, and grievances. When the line is a good one, their clamor is stilled because its constituents are happy, their wants appeased, their aims fulfilled.
This seems to me a kind of appropriation of Hobbes’s philosophical views toward the construction of literature: the book as leviathan.
And there’s much for the attentive reader, too:
To read with recognition (not just simple understanding) is to realize why the writer made the choices he or she made, and why, if the writing has been done well (suppose I’d said “well done”?), its words could not have been set down otherwise. Our translations will make a batch of botches, but it will not matter, crush them all into a ball and toss them to the trash. Their real value will have been received. The translating reader reads the inside of the verse and sees, like the physician, either its evident health or its hidden disease. That reader will know why Hardy couldn’t come right out and say: “Someday we’ll have a roll in the hay.”
And more about the reader: “What proper reading confers upon the right reader is not merely an expanded vocabulary or its subtle understanding, or the ready use of forms and strategies, but also a sympathetic awareness of traditional attitudes and opinions, feelings and desires.”
Upon finishing this book I felt like detouring away from my immediate reading queue and embarking on a massive reading of Rilke. But I managed to stay true to this course by reading Gass’s penultimate book: A Temple of Texts. Often feeling like I’m reading too much contemporary literature, and also being sickened by writers who pretty much only read what’s contemporary, or worse yet, exclusively their peers (I won’t mention the writers who aren’t reading anything), I was happy to read Gass’s thoughts on the matter: “I think it is wise to approach a contemporary work with skepticism; it is the new work’s task to establish its authority, to persuade you to believe in its essential worth whatever strange or commonplace thing it may say or do.” Oh, but ideas like “authority,” “essential worth,” and “classic” are old-fashioned, unpopular ideas. Much better to slosh around in some solipsistic sludge, I guess. More and more, I’m feeling less inclined to even put the contemporary text to the test. But, often enough, something arrives that still proves that the contemporary novel can measure up to the classic. Also, contained in this book are brief discussions of his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” that is, those books that make up the house that Gass built, or rather, the books that built up Gass, or, better yet, and I think Gass would approve, the books that make up Gass. At the beginning of this year, in addition to committing myself to reading all of Gass’s published works, I decided to also read these “pillars.” Last month, I’d read two of them: Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium and John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, and this month I read five more (more on that later). Much of the discussion in this book revolves around a number of Gass’s usual suspects: Rabelais, Gertrude Stein, Flann O’Brien, Gaddis, Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, and Rilke. Not to diminish the other essays, all of which, without exception, are spectacular, but the highlight for me is “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” an essay that would also go into my imagined anthology of Gass’s essays on writing, an essay where Gass, who often deflects the notion that he has any advice to offer writers, offers wonderful nuggets like this one:
What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well—wondrously well—because that self through which the sentence passes—those eyes, those ears, that nose—is made not of flesh and bone and their dinky experiences, but of pages absorbed from the masters, because that is what writing comes from: it comes from reading…
I recently attended a reading where a porn star was invited to read her scribblings, scribblings borne from experience, the kind of experience Jimi Hendrix demands from a possible inamorata in “Are You Experienced,” where he asks, “But who in your measly little world are you trying to prove that you’re made out of gold and, eh, can’t be sold?” but this professional sex worker, but, at best, embryonic writer’s experience, filled with all kinds of climaxes, ultimately added to nothing on the page; Gass’s essay, however, climaxes with an examination of a single sentence by Henry James that he reproduces as a “spindle diagram,” breaks down with such clarity; and, after gleaning much about this sentence’s architectonics, Gass writes: “Of course most sentences need not, nor should, be built like a palace, but built they will be, well or ill or so-so, and their paragraphs, like towns they partially comprise, will also be commodious or cramped–a Paris Texas or a Paris France.” It’s a useful reminder to me, because the danger of luxuriously constructing each sentence may result in a kind of monochromatic field, and uniform texture. And I haven’t mentioned Gass’s polemical essay “A Defense of the Book” where he discusses the vast differences between the materials that make up a book and the aspects that make up the information of electronic media. It’s an emboldening read for those of us still left who actually care about books as objects, about paper and the words made of ink printed on them, the way they’re bound together, their weight, their smell, their covers.
And now we come to this month’s first detour (followed, alas, by three more), but one still in keeping with the general spirit of my Gass marathon: Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Gass describes it as a work that “embodied what [he] held to be humanly highest, and therefore [is] made of words which revealed a powerful desire moving with the rhythmic grace of Blake’s Tyger; an awareness that was pitilessly unsentimental, yet receptive as a sponge; feelings that were free and undeformed and unashamed; thought that looked at all its conclusions and didn’t blink; as well as an imagination that could dance on the heads of all those angels dancing on that pin.” And as eloquent a description of the novel as this is, perhaps more illuminating is that, for Gass, there’s no other book that he “would have wished more fervently to have written than this intensely personal poem in prose, this profound meditation on seeing and reading—on reading what one has seen, on seeing what one has read.” The first translation of The Notebooks that I’d read was Stephen Mitchell’s rendering; this was followed by another translation, and then Burton Pike’s recent translation. I also spent some weeks in a discussion group about the book with Burton Pike. Structurally, it’s comprised of seventy sections that could easily stand as standalone pieces in so far as each one has some startling image and/or strange and beautiful reflection on some experience either past or present. In fact, Malte is a frustrated poet who is, as he says, “learning to see. Why, I cannot say, but all things enter more deeply into me; nor do the impressions remain at the level where they used to cease. There is a place within me of which I knew nothing. Now all things tend that way. I do not know what happens there.” Though he ultimately fails to bring together his hyperaware regard of his surroundings and his internal life with the fashioning of a poetics, there is no shortage of insightful thought:
No, no, there is nothing in the world that we can imagine, not the least thing. In everything there are so many unique details which are impossible to predict. In imagination, we pass over them in our haste, not noticing that they are lacking. But realities are slow and indescribably detailed.
When the time came, I would behave toward books as I would toward acquaintances; there would be time for them, a specific amount of time that would pass smoothly and pleasantly, just as much time as suited me. Naturally some of them would be closer to me than others, and I could not say for certain that I’d be proof against wasting the odd half hour with them now and then, missing a walk, an appointment, the opening scene of a play, or a letter that had to be urgently written.
You can’t help but fall for a person who treats books as people. But this book is not merely a compendium about the difficulties of seeing, or a series of sketches for some kind of manifesto or ars poetica. What you have are evocative vignettes on death and ghosts, heightened reveries on the city, on decay, on madness, wonderful meditations on art, on tapestries, and lyrical expressions on memory, family, loss, childhood, the imagination, and ruins.
Next up was Peter Handke’s Don Juan-His Own Version. My review of it is forthcoming in the Review of Contemporary Fiction so I won’t say too much about it here except to mention that it’s a fresh take on the familiar legend, and also to highlight some great sentences that didn’t make it into my review like the alliterative “And all week long, both when he was telling his story and when he was simply sitting there in silence, he sighed repeatedly.” There’s something about the sibilance here which seems to draw out the sentence much like a sigh (and I swear that my own alliteration here was completely unintentional). The book takes on the form of, echoing John Hawkes’s formulation, a “regressus infinitum,” that is, a writer writing about a writer writing, but in this case, it’s about a narrator narrating about a storyteller telling stories. Here is Handke’s narrator relating how Don Juan relates his story:
These images from that day precisely a week earlier came to life, presented themselves as they had not presented themselves at the time, took their places, lined up quietly, without the hoopla of self-conscious remembering, without making a show of reaching into the past, without affecting a resonant voice. If it had a rhythm, then that of an orderly progression free of hasty interruptions, with matters small and large weighted equally, nothing large anymore, but also nothing small.
Now it’s easy to rush over sentences like this without registering how masterful it, in fact, is. Here the alliteration of “precisely…presented…presented” seam the first half of the first sentence, and also introduces the first of many repetitions; the next one being the use of “without”: “without the hoopla,” “without making a show,” and “without affecting”; what’s more, the sentence that follows talks about the rhythm of the don’s storytelling style while mirroring that storytelling style with a punchy rhythm of his own that in this sentence is achieved through the repetition of the words “large” and “small,” while at the same time contrasting with the don’s “orderly progression free of hasty interruptions,” with a style comprised of many hems and haws, and all without coming across as mechanical at all. A favorite moment in the book is a brief set piece on whirling dervishes:
During a concert that the dervishes accompanied with their dancing, Don Juan sat in the very last row. After a little while he no longer heard the drums, the lutes, the flutes (or shawms) as a concert, or as any kind of music. He heard nothing at all, was entirely a spectator, his eyes glued to the dancers in their wide, bell-shaped costumes, with towering cylindrical hats on their heads. The dance consisted of bodies twirling around themselves, slowly for the most part; when it speeded up, it paradoxically gave the impression of slowing down, of majestic, imperious slowness, including the garments, which whirled along with their wearers, and their eyes, which gazed straight ahead, motionless, as the dancers spread their arms, one hand seemingly pointing to the ground, the other offered like a bowl, to the heavens. Ecstasy? Impossible to imagine anything calmer than these dervishes whirling themselves around and for moments almost invisible, or anything more inward-focused. The majority of the dancers were older, and for that reason the stillness that emanated from them was even less astonishing. Yet toward the end of the ceremony—for that is what it was, rather than a mere performance—a very young dervish, hardly more than an adolescent, took over the whirling from the old ones. He spun lightly and at the same time with extraordinary seriousness, projecting an aura of distance, but by no means emptiness, at eye level. And even at the end, when the spinning stopped, no smile, not even a flicker of one, at most an openness in his face.
These breathless sentences unselfconsciously mirror those whirling dancers almost as if it were standing beside them, following them carefully, and then spinning off into their own spins, or perhaps a better way of putting it is that Handke’s lines are much like the string that is unspooled from a colorful top, and what we see is the spinning top, all of it’s colorful, intricate decorations, in slow motion; and it is with passages like these that my faith in contemporary writers is restored, well, at least until I inevitably get disappointed all over again.
As I mentioned at the Chapbook Review, Aaron Burch’s HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW: notes and instructions from/for a father, winner of PANK’s first chapbook competition, may be as much an instructional manual on mourning as it is an examination of the imagination, wherein emotions are carefully reined in by taut prose; a collection of fragments that’s much more than simply the sum of its parts, that grows in both coherence and cohesion by accretion by way of its deliberate fragmentation, its picking up of the pieces, examining each one, and then puzzling them back together. Here and there Burch offers hints on how to piece his book together:
When stuck, lost, confused, frustrated: do as before. Don’t fear repetition. This can be used for other moments; use when needed. Use carbon paper, stencils, mirrors, projectors. Don’t forget the tools available to you. In fact, you may want to make note of these now for later, while you are thinking about them. Writing commits to memory and, when unsure, revert to rote.
I think the first thing I’ve ever read from Aaron Burch was “Molting” (itself released as a chapbook from Mud Luscious Press), and I was initially surprised, especially after all of the imperative sections, to find it in this collection. But, on further reflection, its fabulist and horrific departures (like the sawing off of hands) make it nest comfortably among the rest of these instructions, tales, and vignettes.
After these three books, I was back to Gass with Tests of Time, his last book. It offers more of what we’ve come to expect from Gass: sentences that are both adamantine and lushly lyrical, that are full of alliterative sprees, longeurs, and, sometimes, elliptical analysis. But there’s a difference here: Gone are the sections of reviews. In their place are extended meditations on single and singular writers (something, of course, that he’s done before) like Italo Calvino and Flaubert, but also these odd hybrid essays, hybrid in the sense that they play with the essay form and use elaborate narrative sequences. “Quotations from Chairman Flaubert” and “There Was an Old Woman Who” are quite different from anything I’ve seen from Gass. Also, while Gass has spoken about politics in his essays before, this is the first book to showcase his concerns. In the section “Social and Political Contretemps” we’re offered five powerful polemics focusing primarily on what Gass calls “the social and political plight of the writer in the contemporary world.” In “Tribalism, Identity, and Ideology,” Gass offers his take on the pact between writer and reader:
There is a bond between us, readers and writers—an ancient tie as old as writing is, if not as old as speech itself, a pact, a promise which the act of setting down sentences in a moving way implicitly solidifies—that what we shall say shall be as true to things and to our own hearts as we can manage with our skills to make them; and that what we read shall be free and unforced and uttered out of the deepest respect for the humanity all language represents, whatever its content otherwise; and that this covenant (broken, tragically, every day which history has been there to mark) is the model for all exchange of thought and feeling, and that this community, the community of unveiled countenance and free speech, must be sustained if we are to continue, either in the harsh and unforgiving condition of survival or in terms of every genuine enterprise of the moral spirit—in short, so we can say, though we may be here by genetic accident or a god’s decree, that we deserve to stay.
And “The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications” (where Gass goes to great lengths to distinguish between story and fiction) would have to go in my writing craft anthology as well.
I had intended to write a review of The Abyss of Human Illusion, Gilbert Sorrentino’s posthumously released last novel. Alas, it never happened, primarily because I’d hoped to slow down on book reviews this year in order to concentrate more on my other writing, especially my fiction, but perhaps I can rectify that by commenting on it here. Sorrentino’s book is a novel in shorts, shorts that, much like Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, easily stand as standalone pieces. Narrated by a rather cantankerous old man, the book brims with sardonic and biting critiques, reflections on mortality, and also bits of armchair philosophy:
Mundane things, pitiful in their mundane assertiveness, their sad isolation. Kraft French dressing, glowing weirdly orange through its glass bottle, a green glass bowl of green salad, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, its paper wrapper still on. All are in repose, in their absolute thingness, under the overhead alarming bright light of the kitchen. They may or they should, they must, really, reveal the meaning of this silent room, this silent house, save that they won’t. There is no meaning. These things will evoke nothing.
It’s a voice, marking itself with its numbing repetitions: “mundane,” “glass,” “bottle,” and “silent”; it’s alliteration: “glass bottle, a green glass bowl of green salad” and “silent room, this silent house, save that they won’t”; its almost Gertrude Steinian overloading of adjectives: that “overhead alarming bright light of the kitchen”; that indelibly marks itself on the reader, and because of its knowing and sad resignation. But it’s also an angry voice, expressing thoughts that could easily have come from one of Gass’s many “disappointed people”:
He waits for everything to what? To get tired, to disappear, waits for all the filth to disappear, every mean fucking cold-eyed bastard to disappear, to be obliterated along with their victims, along with the dogs and cats and whales and showgirls, along with all the mothers and sisters and priests, along with all the money, the computers, the radios and the television sets, the news, the news. BOOM.
Reading this and his other pessimistic, mean-spirited thoughts, it’s hard not to recall Tool’s song “Ænima” where vocalist Maynard James Keenan takes on the persona of someone looking forward to some kind of apocalypse:
Some say the end is near.
Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon.
I certainly hope we will.
I sure could use a vacation from this
Bullshit three-ring circus sideshow of
Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
Any fucking time. Any fucking day.
Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona bay.
Fret for your figure and
Fret for your latte and
Fret for your lawsuit and
Fret for your hairpiece and
Fret for your prozac and
Fret for your pilot and
Fret for your contract and
Fret for your car.
Bullshit three-ring circus sideshow of
Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call LA
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
Any fucking time. Any fucking day.
Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona bay.
Some say a comet will fall from the sky.
Followed by meteor showers and tidal waves.
Followed by faultlines that cannot sit still.
Followed by millions of dumbfounded dipshits.
Some say the end is near.
Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon.
I certainly hope we will ‘cause
I sure could use a vacation from this
STUPID shit, silly shit, stupid shit…
One great big festering neon distraction,
I’ve a suggestion to keep you all occupied.
Learn to swim.
Mum’s gonna fix it all soon.
Mum’s comin’ round to put it back the way it ought to be.
Learn to swim.
Fuck L. Ron Hubbard and
Fuck all his clones.
Fuck all these gun-toting
Hip gangster wannabes.
Learn to swim.
Fuck retro anything.
Fuck your tattoos.
Fuck all you junkies and
Fuck your short memory.
Learn to swim.
Fuck smiley glad-hands,
With hidden agendas.
Fuck these dysfunctional,
Learn to swim.
‘Cause I’m praying for rain
And I’m praying for tidal waves
I want to see the ground give way.
I want to watch it all go down.
Mum please flush it all away.
I want to see it go right in and down.
I want to watch it go right in.
Watch you flush it all away.
Time to bring it down again.
Don’t just call me pessimist.
Try and read between the lines.
I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t
Welcome any change, my friend.
I wanna see it come down.
Suck it down.
Flush it down.
But, the narrator is not simply a curmudgeon, an unapologetic misanthrope; these are aspects of a complex character; he’s much more nuanced than this. For instance, here is the narrator dreaming:
They get out of the car and sit under some trees at the edge of the beach farthest from the water. He says that he remembers that his father landed the largest blue marlin ever caught off the Florida coast, and his father smiles and nods, delighted that his son remembered this. He says that he told one of his students about his father’s catch and that she was very impressed. His father is looking at him with tender, impossibly tender love, and feels, at that moment, overwhelming, crushing sadness and loss, deep and irremediable, and he begins to cry and wakes crying.
No syntactical fireworks here but Sorrentino’s measured storytelling, his unsentimental eye, keeps this section from falling apart; and he masterfully describes how the character slowly falls apart, and, in turn, compels this reader to, too, while also compelling me to seek out and read Sorrentino’s entire oeuvre.
But no, instead, I returned to my plan to read books from Gass’s literary pillars and thus read Plato’s Timaeus. It puts forward Plato’s ideas of the nature of the physical world, the purpose and properties of the universe, and his rather complicated idea of the “World Soul.” Gass describes this dialogue as Plato’s “strangest, and perhaps his most profound—at once most mystical and mysterious, hardheaded and mathematical. Beneath the surface of this ‘likely story’ of how the universe was formed, Plato’s conception of our world, as the qualitative expression of quantitative law, runs like a river.” It might take another reading or so to arrive at a similar feeling about this dialogue as I often found it clunky and obtuse. Perhaps it was my unconscious, no, often conscious, unwillingness to suspend disbelief about the largely fantastic content, and/or because of the translation itself (I’m speaking of Donald J. Zeyl’s rather bland translation). That said, there were some imaginative moments:
Copying the revolving shape of the universe, the gods bound the two divine orbits into a ball-shaped body, the part that we now call our head. This is the most divine part of us, and master of all our other parts. They then assembled the rest of the body and handed the whole of it to the head, to be in its service. They intended it to share in all the motions there were to be. To keep the head from rolling around on the ground without any way of getting up over its various high spots and out of the low, they gave it the body as a vehicle to make its way easy. This is the reason why the body came to have length and grow four limbs that could flex and extend themselves, divinely devised for the purpose of getting about. Holding on and supporting itself with these limbs, it would be capable of making its way through all regions, while carrying at the top the dwelling place of that most divine, most sacred part of ourselves. This is how as well as why we have grown arms and legs. And considering the front side to be more honorable and more commanding than the back, the gods gave us the ability to travel for the most part in this direction. Human beings no doubt ought to have front sides distinguishable from and dissimilar to their backs, and so the gods began by setting the face on that side of the head, the soul’s vessel. They bound organs inside it to provide completely for the soul, and they assigned this side, the natural front, to be the part that takes the lead.
The eyes were the first of the organs to be fashioned by the gods, to conduct light. The reason why they fastened them within the head is this. They contrived that such fire as was not for burning but for providing a gentle light should become a body, proper to each day. Now the pure fire inside us, cousin to that fire, they made to flow through the eyes: so they made the eyes–the eye as a whole but its middle in particular–close-textured, smooth, and dense, to enable them to keep out all the other, coarser stuff, and let that kind of fire pass through pure by itself. Now whenever daylight surrounds the visual stream, like makes contact with like and coalesces with it to make up a single homogeneous body aligned with the direction of the eyes. This happens wherever the internal fire strikes and presses against an external object it has connected with. And because this body of fire has become uniform throughout and thus uniformly affected, it transmits the motions of whatever it comes in contact with as well of whatever comes in contact with it, to and through the whole body until they reach the soul. This brings about the sensation we call “seeing”…
Next up in the reading queue was the first volume of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited, and translated by Frances Steegmuller. In a letter to a school friend, he shares that his time recuperating from an illness may have “brought one benefit, in that I am allowed to spend my time as I like, a great thing in life. For me I can imagine nothing in the world preferable to a nice, well heated room, with the books one loves and the leisure one wants.” While I’d certainly add other things to that formula for happiness, including spending time with my wife and daughter, music, delicious food, some travel, I can’t argue with how satisfying a room filled with my books truly feels.
You can’t help but be impressed, inspired, chastised by Flaubert’s perspicacity, his devotion, his seemingly indefatigable work ethic:
Work, work, write—write all you can while the muse bears you along. She is the best battle-steed, the best coach to carry you through life in noble style. The burden of existence does not weigh on our shoulders when we are composing. It is true that the fatigue and the feeling of desertion that follow are all the more terrible. Let it be so however.
This monastic life he’d chosen for himself was not without challenges however:
Ill, agitated, prey a thousand times a day to moments of terrible anxiety, without women, without wine, without any of the tinsel the world offers, I continue my slow work like a workman who rolls up his sleeves and sweats away at his anvil, indifferent to rain or wind, hail or thunder.
Referring to his work on Madame Bovary:
Last week I spent five days writing one page, and I dropped everything else for it—my Greek, my English; I gave myself up to it entirely. What worries me in my book is the element of entertainment. That side is weak; there is not enough action. I maintain, however that ideas are action. It is more difficult to hold the reader’s interest with them, I know, but if the style is done right it can be done.
I was also impressed by how Flaubert would read aloud lengthy portions from his manuscripts-in-progress to his friends. In one of the more devastating moments in the letters Flaubert, after reading his complete draft of Sainte Antoine, his first significant effort at the writing of a longer work, was told by his friends to burn it.
Flaubert is willfully contradictory. One flagrant example is when he declaims to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie that
Madame Bovary has nothing ‘true’ in it. It is a totally invented story; into it I put none of my own feelings and nothing from my own life. The illusion (if there is one) comes, on the contrary, from the impersonality of the work. It is a principle that a writer must not be his own theme. The artist in his work must be like God in his creation—invisible and all-powerful: he must be everywhere felt, but never seen.
And then, Art must rise above personal affections and neurotic susceptibilities! It is time to banish anything of that sort from it, and give it the precision of the physical sciences. Nevertheless, the capital difficulty for me remains style, form; the indescribable Beauty resulting from the conception itself—and which is, as Plato said, the splendid raiment of truth…
Flaubert is being slightly disingenuous here. While Louise Colet, Flaubert’s on again, off again lover, of whom he rather facetiously, yet paradoxically still accurately, if unconsciously, called “the Muse,” is not really modeled after Emma Bovary, he did draw from her life and his own, and their relationship for the novel. For instance, there is the moment in Bovary when Rodolphe after breaking up with Emma looked at “the signet ring [given him by Emma] with the motto ‘Amor nel Cor.’” Steegmuller reveals that Flaubert’s own “brutality to Louise is emphasized in a detail of the rupture he invented for Rodolphe and Emma: for Flaubert himself had received, as a gift from Louise, not a signet-ring but a cigar-holder, inscribed with the words ‘Amor nel Cor.’”
Steegmuller also points to the fact that Flaubert had “made detailed use of a strange document,” that is, an account of “old friend” Louise Pradier’s “debts and adulteries” by Mme Louise Boyé for developing the later chapters of Bovary, that is, “those dealing with Emma’s extravagances and promissory notes, and the resultant sale of the Bovary’s house…”
Although later he purportedly admitted: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, d’après moi!” (“Madame Bovary is myself—drawn from life.”)
While he could be invariably crude, malicious, etc., to Louise Colet, he could also be endearing and offer reams of generally sensible, while still untimely, advice:
Read. Do not brood. Immerse yourself in long study: only the habit of persistent work can make one continually content; it produces an opium that numbs the soul. I have lived through periods of atrocious ennui, spinning in a void, bored to distraction. One preserves oneself by dint of steadiness and pride. Try it.
Why do you keep saying that I love the tinselly, the showy, the flashy? “Poet of form!” That is the favorite term of abuse hurled by utilitarians at true artists. For my part, until someone comes along and separates for me the form and the substance of a given sentence, I shall continue to maintain that that distinction is meaningless. Every beautiful thought has a beautiful form, and vice versa.
In the world of Art, beauty is a by-product of form, just as in our world temptation is a by-product of love. Just as you cannot remove from a physical body the qualities that constitute it—color, extension, solidity—without reducing it to a hollow abstraction, without destroying it, so you cannot remove the form from the Idea, because the Idea exists only by virtue of its form. Imagine an idea that has no form—such a thing is as impossible as a form that expresses no idea. such are the stupidities on which criticism feeds. Good stylists are reproached for neglecting the Idea, the moral goal; as though the goal of a doctor were not to heal, the goal of the painter to paint, the goal of the nightingale to sing, as though the goal of Art were not, first and foremost, Beauty!
Inundated by the waves of passable, competent short fictions online, I’ve begun to weary of much of the sameness, the lack of vision, scope, range. Flaubert offers some still pertinent admonition:
Work, meditate, meditate above all; condense your ideas—you know that lovely fragments are no use. Unity, unity, that is everything. The whole: that’s what’s lacking in all writers today, great and small. A thousand fine bits, no complete work. Compress your style: weave a fabric soft as silk and strong as a coat of mail.
For me, the letters detailing Flaubert’s trip with Maxime du Camp to “The Orient,” or, rather, Egypt and Palestine, and then Greece and Italy, were largely of little interest. The best passages, by far, are to be found his letters to Louise Colet while he was writing Madame Bovary:
There are in me, literally speaking, two distinct persons: one who is infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase and lofty ideas; and another who digs and burrows into the truth as deeply as he can, who likes to treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces. The former likes to laugh, and enjoys the animal side of man.
What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result. I believe the future of Art lies in this direction.
…I envision a style: a style that would be beautiful, that someone will invent some day, ten years or ten centuries from now, one that would be rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with flame: a style that would pierce your idea like a dagger, and on which your thought would sail easily ahead over a smooth surface, like a skiff before a good tail wind. Prose was born yesterday: you have to keep that in mind. Verse is the form par excellance of ancient literatures. All possible prosodic variations have been discovered; but that is far from being the case with prose.
This last passage is an idea echoed in another letter to Colet:
What a bitch of a thing prose is! It is never finished; there is always something to be done over. However, I think it can be given the consistency of verse. A good prose sentence should be like a good line of poetry—unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous.
Regarding sentences, Flaubert wrote that he liked “clear, sharp sentences, sentences which stand erect, erect while running—almost an impossibility. The ideal prose has reached an unheard-of degree of difficulty: there must be no more archaisms, clichés; contemporary ideas must be expressed using appropriate crude terms; everything must be as clear as Voltaire, as abrim with substance as Montaigne, as vigorous as La Bruyère, and always streaming with color”; and that sentences “must stir in a book like leaves in a forest, each distinct from each despite their resemblance,” and in a letter to Colet he offers several of his most brutal: “Madame: I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing lest persistence expose you to humiliation, I am bound by the rules of politeness to warn you that I shall never be in.” He then has the audacity to sign off with “Yours, G.F.”
I followed the Flaubert with reading William Butler Yeats’s The Tower. Interestingly enough, like Cormac McCarthy, Gass borrowed from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” collected in The Tower, but whereas McCarthy only took a bit for the title of one of his books, namely, No Country for Old Men, Gass used a number of its themes and used its sections to organize his story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In fact, we’re signaled to this debt from the outset of the story: “So I have sailed the seas and come… to B…”
This echoes, of course, the title of Yeats’s poem. I won’t go any further into detailing the parallel between these two great works of literature, nor will I go any further discussing The Tower; except to mention that I’d read it in its entirety aloud, and loved it so much that I’d read it aloud again as soon as I had finished.
The reading of two more chapbooks followed Yeats’s masterpiece. While Dana Teen Lomax’s chapbook is entitled Disclosure, and includes copies of various “official” documents pertaining to her like a nomination letter from the Peace Corps, a “Work and Earning Summary,” a checking account statement,” etc., what immediately came to mind as I read it was what was left undisclosed. Another version of this book, included in Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology Publishing the Unpublishable, has a more accurate title: Disclosure: (an excerpt), and, while it includes x-rays of her teeth, a letter from a credit collection agency, a copy of her driver’s license, and the like, it still is only a disclosure in part. Flipping or clicking through these documents, I thought about how much paper we all have trailing behind us, the sheer ephemerality of it all, and confirmed for me the monumental meaningless of labelings by various authorities.
Philip Kolin’s A Parable of Women is hardly worth mentioning as it uses Christian imagery to little effect. Here we’re offered “choired silence and / Cloistered flowers,” “Orange and yellow lights…flicker[ing] like votive candles,” “Judas kisses”; a woman with Sunday school tunes earwormed in her mind; and references to prayers, scales (chromatic ones) falling from eyes, and “proclamations of angels.” There’s an aria from Mary, Jesus’s Mother, and a lament from Hagar, whom God had exiled, along with her Abraham-fathered child Ishmael, to the wilderness. It’s evocative subjects notwithstanding, I found most of Kolin’s treatments flat and rather colorless. Kolin can, however, draw a sympathetic portrait as in “Edith,” a poem about a woman stricken with illness, where that illness is personified:
I wanted a lover
And imitated every sigh
I heard in the cinema until
He came one night and took
The nom de plume of Pneumonia
Embracing me in a slow trance…
And he can fashion an arresting image. From “Moths”:
A palette of moths
Paints the glass
On the door
Embroidering a history of tongues,
A pity these luminous moments are as fleeting as those moths’ lives.
Ever the completist, I sought out all the excerpts of Gass’s novel-in-progress Middle C. They’re all published in Conjunctions. It is an incredible work that I’d first encountered with “The Garden.” At the time I had no idea that it was part of a much longer work. In addition to that, I read two of his uncollected novellas: Charity and In Camera; a short story “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” a comic story about the making of Casablanca told from the perspective of the piano that the character Sam in the movie “plays”; and an essay “Mimesis”; all of which were published in Conjunctions. Reading these I was encouraged to find that at eighty-six and counting, Gass remains at the top of his game. He’s a marvel, really.
I rounded out the month with reading Paul Valéry’s Dialogues, an homage to Plato’s dialogues. In contrast to Zeyl’s translation of Timaeus, William McClausland Stewart’s translation is lyrical and pulsates with life, and makes me think, as with Gary Lutz and Gordon Lish, that the pupil may have surpassed the teacher. The reader is also treated to two prefaces by Wallace Stevens—talk about a perfect coupling! In “Dance and the Soul,” one of my favorite dialogues here, Socrates, observing the dancer, says “She struggles in the meshes of our gaze, like a captured fly. But my curious mind pursues her on the web, and would devour what she accomplishes.” I couldn’t help imagining Socrates sitting in front of a computer, of this curious mind pursuing this dancer on the worldwide web. The first gaze strikes me less as voyeurism but more as an insatiable hunger to understand the source of the dancer’s creative expression, the latter, my own blemishing of Valéry’s subject matter, is a cheap grab for titillation. Phaedrus, too, observing the dancer, says, “Dance must therefore, by the subtlety of its lines, by the divineness of its upsurgings, by the delicacy of its tiptoe pauses, bring forth that universal creature which has neither body not features, but which has gifts, days, and destinies–that has life and death; and which is even only life and death, for desire once born knows neither sleep nor respite.” And in a seeming echo of Plato’s ideas about the fire that makes up part of the human body, Socrates says that the dancer “seems to live, completely at ease, in an element comparable to fire—in a most subtle essence of music and movement, wherein she breathes boundless energy, while she participates with all her being in the pure and immediate violence of extreme felicity…” And this metaphor of the dancer as flame is carried throughout the essay. Phaedrus: “Dance seems to issue from her body like a flame.” And Socrates:
O Flame, notwithstanding!…Thing live and divine!…
But what is a flame, O my friends, if not the moment itself?–What is wild and joyful and formidable in the instant itself!…Flame is the act of that moment which is between earth and heaven. O my friends, all that passes from the heavy state to the subtle state passes through the moment of fire and light….”
Breathtaking stuff! The centerpiece of the collection, however, is “Eupalinos, or the Architect,” what Gass calls his “favorite essay,” and “one of the supreme works of English prose.” There’s much to glean from in this essay including paradoxical thoughts like this one on beauty where Phaedrus says, “Nothing beautiful is separable from life, and life is that which dies.” And there are also numerous comments about the use of language:
O Phaedrus, you have surely not failed to notice in the most important speeches, whether the matter be politics or the private interests of citizens, or again in the delicate language that a lover has to use at some decisive moment—you have certainly noticed what weight and significance are assumed by the very least of little words, and the smallest of silences that falls between them. And I, who have spoken so much, with the insatiable desire to convince, have convinced myself in the long run that the weightiest arguments and the best-conducted demonstrations would have had mighty little effect, but for the help of these apparently insignificant details; and that, on the other hand, mediocre reasons, fittingly linked to words full of tact, or gilded like crowns, can seduce the ears for long. These go-betweens are at the portals of the mind. They tell it what they please, and repeat it at pleasure, finally making the mind believe that it hears its own voice. The reality of speech is after all a melody and that coloring of a voice which we wrongly treat as details and accidents.
This, dear Phaedrus, is the most important point: no geometry without the word. Without it, figures are accidents, and neither make manifest nor serve the power of the mind. By it, the movements which beget figures are reduced to acts, and these acts being clearly designated by words, each figure is a proposition that can be combined with others; and we are able in this way, without paying any more heed to sight or movement, to recognize the properties of the combinations we have made; and as it were, to construct or enrich space, by means of well-linked sentences.
This idea of the critical importance of “well-linked sentences” is one I discovered carried out throughout my reading in February, that most darkest of months, and it is this desire for more of them that I keep reading, and I think this will increasingly mean my having to dip into the past, ironically, to find “fresh” sentences, “new” sentences, sentences that are “well-linked,” that is, constructed as much for the eye as for the ear, that are attentive to rhythm and rhyme, that aren’t afraid of expressive repetition, that are tuned to the key of, yes, life, but also to beauty, that is, sentences inseparable from life, recognizing, however, that “life is that which dies.”